A Handbook of Spiritual Counsel by St Nicodemos of the
Holy Mountain is available from Amazon
The word 'mind' (nous) as used by St Nicodemos in this text, does not refer to reason, discursive thinking or logical thinking, but to the organ of the soul by which the soul can 'know', that is directly apprehend, spiritual realities; not by drawing conclusions, but directly under the inspiration of divine Grace. The Greek language makes a distinction between nous (translated as 'mind' here) which is the spiritual organ of knowledge of the soul; and diania or 'reason' the organ of knowledge of the brain through the senses and discourse. Orthodox Christian anthropology affirms that man has both organs of knowledge. Thoughts, reason and the senses can interact with the nous, both in a positive and in a negative manner, and in that way affect the heart, the spiritual center of man.
The reading of the following chapter from St Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain, should precede the reading of the Philokalia.
Section One-One Must Guard His Heart from Evil Thoughts More Than His Senses from Harmful Objects
Have you learned how to guard your external senses? Have you learned to guard also the internal and common sense of the imagination? Learn now also how to guard your heart from evil passions and thoughts. The heart is the mystical and hidden chamber of the mind or, in other words, the soul, as we said in the beginning. For, as St. Syngletike said, a ship can sink for two reasons: externally by the waves of the sea, or internally by the failure of the pumps. Thus the soul, too, can be harmed from without through physical things and from within through evil thoughts and desires that rise up in the heart.
This is the reason we must guard our senses from hedonistic and harmful objects, as well as our heart from evil thoughts and passions. It is therefore necessary to be vigilant and to guard both, for both of these may become our downfall. However, one must be more vigilant to guard his heart from evil thoughts and passions than to guard his senses from external harmful inﬂuences.
For if we neglect our evil thoughts, they will become our downfall and perdition, much like the ship that suddenly ﬁnds itself sinking at a time of calm seas when the sailors are sleeping, because they neglected to man the pumps. We must therefore keep in mind that as the center of a wagon wheel has a certain number of spokes going out to the circumference of the circle and returning to the center where they meet, so also is the heart of man like a center where all the senses, all the powers of the body’ and all the activities of the soul are united. The heart is a center that has three aspects: It is a natural, a supernatural, and a para-natural center.
Section Two-The Heart is a Natural Center, and the Essence of the Soul is found in the Heart
The heart is a natural center. Of all the members of the body, it is the heart that is fashioned ﬁrst. St. Basil said: “In the creation of animals the heart is the first to be founded by nature in accordance with the animal that must be analogous to it”. See note 1. Thus the physicians too are of the common opinion that the heart lies at the center of the chest with a slight inclination toward the left side. Thus we can say that the heart, because of the sense itself and the central place where it is found, holds a key position in relation to the whole body.
For this reason it is not only the first to be created of all the members, but it is also the last of the organs to die. The heart is the seat, the root, the beginning, and the source of all the physical energies of the body—-generation, nurture, growth, life, sensation, emotion, desire, and the others. Also the heart is the center of all the natural energies of the soul—thought, reason, and will.
Therefore the essence of the soul as the inner form of the body may not be contained as if in a vessel, since it is bodiless; and yet the soul, as in an organ or carriage, is found at the very core of the heart and at the very core of the most sincere and most pure spirit that intercedes between the body and the mind. Thus the essence and the power of the mind, that is the soul, is not found in the brain as an organ. Only the energy of the mind is found in the brain, as we said at first, (and never mind the newer physicists and metaphysicists who argue that the essence of the soul is found in the brain). To say this is the same as to say that the soul of growth is not originally in the root of the tree but in the branch and the fruit. The teaching of Sacred Scripture and the holy Fathers is truer than the teaching of men.
One of the newer moral philosophers has expressed excellently this position of the heart: The heart as the first of the organs and root of life is also the organ of desire and the interpreter of passions and emotions, because of its marvelous activities. The ocean has received from nature a moderate and appropriate ﬂow, called high and low tide. providing a rest for the ocean as it ﬂows back and forth, like a baby in a cradle. But if this ocean is blown by the cold north wind or by the warm south wind, it is no longer contained within itself, but comes and goes, sometimes rising high toward heaven and sometimes lowering itself to the abyss.
The same divine providence has given to the heart a sort of perpetual and physical motion appropriate to the nature of man that is extended and contracted by innumerable measures to interchange the breathing and to distribute the vital spirits to the whole body. Now, if the heart is troubled by the winds of passions, then by a paradoxical extension or contraction, changing the analogy of physical movement, it changes the emotions. The changes of the heart are as many as are the passions.
It is obvious that the soul is moved first by thought and then the heart by the soul. The first is a physical movement, the second a moral one. It would be a most desirable sight to be able to look through a crystal and to see through the chest the movements of the heart as we see those of a clock.
