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About the Prayer of the Heart - The Prayer of Jesus

This year, 2014, I am re-writing everything about the Prayer of the Heart. It is necessary for the following reasons:

  1. -- the discoveries I have made in the last 20 years
  2. -- the discoveries others have made in this time (and which I have found out about)

While it could have been true 20 years ago that the teachers (Elders, Fathers, Gerontas, Startzi) could not be "discovered" or "unearthed", as I then wrote, to our delight the situation has radically changed. The big question is: "has something changed outside, or have the changes been inside?" The answer is no doubt that changes have taken place in both in an out.

Prayer of the Heart, also known as the Prayer of Jesus in Christianity, can be traced back nearly 2000 years. According to St. Paul what we should do is to: "Pray without ceasing" [Thessalonian's 5:16-18 (King James Version)].

Many of the writings of the "desert fathers" (of whose lives very little can be verified from the records of history) and others who were engaged in the 'spiritual warfare', and who practised the prayer, are preserved in the Philokalia.

The Love of Beauty

The Greek Philokalia was compiled by Metropolitan Macarius of Corinth and St. Nicodemus Hagiorite and first published in Venice 1782. There are three basic version of the Philokalia: the original Greek, the Slavonic and the Russian translations (the latter two are of course translations).

The texts of Philokalia cover the writings of the Fathers of the Church from the fourth to the fourteenth century.

The translations to the English are from the Greek and the Russian, but there are also translations to many different languages. Of these the Russian text, translated and edited by St. Theophan the Recluse, is interesting also because St. Theophan edited the earlier Slavonic version to make it more understandable. The Greek Philokalia has five volumes. The Russian edition is called "Dobrotolubiye" and like the Greek original, it means "Love of Beauty".

Philokalia tells us how to pray!

Prayer of the Heart is also know as the 'art of arts' and the 'royal art'; it is possible to practice it and it can be learned from those who know how to pray. Who are they?

Juojärvi ja hiljaisuus
Silence on Juojärvi Lake New Valaam
Photo by: Arvo Ratavaara 2010

However, as an Orthodox Christian I did find myself in quite a strange situation for exactly 50 years (1961 - 2011). The tradition of the Prayer of the Heart is part of the Orthodox tradition. Who is teaching it? I thought that one should find someone among the priests, but, and this is in spite of meeting many spiritually advanced people, I I did not come across any such priest. Where were those people who could teach me how to pray continuously?

From the time I started my 'search for truth' there has been a popular tendency in the western world to look for spiritual teachers (and also teachings) from among the many 'gurus' from the East; earlier more from the Far East (Buddhism, Yoga, Vedanta), and now also from the Middle East (Sufism and Kabbalah). No doubt this tendency is also fully justified as the spiritual teachers in our time in the West have been few and far between. Moreover, is Christianity not also a teaching from the Middle East?

In our time teachers of all sorts can be found also in the West. For example within the Catholic Church there is a strong 'movement' to fetch knowledge and practice from Zen Buddhism, and this seems to continue. It is quite common that instead of a priest, we have a Zen Master whose prior education is Christian theology. Why does a priest not learn what he should learn - like how to pray, and also to teach others in how to pray? This is a confirmation of a sad state of affairs: Christian practice is not taught in the Universities! What are taught are morality, psychology and theory; what are not given and taught are the tools and the ability to be able to apply them into practice.

As the education of the average Christian priests does not include the learning of the 'art of arts' (although Orthodoxy is an exception) it is not possible by any even superhuman efforts for a priest to teach others how to pray; both the knowledge and the ability are lacking. This is why those who are in the position of 'educators' (priests) in the churches need to go to other religions and find their 'gurus' to learn the basics of spiritual practice. In other words they have a need to fetch the 'know how of spiritual life' from outside Christianity.

This search for the 'know how' is highly necessary.

