I’m just settling in at the Mercy (Retreat) Center in Burlingame, California (just south of San Francisco, where we’re getting lots of rain and wind and flights in or out are way delayed or cancelled) for a week at the Academy For Spiritual Formation.
I was reviewing some of the reading on the plane flight here, making note of a few reflections on them. In particular, as I look to starting this week, I’m resonating with the “prayer of the heart” in the Eastern Orthodox tradition (also known as the Jesus Prayer, or sometimes as a “breath prayer”).
I’ve actually referenced the Jesus Prayer in my last two sermons on the parable of the prodigal son. The first time it was from references to it in a book on the Eastern Orthodox Church, and this last Sunday it was drawing more from the example of a Russian Orthodox pilgrim as shared in The Way of The Pilgrim. In short, the Jesus Prayer is a short phrase that calls on the name of Jesus and is used, often in conjunction with breathing or the beating of one’s heart, in a repetitive way so that it will ‘dwell within.’
According to Timothy Ware in The Orthodox Church, when practiced, the “prayer of the heart” leads one to “inner stillness.” Isn’t that an appealing notion? Inner stillness. The quieting of my continual inner monologue; the centering of the heart (in the Hebraic sense, meaning the wholeness of who I am), in the present moment; attunement to the presence of God, particularly in Christ. This is an appealing state. The Way of The Pilgrim describes one who is engaging the ‘prayer of the heart’ as seeking to ‘live an inner spiritual life properly.”
This resonates with me so strongly because of a desire to have a pure heart. And what do I mean by a pure heart?
I mean a life, both interior and external, that is after the example of Jesus Christ. A heart/life of compassion; a heart/life of awesome grace; a heart/life of love and service. When I write in these pages about “heart,” I don’t mean just that internal organ that keeps me alive; nor that space in my chest that swells with pride or joy – such as when my wife went through the amazing (and slightly gross) miracle that is birth – or aches with compassion or despair – such as when a valued relationship is destroyed. I don’t mean just the center of my emotions.
When I write about heart, I do so in the same way that the Hebrew Scriptures, and the Eastern Orthodox practices, do. It encompasses so much more. So when one achieves ‘prayer of the heart,’ it
“becomes something not merely said by the lips, not merely thought by the mind, but offered spontaneously by the whole of one’s being – lips, intellect, emotions, will, and body. The prayer fills the entire consciousness… Such prayer of the heart cannot be attained simply through our own efforts, but it is a gift conferred by the grace of God” (Ware, p.?).
That last part is important. It is echoed in the older writings of some of the early Fathers including in this edition of The Way of the Pilgrim, where we are reminded that “it is also Jesus Christ, Son of God and God Himself, Cause and Creator of all that is good, Who completely purifies the heart”(p. 210).
To what end? The Fathers in Pilgrim remind us that “when the heart is pure, then nothing will prevent the divine light of Jesus from shining therein…”(214). Or, as Jesus says, “blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”
Perhaps they shall see God not just in the sense of face-to-face, and not just all around them; but perhaps the pure in heart shall see God even within themselves. At the center of our heart/life. Perhaps when our hearts are pure; when we are, by the grace of God, being led in such a way as to live an inner spiritual life properly; we’ll know God and know ourselves as the children of God.
Just a few thoughts, as I continue down this journey to understanding “purity of heart.” I did write in my journal today that I “found quotes in these last three books… that continue to lead/guide/compel me toward understanding – and hopefully knowing, in the sense of experiencing – true purity of heart.”
I imagine that purity of heart is, to a large degree, like “inner stillness.” That in the midst of any chaos or clutter of the external world, one finds oneself centered in the love and grace of God, and in sharing that same love with others. My hope is that I’ll continue to grow toward this kind of inner stillness, where the motives for all my action rise from a heart that is right with God.