A reader has sent us an email concerning the Jesus Prayer. We will call our reader Felix Courtney-Smith, not his real name. Mr Courtney-Smith has accepted that we discuss his email on the blog. Here is what he says, slightly edited:
I recently read your post about the Jesus Prayer and Hesychasm in the Eastern Rite Catholic Church.
I was looking up the Jesus prayer because a song writer I like was getting ready to publish a song based on it on his next album. He quoted Pope John Paul II as saying ‘The Church must come to breathe the Spirit of God with both lungs (Eastern and Western)’. It is a saying I've heard often and you may not be aware of it but there seems to be a growing resurgence and appreciation of Eastern theology within the Western church.
I was wondering if you could take some time to explain to me more fully what the concept of 'bringing your mind into your heart' means to you. You stated that the concept is at odds with 'Thomistic psychology' which I must admit some ignorance of, at least under that term. However the explanation of it that you gave seems perfectly compatible with Franciscan spirituality as well as the writing of St. John of the Cross, St. Thérèse of Lisieux and a somewhat new and mildly controversial practice promoted by the United States Catholic Bishops known by the name 'centering prayer'.
I was at a loss as to what the incompatibility that you see and what you mean by ‘bringing the mind into the heart’?
Do you believe your mind to have physical existence? By heart do you mean the red pulsating organ that physicians operate on? Or (as I assume) are you referring to some kind of conceptual constructs? Can you define or describe those constructs so as to explain what you mean by ‘bringing your heart into your mind’?
The idea of a repeated prayer that helps to keep one in constant union with Christ is one familiar to me both from recommended practices taught in various books—either the name Jesus repeated always or the phrase ‘Jesus have mercy on me’—and from various Roman Theologians such as Dietrich Von Hildebrand.
In any case I would like to understand what the differences are that you see between these two traditions on this topic (if you have the time and are willing to assist me).
Thank you sir,
Let see if we can address the issues. There is both a simple answer and a very complex answer.
The simple answer is that Mr Courtney-Smith would do well to use the right hand margin of this blog, where the labels are, clicking on ‘Jesus Prayer’ and reading all the entries in chronological order, from the oldest to the newest. In that series there is a set of posts entitled Jesus Prayer 1 through Jesus Prayer 7 that addresses some of his issues and also contains a small reading list.
Also there is a series of posts that constitute a dialogue with an Episcopalian who was practising the form of Centering Prayer taught by Dom John Main, OSB. The first post, dated December 16, 2006, is here. The reader should use the archive facility in the right hand margin and starting with the post indicated read each newer post until the dialogue finishes.
Finally the post that the reader originally cited contains links to a polemic with the Byzantine Catholic Forum. That would handle the ecclesiastical – theological issues.
Let’s see if we can now approach directly the issue that Mr Courtney-Smith is raising.
First of all, best wishes to his song-writer friend.
Next, we have never heard of Dietrich Von Hildebrand.
Next, we are aware of Pope John-Paul II’s dictum. However, although Pope John-Paul II is fast-tracked for canonization in the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox laity is as a whole indifferent. He is not looked at favourably, especially in Russia where his missionary actions were considered to be very aggressive.
Next, the very fact that Mr Courtney-Smith can’t make sense of what we might intend by ‘bringing the mind into the heart’—although it must be admitted that Orthodox often have difficulties with the concept—is an indication of what the problem is.
First of all, our mind is our consciousness. The idea of bringing the mind into the heart suggests that we can move our consciousness around, in particular making it descend to the physical region of the heart. The portrait of human faculties delineated by St Thomas Aquinas in the Summa simply does not foresee this. This is what we meant when we said that the practice was incompatible with St Thomas’ philosophical psychology. There is simply no provision in St Thomas for what the Orthodox Philokalic tradition teaches concerning the Jesus Prayer.
Moreover, St Thomas has a very restricted view as to what philosophically intuitive functions the human mind has, restricting human intuitive cognition to very simple axioms of logic. But the Jesus Prayer is based on intuitive cognition.