If the understanding accepts some subject as lovable, the heart as a whole extends itself and rushes forward to receive it. But if a subject is hated, the heart again is all contracted, drawn back, and appears to be going away. In utter joy the heart rejoices and jumps. In sadness and grief, the heart is with- drawn and apparently closed. In anger the heart is agitated and pumps the blood quickly. In fear, it is choked, struggling, and trembling. The smallest part of the ship is the rudder, but every small movement of the rudder causes the whole ship to turn on a wide circle left or right.
Similarly every small movement of the heart, situated at the center, can cause great movements throughout the periphery of the human body: those sweet smiles and tight embraces which one does in answer to a beloved friend; the expression of abhorrence and turning away from something that is undesirable and abominable; the clapping of hands and the jumping up and down when one is pleased; the expression of sighs and laments when one is grieved; the burning sensation in the face; the turning of the eyes and the biting of the teeth in anger; the cold paleness and the terror of fear—all of these are external results of the internal movements of the heart: small at the center but great at the outer perimeter.
Section Three-The Heart Is a Supernatural Center
The heart is also a supernatural center. The supernatural grace of God which we have received through holy baptism is found in the heart-—its seat and throne. Sacred Scripture is the ﬁrst witness of this. For the Lord has said: “The kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:11). St. Paul said: “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us” (Rom 5:5). Again he said: “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba.’ Father!’ ” (Gal 4:6). Elsewhere he said: “That according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with might through his Spirit in the inner man, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith” (Eph 3:16).
The holy Fathers agree with the Holy Scripture. St. Macarios said: “The heart affects the whole organism, and as soon as grace enters the place of the heart, it rules over all the members and the thoughts, for the mind and all the thoughts of the soul are there. ”2
St. Isaac wrote: “If you are pure, behold heaven is within you; and you will see in yourself the angels and their light and their Master with them.”3 Elsewhere St. Isaac wrote: “Seek to enter into your inner chamber and you will see the heavenly chamber, they are one and the same. ”4
St. Diadochos also said: “I have learned from Sacred Scripture and from the mind of perception that before holy baptism grace prompts the soul to good externally, while Satan lies hidden in its depths. But at the hour of our rebirth in holy baptism, the devil is banished from our soul while grace enters.”5
St. Gregory Palamas, interpreting a saying of St. Macarios: “It is necessary to look there to see if the grace of the Spirit has written any laws,” asked, “Where is there?” And he answered: “In the leading organ, in the throne of grace where the mind and all the thoughts of the soul are present, in the heart, of course.” This is the universal confession of all the Fathers and especially of the neptic Fathers.
Section Four-The Heart Is a Para-natural Center
The heart is also a para-natural, that is, an unnatural center. All the unnatural passions, all the blasphemous, proud, shameful, and evil thoughts and all the evil passions, tendencies, appetites, attempts, and consents that we have come to receive from the things of the world are born in the heart and are to be found there. All of these evils can cover over the divine grace which we received at Holy Baptism, much like the ashes covering the spark of ﬁre, as St. Kallistos has noted.
There in the heart are the roots and origins of all the unnatural sins, which we have committed after Holy Baptism, through evil thoughts and deeds and which we even now do and desire to do. There in the heart is also Satan, even though he is not at its core (for divine grace is at the core as St. Diadochos said above). Nevertheless, Satan is at the surface of the heart and simply around the heart, as again St. Diadochos has noted, smoking up the mind through the dampness of the body and the desires and pleasures of the ﬂesh. Thus he is able to project, through the inner reasoning that is naturally spoken in the heart, all the passionate and improper thoughts. This situation is conﬁrmed by Sacred 2 Scripture. The Creator of the hearts has taught us to know: “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what deﬁle a man” (Mt 15:19).
Again another passage: “When the unclean spirit has gone out of a man, he passes through waterless places seeking rest, but he ﬁnds none. Then he says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when he comes, he ﬁnds it empty, swept, and put in order. Then he goes and brings with him seven other spirits more evil than himself, and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first” (Mt 12:43-45).
Do you hear? “They enter and dwell . . .” Where? In the heart, of course, in the inner man. The tradition of the holy Fathers conﬁrms this word of Scripture. St. Gregory the Theologian wrote in his Homily on Baptism and in his heroic elegies: “You came to me again, O deceiver, as you planned, grazing within the depths of my heart.”6 St. Basil too wrote: “We must ﬁrst of all consider it a blessing to be pure in thought. The reason is that the root of the activities of the body is the will of the heart.
For the sin of adultery begins to burn ﬁrst in the soul of the hedonist and then the corruption of the body is brought about. Therefore the Lord warned us that the things which deﬁle us come from within” 7.
