The Prayer of the Heart in Patristic & Early Byzantine Tradition - J.A. McGuckin
‘Guard your heart with all care, for it is the spring of your life.’ [LXX. Prov. 4.23.]
1. Biblical Archetypes.
The concept of a doctrine of prayer tells much about the theology of the person articulating it. It is the purest Christian expression of theology and, historically speaking, one of the rare examples of a non-controversial theology. Almost all of the patristic dogmatic formulations from antiquity were, after all, beaten out in the heat of strong confrontations and show the signs of innumerable scorch marks.
Liturgical theology, and the Early Church's doctrine of prayer are almost unique in not having much of a generating context of controversy propelling them into print. But in so far as the doctrine of prayer tells much about theology it also speaks volumes about the active concept of the human being which it cannot fail to lay bare as it unfolds itself. Theologically speaking this is an irresistible aspect of the extrapolation of the concept of prayer : it lays out the topography of the soul. For such reasons we see Christian anthropology being advanced immeasurably in the deep attention given to the doctrine and praxis of prayer. Christology and the early church's theology of prayer are , in fact, the twin loci where the concept of the individual person's hypostatic reality - what we today take for granted as the fundamental concept of individual psychological consciousness - were worked out in Antiquity, laboriously, under the eye of God. It is instructive, if this strikes one as a highly remarkable thing , to consider that Greek Christian thought did not have a clear semantic of personhood until the late 4th and early 5th centuries . Anthropological presuppositions are so central to the architecture of the church's approach to prayer that as we begin to consider the notion of the ‘prayer of the heart' which was so profoundly influential in early patristic, high Byzantine, and modern Orthodox spiritual praxis, we can make no clearer start than to consider the pre-eminent place the heart is given in the biblical literature. Early Christian schools of prayer, however much a platonic form of anthropology may have influenced them ( and Evagrios may be taken as a supreme example of such an intellectualist influence that led him to posit the term Nous as the supreme significant of the spiritual intelligence ) never abandoned their profound allegiance to biblical forms, and it was those biblical forms that renewed and constantly invigorated Christian philosophy and theology as the sacred texts, especially the Psalms, were repeated countless times in the rituals and prayer services of the ancient Church, thus entering into the very consciousness of the early monks who used the texts to reform and configure their imaginations and spiritual aspirations. Even within the high intellectual tradition of the early Greek Fathers the intellectualist tradition which gave to the human Nous the supreme role as locus of the psychic self was never so blatantly divided from the biblical anthropology as some later commentators have supposed to be the case; and this for two reasons :
In the first place, although early Greek thought certainly gave to the Nous the role of the inner self, restricting its use of heart imagery to convey the general passionate or emotional life of a person (or sometimes the moral choices a person might commit to) , even so in the Dialogues of Plato which most influenced the early Christians, the Symposium and the Timaeus, Plato demonstrates the small beginnings of a semantic use which identified heart (kardia) with soul (psyche) showing at least the potential for compatibility between Platonic and Christian anthropologies on this point. Also among the Stoics, who influenced Christian moral thought profoundly, the concept of heart had already begun to be used as the central locus of intellectual reason, the source from which feeling and moral choice proceeded in ways which were similar to the biblical texts when they discoursed on moral choice rising from the inner heart. What both these main Greek traditions wholly lacked , however, was that central biblical sense of the heart of a human being as a sacred locus : the inner place where the creature stood under the eye of God.
In the second place the same trend of semantic synthesis can be observed, almost in a reverse motion, leading to a similar rapprochement of intellectual and psychological traditions, in the Greek Septuagintal influence where the biblical notion of heart becomes rendered as a synonym of the soul or the intelligence of a person (dianoia, psyche) .
1b. Old Testament Anthropology.
The biblical anthropology gives the heart of a human being a high spiritual significance. It is a cipher for the whole spiritual personality, especially considered as the true deep reality of a person. It is the centre of the human creature's spiritual intelligence, that spiritual consciousness which is partly intellective but more fundamentally expressed by the word ‘wisdom' (Prov. 19.8; Job. 34.10; 1K 3.12; Prov. 18.15). Thought rises naturally from the heart as the seat of spiritual intelligence for the heart is the place where thoughts reside in a creature ( Dan. 2.30; Ju. 5.16). So, a human being directs the essential life by the thoughts of the heart ( Jer. 11.20; Is. 10.7; 1K 8.17; Jer. 23.20; Ezr. 7.10 ). The heart is the locus of all moral obedience - one serves the Lord ‘with all one's heart' (1 Sam 12.20; 1 Sam. 12.24 ) and the fear of God thus dwells within the heart (Jer. 32. 40). The heart of the righteous person trusts in the Lord ( Prov. 3.5) and is confident before His face ( Ps. 27.14).
The movement of the heart also describes the chosen purposes, the commitments of life, that have been adopted as a fixed allegiance and are stabilised as the firm establishment of a human being within the way of the Lord ( Ps. 119.36 ; Job. 11.13).
Hannah's prayer, rising from deepest sorrow and need, was uttered ‘in her heart' ( 1Sam 1.13) and God heard her. Solomon prayed for understanding of heart to perceive the moral demands of God (1K 3.9) and his wisdom and favour with God derived from the ‘largeness of heart' which God had given him (1K. 4.29). A human may look on the outer appearance of another person but God always looks on the heart ( 1 Sam 16.7 ). Humans devise evil in their hearts ( Zech 7.10 ; Prov. 6.18) ; but it is also the source of their repentance when God makes the heart of the nation to melt ( Josh. 14.8), or when David's heart struck him (1 Sam 24.5)
The Psalms and wisdom apophthegms presented a tighter form of this same doctrine, more relevant for the doctrine of prayer, which the early monks were to assimilate from their constant recitation of phrases taken from this part of scripture. The Lord knows the secrets of the heart ( Ps. 44.21). He sees that humans find their deepest selves in the heart ( Prov. 23.7 ) which has a depths that can cause wonderment (Ps 73.7). But he sees also that humans work wickedness in their hearts ( Ps. 58.2; Ps. 41.6). In the heart a creature can resist God nakedly, the root of all subsequent evil (Ps. 10.3, 6), and such rebels God rejects because of their pride and arrogance of heart ( Ps. 101.4-5). God is close to those whose hearts are broken ( repentant ) Ps 34.18). He is the friend of those whose hearts are established in Him ( Ps. 112.8) for such establishment sets the creature firmly within the number of the servants of the Living God, though equally the heart may wither and become fixed in opposition to God and the human who has hardened his heart shall fall (Prov. 28.14).
1c. The New Testament Theology of the Heart.
The New Testament usage in regard to the human heart takes the Old Testament trends to a further pitch. Even more so than the Septuagintal Greek translations, the central thrust of the New Testament continues to use the heart as the supreme symbol of the inner spiritual condition and centre of energy in a human being. The anthropology remains monistic and dynamically concrete. This is true even of Paul who lays the basis for the Christian adoption of the more common Hellenistic forms of dichotomous or trichotomous anthropology . Paul speaks of the heart as the synonym for the ‘inmost self' the inner person longing for salvation . The evangelical doctrine reaffirms that the heart is the seat of the understanding, the source of reflection and contemplation (Mk. 7.21; Mt. 12.34; Jn. 12.40; Lk. 1.51; Lk. 2.35; Lk. 9.47; Lk. 24.25,38; Acts 7.23; Acts. 8.22; Hb. 4.12). It is the source of volition and moral decision (Jn. 13.2; 1 Cor. 4.5; 1 Cor. 7.37; 2 Cor. 9.7; Acts 5.3; Acts 11.23; Col. 4.8; Eph. 6.22; Rev. 17.17 ). It is, for these reasons, the centre of creaturely consciousness to which God turns when he reveals his presence in the world, making it the centre of the divine encounter. It is the arena in which the human being knows and relates to God in the deepest seat of religious awareness. ( Mt. 13. 15,19; Mt. 18.35; Mk. 7.21; Mk. 12.30; Lk. 8.15; Lk. 16.15; Acts 16.14; Acts 15.9; Rom. 2.15; Rom. 5.5.; Rom. 8.27; Rom. 10.9f;1 Thess. 2.4; Gal. 4.6; 2 Cor. 1.22;; Heb. 8.10; Heb. 10.16, 22; 2 Peter. 1.19; Rev. 2.23) . It is the inner sanctum of the divine indwelling as Paul puts it :
May your hidden self grow strong so that Christ may dwell in your heart by faith.
