The Prayer of the Heart

Part three in the “A Timely Teaching” series by Bishop Hugh Gilbert, OSB
These teachings correspond to a video series recorded by Bishop Hugh. The corresponding video is linked at the end of the text.

III – The Prayer of the Heart

So far, we have looked at what our faith says of the divine indwelling. Sometimes this is described in terms of the Holy Spirit, or of the three persons of the Trinity, or of Jesus. These are the very opposite of water-tight compartments, but I chose to focus on the last. We’ve listened to voices from Scripture and from Catholic tradition, speaking about these things.

So, where are we? We are with the idea of our human selves as “a temple for your habitation”. We have always been so, but since the Fall it’s only with the Christ-Event and the Pentecost-Event, only with faith and baptism, that this potential passes into “public” reality. By grace, the Lord has entered his Temple and we have become Christo-phers, Christ-bearers. This is something more, all the theologians say, than the grounding presence of God which sustains the whole creation and every element within it. This is a ‘gracing’ presence, something more intimate and personal and transformative. It heals and divinizes us. As said before, it implies the Incarnation, the Resurrection and Pentecost. It belongs to the economy of salvation. It is the essence of the “state of grace”.


Before going further, it’s worth stressing the reality of it all. We are talking here of a “real presence” of Christ. We use that phrase principally of the Eucharist, of the Blessed Sacrament. We use it because Christ is present in a unique way, with a unique density, if you like, under the appearances of bread and wine. But as St Paul VI pointed out in his Encyclical Mysterium Fidei, this isn’t to suggest that Christ’s other forms of presence are somehow unreal. Christianity, using the eyes of its faith, sees Christ everywhere. When Peter or Paul baptize, it is Christ who baptizes. When the Gospel is read, it is Christ who speaks. When the Church teaches, Christ teaches. When believers gather, even only two or three, there he is in their midst. He identifies himself with children and life’s “little ones”. He is present in the hungry and thirsty and imprisoned; in the suffering and the marginalized and the rejected. In our neighbour, Christ is present. In our brother or sister, Christ is present. These are not pious fictions or nice ideas or flights of fancy or psychological games. “Christ plays in ten thousand places, as the poet said, to the Father through the features of men’s faces”. But it is truly him. He is there. “It is I; it is I”, as he said to Julian of Norwich (LT 26). In these events or actions or persons, it is he. He comes to us and we meet him. Likewise, he is “in” each of us. Our “inscape” is part of the geography of Christ. His presence in us is also a real presence; a complement of the Eucharistic presence. We are not indeed trans-substantiated, but we are occupied, inhabited by Another. He is objectively there. God is in the souls of the just, says St Thomas Aquinas, “as what is known is in the knower, and what is loved in the lover.” He is present, this means, to be known and loved. He is present because he has known and loved us first, and made his home within us. And just as the Father draws us to believe, serve, worship Christ in the Eucharist or Christ in his word or Christ in the suffering, so too we can be drawn to seek and find the Christ within.


So where, we ask, is this presence “located”? In the Letter to the Ephesians, St Paul prays that “Christ may dwell through faith in your hearts” (Eph 3:17). Of all the words we might use, “heart” seems the best. Scripture speaks of the heart more than a thousand times. This heart is “not the discursive intelligence with which we reason, nor the ‘feelings’ with which we respond to another person, nor yet the superficial emotion we call sentimentality. The heart is something that lies much deeper within us, the innermost core of our being, the root of our existence” (A. Louf, Teach us to Pray, p. 18). To quote the Catechism, “the heart is the dwelling-place where I am, where I live; according to the Semitic or Biblical expression, the heart is the place “to which I withdraw.” The heart is our hidden centre, beyond the grasp of our reason and of others; only the Spirit of God can fathom the human heart and know it fully. The heart is the place of decision, deeper than our psychic drives. It is the place of truth, where we choose life or death. It is the place of encounter, because as image of God we live in relation: it is the place of covenant” (CCC 2563).

