The prayer of the heart involves communing with the Divine beyond words, concepts, images, feelings, and acts. It is any practice designed to quieten one’s mind and to free it from dependence on thinking in entering the presence of, or renewing one’s intimacy with, God. Over the centuries of church history, prayer of the heart (meditation) has been variously alluded to as contemplative prayer, mystical prayer, pure prayer, deep prayer, contemplation, centering prayer, or Christian meditation. The prayer of the heart has been generally neglected in Christian churches in the West, and yet it is grounded in the Scriptures and potentially available to all believers. 

     A mantra, or another point of focus (object of attention), is used as a tool to draw us away from our own thoughts, imaginations, and concerns. The English word mantra comes from the Sanskrit mantram which means “a sacred word or syllable”. The repetition of a mantra focuses the attention beyond thoughts and emotions, and over time leads to a still, wakeful presence to the reality of God. The psalmist wrote: “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). The use of a mantra in Christian prayer can be traced back through Western monasticism, St. Benedict, John Cassian, the Desert Fathers and Mothers, even to apostolic times. 

     John Cassian (ca. 360-ca. 432), in his work Conferences, describes with scriptural support the Christian perspective on using the mantra. By continually repeating a scriptural verse, in time the chronic distractions of the mind and the instability of the emotions recede. By grace, one experiences a peace beyond the self-centered consciousness of the ego. Cassian taught that no other words are needed while praying in this way in that the mantra “embraces all the feelings of human nature”. By reciting the mantra, the verse becomes rooted in the heart and gradually leads to the state of continuous prayer mentioned by Christ (Luke 18:1) and by Paul (1 Thessalonians 5:17). One may conclude that the mantra is a way to kenosis, that is, an emptying of egoism which can then lead to being “filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:19; see also Colossians 2:9-10). 

     As one goes beyond thoughts and images, a different focus emerges – that of being with God. In prayer of the heart, we seek to be with the Triune Godhead – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.   In our being with God, by faith we know that the Spirit prays within – “the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will” (Romans 8:26-27). While some aspects of prayer of the heart may be difficult to express in words, one can be confident that the Teacher, the Spirit of truth, lives within and guides us into truth (John 14:16-17; 16:13). 

     The Scriptures do not teach a specific method of meditation or discipline for quieting the mind. Each person should choose a practice suited to their temperament and disposition. The guidance of the Spirit remains above every method. Important, however, is consistency. The following guiding principles are offered for those desiring to embrace prayer of the heart. They are not intended as a definitive set of “rules”, but rather as guidelines that may be of help.     

     Choose a mantra – a word, phrase, or short verse – as the symbol of your intention to be in God’s presence. In making your selection, ask the Holy Spirit for inspiration. Examples of a sacred word are: Lord, Jesus, Abba, Father, Mother, Love, Peace, Shalom, or Maranatha. A short verse from the Bible could be “The Lord is my shepherd” (Ps 23:1), “Be still, and know” (Ps 46:10), or “My grace is sufficient” (2 Corinthians 12:9). An alternative to a mantra to still the mind can be focusing on a candle, mandala, icon (such as a cross or sacred picture), or on one’s breathing. 

     Begin your prayer of the heart (meditation) by briefly asking for God’s presence. A short piece of quiet, reflective music can be conducive to getting into a prayerful frame of mind. 

     Sit comfortably, still and upright – it may be cross-legged or on a chair. Eyes may be lightly closed with attention focused inward, or open looking at an object of focus. Remain relaxed, but wakeful and alert. 

     Repeat your mantra gently and silently in your mind throughout the period of prayer, and listen to it as you say it interiorly. Alternatively, rather than saying the mantra continuously, return to it (or your point of focus) whenever you become aware of thoughts, perceptions, feelings, images, memories, or reflections. 

     Try not to think or imagine anything – spiritual or otherwise. Whenever inevitable distractions through thoughts and images come, keep gently returning to the mantra. 

     At the end of the prayer period, remain silent for a moment or two to readjust before transitioning to other activities. 

     Some recommend to meditate each morning and evening for twenty to thirty minutes. The principle, however, is to pray as one can, not as one can’t. Beginning meditators may like to start with five to ten minutes and gradually build up. Again, the regularity of the practice is essential.  Equally important is to find an authentic spiritual path and a qualified teacher.

     Prayer of the heart can also occur spontaneously when something transcendent breaks into our consciousness and we become aware of God at the heart level. Such “moments of grace” may be a spectacular rainbow, the birth of one’s child, protection when disaster was certain, or meeting a special person. The mystery of grace can also invade our lives in situations that test our limits such as personal calamity, unexpected death of a loved one, or terminal illness. While difficult to deal with, these experiences may evoke spontaneous prayer of the heart when in our darkest hour we sense being upheld and supported. 

     Prayer is a personal and individual matter and, as mentioned, the prayer of the heart is not intended to replace other forms of prayer. The Scriptures allude to many types of prayer where both the head and the heart are involved at different times (see for example, 1 Timothy 2:1; Ephesians 6:18). Some may favor forms of verbal prayer at certain times, while others prefer to commune with God solely via the prayer of the heart (meditation). Believers may begin with forms of verbal prayer on their spiritual journey. Later they may be introduced to contemplative approaches such as the prayer of the heart and find that this provides new depth and meaning in prayer.   However, no right or wrong way exists in this matter, and everyone should resist the natural tendency to judge or look down on those whose practice varies from one’s own. 

     As with other aspects of spiritual life, the prayer of the heart or meditation has its stages. After initial enthusiasm, a time may come when even the practice itself is questioned. With time, however, a calmness, joy, and peace are experienced. These phases tend to occur more in a cyclical pattern than in a linear form of progress. 

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