The result is that someone coming out of the Roman Catholic tradition thinks that apart from reason there is only emotion. That is why Roman Catholic spirituality tends to be either intellectualistic or sentimental. But the tradition of the Orthodox Church in the Jesus Prayer depends on intuitive cognition and eschews sentimentality. This is not to deny the role of Grace, but it is to suggest that the two traditions have different understandings of how the human person interacts with Divine Grace on the level of philosophical psychology.
Moreover, while Mr Courtney-Smith thinks that the practice of the Jesus Prayer must be consistent with St John of the Cross, St Thérèse of Lisieux and the Franciscans, we doubt this. St John of the Cross was a scholastic in psychology; St Thérèse was a 19th Century French mystic who would have been following the spirituality of the Discalced Carmelites, derived from St John of the Cross and St Theresa of Avila. And we simply don’t think that the Franciscans bring their mind into their heart.
The Jesus Prayer is not only a matter of the repetition of a pious, repentant formula. There is more to it.
It is true that St John Cassian, who transmitted the Philokalic tradition in part to the West, would have had some indirect influence on St John of the Cross. But by the time the texts of Cassian would have reached St John of the Cross, they would have been reinterpreted in conformity with Roman Catholic scholastic understandings of the human person.
Where we can find a discussion in context of bringing the mind into the heart is in the Philokalia and in the Ladder of Divine Ascent of St John of Sinai. Also there is Elder Sophrony’s recent book on St. Silouan the Athonite. There are texts in the Philokalia, such as of St Gregory of Sinai (14th Century), which discuss how to force the mind into the heart when it doesn’t want to descend on its own. We are not recommending that anyone take up this practice of forcing, but we want to point out just how important the concept of bringing the mind into the heart is to the spirituality of the Orthodox Church. However, precisely because the Roman Catholic tradition doesn’t foresee a basic aspect of this form of Orthodox Spirituality—intuitive cognition—Roman Catholic translations of Orthodox spiritual texts tend to present the texts in a sentimental light and are therefore to be avoided if one wants to understand how the Orthodox themselves view the Jesus Prayer.
It should be understood that the repetition of the Jesus Prayer is only the beginning of the spiritual road of the Philokalia. The other part is the battle against tempting thoughts. But this is an aspect of the Jesus Prayer that we dare say is completely ignored in Roman Catholic renditions of the practice. For an understanding of the Jesus Prayer at this level, we would suggest the Ladder of St John of Sinai and St Diadochos of Photiki. Our own translation of St Diadochos can be found in the archives for August, 2008. Our commentary on his text can be found in the archives for March, April and May, 2009.
Briefly, the practice of the Jesus Prayer as found in the Orthodox Church begins with the repetition of the formula, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner’—although other formulas are in use—and proceeds to the continuous oral repetition of the formula. Then the practitioner proceeds to the silent repetition of the formula with the consciousness in the head. Then the consciousness is gradually brought into the physical region of the heart (this takes a number of years of practice of the Prayer under the guidance of an experienced practitioner). Then at some point, through Grace, the Prayer should begin to be repeated automatically in the heart. St Diadochos discusses in his 5th Century work the repetition of the Prayer even in sleep.
As the consciousness becomes more focused because of the repetition of the Prayer the practitioner becomes more aware of tempting thoughts that intrude into the consciousness. The practitioner of the Prayer begins to combat the intrusive tempting thoughts under the guidance of his spiritual teacher. This is the mental ascesis that is so important a part of the tradition of the Jesus Prayer. St Diadochos has much on this aspect of the Prayer.
Hence, the Jesus Prayer begins with the oral repetition of the Jesus Prayer and ends with the conscious automatic repetition of the formula in the heart, all the while the practitioner keeping the consciousness clear of tempting thoughts.
We are of the opinion that none of this is foreseen in Roman Catholic spiritual practice.
May God bless you.
Mr Courtney-Smith replies as follows (see his comment below the post):
Mr Courtney-Smith writes:
You encouraged me to read so I read many pages of the suggested material on this blog. I also did a search for the phrase ‘mind into heart’ and read the very few places the phrase actually occurs in context.
Still I find there is no answer provided to what seems a simple enough question.
