There is a story told in the Gerontikon, the sayings of the desert Fathers, about a visitor who goes to see three monks. And they talked all the afternoon. Suddenly the visitor realizes that the sun has set. "It is time for vespers;" says the visitor, "it is time for us to pray together." And the monks answered, "But we have been praying together all the last four hours." Prayer, in their experience, was not just occasional but continual; not just one activity among others, but the activity of their entire lives. It was a dimension present in everything else that they did. St. Gregory of Nazianzos says, "Remember God more often than you breathe." Prayer, ideally, should be as much part of us as our breathing.
Sometimes people talk about having a "prayer life," but is that not an odd phrase? We do not have a distinct and separate breathing life; we breathe as we live. But how are we to attain prayer of this kind: all-embracing, ever-present, prayer of the total self?
That brings me to another question: What is prayer? Evagrios of Pontos says in a famous definition, "Prayer is communion of the intellect with God." So Evagrios sees prayer as an activity of the intellect (nous). Nous, like pathos, is a word that is hard to translate into English.
Another writer of the fourth century, contemporary with Evagrios (in Syria rather than in Egypt), the author of the Spiritual Homilies attributed to Macarios, has a slightly different approach to prayer. "It may be," he says, "that the saints sit in the theater and watch the delusion of this world, while with the inner self, all the time, they are speaking to God." There we see, as in the story I told from the desert Fathers, that prayer aims to be continual; not so much something we do from time to time, but something that we are all the time.
Also, we see from the Spiritual Homilies of Macarios that prayer is something that goes on in the inner self (o eso anthropos). This is a biblical phrase, used for example, in Ephesians: "May God according to the riches of His glory, grant that you are strengthened with the power of the Holy Spirit in the inner self so that Christ dwells in your heart by faith" (3:16-17).
There we see that the inner self is associated with the indwelling of Christ and the Holy Spirit. And also we see in Ephesians that the inner self is identified with the heart. So for Macarios, prayer is something that we offer with the inner self, that is, with the heart. Where Evagrios emphasizes the intellect, the Macarian Homilies emphasize the heart (cardia).
These two approaches are combined in a definition of prayer given by the nineteenth-century Russian writer St. Theophan the Recluse. "To pray," he says, "is to stand before God with the intellect, in the heart, and to go on standing before Him day and night until the end of life." So, prayer is something that goes on with the intellect in the heart, and it is continuous. St. Isaac the Syrian even says that the saints are praying while they are asleep. Sometimes when I am lecturing, I notice that members of my audience close their eyes. But then I think that perhaps they are saints, and though they are sleeping, they are also listening.
With the intellect or mind in the heart - what does that mean? Let's first look at this word, intellect. Let's go back to Greek philosophy, back to Plato. In the concluding part of Book Six of The Republic, Plato makes a fourfold distinction between conjecture, belief, thinking, and intellection. The first two, conjecture and belief, apply to the world of appearances, the world of the senses. And on this level, so Plato believes, there is no firm certainty. The second two, thinking and intellection, apply to the realm of the intelligible forms, the higher realm of spiritual truths where there can be genuine certainty. But whereas thinking (dianola) means discursive thinking - reasoning from premises to a conclusion as in mathematics - intellection (noesis), for Plato, signifies a direct act of inward vision, a sudden flash of insight whereby, not through argumentation but by immediate awareness, the human being intuitively understands the proof. It is not the conclusion of a process of reason, but, says Plato, "it is like the kindling of a flame." Plato, in other words, does not consider that our reasoning brain is the highest faculty that we possess. He considers, on the contrary, that above and beyond the power of reasoning, we have a faculty of direct inner vision, whereby the truth is simply seeming to be true.
Aristotle has a similar distinction, though he is not altogether consistent. But in a number of passages in his work, thinking means syllogistic reasoning, whereas intellect indicates intuitive understanding, intellectual vision. "In thinking," says Aristotle, "the thinker is conscious of the object of his source of being other than himself. He is aware: Here am I thinking about something out there." But in intellect, the subject of the distinction disappears. The intellect is identified with that which is apprehended. Thinking admits an error, but intellect does not.
