This series of reflections is on The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer that Tunes the Heart to God by Frederica Mathewes-Green.
If you read or listen to almost anything about the Jesus Prayer, you will also often encounter the phrase, prayer of the heart. They sometimes seem to be used almost interchangeably, but they are not actually the same thing. I like the approach Khouria Frederica takes in distinguishing them.
The Jesus Prayer refers to the actual words of the prayer. By an act of volition or will, we choose to say those words. It can be somewhat mechanistic at first. The Jesus Prayer is a distinct discipline marked by act of repeating those words and it can be used to discuss the history of that specific discipline.
Prayer of the heart refers to the action of the Prayer, something that may occur, by God’s grace, within a person who diligently practices the Prayer.
The prayer “descends into heart” when, instead of simple mental repetition as an act of will, the prayer becomes effortless and spontaneous, flowing from your innermost being.
You discover that the Holy Spirit has been there, praying, all along. Then heart and soul, body and mind, memory and will, the very breath of life itself, everything that you have and are unites in gratitude and joy, tuned like a violin string to the name of Jesus.
Prayer of the heart is gift of the Spirit, not something we can control or force. I hesitate to say that I have experienced it, though I have experienced moments that sound similar to some of the descriptions. I’m a poor practitioner, though, and am well aware of my own capacity for self-delusion. I would never present myself as an example for anyone else to follow.
I do, however, have no doubts about the Jesus Prayer itself. In part, I think, that’s because it came to me before I had any intellectual understanding or knowledge of it. I discovered the Jesus Prayer was an ancient and enduring prayer tradition long after I discovered the Jesus Prayer. Unlike any other practice or discipline I have developed or tried over the years, this is not one I developed first in my intellect.
When I accepted the idea of breath prayers as a general concept from Bro. Lawrence and determined to attempt this discipline, this specific prayer immediately welled up from within me. It almost demanded that I pray it. I would try other prayers and find myself praying this one. And it never felt like something new. I’m not sure I can explain it, but it has always felt like the Jesus Prayer was consciously expressing the prayer within me of which I had not previously been consciously aware.
I suppose I would say the Jesus Prayer can unite our mind and heart, our intellect and nous, together in the Spirit. It’s a gift of God for our salvation.