The Prayer of the Heart

07/31/2010 09:09 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Scott Cairns Professor of English at University of MIssouri and Founding Director of MU Writing Workshops in Greece

For the past 14 years or so, I have made a practice of saying "the Jesus prayer," which -- give or take a few words -- goes like so: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me."

The prayer is central to a longstanding Christian tradition of "stillness" and "watchfulness" that remains widespread throughout the Eastern Church. In recent years, it has become increasingly observed in the Western Church, as well, where some have become eager to recover the fullness of our common faith -- an enriching fullness and a wholeness, which, largely due to historical circumstances, has been kept from a good many of us.

As a singular, thoughtful prayer, the words encourage the one who speaks them to attend to God's presence, here and now. As a continuing practice, they enable the one who repeats them (that is to say, one who thereby acquires "the prayer of the heart") to hold onto that sense of His unfailing presence, always. The heart is, after all, presumed to be in some sense God's "habitation," and the very locus "where His glory dwells"; through practice, we learn to apprehend this mystery, to savor its beauty, and to benefit from the calm stillness it avails.

For all our good intentions, our long-distracted crew -- the ostensible followers of Christ -- appear to have squandered many such gifts over the centuries. We have even intermittently modified our theologies -- lowering the bar of our expectations -- to accommodate our failure to become what we are called to become.

"No one is perfect," we repeat, smiling as we scribble our own doctor's excuse.

Quoting the Hebrew Bible, Saint Peter disagrees, and he reminds us of the ambitious measure we've been given for where the bar ought to be placed:

Therefore, gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and rest your hope fully upon the grace that is to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ; as obedient children, not conforming yourselves to the former lusts, as in your ignorance; but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, Be holy; for I am holy.

In the Greek, the exhortation is all the more emphatic, "Holy you will be, because I am Holy." Gradually, through the prayer of the heart -- by the gift of this prayer -- we come to apprehend that the God is never not utterly near. We come finally to realize that on those occasions when He seems to us to be far away, that numbing circumstance inevitably has more to do with our own dim wits than it has to do with His having withheld His availability. That is to say, He never withdraws from us, but we -- through volition or neglect -- often withdraw from Him, and thereby cloud our own intuitive senses.

For many of those 14 years that I have practiced the prayer thus far, I have off and on thought to replace the me of the prayer with us, repeating "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on us." I had imagined that by thus changing up the ancient prayer, I was petitioning for others in a more intentional way. The obvious arrogance of presuming to improve upon a beautiful and ancient tradition aside, this modification did not seem at first to be such a bad thing. When talking about the practice some years ago, a Presbyterian friend confessed that while she, too, was drawn to the practice of the Jesus prayer, she also had a difficult time repeating have mercy on me. "It just seems a little selfish," she said.

I had often felt the same way, and my modification of the prayer was my response to uneasiness about my being overly self-concerned. More recently, however, I have had occasion to rethink the matter. I have come to the conclusion that my innovative modification of the ancient prayer was actually a subtle refusal of the facts I'm hoping now to recover. Mine was an inadvertent denial of my mystical relationship to other members of the Body -- by which I now mean all of them (and, as I learned to say in Texas, all y'all).

As you might suppose, I didn't manage to puzzle out any of this on my own but was nudged into the realization by a passage I found in Wounded by Love, a beautiful book presenting the wisdom of Elder Porphyrios of the Holy Mountain. "Pray for others more than for yourself," says the Elder. "Say, 'Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me,' and you will always have others in your mind. We are all children of the same Father; we are all one. And so, when we pray for others, we say 'Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me,' and not, 'have mercy on them.' In this way we make them one with ourselves."

There is another, more subtle and perhaps more general lesson lurking here, as well. Every time we decide unilaterally to "change up" a received tradition, we are likely to risk missing out on how that very tradition might have helped us along the way. That is to say, if we are too quick to reshape traditions to suit our immediate and individual tastes, we may never know how those traditions might have reshaped us, how they might have efficaciously availed for us a more likely understanding of what we might become.

I love how G.K Chesterton suggests the logic of this particular dynamic in his classic book, Orthodoxy. He does so with no shortage of accustomed, Chestertonian wit and humor:

I have never been able to understand where people got the idea that democracy was in some way opposed to tradition. It is obvious that tradition is only democracy extended through time. It is trusting to a consensus of common human voices rather than to some isolated or arbitrary record. The man who quotes some German historian against the tradition of the Catholic Church, for instance, is strictly appealing to aristocracy. He is appealing to the superiority of one expert against the awful authority of a mob. It is quite easy to see why a legend is treated, and ought to be treated, more respectfully that a book of history. The legend is generally made by the majority of people in the village, who are sane. The book is generally written by the one man in the village who is mad. ...Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors.

As for the specific tradition of the Jesus prayer, I am now thinking that even if one were to initially begin one's practice of the prayer by repeating "have mercy on us," the purpose at the very heart of our matter is to realize how utterly we are connected to those we love, to those for whom we pray. Their well-being and our own should be so inextricably connected that we apprehend how they are all -- every one of them -- included in our saying "have mercy on me." Thereafter (though one surely cannot rush this sort of thing) we may begin to suspect next how all of Christ's Body, all of humanity, and, ultimately, all of creation are invoked in our petition as well.

As for the current me? I'm still working on it.

It is one thing to agree with the mystery of our unity as a proposition, but something else to perform that difficult matter with one's life. To grasp and sustain an awareness of this intimate connection with others is perhaps our greatest human challenge. I know that it continues to be mine.