St. John Chrysostom and generally all the Fathers agree in their interpretation of this passage from Scripture. Especially signiﬁcant is the comment of St. Macarios about guarding the heart: “Enter by controlling your thoughts into your mind that is a captive and a slave of sin; detect there him who is lower than mind and deeper than your thoughts, in the so-called chambers of your soul; see there the cowering serpent that has brought death to your most vital members. The heart is indeed an incomprehensible abyss. Only when you succeed in killing this demon in your heart can you dare to take pride in being pure before God. Otherwise, humble yourself as wanting and sinful and pray to God for your hidden sins. ” 8
Section Five-In What Way Does the Mind Return to the Heart and That This Return Is Not a Deception?
In addition to everything that has been said, let me also say that you must guard your mind, that is, the activity of the mind, and your heart. You know that every essential activity has a natural relation with the essence and power that activates it. Naturally, it returns to it, is united to it, and ﬁnds rest in it. For this reason, you too, must do this because you have liberated the activity of your mind and of all the external things of the world by guarding your senses and your imagination, as we have already noted.
Now it is necessary to return this activity to your own essence and power, that is, to return your mind to your heart, which is the organ (and the center) of the essence and power of the mind, and thus to review spiritually the whole of the inner man. This return of the mind in the beginner is usually done, as the holy Fathers teach, with the bending of the head so that the chin is touching the chest.
This spiritual meditation is referred to by St, Dionysios Areopagites, who mentions three forms: the direct, the spiral, and ﬁnally the circular, which alone is certain and without deception.
It is referred to as the circular meditation because as the periphery of the circle returns to itself and is united, so also in this circular movement the mind returns to itself and becomes one. St. Dionysios noted: “The movement of the soul is circular; leaving the externals, it enters into itself and unites its spiritual powers in a circular movement that provides a gift of truth.”9 St. Basil also noted: “A mind that is not distracted toward the externals, nor is scattered by the senses to the world, returns to itself and through itself rises to the understanding of God. ”10
St. Gregory Palamas has noted that it is possible for deception to enter the direct and spiral meditations, but not into the circular meditation."11 Direct meditation is the activity of the mind based on external perceptions that raise the mind to a simple intellectual activity. Spiral meditation occurs when the mind is illumined by divine knowledge, not entirely spiritually and apophatically, but rather intellectually and cataphatically, combining direct and some circular meditation.
Therefore, those who love to meditate without deception must occupy themselves more with the circular meditation of the mind, which is accomplished by the return of the mind to the heart and the spiritual prayer of the heart. The more this prayer is difﬁcult and painful the more fruitful it becomes because it is free of deception.
This is the most important, the most sublime activity of the mind. This sublime meditation, this prayer of the heart, unites the mind with God; it puriﬁes, illumines, and perfects the mind much more than all the algebra, all the physical and metaphysical and all the other sciences of secular philosophy. This prayer of the heart makes man spiritual and a seer of God, but those other intellectual disciplines make him only a natural (φυσικός) man. “The unspiritual (natural) man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him” (1 Cor 2:14).
Man is not made worthy of this purity and this illumination and perfection by simply meditating brieﬂy in this circular way from the mind to the heart. One must practice this prayer for a long time; it is only then that it reveals the ineffable mysteries of God, as St. Gregory Palamas wrote."12. Man must humble himself, retire in silence, and cut himself off from everything that will cause agitation and obstruction to his prayer. But even then he must leave everything to God. If God considers it advantageous to offer spiritual graces, all well and good.
But If not, we must continue to do our work, which is this return of the mind to the heart, this vigilance and this most spiritual prayer. We must be careful not to be overcome by a desire for spiritual gifts and allow deception to enter instead of truth. Above all one must keep even in this spiritual activity “a perfect measure" without excess or want.
Section Six-When the Mind Is in the Heart It Must Be Praying
When your mind is in the heart it should not simply be there. Having discovered reason, that is, the inner reason of the heart through which we can reason intuitively to ourselves, composing, judging, analyzing, and reading whole books mystically, without ever saying a single word with the mouth, then, let the mind not say anything else except the short prayer of the heart: “Lord Jesus Christ Son of God, have mercy on me.”
But it is not enough to do this only: It is necessary also to overcome the willpower of the soul so that the prayer is said with all of your will and power and love.
Let me say it more clearly. Let your inner understanding say only the Jesus Prayer; let your mind pay attention through its spiritual vision and hearing to the words of the prayer only and especially to the meaning of the words, without any forms or shapes and without imagining any other perceptible or intelligible thing internal or external, even if it is good.
