From: The Illuminated Heart
Illumine our hearts, O Master who lovest mankind
with the pure light of thy divine knowledge,
and open the eyes of our minds to the understanding
of thy Gospel teachings, for thou art
the illumination of our souls and bodies,
O Christ our God.
(Prayer before the reading of the Gospel
Liturgy of St. James, Fourth Century)
“Pray constantly” is another very good piece of advice. But how do you ever do it? Not just saying prayers or interceding for others – how can you abide in a state of prayer, so that your every heartbeat, your very breath, is united with Christ?
Some of us are familiar with customs like holding oneself mindful of the presence of God, or of asking what Jesus would do. These assume that God is near us, though outside. But from the first centuries there was a desire to discover the place of the Kingdom of God within the believer, as Jesus had promised it to be, and to live out from that center. It was an interior rather than exterior site; it was, in fact, the heart.
“There are unfathomable depths within the heart,” wrote a fourth-century homilist under the name Macarius. “God is there with the angels, light and life are there, the kingdom and the apostles, the Heavenly cities and the treasures of grace: All things are there.”
This doesn’t mean that humans carry a divine spark, or are independent mini-gods. This divine presence is not of our own possession or deserving. It is a free gift, and one we wonder at; how could such grace come to live in my defiled and unkempt temple!
A good analogy is that of a lump of coal. On its own, coal is nothing lovely. It’s inert, dusty, and cold. But it has this capacity: It can burn. In fact, it might be said that coal is created to burn, that receiving flame is the telos, the destiny, of coal. The Holy Spirit likewise comes to burn within us, though we don’t deserve it, and we bring nothing of beauty to the process. Our main task is to get out of the way, to remove impurities bit by bit so that one day we can be wholly engulfed by divine fire, and become a living flame of love. This is theosis.
Abba Lot once came to Abba Joseph of Panephysis and said, “Father, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace, and as much as I am able I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” Abba Joseph stood up and spread out his hands toward Heaven. Each of his fingertips was lit with flame. He said to Abba Lot, “If you will, you can become totally fire.”
In beginning to describe the ancient church’s practice of constant prayer we get very quickly into deep waters. Some would advise against even attempting this topic in a book this slight. Yet everyone who practices this spiritual path heard of it for the first time somewhere, so we’ll consider this a basic introduction. The books in the bibliography will lead you further, and lead to others that can take you further still. Even better will be if you can find a spiritual father or mother who can guide you regarding prayer, fasting, and other elements of the path, acting as a personal trainer does to an athlete. Of course, best of all is participation in a worshiping community where the ancient prayers are still used, because these gradually saturate the whole person and heal his vision of self and world.
We have to start with a blizzard of unfamiliar terms, because we’re dealing with an interior anatomy well mapped by earlier Christians, but unknown to modern ones. Remember metanoia, the Greek word for repentance? It’s a compound of two words. The preposition “meta” has several meanings, but here indicates transformation or change. “Meta-morphosis” means change of shape, and “meta-noia” means change of mind.
That suffix becomes the noun nous (the adjective is “noetic”), and it’s a tricky word to define. “Mind” is not quite it; frequently it is called “the eye of the soul.” The nous is a person’s primary awareness or basic consciousness. Imagine your five senses, and how behind them there is a general pool of “sense,” the part of you that encounters life firsthand, unmediated. That is the nous. Thinking about life, pondering, remembering, calculating, imagining – all that is secondary. The nous precedes and underlies all that. The nous is the living link to our Creator, but because of distractions, passions, and the meddling evil one, it is a link we seldom feel aware of. At a minimum most people still sense the nous in the form of conscience.
Unless centered in God, the nous is in trouble – and makes trouble. The seventh-century monk Saint Isaac of Syria described the nous out of God as being like a fish out of water, bewildered and rapidly dying. It is lost and confused, and misperceives the world, reacting erratically. The task of the Christian is to train the nous to dwell in the heart – to “capture the nous in the heart” or “bring the mind down into the heart.”
Remember that this cannot mean to “bring the reason down into the emotions,” because Theodore and Anna know no such division. If “the mind” means the nous, we need to explore what “the heart” means, though it also is hard to put into words. It does not mean the seat of the emotions. In ancient times, before the interior of the body was charted, emotions were ascribed to sites all through the torso: heart, kidneys, bowels, and womb. The spiritual heart is not the same as that general region of feeling or compassion. Nor is it merely the fleshy pump that beats in our chests. This heart is the spiritual center of a person’s entire being.
