I went to see Fr. Cassian Sibley to discuss Prayer of the Heart in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. The sign on the house read, Theotokos of the Life-Giving Spring Russian Orthodox Church. That has to be the coolest church name I have ever heard in my life. I told Fr. Cassian so when he opened the door. He is a cheerful man with a kind face and a big bushy beard. He offered me coffee and showed me an assortment of beautiful prayer ropes, or “chotki” used for the meditative repetition of the “Jesus Prayer,” (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”) which is at the core of Prayer of the Heart. Some of the chotkis were made with beads, some with knots in the shape of crosses. Some were quite long, and some were tiny, designed to fit on a baby’s wrist.
He explains that the simple repetition of the Jesus Prayer is the most common use for lay people, in order to pray without ceasing as they go about their busy lives. I am familiar with this because of one of my favorite spiritual books, The Way of the Pilgrim/The Pilgrim Continues His Way. The pilgrim wanders across Russia praying the Jesus Prayer until his heart prays it continually without effort. The book charts his travel, conversations and spiritual growth in the prayer.
Fr. Cassian points out that by replacing the “me” in the prayer with the name of someone else, one can use the prayer as an intercessory prayer – while warning that one does not use the phrase “a sinner” while doing so, since a Christian has no authority or right to judge another.
I had brought a rose for Mother Mary which he put in the chapel. Then I followed him into a pleasant sitting room filled with morning light, and comfortable furniture, lined with books. A parrotlet sang from a nearby cage. I got out my notebook but the conversation was so interesting and lively that I hardly took any notes. I couldn’t have been more content. I was sitting in a cozy chair conversing with an extremely intelligent and deeply spiritual person in a relaxed and friendly way, neither of us hurried. Priests are busy people so I was aware of what a gift his time was.
Fr. Cassian grew up Southern Baptist but was, as an early teen drawn to the Anglican Church and was preparing to be ordained as an Episcopal priest. As he studied theology though, he became more and more sympathetic to the Orthodox Church, and as a teen, he had read the J.D. Salinger novella, Franny and Zooey, and been introduced to the Jesus Prayer and The Way of the Pilgrim. Eventually he converted to Eastern Orthodoxy and ultimately was ordained as an Orthodox priest.
I told him my story of being tricked by Mother Mary into falling for Jesus and the Catholic Church after having grown up without religion. He chuckled knowingly and we talked about Mary in both our traditions. I really like the Orthodox title for her, “The Theotokos,” meaning “God-bearer.”
Our discussion turned to the life of prayer as experienced and expressed in each of our faiths’ contemplative traditions. We have so much in common. There are some interesting differences in our mystical theology, and in our ideas about the experience of Heaven. The Orthodox regard heaven as a continuous free growth of divinization -as an “ever moving rest” – which the Orthodox feel is in contradiction to the experience of what the Western Church calls the Beatific Vision. I said that St. Therese is busy “spending [her] Heaven doing good on earth,” so maybe we’re not so different there after all.
We discussed Confession, local events and world news, Church history, the degrees of union with God, the differences between praying with the chotki and the rosary, (for instance we use imaginative prayer and the Orthodox strongly caution against it).
We talked about the importance of being willing to know Jesus as he is, being ready to shed our own ideas and misconceptions and our lamentable tendency to only accept the aspects of the Lord that we are comfortable with.
I learned some Greek words and heard a few Russian ones I would be unable to reproduce.
Eventually we came to the point of my visit, the practice of Hesychasm (the path of deep prayer and living the life of prayer in the Orthodox tradition) and the practice of Prayer of the Heart.
Before Fr. Cassian gives me practical instructions, he cautions that if one desires to enter into this practice, a spiritual guide, teacher or spiritual director is extremely helpful – which is why the more mystical and non-verbal use of the Jesus prayer is more common, in Orthodoxy, amongst monastics and those with a monastic spiritual father or mother.
He goes on to say that today in Western Society we think of ourselves as centered in the brain, the mind, and that we tend to pray from there. Biblically, however, the heart is seen as the center of the person where both thoughts and spiritual movements occur. In Orthodox prayer, the pray-er seeks to redirect his or her awareness from the head down into the heart. Fr. Cassian touches his heart often as he speaks, seemingly unconsciously, closing his eyes when he does so. It seems to me that when he does this, a switch is flipped somewhere, a “peace switch” that visibly changes his entire demeanor. Maybe it is a breaker switch because I feel it too!
Practical Instructions for Prayer of the Heart
Stand or sit comfortably with your back relatively straight, in silence, solitude and stillness.
Breathe in, and allow one’s conscious awareness to follow that breath as one prays, silently, “Lord Jesus Christ”
Exhale slowly, maintaining, if possible, one’s conscious awareness in the heart, as one prays silently, “Son of God,”
Inhale, as before, while silently praying “have mercy on me”
Breathe out slowly and prayerfully acknowledge that one is “a sinner.”
Slowly repeat this cycle again and again.
Continually bring your awareness into your heart, bringing Jesus’ Name, his presence into it. Eventually it will be the heart that keeps time, so to speak, and the heart that speaks. After that, everything is up to God, and God alone.
The true Prayer of the Heart as he describes it sounds like what a Carmelite would call the grace of infused contemplation, where it is God who acts within us, and we are drawn into union with him.
We talk about the traditional understanding of the progress of the soul through the Purgative Way (purification), the Illuminative Way (the growing knowledge of God and his ways) and finally the Unitive Way (one-ness with God).
Before I leave, Fr. gives me a copy of his wife’s new book of poetry, Zoom and the Neanderthal Girl by Olympia Sibley, (I highly recommend it!) and I give him a copy of my book, Come to Mary’s House; Spending Time with Our Blessed Mother. (Release date September 26)
He invites me to come again, perhaps for dinner with his wife and him. I say that would be great.
I had set out today to write about the Prayer of the Heart but I can’t help but feel that perhaps Fr. Cassian and I have begun to do our part in healing the Great Schism one conversation, one prayer, one friendship at a time.
*My thanks to Fr. Cassian Sibley for his assistance with this piece.