PRAYER OF THE HEART
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
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).
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).
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
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.
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
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,
not to think or imagine anything – spiritual or otherwise. Whenever inevitable distractions through thoughts
and images come, keep gently returning to the mantra.
the end of the prayer period, remain silent for a moment or two to readjust before transitioning to other
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.
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
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