You have said it is important to ‘move one’s mind into one’s heart’. (Am I correct?)
To which I simply wanted to ask the question: “What do you mean?”
You said “we can move our consciousness around, in particular making it descend to the physical region of the heart”
I am asking sincerely, because in truth I am fully ignorant as I hope you will see.
Do you mean to suggest that it is your belief that it is possible to measure (in feet or cm) the distance of my consciousness from my eyes or heart or finger, or some other part of my body?
If I take the literal meaning of your words, that is what I would take them to mean. What do you mean?
I'm trying to be as specific as possible because I don't know what language you speak natively and subtleness can be easily lost in translation.
To me doing something 'physically' implies a change is some material the can be measured as a function of the physically properties of the object changed.
How do you mean the word physically?
These are reasonable questions. First of all, our native language is not in issue. What is in issue is a conceptual confusion. Wittgenstein wanted to show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle of conceptual confusion; Orthodox Monk wants to show Mr. Courtney-Smith the way out of the conceptual confusion in his head and into his heart.
Mr Courtney-Smith seems to have been trained in the physical sciences, possibly chemistry. We would think that the only possible way to study the Jesus Prayer and the descent of the mind into the heart would be to have a practitioner from Mt Athos, if one could be found, to leave his cave and go to MIT to be studied in MIT’s program for studying meditation. There they use a functional nuclear magnetic resonance imaging machine to study the parts of the brain that are active during various stages of meditation. Presumably the practitioner would not be distracted by the machine environment and would bring his mind into his heart while the scholars studied what was happening to his brain function. How the practitioner would signal that his mind was now into his heart is unknown to us, so we don’t know how the scientists would calibrate their images of brain function against the Athonite cave-dweller’s subjective experience. Let’s suppose that it could be done. We don’t know what would be found, but we are interested. Orthodox Monk is an amateur but he would be delighted to go to MIT from his igloo in the Arctic for such a test.
Now while the Athonite cave-dweller was lying in the functional NMRI machine and bringing his mind into his heart, what would he understand? Surely he would subjectively understand that his mind was in his heart. What would that mean? Mr Courtney-Smith asks with exasperation. Well, let’s see if we can explain on the basis of our amateur understanding.
Since our mind is our consciousness, we can focus it on a point. Let us start with our finger. I can concentrate on my finger. Or I can concentrate on the mountain in the distance.
Now, remember that the Jesus Prayer is being repeated. It is a fixed formula. This has the effect of concentrating our mind on the words of the Prayer. It’s a bit like karate. The student of karate learns to concentrate on his fist the instant his fist makes contact with his opponent, so that all his mental energy is focused on the actual blow.
(Incidentally this is why you shouldn’t be doing the martial arts when you are doing the Jesus Prayer: they’re both tapping into some of the same human potentialities, but at cross purposes. This is true even of the ‘soft-style’ martial arts, perhaps even more so because the soft-style martial arts are more systematically training the practitioner in a form of oriental meditation. The principle, apart from dogmatic issues, is not to mix two forms of meditation. Moreover, although we have defined the mind to Mr Courtney-Smith as the consciousness with which we experience reality, it should be understood that the mind is also the created spirit of man, the highest part of the soul. It is with the mind that we apprehend spiritual realities, using the mind’s potential for intuitive cognition. The problem is to encounter Orthodox spiritual realities; the danger is that we might encounter Satan masquerading as an angel of light. Moreover, in our original reply to Sarah Jones, we recommended that she have a quiet time apart from prayer where ideally she would be working with her hands. Our reasoning is that the practice of a handicraft, well-attested in the ascetical tradition, helps train the mind.)
So instead of concentrating on my finger, or even on the karate blow I am landing, I concentrate on the words of the Jesus Prayer. But since the repetition of the Jesus Prayer is focusing my consciousness like a flame from a gas jet, and since I have an orientation in space and time, as I advance in the oral repetition of the Jesus Prayer, my consciousness is naturally focused on my tongue and mouth—after all that is where I am articulating the Jesus Prayer all day long.