Now let's turn to the Christian tradition and go back to Evagrios. What does he mean when he says that prayer is an activity of the intellect? He follows Plato and Plotinus, even though, as far as I can see, he doesn't explicitly contrast thinking with intellect or intellection, yet he understands intellect and intellection to be non-discursive - faculties higher than the reasoning brain. "Prayer," Evagrios says, "is apothesis noematon," a shedding, a laying aside of words, images, and abstract concepts. He doesn't, of course, mean that as a description for all prayer. Of course, he allows a place for liturgical prayer, for the sacraments, for the reading of scripture, for psalmodia (the reading and singing of the Psalter). Those forms of prayer do indeed use words and images. But he believes there is a form of contemplative prayer in which the words and images are laid aside, in which, to use his own term, the intellect becomes naked. "When you are praying," he says, "do not shape within yourself any image of the deity and do not let your intellect be stamped with the impress of any form. But approach Him who is not material, God, in a nonmaterial way. I emphasize that this is not meant as a description of all prayer but of one particular type of inner prayer."
Evagrios insists that God is beyond all conceptual thinking. He is beyond sense perception. God does not possess quantity or form. Accordingly Evagrios urges us never to try to see a form or shape during the time of prayer: "Do not long to see angels or Christ in a visible way. I shall say again," he writes, "what I said elsewhere, blessed is the intellect which at the time of prayer has gained complete freedom from forms." Evagrios believes that in prayer we do sometimes, by God's mercy, have a vision of light. Sometimes this is a vision of the created light, intrinsic to the intellect. It is an experience of our own inner luminosity. Sometimes it is an experience of uncreated light, an experience of what Evagrios calls the light of the Holy Trinity. But he believes that in this vision of light, we do not see any shape or form or face. It is simply an experience of all-embracing brilliance and splendor.
That was also the way in which the fourteenth-century hesychasts understood the vision of the uncreated light. A little later Evagrios restates his teaching: "Blessed is the intellect that at the time of prayer has gained complete freedom." That could mean complete freedom from sense perception, complete freedom from sensation. But perhaps it also signifies complete absence of self-awareness. In that case, Evagrios is saying, much as Aristotle does, that when the intellect acts in its true and proper fashion, the subject/object distinction vanishes. The intellect is no longer conscious of its object as something other than itself, but it is totally united with the one whom it contemplates.
We commune with God, in Evagrios' words, without any intermediary. Prayer at its higher level is an experience of unmediated unity. "When we are engaged in contemplative prayer," says Evagrios, "we are no more aware of the fact that we are contemplating than we are conscious of our own sleep."
So then, very clearly, for Evagrios the intellect, as activated in prayer, does not primarily imply a process of logical argumentation or discursive thinking, but one of inner vision. We are to see the intellect in this perspective, as very closely related to the spirit (pneuma). We are to see intellection as not far removed from what today is designated "mystical experience"; that is, if by mystical experience you don't mean things like telepathy or levitation or trances or other paranormal phenomena, but you mean a direct experience of the supranatural. That is what intellection means. Through thinking we know about God. Through the intellect we know God.
What about the heart, now? Let's turn from Evagrios to Macarios. In one of my favorite books, The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupéry, the fox has some very helpful words for us. "Good-bye," says the fox, "and now here is my secret. It is very simple. Only with the heart can one see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye. Only with the heart can one see rightly." My spiritual father, a Russian priest long since dead, always liked to quote those words to me.
C. G. Jung, in his book Memories, Dreams, Reflections, recalls a conversation he had with an American Indian, one Ochwiay Biano. [Mr. Biano is also known by the English name "Mountain Lake."] Ochwiay Biano said,
"How cruel the whites are: their lips are thin, their noses sharp, their faces furrowed and distorted by holes. Their eyes have a staring expression. They are always seeking something. What are they seeking? The whites always want something, they are always uneasy and restless. We do not know what they want, we do not understand them, we think that they are mad." I asked him why he thought the whites were all mad. "They say they think with their heads," he replied.
"Why, of course. What do you think with?" I asked him in surprise.
"We think here," he said, indicating his heart.
Now, Ochwiay Biano is coming very much closer to what Scripture and much of the Patristic tradition meant by the heart.
If we look briefly at the classical background, we find there are indeed, several approaches to all this. Plato makes a contrast between the head and the heart. The intellect, the intellectual power, is located for Plato in the head. The spirited or intensive element (thymos) is in the breast or heart, and the lower desires are lower down. And the Hippocratic tradition also agrees with Plato in locating the intellectual power in the brain.