A case in point: in the 1950's what was left of the Russian monasteries had such a lack of spiritual teachers (after all Stalin and the Soviet regime killed roughly 100000 monks, nuns and priests) that Father Michael (see column on right), who had managed to survive and settle in the New Valaam in Finland, was asked to move to the Russian territory, which he did with some other monks. What happened to them is not in my knowledge. All I know is that when he arrived in Kiev, he wished to go into seclusion and teach no more. Are there any of the Startzy left in Russia? What happened to the tradition of the Optina monastery with such a long chain of oral teachings by the elders to both monks and the lay people? At the time of writing (2012) Optina is alive again, and most likely there are also new Elders in the monastery. Here is a link to a virutal tour Optina Monastery Virtual Tour

Optina Monastery Virtual tour
View of the virtual tour of the Optina Monastery as it is today

Much of what is connected with the practice of the Prayer of the Heart is a 'well kept secret'. This web site is an attempt to find some of these secrets and to help to revive the practice of the Prayer for our time to the extent it is possible in this media (internet).

St. George and the Dragon
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St. George and the Dragon

Athos Foundations

Athos Foundation in Lammi
In very cold January 2016

Background photo by Reijo Oksanen, 2013 Solovetsky Monastery in Russia

Books by Bishop Kallistos (Ware)

Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia

Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia
The heart, more particularly, indicates the human person in its fullness, in its unity. Above all, the heart is a symbol of wholeness, of integrity, of integration. So when we speak of the Prayer of the Heart, what we mean is prayer of the total person, prayer in which the one who prays is all together taken up into the prayer. The prayer of the heart means not just the kind of prayer that I say, but the kind of prayer that I am, because that is what our broken world needs today, not persons, who say prayers from time to time, but persons who are prayer, all the time. Exactly prayer of the heart means, prayer that is me, prayer into which I am wholly taken up and transformed."

Buddhistic "Prayer of the Heart"

This is the practise called "Namu-amida-butsu", which is explained very well in the book below.

Beyond Meditation: Expressions of Japanese Shin Buddhist Spirituality (Eastern Buddhist Voices)

Prayer of the Heart in Christian and Sufi Mysticism
by Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee

Sufi Addition to the Prayer of the Heart
Review by Reijo Oksanen

This little book says that it brings together the Christian and the Sufi traditions of the Prayer of the Heart. This is a mammuth task for a small book like this! I would rather call it an introduction to the similarities in the Christian Prayer of the Heart and the Sufi Zikr, with the accent on telling what the Sufi Zikr is at best.
There is no real difference in these two practises. All practise is based on repetition (which helps to make us perfect), and indeed these two forms of praying are very repetitive. Both have as their aim to be able to stand in the presence of God, and unite with Him through the heart.
That the Naqsbandi silent Zikr is closest to the Christian Prayer of the Heart (at its highest level) is an excellent observation by Llewellyn, who writes from his own experience.
I found one particular paragraph very beautiful and relating to my own experience:
"When love reveals its real nature we come to know that there is neither lover nor Beloved. There is no one to pray and no one to pray to. We do not even know that we are lost; we return from these states of merging knowing only that we gave our self and were taken. Our gift of our self was accepted so completely that we knew nothing of the encounter. We looked towards our Beloved and were taken into love's arms, embraced in oneness, dissolved in nearness. For so many years we had cried and called out, and when the Beloved finally came the meeting was so intimate there was nothing left of us to witness it."
Fully recommended as an angle on the Prayer of the Heart!

Prayer of the Heart in Christian and Sufi Mysticism

St. Ambrose of Optina

St. Ambrose of Optina

Born in 1812 in Bolshaya Lipovitsa, Tambov Province, Russia, Alexander Grenkov arrived in the Optina Monastery in 1839.

After a long service as an Elder in Optina, he left for the women's convent in Shamordino in 1890 and died there on October 10th in 1891.

Elder Ambrose was canonized in 1988 and is now known as St. Ambrose of Optina.

Photography by
Arvo Ratavaara

Juojärvi Evening
Click for a larger picture

We present photography by Arvo Ratavaara. His pictures were taken in the Summer 2010, during his stay in the New Valaam Monastery. Thes photographs are of the buildings and also of the surrounding lake Juojärvi. The waters of this lake were so clean, that the monks used the water daily as drinking water until quite recently.

Pilgrims Cross New Valaam
Pilgrims Cross
New Valaam

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