Now let us say that I advance to the silent repetition of the Jesus Prayer. Given the preceding, it should be clear that the silent words of the Jesus Prayer will present themselves as physically located in my head—that’s where we think and that is where our thoughts present themselves to us in consciousness. Our mind has ascended from our mouth to inside our head. So far we are sure that Mr Courtney-Smith is following.
Now the next stage is to integrate the silent repetition of the Jesus Prayer with the breath. One mentally articulates the first half of the formula with the intake of the breath; one mentally articulates the second half of the formula with the outtake of the breath. Now since the breath is descending into the lungs, the effect of this is that the gas jet of consciousness is going to follow the words of the Prayer into the lungs and then out of the lungs again.
The next stage is to bring the mind into the heart. Here, the subjective experience is that there is a ‘road of descent’ into the heart that has been mapped by combining the silent repetition of the Prayer with the breath and that there is a place where the consciousness unites with the heart, taken to be the spiritual centre of the person. The fathers place this spiritual centre in the region of the physical heart. This is where the results of the functional NMRI would be interesting, although all it would show would be what the brain is doing at that moment, not what the heart is doing. We suppose that they might also hook up an electrocardiograph to the practitioner of the Jesus Prayer, but we don’t know what it would show. What the practitioner experiences subjectively is that his gas jet of consciousness is now centred in the region of his physical heart and that he is deep inside himself.
Mr Courtney-Smith wants to know what can be measured. Hard to say since we are dealing with consciousness and with subjective experience. Is it a mere fantasy? No. Without going into details, a Staretz can tell a disciple exactly where the disciple is silently praying the Jesus Prayer (in the heart? in the head?) and could probably even tell him what formula he was using in his silent prayer—and sometimes even at a distance. This is not just some Athonite mumbo-jumbo, self-hypnosis or whatever. There is an objective dimension, but as with all religious experience it isn’t easily susceptible to scientific measurement.
Moreover, St Silouan the Athonite (†1938) attests that he was given the automatic repetition of the Jesus Prayer in the heart as a gift while he was praying before an icon of the Mother of God. So we can see that there is also an element of the Grace of God in the practice of the Prayer. See St. Silouan the Athonite by Arch. Sophrony (Sakharov).
Now to make things clear we have presented the above as a method of meditation. Recall that in a previous post, Sarah Jones wanted to know about mechanical repetition of the Jesus Prayer and the danger of delusion. Here we can see more clearly what the danger is. Let us suppose that we are following the above schema (and it is schematic for ease of presentation) without being a committed member of the Church—the Orthodox Church. Sarah quoted to us in her email a passage that suggested that there is a serious danger of falling into delusion, the deception of the Devil, if we do the above in a mechanical way. We agree.
The descent of the mind into the heart is not only a phenomenon with spatial attributes but it is also a conscious penetration into the psychological regions of our personality that are usually called the unconscious or subconscious. The result is that descending with the mind into the heart brings about an encounter with personal subconscious repressed material. This material initially presents itself as an image that invites one to commit sin (of any number of kinds). The ascetical Fathers discuss this sort of thing. It is possible to force your mind into your heart before you are ready but you won’t have the strength to combat the tempting material you will encounter on the way. You can go mad.
We have presented this in terms of natural psychology but at this level the ascetical tradition speaks of temptations from the demons. This encounter on the road to the heart is also a spiritual phenomenon. Recall that the gas jet of consciousness is our created spirit and that its capacity for intuitive cognition enables us to encounter spiritual realities. The problem is that we are going to have to battle against demonic spiritual realities on the way to God.
To return to the issue of mechanical repetition, while the Jesus Prayer is being prayed in the above way, in the normal Orthodox case it is also ‘meant’ or ‘intended’. As members of the Church we are engaged emotionally, psychologically and spiritually with the meanings or concepts contained in the words of the Prayer (‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner’) in the way people understand when they say ‘he is praying from the heart’. This is of course a different sense from what we mean by ‘bringing the mind into the heart’. The repetition of the Prayer becomes an emotional, psychological and spiritual encounter, although there is equally a danger if too much emphasis is placed on emotion—that could lead to emotional exaggeration, and its attendant imbalance of personality. Moreover, the Philokalia and all the other writings on the Jesus Prayer assume that the practitioner of the Jesus Prayer is a member in good standing of the Orthodox Church, regularly going to confession and when permitted to communion. The Jesus Prayer is a part of the life of an engaged member of the Church. Moreover, it is assumed that there will be a guide. In this see Way of the Pilgrim, trans. by French. Of course it is not clear if that book and its sequel is really a narrative of what actually happened, or else a literary creation in the form of autobiography.