Because God transcends all beings both visible and invisible, the human mind seeking to be united with him through prayer must go out of all beings that are perceptible or intelligible in order to achieve this divine union. Therefore, as St. Neilos said: “While you are praying do not attempt to give shape to the divine, not allow any image to be impressed upon your mind but approach the spiritual spiritually and you shall understand "13.
At the same time have your will join itself through love to the same words of the prayer.
Thus the mind, the inner reason, and your will—these three aspects of your soul—will be one and the one three, so that in this way man, who is an image of the Holy Trinity, is united with the prototype, as St. Gregory Palamas, that great teacher of spiritual prayer and vision, has taught us. “When the unity of the mind is made triune, while remaining uniﬁed, then it is attached to the divine principle of the triune monad and excludes every entry of deception, transcending thus the ﬂesh, the world and the ruler of this world.” 14.
Even though St Nicodemos insists it is good for beginners to control their breathing while praying the Jesus Prayer (see section seven below), the general consensus in our day is that one should NOT attempt this, unless directed by one’s spiritual father. This caution applies only to section seven.
Section Seven-Why One Needs to Control his Breath in Prayer
The mind, the activity of the mind, is used from a very early age to be scattered toward the external physical things of the world. For this reason when you say this sacred prayer do not breathe continually as is natural to our nature, but hold your breath until your inner consciousness has a chance to say the prayer once. Then let your breath out, as the holy Fathers have taught us.
By holding your breath even for this short interval the heart is pressed and troubled and feels pain for ‘not receiving natural oxygen. The mind on the other hand is much more readily controlled to return to the heart, both because of the pain and suffering of the heart but also because of the pleasure that is created from this warm and vivid memory of God.
When God is remembered a pleasure and gladness is experienced by the one who remembers, as the psalmist said: “I remembered God and was made glad” (Ps 77:3— in the Septuagint-LXX). Where there is a sense of pain and suffering there the mind is summoned to return, according to the philosopher Aristotle.
By holding the breath, the usually hard and thick heart is somewhat reﬁned and warmed through this slight suffering. Consequently it becomes soft, sensitive, humble, and more capable of contrition and tears. At the same time the mind becomes more reﬁned and its activity is more reﬁned, more clear and more capable of a supernatural illumination from God.
When the breathing is interrupted, the heart feels pain. Through this pain the heart expels the poisonously baited hook of pleasure and sin, which had been previously swallowed, and thus you have the therapy of action and reaction, according to the physicians. This is why St. Mark said that “the memory of God is a pain to the heart [that is done] for the sake of piety; everyone who forgets God experiences sweetness but remains unhealed.”‘15
Again he said, “The mind that prays without distractions grieves the heart; a broken and humble heart God will not despise.”16 This controlling of the breathing also unites all the powers of the soul to return to the mind and through the mind to God, which is the marvelous thing.
Thus man offers to God the whole of the visible and invisible creation of which he is the link and the arena of both, according to St. Gregory of Thessaloniki. 17 I said above that the beginners especially have need of this momentary control of breathing when they pray.
Those who are already advanced in this spiritual activity can enter the heart and remain there without the control of breathing but only through the inner consciousness. Nevertheless, even these when they want to return the mind into the heart more earnestly (and especially at a time of war with thoughts and passions) and through this return to pray in a more uniﬁed way, they do this by controlling momentarily their breathing (cf. 1 Kgs 18:42——-Prophet Elijah praying on Mt. Carmel).
Such then in brief is the remarkable prayer of the heart of the holy Fathers, and if you desire to know more about it, read in the Philokalia the Homily of St. Nikephoros, the discourses of St. Gregory Palamas in defense of the Hesychasts, and the hundred chapters of Kallistos and Ignatios Xanthopoulos, as well as the writings of St. Gregory Sinaite.
I advise you fervently then to preoccupy yourself with this prayer of the heart as a permanent and ceaseless activity together with the other seven-part service of prayer, which you read daily according to the ancient practice of the Church. In doing so you will be speaking in your heart through your inner consciousness the sweet name of Jesus that is so beloved by the people and by all. You will be contemplating Jesus through your mind. You will be desiring and loving Jesus through your will. You will be returning all the powers of your soul to Jesus and from him will be seeking mercy and contrition and humility.
If however you are not always able to ﬁnd time for this because of your concerns in the world and the many disturbances, you should at least set aside one or two hours especially at night when you can remove yourself to a quiet and dark place for this sacred and spiritual activity.
I assure you that you will enjoy many beneﬁts from such prayer and will reap an abundant harvest. Listen now to what are, in brief, the fruits of this prayer of the heart.
Section Eight-The Fruits of Spiritual Prayer
1. These are the fruits of this spiritual work, when the mind becomes accustomed to remaining in the heart and away from the beautiful things of this world, avoiding and hating the physical pleasures of the senses. St. Diadochos said: “He who remains always in his heart avoids all the beautiful things of the world, and living in the spirit he cannot experience the desires of the ﬂesh.”‘18.