The heart “signifies, not merely the emotions and affections, but the moral and spiritual centre of the total person, the ground and focal point of our created being, the deep self” (K. Ware).

If Christ is to be found in the suffering neighbour, in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, in his Body the Church, how can he be denied the human heart? “When you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray…” says Jesus (Mt 6:6). This “room”, tameion, an inner, secret room, a storehouse or a treasury, is the heart, says St Augustine.

St Peter speaks of “the hidden person of the heart” (1 Pet 3:4), and tells his readers “to reverence Christ as Lord in [their] hearts” (1 Pet 3:15).

“You have put into my heart a greater joy”, says Psalm 4, “than they have from abundance of corn and new wine” (Ps 4:8).

So, Christ’s place – the inner room, the hidden place, the throne-room, the holy of holies – is that most mysterious and fragile and wonderful thing, the human heart. “Rabbi, where do you stay?”, ask the disciples. “Come and see”, replies Jesus (Jn 1:38-39). One of those disciples will indeed see, when the soldier’s spear pierces Christ’s side.


If Christ genuinely “dwells” in our hearts, then a way of prayer opens up for us. This way is a journey to the heart where Christ dwells. “It is a main enterprise for every individual to find the way back to his heart. He is an explorer, moving into that unknown inner region. He is a pilgrim in search of his heart, of his deepest being” (A. Louf, idem).

So, the teaching I’ve tried to evoke can ground a way, a life of prayer. This way does not exclude other ways, least of all liturgical prayer. It can even be said to require the latter for the sake of balance. The two can be mutually enriching. Yet it is a specific way. It is sometimes called the Prayer of the Heart.

“Open to me the gates of justice”, cries the king in Ps 118:19. Where’s the key? The key is the word of God. And it is by pondering the word of God in the heart that our awareness of Christ within begins to grow. Twice in the Gospels Mary is said to keep words in her heart (Lk 2:19; 2:51). She is described as preserving, treasuring, cherishing the words of the shepherds and angels and, later, of her 12 year old son. She treasures them and also reflects on them, ponders on them in her heart, literally tossing them about inside herself, trying to put them together and arrive at their true meaning.

This is prayer getting underway. It has its roots in the Jewish practice of “meditating on the law of God day and night”, something mentioned often in the Psalms and first advocated by Joshua, Moses’ successor: “the book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night” (Josh 1:8). In Christianity too, this is the first meaning of the familiar word “meditation”. It is not abstruse reflection. It is not imaginative reconstruction of Gospel scenes. It is having the word of God – a phrase of Scripture or of a hymn– in our mouth, repeating it, and allowing it to make its way into our heart, following it down in to our heart. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly”, says Paul to the Colossians (3:16). “The word is near you: on your lips and in your heart”, he says in Romans (Rom 10:8), quoting Deuteronomy. For him, the “word” is the proclamation of the Resurrection: “Jesus is Lord” (1 Cor 12:3). We are entering into the prayer of the word, the prayer of the Name, the prayer of the heart.

Tradition has used many images for this process of taking the word, repeating it, and allowing it to take hold of us, as it “discerns the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 4:12). Jeremiah speaks of a “burning fire” in his heart (Jer 20:9); Isaiah of rain that comes down and does not return until it has borne fruit (cf Is 55:10-11). Jeremiah again of a “hammer which breaks the rock [the hard heart] into pieces” (Jer 23:29). More gently, it was pointed out by the monastic writers that, in the Old Testament (Leviticus), animals that chew the cud were regarded as clean. So, like cows, we ruminate on the word, and become clean thanks to it. “Give a dog a bone”, we say: the bone our heart needs is God’s word. Or there’s the soft penetration of sweet honey. Or we ingest and digest the Word and our heart is nourished by it; it is bread. Or we toss it around, turn a phrase over and over – “O God, come to my aid”, for example. And as we do it reveals new meanings. Do you remember gobstoppers? They would change colour as you sucked them.  Or we can think of a mother rocking a baby. Or of a seed being sown in the earth of the heart and gradually opening. Or of rain falling. Or of a plough that turns the soil of the soul, freeing it of weeds, making room for good growth.