It is, undoubtedly, all summed up best in that luminous phrase of Jesus :
How blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. ( Mt. 5.8).
1d. The Geography of the Heart.
We might sum up, then, by understanding that it is not necessary to seek the heart, as if it were a complex idea, for the scripture is taking it for granted that it is the heart itself that is restless for God and wishes to do the seeking. But a highly important part of this doctrine is that the heart is not alone in seeking, for God has elected the heart as the holy ground of encounter. It is the place of His indwelling. The prayer of the heart is not merely the turning of the whole self to God. It is, more than this, the seeking after the heart by God who is restless to save and bring life to his creature. The heart is not a part of the human creature but, in the biblical understanding, the whole creature understood as having a capacity for a higher life, and ultimately a capacity for God who has given His creature the instinct for His presence by means of the heart's sacred character. The heart, therefore, is the person understood as a creature under the eye of God, a mysterious and holy reality even though creaturely and limited. The heart signifies the whole person who can enter in, or may draw back from, the sacred space which is that geography of the divine encounter which later spiritual writers will wish to discourse over in terms of the syntax of spirituality. The particular geography of this terrain of the heart is stark and apocalyptical, like the desert. It is either the holy ground of fiery revelation, or the desolate wasteland of the creature's rebellious and isolated sterility. Prayer, itself a reflection of the condition of this inner heart, retains this character of Krisis, or judgement, that we find especially in the Gospel sayings about the human heart. It is not, in the first instance, an emotional or comfort-laden cipher. The character of our prayer is, like it or not, a profound indicator of the quality of one's true discipleship. This graphic, monistic, and dynamic understanding of the human being in the face of God remains at the core of all the subsequent East Christian understandings of prayer and the spiritual life.
It is true that in certain spiritual schools, particularly those influenced by Origenian and Evagrian metaphysics, and culminating ( after the attempted suppression of the two former teachers ) in the highly influential body of writings attributed to Dionysios the Areopagite, the anthropological terminology often preferred in the Greek Fathers is that of the Nous and its intellective ascent to the inconceivable Godhead. But, though this is true in general terms, it cannot be forgotten that Origen as a fountainhead of the Platonic influence on Christian spirituality also radically tempered his intellectualism by a heartfelt Jesus mysticism which endeared him to most generations of monastics, and Evagrios himself speaks of the role of the heart in his work : and in two of his most engaging writings on prayer, the Praktikos and the Admonition repeats much of what the tradition of the prayer of the heart wanted to affirm, although his sense of embodiment was weakened by the metaphysical conception of escape from the flesh. This so-called ‘Noetic tradition' of Origen, Evagrios and Dionysios, then, in wider Christian tradition never displaced (or even contradicted ) the more biblical conception of the attentiveness of the heart. Both images, that of the Noetic ascent, and that of the heart becoming aware of the Presence, are drawn from the deep wells of biblical doctrine on the gracious epiphany of the Lord to creatures, and were ultimately to become permanently merged and transmitted in the Byzantine synthesis of the ascetical tradition that occurred after the 10thC, a synthesis that can already be seen operative in the 5th and 6thC spiritual writers of the Greek and Syrian traditions.
This fundamentally grounded and dynamic character of the doctrine ought to be noted from the outset, however, for whatever insights the East Christian doctrine of the prayer of the heart opens up, it should not be read as comparable ( certainly not reducible ) to the later Western concept of praying with the heart, meaning ‘affective prayer' ; traditionally understood as a lower stage of spiritual development than pure contemplation. It is simply not this and, moreover, is deeply opposed to the anthropological and many of the theological suppositions of this more familiar schema. Equally, we must state that neither is it reducible ( as is often supposed in many modern Orthodox writings about the prayer of the heart ) simply to the Jesus Prayer, though the tradition of the Jesus Prayer certainly fits within the overall schema of the prayer of the heart, where short phrases (prayer - monologistos) repeated with attentiveness (Prosoche) provide a method of returning to the consciousness of the heart and the One who dwells patiently within it, other to us.
What the movement of the heart primarily means in this biblical syntax, especially when it is referred to prayer, is the creature's inmost consciousness of God's presence in its most sacred interior reality. That awareness of the Presence is invariably connected with the ‘coming to reality' - the reflection of the ontological state of ‘coming-to-be' which is the Creator's fundamental gift to creaturehood. And in the Eastern sources, that ‘coming to reality' is invariably connected with a deep realisation of unworthiness. Only from this basis of true confession of creatureliness ( the turning of the heart ) can the creature progress, incomprehensibly, into the inviting presence of the One who makes creatureliness transcend its ontological boundaries. To the doctrine of the heart, therefore, the Christian East, adds two other primary spiritual concepts : Penthos - the joy-making sorrow of the repentant consciousness ; and Prosoche - attentiveness to reality - awareness not only of the attempt of the passions to corrupt the heart but, more fundamentally, awareness of the movements of the Lord within the heart's quietened sensibility. We shall see these ideas constantly inter-related as we consider the primary texts in due course.
2. Egyptian Traditions.
2a. Pharaonic Religion.
If Greek pre-Christian religious philosophy did not particularly consider the heart as the place of divine engagement, the same can not be said for Egyptian religions. A similar anthropology to the biblical texts can be observed in several classic Egyptian religious sources. The Hymn to Amen Ra attributes high significance to the heart as the place of divine encounter between the high god and those he has made - both lesser gods and humans :
Hail to Thee, O Ra, Lord of Truth !
whose shrine is hidden, the Lord of the gods...
Who gave commands and the gods came into being...
Who hears the prayer of the captive,
Gracious of heart to those who appeal to him....
In whose beauty the gods rejoice :
Their hearts live when they see him.
Pre-Christian Egyptian religion, as can be seen graphically from the hieroglyphic depictions of the judgement of the dead, also had a vivid conception of the heart as the locus of the moral conscience. The person to be judged stood before the scales while Thoth carried the dead person's heart in his hand balancing himself, and it, against Truth on the other side of the scale. The ancient Egyptian liturgy of burial wrapped the scroll of absolution with the mummy, to ensure Osiris' favourable judgement. It testified to the synonymity of the heart with the soul in Egyptian theology :
Behold the deceased in this hall of double truth.
His heart has been weighed in the balance,
in the presence of the great spirits,
the very lords of Hades, and it has been found true.
2b. The Christian Teachers of Egypt.
This Egyptian anthropology that had points in common with the biblical doctrine of the person, was something that prepared a positive cultural basis for the development of the spiritual teaching on the prayer of the heart which was to be so advanced by the early Egyptian Christian ascetics. The focus in the earliest levels of the desert teachers is on the necessity for purity of heart. The tradition approaches it in two ways : first ( and most commonly ) the monk must guard the heart from the stream of defiling thoughts that arise; and secondly ( in a few masters ) the heart once purified becomes an altar of the radiant presence of God. In this early stage of the desert tradition the doctrine of the heart is thus predominantly ‘Niptic' : that is concerned with guarding the awareness, and restraining passions from entering into the sanctum of that spiritual awareness. The Verba Seniorum sums it up :
A brother asked an old man saying : ‘What thing is there so good that I may do it and find life ?' And the old man said to him : ‘God alone knows what is good. And yet, I have heard that one of the Fathers asked a question of the great Abba Nistero, who was a friend to the Abba Antony. And this man said : What good work shall I do ? And the Abba Antony answered : All works are not equal. The scripture says that Abraham was
hospitable, and God was with him; and that Elias loved quiet, and God was with him; and
that David was humble, and God was with him. So, what path you find your soul longs
after in the following of God, do that, and keep your heart.
For Antony, the heart was the arena of the true inner desert, that place of extremes, far more than the desert, where the monk worked out the struggle for salvation. Here the heart is a cipher for the moral fallibility of the disciple :
The Abba Antony said : Whoever sits in solitude and is quiet has escaped from three wars, those of hearing, speaking and seeing. Yet against one thing shall the monk continually battle, his own heart.
In his Letters, Antony refers to the heart solely in terms of heartfelt repentance . This doctrine of repentance, however, demonstrates how fully the biblical anthropology is still operative. The heart is the centre of repentance precisely because it is the focal point of the spiritual intelligence. The heart that is pure is the both the sanctum and the sacrificial offering :
I want you to know, my children, that I cease not to pray to God for you night and day, that He may open for you the eyes of your hearts, to see the many hidden malignities which the evil spirits pour upon us daily in this present time. I want God to give you a
heart of knowledge and a spirit of discernment, that you may be able to offer your hearts
as a pure sacrifice before the Father, in great holiness and without blemish.