Similarly, such a person also avoids the delusion of the imagination that activates evil and shameful thoughts. By lowering quietly his activity, bare and refined, down to the inner consciousness of the heart, he dismantles every heavy idol or image of the imagination, on account of the narrowness of the place of the heart, just as the serpent sheds his old skin when it passes through a narrow passage.
In fact when the mind becomes accustomed to remaining in the heart, it not only loves to close the door of its cell and to remain quietly; it not only loves to close the door of its mouth and remain silently; it also uses its authority to close even the door of the inner consciousness so that it does not permit evil spirits and devils to speak through it those evil and sinful thoughts that they do desire to impose upon us.
For it is through such evil thoughts that man becomes impure before God, who discerns the hearts and inner life of men.
Thus St. John Climacus wrote: “Close the cell-door to the body, the door of the tongue to talking and the inner gate to the evil spirits”19.
2. When the mind enters the heart and sees there spiritually with the eyes of the soul the ugly and shameful form with which it is covered, and the despicable mask it has put on from the improper visions which it has looked upon, and the shameful hearing which it has heard and simply from the baser activity of the senses and the world, then it acquires humility, sorrow, and tears. And as St. Mark noted, how can one not be so humbled after seeing the whole place of his heart so darkened and clouded with a thick and deep darkness brought about by the sins committed by word, deed, and thought?” 20.
How can the poor man not grieve and be sad, seeing his consciousness so ﬁlled with pride and with so many irrational, blasphemous, and satanic thoughts? How can he not shed tears, the miserable one, seeing his soul or will so captivated by so many shameful and evil thoughts and by so many undisciplined passions against the neighbor? And, in a word, how can he not feel contrition and shed tears of blood? Or how can he not in his misery cry out to Jesus to show mercy upon him and to heal him? Does he not see his heart enslaved and tied down by so many passions? Is it not hardened by a rocklike insensitivity and by so many wounds? Does he not see the whole inner man, not as the temple of God and of grace, but as a den of thieves and a workshop of sin and the devils?
Therefore through this humiliation, this sorrow and tears, God shows compassion for him and comforts him from the onslaught of the passions and liberates him from the attacks of devils and devilish thoughts.
3. This return of the mind to the heart and its ﬁrm abode there to contemplate and to guard itself in maintaining spiritual prayer be- comes a clear mirror, as St. Kallistos said, for the mind to see therein the evil tendencies of his heart, the evil movements of his thoughts, the attacks and robberies and ambushes of the evil spirits.
There man can simply see all his faults, even the most insigniﬁcant. Thus he can call upon Jesus to help him, to forgive him; he repents, he grieves, he prostrates himself, he adds sorrow to sorrow, humility to humility, and does everything he possibly can to correct himself and to sin no more. This is the reason why St. John Climacus wrote about this type of prayer: “Your prayer will reveal to you your [spiritual] condition, for it is called the mirror of the monks by the theologians.”21
4. Another fruit is the purity of nature and through this purity of nature the given supernatural activity of divine grace of the Holy Spirit. For as the holy Fathers discovered natural organs, manners, and methods in the use of fasting, of vigils, of sleeping on the ground, of prostrations, of obeisances, of self-control and the rest of the deprivations and hardships imposed upon the body, in order to purify the human nature from the passions which entered it against nature, they also by the same token discovered this natural method of returning the mind to the heart in order to purify somewhat more readily and more quickly the mind and the heart.
These, of course, are not only the most important organs of man, but also the most vulnerable to evil and capable of attracting all the other members of the body to sin. Thus through the mind and the heart the human nature as a whole is puriﬁed of the evil passions and made capable of receiving the supernatural grace and activity of God.
This method of prayer puriﬁes our nature faster, because the very work and the subject matter with which it is preoccupied is the ﬁrst, catholic, and most comprehensive commandment of all: for man to love God with all of his soul, all of his heart, all of his power, and all of his mind. Through this commandment especially, (but through the others also) man receives the supernatural grace of God.
In guarding the heart and keeping it pure, one can also keep all the divine commandments of Christ. For in truth this is how it is. The guarding of the mind and the heart and the spiritual prayer of the heart that is thus made possible has as its subject matter the commandment to love God. But by virtue of the power of this one commandment all of the other commandments are also included and fulﬁlled. This is why the Lord said: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15).
It is obvious that because the commandment to love God is the first, the most universal, and the most comprehensive, he who keeps it well will also keep all the other commandments included in it. For in the love of God is also included the love of neighbor: “He who loves God should love his brother, also” (1 John 4:21).