But although the spiritual heart is not limited to that bodily organ, it does have a physical reality that is more than mere metaphor. As prayer grows, many believers begin to sense a warm nest of grace-filled presence inside, somewhere around or near the physical heart. (Saint Ignatius Brianchaninov, a nineteenth-century Russian bishop, said it “dwells in the upper part of the heart.”) Sensations of warmth at this site, or, even harder to describe, of swelling or “movement,” are not uncommon, though they’re by no means a necessity. One woman was so alarmed when these unexpected and apparently cardiac sensations began that she went to her doctor for a checkup. Such sensations are not universally experienced, but can occur.
This capturing of the mind in the heart can be done not at all at first, and then it may be experienced intermittently; some great athletes of prayer become able to sustain it all the time. With some people the prayer becomes self-activating, and at unexpected moments the heart rises up, so to speak, suddenly immersed in the presence of Jesus and longing for him greatly. Diligent practice can prepare us to receive this prayer, but it is given only as a gift from God.
As you may gather, practicing mental self-discipline is not easy. Anyone who has tried, even for a short period of time to focus his restless and unwilling attention knows what this struggle is like. Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos quotes a modern-day monk: “The nous looks like the dog who wants to run all the time and is extremely agile at running away.”
So in this struggle to bring oneself wholly to Christ there are both physical and mental elements. In both cases we are struggling against passions, which flit among aspects of body and mind like bees. Fasting disciplines help fortify the body, and mental prayer helps capture the wandering nous. The two labors are inseparable.
And the labor is intense, not designed for those who will fall back or turn aside. The early church describes those who are valorous in this fight as heroes and warriors. Jesus’s puzzling saying that “the Kingdom of Heaven suffers violence, and men of violence take it by force,” is taken by ancient writers to mean this contest, the effort to subdue the passions and train the nous.
Nepsis, vigilant and concentrated attention, is essential to controlling the mind. As the practitioner of this prayer gains moments of clarity, he sees that a lot of the trouble in life starts when a thought slips into the mind. Sometimes thoughts come from the scattered and wandering nous, which is prone to pick up every scrap in the road. Through practice the nous becomes more unified and less distracted: “Let your mind be single,” says the Lord. But other times thoughts seem to come from outside, not generated within the mind but shot like an arrow through a window.
Saint Hesychios, a fifth-century writer on this prayer, explained that without nepsis we accept these thoughts and unconsciously make them our own. First we identify with them, he says; next, we give mental consent to them; and third, we act on them. With more practice at nepsis, you realize that it is possible to nip them in the bud – to catch a sneaky thought when it first appears and decide whether it is worthy of consideration, or whether it’s even true.
Saint Hesychios described nepsis as “the steadfast concentration and stand of the rational faculty at the gate of the heart, so that it sees the thoughts that are coming as thieves, and hears what they say and do. It sees what is the form delineated in them by the demons, through which forms they are trying to deceive the mind by fantasy.”
In my experience, the primary sign of the presence of the evil one is confusion. (This might be original, so take it with a grain of salt.) It seems to me that when someone is tossed about and distressed, tormented by conflicting thoughts, when he desires to do the right thing but can’t for the life of him figure out what it is, the evil one is at work. The many battles among Christians that are rooted in confusion or misunderstanding have the footprints of a hungry lion all around. Sin is troublesome enough, but the evil one uses confusion to add salt to the stew.
Our conflicting thoughts alternately buoy us up or cast us down, and if they are not controlled we snap around behind them like a kite in the wind. The opposite of this is tranquility. If we could catch the false meddling thoughts when they first sneak in the window and toss them right back out, our lives would be a lot more coherent. We would be markedly more peaceful – not peace as the world gives, but a peace that surpasses all that the nous can comprehend.
Thus the aim of this prayer discipline is called hesychasm, meaning “quiet” or “rest.” This verb form means to hold one’s peace, to have received a word of such astonishing power that we are silenced. Hesychast spirituality is that of stillness and awe.
So far we’ve been describing the framework or mechanism of this kind of pryaer, but haven’t yet explored its preeminent form. Let’s get to that in the next chapter.