The prayer of the heart is God working in us

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I recently went to see Fr. Cassian Sibley to discuss the prayer of the heart in the Eastern Orthodox tradition.

The sign on the house read Theotokos of the Russian Orthodox Church of the Life-giving Spring. It has to be the coolest church name I have ever heard in my life. I told Fr. Cassian so when he opened the door. He is a cheerful man with a kind face and a big bushy beard. He offered me coffee and showed me an assortment of beautiful prayer ropes, or “chotki” used for the meditative repetition of the “Jesus Prayer”. [“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”] which is at the heart of the prayer of the heart. Some of the chotkis were made of beads, others of cross-shaped knots. Some were quite long and others tiny, designed to fit around a baby’s wrist.

He explained that the simple repetition of the Jesus Prayer is the most common use for lay people to pray without ceasing as they go about their business.

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I had brought a rose for Mother Mary [whom they call “The Theotokos” which means God-bearing], which he put in the chapel. Then I followed him into a pleasant living room bathed in morning light and comfortably furnished, lined with books. A parrot sang from a nearby cage. I pulled out my notebook but the conversation was so interesting and lively that I hardly took any notes. We compared mystical theology, discussed the spiritual path, talked about our lives, current events, our families, our conversion stories.

Prof. Cassian grew up a Southern Baptist but, as a young teenager drawn to the Anglican Church, was preparing to be ordained an Episcopal priest. While studying theology, he became increasingly sympathetic to the Orthodox Church, and as a teenager he had read JD Salinger’s short story, “Franny and Zooey,” and had been introduced to the Jesus Prayer and the way of the pilgrim. Eventually he converted to Eastern Orthodoxy and ultimately was ordained an Orthodox priest.

Finally, we came to the point of my visit, the practice of hesychasm [the path of deep prayer and living the life of prayer in the Orthodox tradition] and the practice of prayer from the heart.

Before Fr. Cassian gave me practical instructions, he warned that if one desires to enter into this practice, a spiritual guide, teacher or spiritual director is extremely useful – this is why the more mystical use and non-verbal of the Jesus Prayer is more common, in Orthodoxy, among monks and those with a monastic spiritual father or mother.

He goes on to say that today in Western society we think of ourselves as centered in the brain, the spirit, and we tend to pray from there. Biblically, however, the heart is considered the center of the person where both thoughts and spiritual movements occur. In Orthodox prayer, those who pray seek to redirect their consciousness from the head to the heart. Pr. Cassian often touches his heart as he speaks, seemingly unconsciously, closing his eyes when he does. It seems to me that when he does this, a switch is flipped somewhere, a “peace switch” that visibly changes his entire behavior. Maybe it’s a switch because I can feel it too!

Practical instructions for the prayer of the heart:

Stand or sit comfortably with your back relatively straight, in silence, solitude and stillness.

Breathe in and let your consciousness follow that breath as you pray, silently, “Lord Jesus Christ.”

Breathe out slowly, maintaining your conscious awareness in the heart if possible, as you pray silently, “Son of God.”

Inhale, as before, while silently praying “Have mercy on me”.

Breathe out slowly and prayerfully acknowledge that you are “a sinner.”

Slowly repeat this cycle over and over.

Continually bring your awareness into your heart, bringing there the name of Jesus, his presence. Eventually, it will be the heart that keeps time, so to speak, and the heart that speaks. After that, everything depends on God, and on God alone.

The true Prayer of the Heart as he describes it resembles what a Carmelite would call the grace of infused contemplation, where it is God who acts in us, and we are drawn into union with him.

We are talking about the traditional understanding of soul progress through the purgative path [purification]the Illuminative Way [the growing knowledge of God and his ways] and finally the Unitive Way [one-ness with God].

Before I left, Fr. gave me a copy of his wife’s new book of poetry, “Zoom and the Neanderthal Girl” by Olympia Sibley, [I highly recommend it!] and I give him a copy of my book: “Come to the House of Mary; Spend time with Our Blessed Mother.

He invited me to come back, maybe for dinner with his wife and him. I said that would be great.

I had undertaken to write about the Prayer of the Heart, but I can’t help but think that perhaps Fr. Cassian and I have begun to do our part in healing the Great Schism a conversation, a prayer, one friendship at a time.

Shawn Chapman, Bryan resident mother and grandmother, is a Discalced Secular Carmelite, Catholic community in the Diocese of Austin. Her book, “Come to Mary’s House, Spend Time with the Blessed Mother,” is due out in October.

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