Again, in the love of neighbor all the other more particular commandments are included and recapitulated, as St. Paul wrote: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulﬁlled the law. The commandments ‘You shall not commit adultery, you shall not kill, you shall not steal, you shall not covet,’ and any other commandments, are summed up in this sentence, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ ” (Rom 13:8-9).
Even though there are many commandments, they are all recapitulated in the one word to love the Lord God with all of your strength and your neighbor as yourself. He who struggles and keeps this word of God also keeps all the other commandments of God.
5. When the mind of a person becomes accustomed to entering the heart, to converse with his inner consciousness and to ﬁnd his will and to contemplate upon himself and all his activities, it does not remain without joy and gladness. Thus, as when a person who has been away from home rejoices to return and to see his wife and his children, so also the mind rejoices to return to the heart.
Leaving all the other beneﬁts and the supernatural gifts which a person receives from this spiritual return of the mind to the heart and the prayer of the heart, I come now directly to the main purpose and say this only: Dearest friend, through this spiritual prayer of the heart you can guard your mind and your heart, if not completely pure and dispassionate-— for this is very difﬁcult to achieve in the world—[not to mention that this is also difﬁcult in the desert and in silence because of the evil and the laxity of our generation, as St. John Climacus noted] at least you can guard them to be in the least passionate and as much as possible pure.
God has given us such a commandment to guard our heart from the evil passions and the evil thoughts which rise in our mind. “Take heed lest there be a base thought in your heart” (Deuteronomy 15:9). Solomon also wrote: “Keep your heart with all vigilance; for from it ﬂow the springs of life” (Proverbs 4:23).
Section Nine-Why We Must Guard Our Heart
Why does Solomon insist with such great emphasis: “Keep your heart with all vigilance.” As we said, the heart is the center of all the senses. (These senses considered externally are ﬁve and different, but considered internally in the heart the ﬁve become one uniﬁed sense, according to St. Diadochos."22
By the same token, the lines in a circle when seen outside the center appear to be many and separate, but when they are observed at the center they all appear to be one.) The heart is also the center of all the powers of the soul and of the body. It is therefore difﬁcult, rather impossible, for this heart to be cleansed unless all the other senses and powers of the soul (and body) are cleansed.
For if one sense only or one power of the soul is polluted, the pollution is sent directly to the heart, just as each spoke in a wheel goes directly to the center. When the heart is polluted, the pollution is transmitted and divided into all the other senses and powers of the soul, as the wise St. Gregory Palamas has noted in his treatise on prayer.
St. Isaac has taught us that, while the mind is easily cleansed, it can also be easily polluted; the heart however as it is cleansed with great difﬁculty it is also difﬁcult to be polluted: “The purity of the mind is one thing, but another of the heart.
The mind (nous) is one of the senses of the soul, and if one attempts diligently to study Sacred Scripture or to struggle a little in fasting and vigils, his mind will be cleansed. . . . But since it is easily cleansed it is also easily polluted. The heart contains and holds the inner senses and is the root. If the root is holy so are the branches holy. That is, if the heart is puriﬁed, it is obvious that all the senses will also be pure. Once the heart is puriﬁed, it is not easily polluted again by small things”23.
For all these reasons then, it is necessary to guard the heart so that it is not polluted by evil thoughts and consents to sin which would attack it either by the external senses or by the inner thoughts and activities of the soul. For as the antlers of deer or other chemical substances when burned can cause snakes to ﬂee from a place, so also must the guarding of the heart banish evil thoughts and passions from it by the fragrant incense of spiritual prayer.
St. Syngletike reminded us of this constant vigilance: “It is necessary constantly to clean out the house and to see that nothing harmful to the soul penetrates into the chambers of the soul, by censing (using incense) these places with the divine incense of prayer. For as poisonous creatures are sent away by certain other strong poisons, so also are evil thoughts banished by prayer and fasting"24.
Section Ten-Through Spiritual Prayer We Find the Hidden Grace in the Heart
If you guard your heart to be pure, knowing, as we said, that it is the center of the supernatural, the natural, and the unnatural, it is obvious that through this guarding of the heart you will also guard there the good things and virtues of nature.
Also you will obviously protect yourself from other unnatural and evil inﬂuences. In time and with the help of sweetest Jesus who will be constantly remembered and found in your heart, you will rise up to the level of the supernatural.
By rising up through this spiritual work and by removing the dirt and the ashes of evil passions and thoughts and superstitions from your heart, which contains within itself the covered spark of the supernatural grace of God, you will also ﬁnd this very spark which Christ came to light upon the earth of the heart.