Otherwise, we find here in the Antonine Letters the basic terms of soul, body, and mind, comprising his spiritual syntax.
For Ammonas , the seeking of the Lord with the whole heart is what ensures God listens to prayer, and it is such a prayer of the heart that brings down the spiritual blessings of God to make the very life of prayer flourish more and more abundantly :
I write to you as to those who love God and seek Him with all your heart. For God will listen to such when they pray, and will bless them in all things, and will grant all the requests of their soul when they entreat Him. But those who do not come to Him with all their heart, and are rather in two minds, who perform their works so as to be glorified by men - then such as these will not be listened to by God in anything that they ask Him. God gives them none of the requests that they ask of Him, but rather resists them. For they do not their works in faith, but superficially. Therefore, the divine power does not dwell in them, but they are diseased in all their works, in whatever they set their hand to. For this reason they have not known the power of grace, nor its freedom from care, nor its joy, but their soul is weighed down with a load in all their works. The greater part of our generation are such. They have not received the divine power that fattens the soul, prepares it to rejoice, and brings it day by day that gladness which makes the heart fervent in God.
Only in the purified heart can the great mysteries of God be revealed :
Night and day I pray that the power of God may increase in you, and reveal to you the great mysteries of the Godhead, which it is not easy for me to utter with the tongue, because they are great and are not of this world, and are not revealed save only to those who have purified their hearts from every defilement .
Ammonas advises his disciples how the eager heart initiates the spiritual life, but God will test it with aridity soon afterwards so that its purification will be complete. To those who persevere, God returns in greater force than before. Ammonas' point is more than simply to state the normal states of spiritual development : he is insisting on the absolute necessity to ask God to advance the heart from state to state, not just to wait passively like a block. It is another aspect of his doctrine that heartfelt prayer pierces heaven itself:
You must know that in the beginning of the spiritual life, the Holy Spirit gives people joy when he sees their hearts becoming pure. But after the Spirit has given them joy and sweetness, He then departs and leaves them. This is a sign of His activity, and happens with every soul that seeks and fears God. He departs and keeps at a distance until He knows whether they will go on seeking Him or not. Some, when He moves away from them, are weighed down and sit in their heaviness without moving; for they fail to ask God to remove the weight from them.
The Pachomian Koinonia texts speak of prayer, but to mainly to lay down the necessary number of psalms and the corresponding prayers that constitute the Six Services. There is no heart-searching here as to method or technique, and no doctrine of the heart. .
The same is more or less true of all the desert Apophthegmata. The concern here is more straightforwardly Niptic. The rare occasions the concept of the heart appears, it is to signify the need of internal purity.
The saying of Amma Sarra typifies this :
Amma Sarra said : If I prayed to God that all men should approve of my conduct, I should find myself a penitent at the door of each one. But I shall pray rather that my heart may be pure towards all.
The early monastics engaged in struggle : ascesis. Their fight was with thoughts (logismoi) that tormented their tranquillity in their places of austere silence, and with bodily desires that sought comfort and, above all, diversion, in the barrenness of surroundings of extreme simplicity. The literary tradition of the Apophthegmata is primarily concerned with the guarding of thoughts, and encouragement in ascetical labours. It is not a body of literature that discourses on the nature of inner prayer. Such a tradition does not arise in the corporate environment which the Apophthegmata represents. It belongs more to the 4thC individual masters, composing specific treatises on prayer for the benefit of their immediate communities of disciples. This is particularly true of the main exemplars of the new form of prayer treatise : Evagrios, Diadochus, Dorotheos, and Ps. Macarius.
Even so, the first of all the Christian practices of prayer that emerged in the desert tradition was the repetition of the Psalms. The Psalms, and all the biblical anthropology they taught thus inevitably passed directly into the spiritual bloodstream of the desert. Pachomius's congregations recited the six offices of Psalms and corresponding prayers each day. The psalmic text also offered verses for meditation which the monks could repeat as invocations during the physical labour which was also prescribed as a fundamental religious exercise. Repetitive manual tasks, which soon required little direct concentration, served as methods of calming the restlessness of the body and the mind. The phrases of prayer that were also repeated many hundreds of times came to be called monologistic prayer. The purpose of such phrases was to train the heart, or spiritual consciousness to direct its attention to God. From the outset, then, the manner of praying monologistos was associated with profound spiritual attentiveness.
Shenoudi of Athribe, the Master of the White Monastery at Akhmim in Upper Egypt, demonstrates this remarkably in the context of his opposition to the Origenian doctrine that prayer could only be offered to the Father never to the Son. To refute this, he teaches his followers one of the first forms of the invocation of the name of Jesus, which is to be regarded as one with the divine name :
Be praised O God, you and your blessed Son, whose name together with yours is one and the same in the mouth of one who struggles against .... this new ungodliness.
When entering the house say : God !
and when leaving say : Jesus !
When resting say : God !
and when rising say : Jesus !
When blessing say: God !
and when praying say Jesus !
In order not to dwell on this any longer -
It is clear that we name the consubstantial Trinity when we say Jesus.
Shenudi puts the same doctrine in simple form for the villagers of the Upper Nile, as their basic catechesis on prayer :
Seek the meaning of these words, and you will have them in your mouth and find them on the lips of your sons.
If you are joyful and celebrate a feast say : Jesus !
If you have worry and suffering : Jesus !
If the sons and daughters laugh : Jesus !
Those who touch water : Jesus !
Those who flee from barbarians ; Jesus !
Those who see monsters or other frightening things : Jesus !
Those who have pain or illness : Jesus !
Those who have been taken captive ; Jesus !
Those who have been unjustly judged and suffer injustice : Jesus !
The name of Jesus alone is on their lips and is their salvation and their life; He and His Father.
This is not, strictly speaking, the doctrine of the prayer of the heart, but it is a major link between the practice in the desert Fathers of monologistic invocations, and the heartfelt call to the Lord and Saviour which this remarkably passionate text represents. Shenudi is a formerly neglected, but important, stage on the way towards the correlation of the prayer of the heart's attentiveness, with the manner of achieving it through the Jesus Prayer; though others, such as Diadochus or Hesychios, will be the ones to explicate it more fully.
In the 6th and 7thC desert communities we find the doctrine of the heart advanced again, and now it does appear more clearly delineated, but by this time it is not so much Egyptian desert teaching as the tradition of Diadochus that has been widely assimilated and re-introduced to the desert. From this period we ought perhaps to rename the desert tradition, to make the point more precisely, the Sinaitic tradition : for it is dominated by the Sinai monasteries and the increasingly literary formalisation of the doctrine of prayers - a process in which the Ladder of Divine Ascent by John of Sinai, stands at the head.
So, for example, we find in the Life of the 6thC Abba Philemon this story which recommends prayer of the heart as ( again ) primarily a Niptic method. The text tells us that a certain monk called John came to the Abba :
And clasping his feet said to him :What must I do to be saved Abba ? I see that my mind is distracted and wanders here and there where it ought not to go.' After a short silence Abba Philemon said to him : ‘This is a sickness suffered by those who are externalists. It remains in you because your love of God is not yet perfect. To this moment the fire of the love and knowledge of God has not yet risen up within you.' So, the brother asked him : ‘Then what shall I do ?' The Abba said to him : ‘Go now and practise secret meditation in your heart. This will cleanse your mind of its sickness.' The brother did not understand what he was told and said to Abba Philemon : ‘What is this secret meditation Abba ?' ‘Go,' he told him again, ‘preserve sobriety in your heart and soberly, with fear and trembling, repeat in your mind : Lord Jesus Christ have mercy upon me. For this is what the blessed Diadochus prescribed for beginners.'
Another great 6thC teacher of the Egyptian desert, Dorotheos, the Archimandrite of Gaza, represents the doctrine of the heart more notably. Dorotheos had been born in Antioch of Syria around 506 and died in Gaza sometime after 560. He consciously combines the teaching tradition of the Cappadocian Fathers, Evagrios Pontike, and the Apophthegmata of the desert elders. He was personally acquainted with two of the last of the great elders: Barsanuphius and John . Like Diadochus, he was to be an important link in the combining of the Egyptian and Syrian spiritual traditions.