We are not suggesting that anyone take up the Jesus Prayer without a guide. We are merely trying to clarify how it is prayed.
UPDATE 2 2011/02/18:
Mr Courtney-Smith has again replied with a comment:
Interesting. Thank you very much, that actually makes quite a bit of sense to me.
The description you give of the subjective experienced has strong parallels to the descriptions found in The Dark Night of the Soul [by St John of the Cross] which is the only book of its type I have ever fully read. To my recollection however The Dark Night does not give any specific instruction on how or what one should contemplate (other than God). So I can see how this information seems to make a nice complement too it. Inasmuch as they both describe meditation and its effects.
I looked up the Philokalia as I had never heard of it before. It seems like something that would be interesting to read. Although perhaps, like The Dark Night, it might be of limited value to me as I am not called to monasticism (at least not at this time). How many pages is it?
Also, since you mentioned it, could you explain why grace being created or non-created is relevant to the topic of ‘bringing one’s mind into one’s heart’? I don't see the connection.
Of course that is quite probably because the only definition of grace I was ever taught was ‘a gift freely given from God’.
It seems the purpose of prayer and meditation is closer union with God through Jesus, and I don't think there is any debate about the facts that Jesus is both uncreated Godhead and created Man.
Certainly we receive Jesus in the sacrament of Holy Communion (and this is all of him created and uncreated).
Isn't it the same being encountered in the sacrament but in deeper measure that the mystic hopes to encounter?
Let us give brief answers to the above. The full extent of our knowledge of the theology of St John of the Cross is found in this post.
The Philokalia is, in the standard Greek edition, a five-volume work of texts on the Hesychastic tradition (what we’ve been discussing) that go from the 4th Century to the 18th (we believe). The texts are arranged in chronological sequence. His Eminence, Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware), was chief editor of an English translation published by Faber & Faber. There is a good introduction. Only the first four volumes of the English translation have been published. We imagine that the five volumes of the English translation together would come to around 2000 pages. The unpublished 5th volume is the one that contains material on forcing the mind into the heart; perhaps there was a fear that such information might be dangerous for the immature reader, we don’t know. There is no canon of the Philokalia: it is a literary compilation that is witness to an oral tradition in the Orthodox Church. There are editions of the Philokalia in Old Church Slavonic (liturgical Russian) and Romanian which are much longer than the Greek Philokalia. This simply means that the various editors had access to much more material they thought suitable for inclusion in their edition. The texts are written by the ascetical Fathers of the Orthodox tradition, so they are definitely at the level of St John of the Cross or St Theresa of Avila—i.e. not introductory.
At the level at which we have been discussing the Jesus Prayer in this post, the uncreated nature of Grace has nothing to do with it.
The uncreated nature of Grace is addressed by St Gregory Palamas (14th Century), who was a practitioner of the Jesus Prayer. The issue has to do with the nature of light that Hesychasts experience: is it the uncreated effulgence of God or something else? That is, the issue has more to do with the end of the Hesychastic road not with the basic practice as we have been describing it.
While we understand what Mr Courtney-Smith intends by ‘uncreated Godhead’, it is more proper to say that Jesus is true God and true Man, where as God he is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. It should also be pointed out that the person of Jesus Christ is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. That person took on a complete human nature. But that human nature has never subsisted in a person other than the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. To say otherwise is to fall into a Nestorian Christology.
It is certainly true that in the Orthodox Church it would be a perverse reading of Hesychasm indeed to say that there was something different about what the Orthodox Hesychast experiences receiving Holy Communion and what he experiences practising the Jesus Prayer.