And when you do discover this most precious spark in your heart you will experience an ineffable joy and this joy will cause you to shed tears of great sweetness. Afterward, by placing over this spark, as kindling, the work of the life-giving commandments of the Lord and the various other acquired virtues, and by blowing upon them with fervent willingness and love, you will light up a strange and supernatural ﬁre in your heart.
Rather it will be Jesus whom you remember who will light this ﬁre, and who will burn up with His warmth the evil passions and the demons that attack you, banish the insults of evil thoughts, and sweeten the whole inner disposition of your heart——granting you joy, peace, love for God, and love for your neighbor. “A devouring ﬁre is the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 9:3),who destroys matter and evil habits, who enlightens your mind with his light and ﬁlls it with the light of knowledge and discretion.
Thus through this spiritual work you will establish the whole of your inner self to be a temple and a dwelling place of the Holy Spirit, while your heart especially will be a holy altar, a sacred sanctuary. Your mind, moreover, will be a priest; your will and disposition will be a sacriﬁce; your prayer of the heart to God will be an offering of spiritual fragrance, as St. Basil used to say. May our most beloved Jesus make us worthy of such graces——-ﬁrst all those who read this book of spiritual counsels and ﬁnally the one who is writing it.
This is why again I beseech you not to neglect this beneﬁcial to the soul and salutary work. Abandon constantly going out and the much companionship and the untimely conversations. Remain quietly in your home and preoccupy yourself with this return of your mind to your heart, as St. Isaac has instructed us. “We must insist and persist monastically and with simplicity toward our inner self where there are neither impressions of thoughts nor visions of composite things.”25
Visit therefore frequently your inner temple that is holy unto God, as David desired to do by visiting God's temple: “O Lord, I love the habitation of thy house, and the place where thy glory dwells” (Psalm 26:8). Banish out of this holy temple every evil passion and thought, as the Lord banished out of the sacred temple of God all the sacrilegious merchants. Such passions and evil thoughts pollute the heart and the temple of God in the heart and deprive us of the grace of God. As Solomon said: “For perverse thoughts separate men from God” (Wisdom 1:3).
And again, “The thoughts of the wicked are an abomination to the Lord” (Proverbs 15:26). The Lord himself alluded to this when he expelled the merchants from the temple: “My house shall be called a place of prayer; but you make it a den of robbers” (Mattew 21:13). No doubt you will have to make a certain amount of effort in the beginning, but afterward when you become used to it and taste of the spiritual sweetness you will receive great comfort.
Section Eleven-The Mind Has the Natural Attribute to Find Rest in the Heart
Everybody ﬁnds calm and rest at their center. As snails ﬁnd rest within their crusty shell, as octopus in their chamber, as four-footed land animals in their dens, and as birds in their nests, so also with man, whose mind has the natural attribute to be calm, to ﬁnd rest and to be in peace when it enters the heart and the inner man.
Man too has the body as a region and a dwelling, and the heart as its own center and room for resting. St. Isaac called the heart “the house of understanding’’26. And as the animals when troubled and frightened run to their dens to be protected, so also the mind of man, when troubled by some assault of evil thoughts or some other internal or external circumstance, runs to the heart and shouts, “My Jesus help me! My Jesus save me!” and is thus liberated.
St. John Climacus said: “The name of Jesus, chastises enemies” and “Let the memory of Jesus be united with may breathing and then you will know the beneﬁt of silence”27. The Apostle Peter preached: “And there is salvation in no one else except Jesus for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
This is why St. Macarios also noted; “For as it is not possible for the eye to see without light and for speech to be made without a tongue, or for hearing to take place Without an ear, so also it is not possible without Christ to be saved and to enter the kingdom of heaven. ”28
But even if you acquire no other beneﬁt from this spiritual return of the mind into the heart, you will in the very least acquire a knowledge of your sins and your illness. With this knowledge you can be humble and can repent before God.
This is why St. Isaac said: “A man who comes to know the extent of his illness has also attained the perfection of humility”29. Without this guarding of the mind and of the heart, it is impossible to know when one is mistaken either by words or by thoughts. Also one will often fall into sin, into serious sins, but will not be sensitive to it. Consequently, he does not grieve for such sins and does not repent.
A certain Father was right when he said that he who examines carefully his thoughts will also keep the commandments of God. St. Isaac said: “Man’s victory and his loss, his treasure and his understanding and everything that has to do with an ascetic are all together in his thoughts and can take place with a small gesture”30. For as another Father said, “One thought saves and another thought destroys a man.” This is why the Preacher said, “One sinner destroys much good” (Ecclesiastes 9:17).