Dorotheos, with remarkably personal disclosures, speaks of how the heart moves with God. He encourages his disciples by telling them of a lengthy time of spiritual deadness he experienced, which was ended when he could endure no longer : for God never abandons the faithful disciple to a trial that cannot be endured. He describes an epiphany of Christ in terms of an encounter with a mysterious visitor who gave his heart the grace to rise from its heaviness into joy :
My heart was heavy, my mind was dark, nothing could comfort me and there was no relief anywhere ... The grace of God comes swiftly to the soul when endurance is no longer possible. Suddenly I turned towards the Church and saw someone who looked like a bishop entering into the sanctuary...Something drew me powerfully after him, so I went into the Church behind him. He remained standing for some time with his hands stretched up to heaven, and I stood there in great fear, praying, for I was very alarmed by the sight of him. When his prayer was finished he turned and came towards me, and as he drew nearer to me I felt my pain and dread passing away. Then he stood in front of me and, stretching out his hand, touched me on the breast and tapped my chest with his fingers saying the words of the psalm : I waited. I waited on the Lord and he stooped down to me; he heard my cry. He drew me from the deadly pit, from the miry clay. He set my feet upon a rock and made my footsteps firm. He put a new song into my mouth - praise of our God. (Ps. 40.1-2). He repeated all these verses three times, tapping me on the chest as I have said.. Then he departed. And immediately light flooded my mind and there was joy in my heart, with comfort and sweetness. I was a different man. I ran out after him hoping to find him but I could not. He had vanished. From that moment on by God's providence, I have not known myself to be troubled by fear or sorrow, for the Lord has sheltered me up till this moment through the prayers of the old men.
For Dorotheos, the heart is all that matters in the movement of the spiritual life. If it is ready, then its eagerness ensures the presence of God :
If anyone really and truly desires to do the will of God with all their heart, God will never leave them to themselves, but will constantly guide them according to His own divine will. If someone really sets their heart on the will of God, God will enlighten a little child to tell such a person what is His will. But if a person does not truly desire the will of God, even if they were to go to search out a prophet, God would put into the mouth of that prophet a deception similar to that which was in that man's own deceiving heart.
John Klimakos, the 7thC Higumen of Sinai restates the biblically holistic sense of the heart perfectly, subordinating the now standard trichotomous psychology to it, when he interprets the Psalm text :
I called you with my whole heart, says the psalmist, meaning with body soul and spirit.
For John, withdrawal into the heart primarily means focused attention on prayer, the concentration that brings fear to demons :
Be concentrated without self-display, withdrawn into your heart. For the demons fear concentration as thieves fear dogs.
Beyond this he does not have much to say specifically on the heart in prayer. He teaches the doctrine, greatly elaborated by the Syrians, that the heart, purified by repentant sorrow ( Penthos), produces the vision of God, as Jesus promised in the Beatitudes :
The abyss of mourning produces comfort, and purity of heart receives illumination.
In fact, for him, the doctrine of heart primarily means repentance, an aspect of his overarching doctrine of Penthos, which is essential for all :
However great the life we lead may be, we may count it as stale and spurious if we have not acquired a contrite heart. This is essential, truly essential, that those who have been
defiled again after baptism should cleanse the pitch from their hands with the unceasing fire of the heart and with the oil of God's mercy.
The 8thC Sinai Abbot Hesychios is far more concerned than John Klimakos with the doctrine of the heart, but it is merely an apparent change, for it is the selfsame Egyptian Niptic doctrine of the guarding of the intellect, such as we find classically in Evagrios or the 5thC monk of Sketis, Isaiah the Solitary , that is at issue , simply with a different terminology now in operation. Hesychios makes an explicit connection of the attentiveness of the heart with the tradition of monologic prayer : most particularly the Jesus prayer . For this reason he has commanded attention, but his doctrine of the heart represents little more than a witness to the manner in which the Evagrian Noetic tradition had by this stage been softened, probably by the impact of the Syrian teachers, especially Macarius. For Hesychios, the heart is synonymous with the spiritual intellect, and the centrally important issue is spiritual attentiveness ( Nipsis) :
Attentiveness is the stillness ( hesychia ) of the heart, unbroken by any thought. In this stillness the heart breathes and invokes, endlessly and without ceasing, only Jesus Christ, who is the Son and God Himself... Through this invocation enfolded continually in Christ, who secretly divines all hearts, the soul does everything it can to keep its sweetness and its inner struggle hidden from men, so that the devil ... does not lead it into evil.
Following Evagrius' doctrine of the passions, he describes the heart as the inner gateway at which thoughts ( logismoi ) are stopped , and time and time again comes back to the necessity of purity of heart for the initiation of prayer . His dependence on Evagrios is clearly seen when he speaks of the emptying of the heart. In this case the heart is a synonym for Nous :
Because every thought enters the heart in the form of a mental image of some sensible
object, the blessed light of the divinity will illumine the heart only when the heart is
completely empty of everything and so free from all form. Indeed, this light reveals itself
to the pure intellect in the measure to which the intellect is purged of all concepts.
The heart that is so guarded from extraneous wanderings returns to its true spiritual condition, such as it was at baptism, and God illumines it with the fire of contemplation. The ‘natural' condition of the heart, here, signifies the redeemed creature who is given a capacity to receive the luminous vision of God whenever the heart ( that is the spiritual intellect ) is purified :
The heart which is constantly guarded, and is not allowed to receive the forms, images
and fantasies of the dark and evil spirits, is conditioned by nature to give birth from
within itself to thoughts that are filled with light. For just as a coal engenders a flame, or
a flame lights a candle, so will God, who from our baptism dwells within our heart, kindle our mind to contemplation when He finds it free from the winds of evil and protected by the guarding of the intellect.
The Sinaitic tradition, then, does represent a fuller development of the doctrine of the heart than can be seen in the earliest level of the Egyptian desert teachings. It has moved from merely a Niptic message, to embrace the concept of the heart as the place of divine, and luminous, encounter. In this it has undoubtedly been influenced by the currents and controversies of the Syrian writers, particularly those of the later 4thC onwards, in what had now become a veritable international freight of spiritual wisdom, uniting the whole early Byzantine Christian polity. It is to the Syrian tradition that we shall soon turn, but before doing so it is necessary to look at one who both in his own person, and certainly in his doctrine, provides a key linkage between the Syrian and Egyptian traditions. His name was Diadochus, the 5thC bishop of Photike, in Epirus, Northern Greece.
2c. The Post Messalian Synthesis of Diadochus.
Diadochus was born circa 400 and died sometime before 486. He was a careful reader of Evagrios whose traditions he wishes to synthesise and correct. He does this most notably by giving a theological primacy to love which Evagrios rarely arrives at. In the process of this realignment he makes semantic corrections, equating the Evagrian notion of Noetic interiority, with the more biblically grounded conception of the heart. For him the heart and the Nous are considered harmonised. The intellect is the organ of attentive perception, the heart is the locus of the inner self where the meeting with God takes place. Diadochus was aware of Syrian currents, and set out to emphasise, against the Messalians who underestimated the importance of sacramental life in the Church, the essentially embodied character of true prayer. In that he was also a strong advocate of the Jesus Prayer, it is easy to see why his subsequent influence was felt all through the Byzantine Church.
Against the Messalian suggestion that the heart of a human being was fundamentally corrupt, and could never, even by the grace of baptism, free itself from the indwelling operations of demons, Diadochus gave a robust defence of the principle of the heart as essentially the graced locus of the encounter with God. It is not the heart which is corrupt, he teaches, but the thoughts of the intellect which we feel in the heart once we have admitted them from outside. In Diadochus the heart and the spiritual intelligence (Nous) have merged semantically. His defence of the essential sacramental nature and goodness of the heart rescued the whole doctrine of prayer that was in danger of being destructively radicalised by Messalian pessimistic teachings about the inescapable indwelling of interior demons :
It is true that the heart produces good and bad thoughts from itself ( Lk. 6.45) but it does this not because it is the heart's nature to produce evil ideas, but because of the result of
the primal deception, the remembrance of evil has, as it were, become like a habit. The
heart conceives most of its evil thoughts as a result of the attacks of the demons. But we
feel that these evil thoughts arise from the heart itself, and for this reason some people
have inferred that sin dwells in the intellect along with grace; this is because they do not understand ....
Having saved the taxonomy of the spiritual life from this Messalian deviation, Diadochus goes on to affirm other aspects of the Syrian doctrine on the necessity to experience directly the workings of God in the inner man. He locates the arena of the direct sensation of God firmly within the heart, and advances the spiritual taxonomy of the heart by affirming it as the seat of spiritual perception, with an inner fixity that is given by its turning to the Lord, and an outer set of attributes which are more open to external sensations and related more closely to the passions. The heart of one who has become fixed on the Lord cannot easily be turned away.
