Seeds of the Word - The prayer of the heart

Photo: Christ Pantocrator, Cathedral of Cefalù, Italy, José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro/Wikimedia Commons Photo: Christ Pantocrator, Cathedral of Cefalù, Italy, José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro/Wikimedia Commons

Learning to truly pray at all times

I was invited to lead a spiritual retreat at the Archbishop Brunett Retreat Center at the Palisades in April. Through the weekend, I led spiritual exercises and gave talks intended to supply the participants with additional means to grow in their faith. People attended from our archdiocese, and many traveled from afar, coming from Oregon, Minnesota, Tennessee, Michigan, Arizona, and even from Mexico.

The main topic of the retreat was the “prayer of the heart,” intended to “pray at all times” as St. Paul prescribes. (1 Thessalonians 5:17) I shared the history, theology, spirituality and method to make of this prayer a life habit. It is simple — “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” — but it is repeated tens, hundreds, and even thousands of times. Its ancient practice goes back to the fifth century.

The prayer of the heart has been prayed and thought throughout the history of Eastern Christianity. It is particularly embraced among Orthodox Christians. Yet, in the Catholic Church, the catechism devotes four paragraphs to its teaching: “The invocation of the holy name of Jesus is the simplest way of praying always. When the holy name is repeated often by a humbly attentive heart, the prayer is not lost by heaping up empty phrases, but holds fast to the word and ‘brings forth fruit with patience.’ This prayer is possible ‘at all times’ because it is not one occupation among others but the only occupation: that of loving God, which animates and transfigures every action in Christ Jesus.” (CCC 2668)

It is known as the “Jesus prayer” or the “prayer of the heart” because, when properly prayed, the heart itself makes the full body to recite it as the beating heart gives its rhythm to our breathing. As we inhale, we invoke, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God …” and as we exhale, we implore, “… have mercy on me, a sinner.” Beginners tend to focus their attention in the mechanics of the breathing and the repetition of the prayer. Those more advanced breathe rhythmically without noticing and focus their attention instead on the meaning of the words of the prayer — each one having a deep theological meaning. The most advanced get to the point in which part of their mind repeats the prayer unceasingly, despite the activity they are conducting. It is then that this becomes a true “heart prayer.”

It is a pity that despite the preservation of this beautiful and deep prayer in our Christian tradition, many choose to drink from the wells of the New Age and adopt empty meditation techniques that may be relaxing, but fail to achieve a true encounter with the Lord. The prayer of the heart does help us to feel ourselves in the presence of Jesus — Especially when it is prayed in the dark, with a lit candle and before the majestic icon of Christ Pantocrator.

Whoever is interested in learning the prayer of the heart should read The Way of a Pilgrim. It is the fascinating autobiography of a man who set off on a long pilgrimage through the monasteries in Russia and Siberia seeking how to fulfill St. Paul’s instruction of praying at all times. He learns that the constant recitation of the prayer of the heart ends up becoming a life habit, and life itself becomes a prayer.

Those who came to the retreat were deeply moved by the experience of saying the prayer of the heart and most of them have made it their prayer of choice before going to sleep, in those moments of tribulation, and to pray for someone else.

I pray God will allow me to lead more spiritual retreats like this, as well as workshops where I can share with many more this beautiful way of praying, in which we breathe in the Holy name of the Lord, and breathe out the filth of our sin, which is cleansed by his infinite mercy, filling our heart with peace and making us to feel the presence of Jesus in our heart in a very powerful way. If you want to learn more, please contact me.

Be passionate about our faith!

Read the Spanish version of this column.

Northwest Catholic - June 2018

Mauricio I. Pérez, a member of St. Monica Parish on Mercer Island, is a Catholic journalist. His website is