But in other Greek Classical authors, this head/heart contrast is not found. And sometimes the heart is treated as the center of the human person. In Homer, one feels and thinks with the phrenai, which I think are in the middle or the diaphragm - that is where you think, down there.
Aristotle regards the heart as the central organ in the human body, the point where the body is activated by the soul. And the Stoics follow Aristotle in regarding the heart as the center of the human person. This becomes much clearer - that the heart is the center of the human person - when we turn to Scripture.
The Bible agrees with the Little Fox and with Ochwiay Biano. In the Old and New Testaments there is no head/heart contrast. The heart is seen as the place of insight, vision, wisdom, as the spiritual center of the total person. In the symbolic anthropology of Scripture, the heart is not primarily the place of the emotions and feelings - these are located in the gut and the entrails.
Take, for example, some familiar texts: "Where your treasure is, there your will your heart be also" (Matthew 6:21). The heart is the moral center; it is the place where we formulate our primary home. The heart expresses our aim in life; it is the determinant of our actions. The heart corresponds, very often in Scripture, to what we today call the conscience. "Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart" (Luke 2:19). The heart there is the place where we ponder, the seat of memory, of reflection, of self-awareness. Because of our sinfulness, because of our fallen state, the heart is deeply ambivalent. So our Lord says, "Out of the heart come evil thoughts" (Matthew 15:19). Paul speaks in similar terms: "God gave them up to the sinful desires of their hearts" (Romans 1:24).
So the heart is the place where we come face to face with the power of sin and evil. But it is also the place where we encounter God, where the divine presence is at work. It is the place of supranatural indwelling. So Paul says, "God searches the heart; the heart is the place where the Holy Spirit dwells" (Romans 8:27); and, "God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying Abba! Father!" (Galatians 4:6).
So the heart can signify the depths of the inner self, the human person seen as a spiritual subject, formed in the image and likeness of God. That is why in Ephesians 3:16-17 the heart is equated with our inner being in its completeness (eso anthropos). And when Jesus says, "Love the Lord, your God, with all your heart" (Matthew 23:37), what He means is, love Him not just with your emotions and your feelings: "Love the Lord, your God," He is saying, "with the totality of your self."
Likewise in Ezekiel, when the prophet speaks of God taking away our stony hearts and giving us a new heart, a heart of flesh, that means an all-embracing spiritual renewal, a conversion of our entire self.
Two texts from Proverbs are very popular in the Greek spiritual tradition. They come up frequently in the Philokalia: "My child, give me your heart" (Proverbs 23:26) - that means, "Give me your total self" and "Guard your heart with all vigilance" (Proverbs 4:23) - that means, "Keep watch over the entirety of your inner life, know yourself, know yourself as God granted and God taught." Finally, "The heart is deep" (Psalm 63:6 ). That is another popular hesychast and Philokalic text. It means the human person is a profound mystery.
So in all these texts, the heart denotes the human person as God's creation - the human person in its fullness and unity, the human person as an integrated whole of body and soul. If you work with a heart spirituality, you probably will not make a sharp distinction between mind and matter. The Biblical anthropology of the heart is a unified holistic anthropology. What about the Greek Fathers?
Many of them reflect the Platonist approach, making a contrast between head and heart. They tend to associate the heart with feelings or to give it no special meaning. But there are others who retain the inclusive, holistic vision of the heart as found in Scripture. The most notable example of this is in the homilies attributed to Macarios.
So Macarios writes,
The heart governs and reigns over the whole bodily organism, and when grace possesses the pasturages of the heart, it rules over all the members and the thoughts. For there, in the heart, is the intellect, and all the thoughts of the soul, all its expectations. And in this way, through the heart, grace penetrates to all the members of the body.
Very clearly there, the heart is the center of the person.
Notice how Macarios speaks of the ranges or the pasturages of the heart. Today we think of the heart as a pump. But in Patristic texts, the heart is thought of rather as an empty vessel, a container full of space, full of air. For Macarios the heart is clearly the physical center first of all. The heart, he says, reigns over the whole bodily organism. But for him, the heart is also the place where we think. There in the heart is the intellect and all the thoughts of the soul. As Macarios says elsewhere, "the intellect is the eye of the heart" - the heart's power of spiritual vision. In this way, he continues, "grace penetrates through the heart all the members of the body." The heart is the place where grace is experienced, it is the meeting place between the physical and the spiritual, between the divine and the human - a uniting symbol.