The reason why we have both good and wicked thoughts together is not, as some suppose, because the Holy spirit and the devil dwell together in our intellect, but because we have not yet consciously experienced the goodness of the Lord. As I have said before, grace at first conceals its presence in those who have been baptised, waiting to see which way the soul inclines. But when the whole person has turned towards the Lord, then grace reveals to the heart its presence there with a feeling which words cannot express; once again waiting to see which way the soul inclines. ...... It allows the arrows of the devil to wound the soul at the most inward point of its sensitivity so as to make the soul search out God with warmer resolve and more humble disposition. If then, a person begins to make progress in keeping the commandments and calls unceasingly upon the Lord Jesus, then the fire of God's grace spreads even to the heart's more outward organs of perception.
Diadochus is anxious to preserve the patristic theology of the heart as the locus of the divine image. Since it is in the image and likeness, interior observation of the heart is the first step of a divine encounter. He tells how the fall had darkened the inner mirror :
Thereafter it became hard for the human intellect to remember God or his commands. We
should, therefore, always be looking into the depths of our heart, with continual
remembrance of God, and should pass through this deceitful life like people who have
lost their (outward) sight......
The person who dwells continually within the heart is detached from the attractions of this world, and such a person lives in the Spirit and cannot know the desires of the flesh.
For him, the heart is a source of the knowledge of God, which needs attentive introspection to cause the spring to flow, out despite the passions that tend to distract it :
Whenever we fervently remember God we feel the divine longing well up within us, from the very depths of the heart.
This flowing of the grace of the Presence is the work of the Lord from start to end :
The communion of the Holy Spirit brings this about within us, for unless his divinity
actively illuminates the inner shrine of our heart, we shall not be able to taste God's
goodness with the perceptive faculty undivided.
His doctrine, therefore, is that the ascetic must seek to dwell within this sacred shrine, or temple, of the heart, focusing its attentiveness like a worshipper waiting for the epiphany of the Lord, and using the invocation of the holy name of Jesus to achieve this, until the light of God's revelation breaks forth. Diadochus is not here teaching the later hesychast or Palamite doctrine, but he is close to it. He is teaching that the light which is sometimes revealed to the attentive heart is its own luminosity : but it is a luminosity it possesses exactly in so far as it is the renewed and cleansed Ikon of the True Image who is the Logos, the Archetypal-Creator of the soul :
It is written that none can say Jesus is Lord except in the Holy Spirit ( 1 Cor. 12.3). Let
the spiritual intellect , then, continually concentrate on these words within its inner
shrine, with such intensity that it is not turned aside to any mental images. Those who
meditate unceasingly upon this glorious and holy name in the depths of their heart, can
sometimes see the light of their own intellect. For when the mind is closely concentrated
upon this name, then we grow fully conscious that the Name is burning off all the filth
that covers the surface of the soul.
Diadochus' context of an anti-Messalian controversy sharpened his doctrine of prayer considerably. The same sharpening can be witnessed in the writings of Pseudo Macarius, the great Syrian teacher on prayer. It is to the Syrian tradition that we shall now turn.
3. Syriac Christian Tradition on the Prayer of the Heart.
While monastic asceticism was developing in Egypt in its characteristic ways, the ecclesial life of Syria continued its own stress on asceticism, not least through the ancient tradition celebrated there of the communities of Ihidaya, the single-minded ( and celibate ones) who had dedicated their life in virginity to the Lord. These ascetics often lived in smaller communities near the local Church and were from the beginning, more closely integrated into the urban life of the churches in Syria. The Semitic syntax of their language gave the Syrian Christians, from the outset, a profound awareness of biblical idiom, and it is no surprise to see that in Syria, even more than with the Egyptian ascetics, the doctrine of the heart before God is carried on from pure biblical sources in a dynamic manner. The Syriac writers, by the time of the late 4thC onwards, had fused within their literary and theological traditions a deeply biblical spirituality with advanced Greek rhetorical forms. Some of the Syrian spiritual writers after the time of Mar Ephrem are to be critically important in forming the later Byzantine spiritual synthesis. This occurred on three great occasions : the first when the Syrian tradition represented in Ephrem and Pseudo-Macarius was disseminated through their Greek translations in the 5thC; the second when the writings of Isaac of Niniveh were introduced into Byzantium in Greek translation in the 9thC and had a deep effect on the monastic reform movement that produced such as Symeon Eulabes and Symeon the New Theologian in the 10thC; and lastly in the major impetus given to spiritual theological enquiry in the late 20thC when Syriac scholars such as Robert Murray, Sebastian Brock, Susan Ashbrook-Harvey, and Kathleen McVey, undertook the patient labour needed to make the Syrian spiritual writings available in English, giving them (undoubtedly, and mysteriously-providentially) their largest ever exposure in the history of the Church and at the same time demonstrating their profound importance for a more balanced understanding of Christian origins.
The early 4thC Syriac writer, Aphrahat the Persian Sage is (after Origen ) the first person to have written specifically about prayer in Christian tradition. He interprets the words of Christ ( Mt. 6.6.), about praying with the door of one's chamber closed shut, to refer to wordless prayer in the sacred chamber of the heart. The first of the mysteries to take place in the divine encounter is the purification of the creature to be fit for theophanic encounter with the Lord. The passage synthesises in a wonderfully rich liturgical manner, the most profound of the biblical themes :
Our Lord's words tell us to pray in secret, that is in your heart, and to shut the door.
What is this door he says we must shut, if not the mouth ? For here is the temple in
which Christ dwells, just as the Apostle said : ‘You are the temple of the Lord.'
And Christ comes to enter into your inner self, into this house, to cleanse it from
everything that is unclean, while the door ( that is your mouth) is closed shut.
For Aphrahat the heart is the new temple of the Lord's presence, and as such it is the place where the true spiritual sacrifice spoken of by the Scripture , is to be offered. The liturgical and sacral concept is why Aphrahat stresses so much the need for purity of heart. The sacrifices offered from a cultically impure site, as the scripture taught, will not be acceptable in the eyes of God , so now that prayer is the new Christian sacrifice, the heart itself must be rendered pure so that the sacrifice will be acceptable. If the sacrificial offering and the priest who offers it are pure, only then, Aphrahat says, will fire descend from heaven to consume the offerings . For Aphrahat the beginning of pure prayer is the raising of the heart like an Anaphora :
As I urged you above, the moment you start praying, raise your heart upwards and turn
your eyes downward. enter inside your inner self and pray in secret to your
heavenly Father. All this I have written to you on the subject of prayer : how it is
heard when it is pure, and not heard when it is not pure ... You who pray should
remember that you are making an offering before God. Let not Gabriel who
presents the prayers be ashamed by an offering that has a blemish.
The prayer of the heart is the inner condition of a spirit attuned to God :
Realise that the person who is bound up in our Lord and ponders on Him continuously, possesses hidden prayer of the heart. Let us pray with our body as well as with our heart, just as Jesus prayed and blessed in the body and in the spirit.
The idea will be further developed in later Syriac writers such as the 7thC Sahdona . By this time he has brought the concept of watchfulness (Prosoche) and penitent sorrow (Penthos) more evidently to the fore. The heart is the place of true sacrifice which must be pure so that God will accept it . Only if it rises from a pure heart, deeply conscious of the Presence, will it be true prayer :
So, provided the beginning of our prayer is watchful and eager, and with true feeling of
heart we wet our face with tears, and our whole time of prayer is performed with God's
will, then our prayer will be accepted in His presence, and the Lord will be pleased with
us and find delight in our offering, catching the sweet savour that wafts from the purity
of our heart. And then He will send down the fire of His Spirit, which consumes our
sacrifices, and raises up our mind along with them in the flames heavenward, where we
shall behold the Lord - to our delight and not to our destruction, as the stillness of His
revelation falls upon us and the hidden things of the knowledge of Him are portrayed
within us, while spiritual joy is granted in our heart, along with hidden mysteries which
I am unable to disclose in words to the simple. In this way we establish our body as a
living, holy, and acceptable sacrifice which, in this rational service, is pleasing to God.
Roughly at the same time as the Book of Steps was being composed in Persia, in the late 4thC , another great Syrian teacher of the spiritual life was operative. He composed in Greek, and was connected in some way with the Cappadocian circle of monastics. Gregory Nyssa knew and used his writing. His name is unknown , but the works (certainly adapted and emended in later times were later attributed to the Egyptian Abba Macarius and came down in the tradition under that pseudonym. He is now commonly called Pseudo-Macarius .
