Prayer of the Heart

THE WAY OF A PILGRIM is a classic text of 19th Century Russian Orthodox spirituality, carrying forward the tradition of the Jesus Prayer or “the prayer of the heart”. I read the text once, as a new convert to Orthodoxy, because that’s what you do, but I was troubled by many words that seemed to be too newagey for me. They were very triggering for me – since I have a past in that world. What got me was talk about “unifying the heart and the mind”. This sounds (for those with the same history) like certain exercises in Western esotericism. So, on the advice of a wise priest, I didn’t go there. There’s enough in Orthodoxy – indeed in Catholicism as well – that one needn’t get trapped by one or another spiritual practice.

Recently, reading a book for my class in Old Testament, I came across this line:

To an ancient, the brain had no thinking role; it ran the senses of hearing and seeing and smelling. The heart did the thinking, and the kidneys gave the emotional feelings of joy, fear, and sorrow.

Reading the Old Testament, An Introduction, 2nd Ed.
by Lawrence Boadt, Paulist Press, 2012

I’ve been wondering what it felt like to “think in the heart”. I seem to naturally “hear” my thinking voice in my head, between my ears, in my brain. Working on the assumption that there’s no reason – at all – for that voice to located in any one part of our bodies, it seems that it’s set there by social construction: a child is told things from birth about where feelings and thinking (etc) happen inside and so it seems to be true.

Now, here this passage from A Way of A Pilgrim:

He opened the book, found the instruction by St. Simeon the new theologian, and read: ” ‘Sit down alone and in silence. Lower your head, shut your eyes, breathe out gently, and imagine yourself looking into your own heart. Carry your mind, that is, your thoughts, from your head to your heart. As you breathe out, say “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” Say it moving your lips gently, or simply say it in your mind. Try to put all other thoughts aside. Be calm, be patient, and repeat the process very frequently.'”

Translation from Russian by R.M. French

You see that that the writer is quoting St Simeon, a writer from the 10th Century. It’s certainly not newage stuff, but, as I mentioned, such language is used in that world too. Carry your mind, that is, your thoughts, from your head to your heart. Such language is quite common in both eastern and western religious traditions. Is is possible that this quest to put the “thoughts” in your heart is, in fact, an attempt to return to the way things were in the past when we all “knew” the heart was were thinking was? In other words, is this ancient and common spiritual practice a way to fix something that went wrong when we let the brain take over the thinking voice? There seems to be some sort of human awareness that this is broken.

The modern world seems to live in data and head-space, as if to say the heart is meaningless (except for “love” by which they mean gushy feelings and sexual pleasure). I have no further thoughts on this at the present time. It seems, though, as if the spiritual traditions of the world only “work” if the heart is doing the thinking.

Author: Huw Raphael

A Dominican Tertiary living in San Francisco, CA. He is almost 59. He feeds the homeless as a parochial almoner and is studying to be a Roman Catholic Deacon. He is learning modern Israeli Hebrew and enjoys cooking, keto, cats, long urban hikes, and SF Beer Week.

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