BY DAVID TORKINGTON ONE OF THE FIRST books I came across in my search for the wisdom of the desert was a work entitled Writings from the Philokalia. It particularly caught my attention because of its subtitle, "On Prayer of the Heart". That's exactly what I wanted to know more about, in the dry spiritual desert in which I found myself.
The word Philokalia means, 'Love of what is Beautiful, or Good', and is a spiritual anthology of Orthodox spirituality going back to the Desert Fathers. It was put together towards the end of the eighteenth century by St Macarius of Corinth, and edited by St Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain.
In the Orthodox tradition, spirituality is known as Hesychasm, a word derived from the Greek meaning 'Stillness' or 'Tranquillity'. A hesychast may be a lay person, a hermit, or a religious, who chooses to enter into a deep interior stillness in a monastery, in a hermitage, or in their own home where they can practice 'The Prayer of the Heart'.
'Prayer of the Heart' means prayer of the whole person, the united person who prays in the words of St John Climacus "with the whole heart that is with the whole body and soul and spirit."
It involves what is called 'pure prayer' that is, free of images and concepts so important in the Western tradition. It goes without saying that 'The Prayer of the Heart' or 'Pure Prayer' is ideal for the person who has passed through and beyond first fervour. The best-known expression of The Prayer of the Heart is 'The Jesus Prayer' as it was first called by
St John Climacus who wrote about it in his spiritual masterpiece, The Ladder of Divine Ascent. He'd lived the life of a hermit for 40 years before becoming the Abbot of the famous monastery on Mount Sinai, so he knew exactly what he was talking about when it came to prayer.
He didn't, however, lay down a precise formula for The Jesus Prayer', and it has had different variations in the East, but we in the West have come to know it as "Jesus Son of God have mercy on me a sinner".
All variations were based on the prayer of the blind man, who called out to Jesus for help as he approached Jericho (Luke 18:38). Whosoever turns to 'The Jesus Prayer' and prays it with their whole heart and mind and soul is admitting that they are in need, and that they are spiritually blind, blinded by the selfishness that only Jesus can cure.
The purpose of the prayer is to express this need by repeating it continuously, but in such a gentle way that it leads into the deep interior stillness where one can be totally open to the healing power of the One who "makes all things new".
The Philokalia explains an ancient tradition that is believed to go all the way back to St John Climacus and his disciple St Hesychius of Sinai, that 'The Jesus Prayer' can be recited with the practice of deep rhythmetic breathing that helps the believer enter into the deep inner peace that is at the heart of Hesychasm.
A later practice involved using a sort of rosary made of knotted cord to count the number of times the prayer is recited. This counting has no significance other than to help facilitate the gentle concentration that helps put "The Old Man" to rest so that "The New Man" who rose from the tomb on the first Easter day can become the centre of the heart's attention. It is important to realise that the use of 'The Jesus Prayer' with or without the use of rhythmetic breathing or a rosary is not some sort of esoteric technique, or magic mantra.
It is merely a well-tried traditional means of prayer that helps keep the heart in the deep interior stillness where it can best remain intent on the God who alone calls a person onward to the ever-deepening experience of authentic mystical contemplation.
The various forms of group prayer, that have led many serious searchers through Spiritual Adolescence, and into the same desert that enveloped me, is one of the main reasons for the recent revival of interest in 'The Jesus Prayer', and other forms of "pure prayer", derived from the Desert Fathers.
They seem to find in the great spiritual masters of the past what the "spiritual masters" of the present are unable to give them. Perhaps I can be excused therefore, if I look a little more deeply into 'The Prayer of the Heart' and what the earliest Desert Fathers have to say about it! t