Macarius was one of those ( possibly the very text of which he had a copy ) whom Diadochus opposed, who believed the spirit of evil was deeply rooted in the heart, indwelling there like a serpent coiled around the inmost self. The doctrine, for him, is not so much a metaphysical dualism, as the root motive for his urging of constant ascesis, constant vigilance in the heart to uproot the promptings of the evil demons, and to advance the spiritual urgings of God's Spirit within the heart :
What injures and corrupts a person is from within. Out of the heart proceed evil thoughts
as the Lord said ( Mt. 15.19) since the things that corrupt a person are within. So, from
within is the spirit of evil, creeping and progressing in the soul. It appeals to reason. It
incites. It is as the veil of darkness, the ‘old man' (2 Cor. 5.17) whom those who have
recourse to God must put off, to don the heavenly and new man that is Christ (Eph. 4.22;
Col. 3.8). So, nothing of the things that are outside can harm a person except the spirit of
darkness that dwells in the heart, alive and active. Each person, then, in their
thoughts, must engage in the struggle so that Christ may shine in the heart. To Him be
glory for ever.
For him, The landscape of the heart is an apocalyptic arena :
The heart itself is but a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and there are also lions; there
are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. There are rough and uneven roads; there
are precipices; but there too is God, the angels, life and the Kingdom, light and the
apostles, the heavenly cities and treasures of grace. All things are within it.
In this 43rd Homily Macarius gives a taxonomy of the heart in regard to its spiritual condition. His theology, despite the constant stress that the heart is prey to demonic influence, remains optimistic and in accord with the main patristic tradition of the inner image of God within humanity. Christ, he says, has illuminated the human heart like a torch, and in the communion of his light the nature of the Church as a sacrament of Christ is revealed :
As many torches and burning lamps are lit from a fire, though the lamps and torches are lit and shine from one nature, so too is it that Christians are enkindled and shine from one nature; the divine fire, the Son of God, and they have their lamps burning in their
hearts, and they shine before Him while they live on earth, just as He did. This is what it
means when it says : So God has anointed you with the oil of gladness. ( Ps. 45.7)
As the Spirit of God illumined Christ's humanity, and set his heart on fire, so too it is with the true disciple, or the spiritual life counts for nothing :
If the lamp of a Christian is not enkindled from the light of the Godhead within them, then they are nothing. The Lord was that ‘burning lamp' (Jn.5.35) by means of the Spirit of the Godhead which abided substantially in Him, and set his heart on fire, according to the humanity. Consider this image : a dirty old pouch filled with pearls inside. So too
Christians in the exterior person ought to be humble and of lowly esteem while,
interiorly, in the inner self, they possess the ‘pearl of great price' (Mt. 13.46).
For Macarius the enkindling is produced by the heart's constant attentiveness, the watchfulness over the place of the treasure as Christ taught :
A Christian should always bear the remembrance of God. For it is written : You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart. (Dt.6.5). The Christian should love the Lord, not
only when entering into the place of prayer, but also should remember Him in walking,
and talking, and eating, and should love him in a heartfelt manner. For it says : Where
your heart is, there also is your treasure ( Mt. 6.21; Lk. 12.34). For to whatever thing a
person's heart is tied, or to whichever place a person's desire draws them, this is their
god. If the heart always desires God, then God is Lord of our heart.
Macarius constantly urges vigilance,. This is the ‘working of the earth of the heart'. Vigilance is required for the heart is like an orchard which is bordered by a river whose waters can wash away the foundations if care is not taken. This is why he advocates the practice of ‘constant prayer'. The demonic forces that can corrupt the inner self will have no force over a disciple whose heart is founded in the grace of the indwelling Spirit, for constant prayer burns them up like wax in a fire , but should carelessness leave the heart unguarded, spiritual disasters occur :
Take the example of a garden having fruit-bearing trees and other sweet-scented plants in
which all is beautifully laid out. It also has a small wall before a ditch to protect it... But
should a fast-flowing river pass that way, even if only a little of the water dashes against
the wall, it tears away the foundation..... it enters and ..destroys the entire cultivation. So it
is with the heart of a person. It has the good thoughts but the rivers of evil are always
flowing near the heart, seeking to bring it down .
Macarius seems to envisage the constant warfare giving way to progressive stages of stability : at first the heart is constantly hostage to evil thoughts and influences within it, but then its turning to the Lord and advances in the spiritual life make the presence of the divine Spirit more and more perceptible to the Christian. This growing purity of the heart invites Christ to take up his dwelling within, like a King establishing his Kingdom . In this Macarius approaches the Evagrian sense of Apatheia, but in the process makes a radical correction, and displaces the concept of the ascending Nous, detached from material attachments, by his more embracing doctrine of the heart. In Macarius it is the heart which is the seat of the Nous and which encompasses it as the centre of spiritual awareness :
There, in the heart, the mind dwells, as well as all the thoughts of the soul, and all its hopes.
It was in this aspect of his doctrine, the sense of God's movement to take command of the heart, that Macarius was to have his greatest influence over the later Byzantine teachers of the early hesychast period. When combined with Diadochus' suggestion that the purified heart can sometimes see its own spirtitual luminosity, and the Syrian Fathers' stress on the purity of heart that leads to divine theophany, all the materials for the later hesychast doctrine of prayer ( and the distinctive theology ) are in place, waiting for their resolution. It is a process that begins with renewed vigour in late 10thC Byzantium with its monastic reform movements and a newly invigorated pneumatology, such as can be perfectly seen in the writings of Symeon the New Theologian. This story, however, must remain to be told on a later ocasion .
The Syrian writers' recurring stress on spiritual attentiveness is closely comparable to the celebrated image of Ephrem the Syrian in regard to the learning of prayer when he likened God's patience in teaching creatures to be aware of Him with a man trying to teach a parrot to speak , and using a mirror to fool it into thinking it was chatting with another bird. Even so, this language was something that did not come naturally. Only the squawk arose spontaneously, but the gracious discourse with God was, even at its heights of achievement, something laughable, and yet touchingly wonderful too : awesome in what it revealed of the patient attentive care bestowed on the dumb animal by an ineffably transcendent power who had compassion on the creature's weakness. The parrot's primary problem in learning this strange syntax was its lack of attentiveness; its lack of awareness of the divine milieu to which it was being summoned by the Presence. In wandering away from the sense of that presence time after time, its failed in its task. On the occasions when it learned by heart, or rather from the heart, it was capable of addressing its master : for in that moment it saw its Lord face it face : just as a human does when the heart dares to lift itself up in the presence of the Holy One, and, at that moment, is in the full conscience of His presence. Ephrem, however, normally uses the concepts of the illumination of the mind by God , or the seeing of the soul (nephesh) of the human being under the gaze of God . The heart under the eye of God is not a primary symbol of his theology and he does not develop on it in any relation to prayer.It is certainly otherwise with Mar Isaac of Niniveh, the 7thC Syrian teacher . Isaac lays high stress on the essential requirement of purity of heart in the person desiring true prayer. Isaac was a highly influential figure in the history of spirituality. In his own reading and exquisitely written teachings he followed further the lead of Macarius towards combining many of the Evagrian ideas about the ascent of the Nous into imageless prayer, with the more biblically rooted Syrian doctrine of the pure heart. This synthesis, where the noetic language was fused with heart language in a way that subsumed the one into the other, had a profound effect on harmonizing the spiritual traditions of the East. Isaac was aided in this work by the fact that the Syrian translation which had been made of Evagrios' works in the late 5thC had already suppressed many of the objectionable metaphysical elements about the fall of pre-existent noetic realities into materiality. It is quite revealing to read the Evagrios that Syrian theologians would have known. Apart from the ‘corrected' Kephalaia on Prayer ( for which the original Greek still survives ) the Admonition on Prayer attributed to Evagrios circulated widely. This latter text is only extant now in Syriac. It is a world away from Evagrios the speculative thinker, and presents to us a clear and practical discourse on the need for purity of heart, repentance, and patient perseverance. The Admonition has remarkably ‘Syrian' attitudes to the purity of heart which produces the vision of God :
Allow the Spirit of God to dwell within you; then in His love He will come and make a
habitation with you. He will reside in you and live in you. If your heart is pure, you will see Him, and He will sow in you the good seed of reflection upon His actions, and
wonder at His majesty.