This was called meditatio and, to say it again, was the original meaning of the word in Christianity. It is a powerful way of coming into God’s presence. I was inspired by someone who would take a fresh biblical phrase each morning, often from the Psalms, and stay with it, repeat it all day. When there weren’t other necessary, practical things to think about, there was this inner place and this word to return to. He would say the phrase you take should not be more than 11 syllables – like a mobile number with 11 digits! For others, there can be a phrase, a formula, one can be happy to remain with for longer stretches of time, even for life. That may be the Jesus Prayer, for example, or some form of it. It’s like a favourite tune or food.  This practice can be given a formal daily slot, but it can also be free. It can just be something to come back to in the vacant moments. Its gift is to make us aware of our deeper self. It centres us. It focusses us. It helps us to “close the door” in Jesus’ phrase, to keep out distractions or bad thoughts – the outbursts of worry and anger or impatience that run across us every so often, like squalls over the sea. It can become a topic of conversation with Christ, or just be peaceful background music to something more contemplative. It brings us into the presence of the one living in the heart.

Meditatio, then, is a way to the heart where Christ is waiting for us. It is a good way, a proven way, and simple. It subtly transforms the way we see and hear things. Everything becomes more meaningful. We can, like the sheep in the parable, “go in and out and find pasture.” We have a place to withdraw to and a place to come forth from. We don’t lose interest in others, but we have a quiet sense of someone within us, filling the empty spaces with his love. “I will see you again, he told the disciples at the Last Supper, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (Jn 16:22).

There is a further step too. It is a process of simplification and essentialising. “What every biblical utterance may achieve in our heart is true in the first place of the Word par excellence, the summation of every saying in the Bible, the Name above every name, the Name of Jesus. The patient repetition of that Name within the heart is called the Jesus Prayer…The Name of Jesus makes our heart wide awake and, conversely, constantly calling upon Jesus helps us discover his presence and make it more and more real” (A. Louf, op.cit., p. 47). As we know from the Bible, Name and Presence are closely linked. “The name ‘Jesus’ contains all: God and man, and the whole economy of creation and salvation. To pray ‘Jesus’ is to invoke him and to call him within us. His name is the only one that contains the presence it signifies” (CCC 266). Name and Prayer are also closely linked. To quote the Catechism again: “The name of Jesus is at the heart of Christian prayer. All liturgical prayers conclude with the words “through our Lord Jesus Christ”. The Hail Mary reaches its high point in the words “blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.” The Eastern prayer of the heart, the Jesus Prayer, says: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Many Christians, such as St. Joan of Arc, have died with the one word “Jesus” on their lips” (CCC 435). The blind Bartimaeus cries out, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me” (Mk 10:47). The longing of the early Christians was expressed in the phrase, Maranatha, “Come, Lord Jesus” (Rev 22:20). We know how popular “Jesus, I trust you” has become.

These are not “mantras” as they are sometimes called, or psychological sedatives. They are God’s word at work in the house of the heart.

I’ve quoted a few times from a Belgian abbot, Andre Louf. He wrote beautifully of what I’ve tried to evoke. He lived his last years as a hermit. He died in 2010. I was touched to read that the last words his brethren heard him say when dying were “Christus, Christus, Christus”.


Here I will stop, still on the threshold only. Those who have gone on further on this path to the heart report wonderful things. The Christ – or the Holy Spirit indeed – who dwells in the heart is revealed not just as the object of prayer, but as the one who prays, who takes our prayer over and makes it his, who prays in us and through us. Inner prayer begins to pray itself, the word takes on a life of its own, and this word is finally Jesus himself. What he does, glorified, before the Father as our Advocate, ever turned to the Father, ever living to make intercession for us, he does also in the heart of the believer. John Cassian, a monastic father of the 5th c., says that this is when the prayer of Jesus to the Father is realized in us: “that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them” (Jn 17:26).

If that’s the end, it’s worth beginning. “Open the doors to Christ”, said St John Paul.

Video: Prayer of the Heart


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