"Within the heart," says Macarios, "there are unfathomable depths." The heart is deep. The heart, for Scripture and Patristic writers, includes what in modern psychology is called the unconscious. Within the heart there are reception rooms and bedchambers, doors and porches, and many offices and passages. Within the heart is the workshop of righteousness and also the workshop of wickedness. Within the heart is death, within the heart is life.
So, you see, in a fallen world the heart is deeply ambivalent, it is open towards good but also open towards evil. The heart is Christ's palace. There Christ the King comes to take His rest with the angels and the spirits of the saints and He dwells there, walking within it and placing His kingdom there. The heart is but a small vessel and yet, dragons and lions are there, and there are poisonous creatures and all the treasures of wickedness. Rough uneven paths are there, and gaping caverns. There likewise is God. There are the angels. There, life in the kingdom. There, lights from the Apostles, the heavenly city, and the treasures of grace. All things are there.
The heart is all-inclusive. It signifies the human person as microcosm. There likewise is God. The heart is the place of the divine indwelling, it is Christ's palace, it's the place of self-transcendence, the place where we come face to face with the Holy Trinity. So there, in Macarios, we have an extremely rich theology of the heart. The heart is open both below and above. It is open below to the abyss of the subconscious, open above to the abyss of divine grace. The heart is the center.
Mark the Monk of the late fourth or early fifth century (also known as Mark the Hermit or Mark the Ascetic) gives a particular explication to this theology of the heart - a sacramental application. He says that through baptism, Christ and the Holy Spirit enter the innermost secret and uncontaminated chamber of the heart. By virtue of our baptism there is an inner chamber, a central shrine within us where grace dwells and where evil cannot reach. Mark believes that from our baptism there is a point or spark within us that belongs entirely to God, that is the pure glorious God in us. "By the good treasure of the heart," says Mark, "Scripture means the Holy Spirit who is hidden in the heart of the faithful" - hidden through baptism.
So the aim of the spiritual life, according to Mark, is that we should become consciously aware of this secret presence of the baptismal Christ Who is already in our hearts, mystically. The Christian journey, for him, is a journey from baptismal grace, present secretly in the heart, to baptismal grace, experienced in the heart with full conscious awareness.
John Climacus, here as so often, sums up the ascetic anthropology of the Fathers, "I cried with my whole heart," says the Psalmist, that is to say with body and soul and spirit. There the heart very obviously means not just the body, the physical organ - though it includes that - but also the psychic and the spiritual sense.
stand before God
with the intellect,
in the heart,
and to go on
standing before him
day and night
until the end of life."
For Gregory Palamas, the heart is the deep self, what he calls the innermost body within the body, the shrine of the intelligence, the chief intellectual organ of the body. There we think again of Ochwiay Biano's, "We think with our hearts." "The heart," says St. Gregory Palamas, "is the ruling organ, that which gives our human personhood purpose and meaning. It is the throne of grace, a point of encounter with the living God."
So, the heart is both the physical center, in a literal sense, but also symbolically, the center of spiritual energy within us. If we adopt a heart spirituality, our understanding of the human person will be holistic and all-embracing. The heart is a symbol of wholeness, that expresses the undivided unity of our person.
And so when the hesychasts of the fourteenth-century speak of "prayer of the heart," they do not mean just prayer of the emotions and feelings, but prayer of the total person. When they say, descend into the heart, find the place of the heart, unite your intellect with your heart, what they mean is, enter into relationship with your deep self; discover the true dimensions of your personhood in God. Realize yourself as created in the divine image. To unite intellect and heart is to achieve true integration.
"The beginning of truth," says Plato, "is to wonder at things." Let us, as we seek to offer our whole self to God, renew our sense of wonder before the inexhaustible mystery of our human person. "I will praise You," says the Psalmist, "for I am carefully and wonderfully made."
Let us reflect on the richness of meaning in these two words, intellect and heart. Through the intellect, we can reach out beyond words into silence, beyond time into eternity. Through the heart, we can discover our true selves as made in the divine image. Know yourself and forget yourself. Forget your false self, know your self as intellect and as heart, as an icon of God - a finite expression of God's infinite self-expression.