This ‘metamorphosised' Evagrius was so established in Syria that it is no surprise to see how the Noetic spiritual tradition in Isaac has come once again to be firmly embedded within the original anthropological dynamism of the bible :
Noetic discipline is a work of the heart achieved by unceasing reflection of the Judgment ; that is upon God's righteousness and the judgments He has decreed. It is unceasing prayer of the heart. It is mindfulness of the Providence and care of God that are active in this world both universally and particularly. It is the watching out for secret passions in case we meet any of them in the secret and spiritual realm. This work of the heart is called Noetic discipline.
Isaac had a great impact not only in his own era and region, but also in the 9thC when he was translated into Greek at the monastery of Mar Saba and thence introduced to Byzantium, a cultural and religious centre now destined ( after the fall of the Syrian and Egyptian cradles of Christianity to Islamic domination ) to become the disseminator of all monastic ascetical teachings through the East Christian world. Isaac begins his Ascetical Homilies with the heart as the beginning and door of the spiritual life :
The fear of God is the beginning of virtue and is said to be the child of faith. It is sown in the heart when a person withdraws the mind from the distractions of the world so as to confine its wandering thought within the ponderings of reflection on the restitution that is to come.
He demonstrates the biblical anthropology when he subordinates the mind as one of the senses of the heart. The heart requires a lengthier purification, but once purified it stands stable in the presence; its discipleship is more secure. When this is the case pure prayer can arise. Yet, it needs a purification through many trials and afflictions. The single-mindedness required for true prayer is profoundly simple, but apocalyptic in its extent and correspondingly awesome for those who grasp the implications :
Purity of mind is one thing and purity of heart is another, just as a limb differs from the
whole body. Now the mind is one of the senses of the soul, but the heart is what contains
and holds the inner senses. It is the sense of senses, that is their root. But if the root is
holy, then the branches are holy. But this is not the case if it is just one of the branches
which is sanctified . Now if the mind, on the one hand, is a little diligent in reading the
divine scriptures, and toils a little in fasting, vigil, and stillness, it will forget its former
activity and become pure, as long as it abstains from alien concerns. Even so its purity is
not permanent, for just as it is quickly cleansed, so too it is quickly soiled. But the heart,
on the other hand, is only made pure by many afflictions, deprivations, separation from
all fellowship with the world, and deadness to all things. Once it is purified, however, its
purity is not soiled by little things, nor is it dismayed by great and open conflicts.
Closely allied to this notion of purification is the term which recurs often in Syriac writers - illumination of the heart that produces pure prayer or ‘limpid' or ‘lucid' prayer as it is designated in the Syriac texts. Brock notes how the origin of this tradition is probably the Targum of Genesis, discussing the sacrifice of Isaac (Gen. 22). The spiritual perfection of the two patriarchs is described by the term ‘lucidity of heart' . The ideas of purity are, for the first time, associated with the concept of transfigured radiance : luminosity. Isaac connects the purity of heart with radiant capacity for the vision of God, which we could, in this instance, best understand in terms of the awareness of the Presence. The connection is not propounded as an abnormal or extraordinary condition of ecstatic envisioning . It is taught, by Isaac, as the gift of God to those who are pure in heart, for in them the Kingdom of heaven dwells :
Behold, heaven is within you ( if you are indeed pure) and within it you will see the angels in their light and their Master with them, and in them.
This, like most of the other Syrian teachings on the vision of light is in form a Midrashic exegesis of the promise to the pure of heart which Jesus made in the Beatitudes . The luminous vision rises from the guarding of the heart. The pure heart is a radical transformation. It is like a person who wakes from sleep and now lives whereas before there was merely dull somnolence :
A heart which has received the heavenly seed is changed in its speech, changed in its thinking, changed in its way of life, changed in its senses. Such a person is rendered different to all others, in all respects, like a person who had been slumbering but is now fully awake.
Once the heart is cleansed of the turmoils of the passions it assumes the limpid condition God destined for it both in its original making, and in its re-making through Christ. Isaac expresses it most simply and demonstrates how the highest spiritual capacity relates to fundamental moral social behaviour ( day to day mutual love - which is the mystical dynamic of divine communion ) :
Whoever restrains his mouth from speech guards the heart from the passions. Whoever
cleanses his heart from the passions beholds the Lord at every moment; and whoever
meditates constantly on God drives away the demons.... The heart of a person who guards
his soul at all times is made joyous by revelations. Whoever gathers within himself the
vision of his intellect, beholds within it the radiance of the Father. Whoever despises
every distraction beholds the Master within the heart. So, if you love purity, within which
the Master of all can be seen, never speak disparagingly of any other person.
Like Macarius, Isaac teaches that the revelation of the presence of God within the heart produces an inevitable sensation . The heart and the vision of the mind are inextricably linked in Isaac. The heart sees the presence intellectively and feels it empathetically :
The love of God is fiery by nature and when it descends in an extraordinary degree on to
a person it throws that soul into ecstasy. And so, the heart of the person who has
experienced this love cannot contain it or endure it without unusual changes being seen....
the face becomes lit up, full of joy; the body becomes heated; fear and shame depart from
such a person who thus becomes like an ecstatic.... The gaze of this person's intellect is
fixed inseparably and deliriously upon Him. Though he is distant he speaks with Him as
one who is near at hand.... This vision is natural, but inaccessible to sense-perception. In
his actions as well as in his appearance, such a one is enflamed. ... This is the spiritual
passion which inebriated the apostles and martyrs.
The affective movements of the heart, however, are not the goal of pure prayer. If the heart is taken away by fervour and moves too freely ( that is moves without a certain character of stillness, or spiritual affliction) then it is a sign of fervour, certainly, but also an indication for Isaac, that the spiritual intellect has not yet understood the light which is surrounding it :
If the heart flows out smoothly and abundantly, with long drawn out prayer, combined
with intensity of diverse stirrings, then this is a sign of fervour; it is also an indication that the mind has not yet become aware of the light contained in the words, nor yet received
experience of the knowledge which illumines the inner eye during the time of prayer.
For Isaac, compassion is the pre-eminent sign of lucidity and purity of heart :
Let this be for you a luminous sign that your soul has reached limpid purity : when after
thoroughly testing yourself , you find that you are full of mercy for all humankind, and
that your heart is afflicted by the intensity of your pity for people, and burns like a fire,
without making distinctions between people. By this, when it constantly occurs, the image of the heavenly Father will be seen in you.
This connection of the purified heart and the lucidity in which God confers the divine communion, is a theme that much occupies the Syrian tradition. The promise of Jesus that those who are pure of heart shall see God is commented on by the 8thC Syrian writer John the Elder who draws the connection between the purity of heart, which is assiduous attention to repentance and fidelity, and the manner in which this faithfulness induces the gift of the vision of God, which is the Presence :
God reveals himself to few, because of their diligence. These are the ones who fix their
eyes within themselves, making themselves into a mirror in which the Invisible makes
Himself visible. They are drawn to this by God by means of the ineffable radiance which
is extended to them, and in them, from His wondrous beauty. They thus bear witness to
those words of God : ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.'
For John, the mirror (in which he presupposes the standard patristic doctrine of the Image ) is the mimesis of the Divine Word, Himself the true Icon of the Unseen God (Coloss. 1.15), within the inner fabric of a human being. John demonstrates how closely the patristic doctrine of the Image has been related, in the Syrian tradition, to the spirituality of the heart :
Cleanse the mirror that is in you, then without doubt the triune God Light will be made manifest to you within it. Place the mirror within your heart, then you will realise that your God lives indeed.
The descent of the True Image, the word of God, into the heart of purified human person follows after the stilling of that heart , and its attentiveness to the wonder of God . In this passage which follows we see the Syrian synthesis of all the major themes of the later Byzantine doctrine of the prayer of the heart : preparatory purification, stillness (hesychia), the mirror of the Image which deifies ( theosis) , the luminously transfiguring presence ( metamorphosis), and the direct experience of God (aisthetos) by the disciple who stands with attentiveness ( prosoche ) :
You, a human creature, are the Image of God. Do you wish the image to take on the
likeness of its archetype ? In that case you must silence all activity, of any kind, and carry
the yoke of the Lord in your heart, and with your mind wonder unceasingly at his majesty,
until the image becomes resplendent with his glory, and is then transfigured into the
Likeness. Then shall you become, within God, no less than a god who has acquired the
likeness of his Maker by means of that union which makes us like to Himself.
John of Apamea, or John the Solitary who wrote in the early 5thC. also summarises the Macarian teaching on the sensibility of the divine presence in the heart, in a manner which makes it clear how greatly prayer of the heart is to do with faithful attentiveness and purity of disposition, on the part of the one who prays, a spiritual state of obedience and perseverance that waits for the descent of the Holy Presence who effects His own epiphany in the pure place of the inner sanctum :
When you stand in prayer before God, take care that your mind is recollected. Push aside any distracting thoughts feel in your soul the true weight of the glory . Purify the movements of your thoughts. If you have to struggle with them, be persistent in your struggle, and do not give up. When God sees your persistence then all of a sudden grace will dawn in you and your mind will find strength as your heart begins to burn with fervour, and your soul's thoughts become radiant. It may even be the case that that wonderful intuitions of God's majesty will burst forth in you: this comes as a result of much supplication and luminous understanding; for just as we do not put choice perfumes into a foul-smelling container, neither does God stir up intuitions of his true majesty in minds that are still ugly.
The same stress on the attentiveness required from the heart is found in the late 5th and early 6thC writer Philoxenus of Mabbug :
Anyone who prays should pray having the heart in touch with the mouth and the mind in touch with the lips. If you bend down and stretch out your hands in prayer while your heart is day-dreaming somewhere else then you will be like the cedars which storms bend down and flatten.
Again he says :
Pure prayer that is worthy of God....consists in this : that one gathers in one's mind away from the entire world, and does not allow it to be secretly bound to anything, but
one places it entirely at the disposal of God... One should be secretly swallowed up in
the Spirit of God , and should clothe oneself in God at the time of prayer, both
outwardly and inwardly, set on fire with ardent love for Him, and entirely engulfed in
all of Him, entirely commingled in all of Him.
Sometime in the early 6thC Mar Babai graphically described this inner spiritual focus in the following words :
Let the thought of God revolve in your heart more than the breath in your nostrils.
The central character of the ‘prayer of the heart' in the Syrian tradition, true to its biblical sources, is thus the awareness of the pure Presence gazing upon the soul who has entered into the sanctum, through the necessary initial acts and confession of repentance . This is a state of spiritual awareness more than an activity or method. Sahdona expresses it lyrically in the Book of Perfection, again commenting on the Beatitudes in this poetic reflection :
Blessed are you O heart that is lucid, the abode of the deity. Blessed are you, O heart that is pure, and which beholds the hidden essence. Blessed are you flesh and blood, the dwelling place of the Consuming Fire. Blessed are you mortal body made from dust, wherein dwells the Fire that sets the worlds alight. It is truly a matter for wonderment and astonishment that he, before whom even the heavens are not pure, who puts awe into his angels, should think to take delight and pleasure in a heart of flesh that is filled with love for Him, a heart that is opened wide to Him; a heart that is purified so as to act as His holy dwelling place, joyfully ministering to Him in whose presence thousand upon thousand, ten thousand on ten thousand fiery angels stand in awe, ministering to His glory. Blessed is the Loving person, who has caused God Love Himself, to dwell within the heart. Blessed are you O heart, so small and confined, yet you have caused Him whom heaven and earth cannot contain, to dwell spiritually in your womb, as in a restful home. Blessed that luminous eye of the heart which, in its purity, beholds Him lucidly : the One before whose sight even the Seraphim veil their faces .....
How blessed are the pure in heart !
Certain things have emerged as master-themes in regard to the patristic doctrine of the prayer of the heart, and it may be useful to restate them synoptically here as a conclusion. The first is that the patristic doctrine of the heart has very little connection (unless seen in a tradition-history that proceeds backwards through the modern Slavonic and Byzantine traditions thence to the patristic data ) with monologistic prayer as such, including the Jesus Prayer. The Egyptian and Greek Fathers certainly speak of monologistic prayer, and see its function as keeping the heart in a state of attentiveness on God , but their doctrine of the heart is much larger, and far more significant, than the method of monologistic prayer.
In addition to this it is clear that it is the Syrian tradition which most extensively develops on the doctrine of the prayer of the heart. It is this tradition above all others which preserves the dynamic unity of the biblical anthropology. It is not neglected in the Christian-Egyptian tradition, and at times it comes to the fore, particularly when the Egyptian writers try to shake off the dominating influence of the Origenian and Evagrian schemata of the ascent of the Nous to intellective imageless communion with God. This resistance is certainly something that marks the desert in the early 5thC Origenian controversies, and it results in giving Egyptian spiritual tradition an active balance between the simpler tales of renunciation which we find in the Apophthegmata, and a deeper doctrine of prayer such as emerges in the later Sinaitic Fathers, especially John Klimakos and Dorotheos. Even so, the predominant aspect of the whole Egyptian tradition in relation to prayer of the heart can be described as Niptic: that is the heart serves as a place of transition : a crossroads between a person's corporeal nature and their spiritual capacity. The heart is primarily that which needs to be purified by repentant sorrow, to make it ready for the encounter with God.
In the Syrian tradition, the same aspect is, of course, present. It is a fundamental insight of the biblical inheritance of all Christian teachers. The Syrians, however, from the earliest beginnings, have a deep sense of prayer as an Anaphora, which a believer sends up to God from the altar of the heart. The heart is a sacred space, and in accordance with this profoundly liturgical context, the Syrians, from Aphrahat onwards, love to speak of the heart as temple where the Godhead chooses to make His epiphany. The heart, once purified, becomes the place of the luminous revelation of God.
In the fertile encounter of Syrian and Greek traditions that is dynamically witnessed in the early Byzantine period, and highly visible in the work of Pseudo Macarius, this sense of the heart as sacred space of theophany, is combined with highly practical taxonomies of the heart and the manner of its spiritual sensation of the inworking presence. The so-called Messalian movement of the late 4th and 5th centuries is undoubtedly responsible for this. In Pseudo Macarius, and in Diadochus of Photike, writers whom I regard as both being explicitly ‘moderating and corrective voices' towards the Messalian traditions, we find the synthesis of many of the previous currents of Christian spirituality taking place. This dynamic correlation is furthered by diverse external factors such as the devastation of Skete by the barbarian tribes, and the continuing dissemination of the monastic tradition by travelling monks, and by monasticism's increasing ‘processing' through textual forms ( by which means it moved internationally ). The rise of Constantinople as a clearing house for monastic practice, increasingly important after the 5thC, also allowed a dynamic transference to occur between the Syrian and Egyptian currents of spiritual theology that had already been pointed to in individual writers such as Diadochus, Macarius, and even the Cappadocian Fathers.
All in all we might sum up the patristic doctrine of the heart as pointing to a profoundly biblical mystery. The heart has been made as the centre of the being of a creature. But it is a creature of God to whom the gift of salvation has been offered, and for whom the potential to engage in communion with the transcendent God is ever a possibility. For this reason the heart is no neutral ground. It is sacred space. It is a place of epiphany. The first epiphany which the Fathers speak of is that which occurs in the heart as a creature sees itself revealed, when the turmoil of passionate desires that keep the heart from recognising itself, have been stilled by a necessary purification and hesychia. This first revelation that takes place is followed, if such a ‘turning of the heart' proves itself as an act of the whole person, a heartfelt act of pure sincerity, by the corresponding movement of God who reveals Himself to the heart. The syntax chosen for this in patristic language is frequently that of a luminous encounter, itself a profoundly biblical language of the divine epiphany.
The most insistent aspect of the doctrine, however, is not so much the light-filled encounter with God - always carefully described as God's approach to the creature, and never the creature's ascent to the divine ( in which it emerges as thoroughly Christian in its spiritual instinct ) - for this is treated with typical reserve in the patristic texts, and one comes across it obliquely as if a veil is being drawn over such moments, moments that ought not to be talked of before they have been experienced by the hearer directly (cor ad cor loquitur ) ; the most insistent aspect of the doctrine, as it seems to me, is the teaching that the entire movement of God to the human being is rooted and grounded in the fabric of the whole person, that is body and soul, heart and mind. The heart stands as the central locus of the whole spiritual intelligence, but an awareness that is conditioned by physicality. For the Fathers, true prayer is not one which escapes this embodiment (an incarnate existence which even the divine Logos did not despise when he made this fragile image take on the potential to contain the uncontainable presence of the Godhead ) rather prayer that rises from a penitent heart, conscious of its forgetfulness and error, but quickly passing beyond sorrow, through the instinct of the abundant mercy of God, to the confession that ours is a God who wishes to commune with creatures in the depths of a pure heart which has been rendered ‘blessed' in Christ and promised the vision of God. Nowhere better is it summed up than in those words of the Master of prayer :
How blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God. (Mt. 5.8.)
John Anthony McGuckin.
Union Theological Seminary,