Section Twelve-The Perpetual Memory of the Name of Jesus Cultivates Our Love for Him
Let me again for a third time beseech you to have Jesus as the sweet contemplation of your heart; let Jesus be the preoccupation of your tongue; let Jesus be the honorable shape and idea in your mind. In brief, let Jesus be your breath and never grow tired of calling upon Jesus. From such a perpetual and most sweet memory of Jesus, those great theological virtues—faith, hope and love—will grow and mature and become great trees in your heart.
Know that when a lover is far from his beloved there is no other consolation for him but to constantly remember the name of the beloved person. When Emperor Leo the wise was banished from Constantinople, his mother found some consolation in repeating his name constantly: “My Leo, my Leo, my son.” She spoke these words so often that the parrot who heard them learned to repeat them.
Thus the soul that loves Jesus but cannot see and enjoy him because he is in heaven and not present cannot be consoled in any other manner except by constant remembrances of his holy name, calling him always with love and tears and pain of heart: “My Jesus, my beloved Jesus!”
This is why St. Isaac told us: “When the mind is moved to remember God, the heart is directly moved in love and the eyes produce many tears. It is the habit of love to shed tears when remembering the beloved person”31. By remembering Jesus and saying the Jesus Prayer we cultivate in our heart love for Jesus and His commandments.
What is more blessed, what is more happy, what is more sweet than to contemplate always the most glorious, the most pleasant, and the most beloved name of Jesus Christ, through Whom anything anyone asks of the Father and of him himself one receives without fail? “Whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you” (John 15:16). And again, “Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it, that the Father may be gloriﬁed in the Son” (John 14:13).
What other thought and recollection is more graceful and divine than the thought and recollection of the salutary, divine, and fearful name of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, whose name is above every name and before whom every knee shall bow? St. Paul said: “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory Of God the Father” (Phil 2:9-11).
I have said these things to you out of the abundant love which I have for your salvation. All of these things, like a parrot, I have learned Well out of the sacred books of the God-inspired Fathers and have heard through the living voice of certain spiritual fathers who have in Part experienced these things. Because of my own laxity and my passions. I have not been able to learn any of these things through my own experience.
Section Thirteen-It Is Very Appropriate to Teach Those Who Are in the World about Spiritual Prayer
Yes, I am aware that some may criticize me for writing to a person living in the world about those things that are appropriate for monks living outside the world. But if these persons are justified or not in criticizing me, I will keep silent and say only that indeed I have done it.
I have done this, ﬁrst, because of my great love for your salvation. For it is characteristic of friends to reveal to each other their secrets. “I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (]ohn 15:15). God is not a body, and does not delight in worship offerings made to him through the body (even though God’s worshipers who have a material body are obliged to worship God with bodily worship); God is spirit and mind and of all the spirits and minds he is the ﬁrst.
Therefore God delights more in the worship offered to him through the mind and the spirit because they are more akin to his nature. “Every creature loves its like” (Sirah 13:15). The Son of God taught us this truth when he said: “The true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (]ohn 4:23-24). Such spiritual and true worship is especially carried out through the spiritual prayer of the heart.
St. Paul too has given a direction to all the Christians without exception to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). According to St. Basil and St. John Chrysostom this constant prayer is best achieved through the prayer of the heart that can be activated anytime, anywhere, and during all forms of activity. Again St. Paul has directed Timothy to remember Jesus Christ: “Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead”
(2 Timothy 2:2). St. Gregory the Theologian said: ‘‘It is more important to remember God than to breathe”32. Another Father has said that God requires of us to remember him always because he always provides for us everything—-our existence and our breath.
St. Gregory Sinaite did not teach the art of spiritual prayer only to the monks of the Holy Mountain, but beginning from the mountain he traveled and taught all the people, all the way into Blachia. St. Gregory Palamas too, in many of his homilies encouraged all the Christians to pray spiritually in the heart. He even devoted an entire treatise which he sent to John and Theodore, the philosophers who were in the world, and in which he revealed to them all the mysteries of this sacred prayer and puriﬁcation.
St. Diadochos said that the devil does not like to see people learn and believe, for he is in the heart and from there he attacks them. However, he just loves to make them think that he attacks them from the outside. Therefore most persons, and oftentimes highly educated persons, do not realize that these thoughts come to them from within—from the heart—-and not from the head or some other place, as they think.
Thus by not learning the truth they are unable to attack him through the contemplation of Jesus Christ in the heart. This then is the reason why I have explained to you the deceptive ways of the devil, so that you may know and ﬁght against him through prayer of the heart”33.
1. Commentary on Psalm 1.
2. Homily 15.
3. Homily 44.
4. Homily 30.
5. St. Diadochos, ch. 76.
6. "Ηλυθες αύθις έμοιγε δολόπλοκε, ως ενοήθης. Βένθος εμης καρδίης, ένδοθι βοσκόμενος"
7. Commentary on Psalm 1.
8. On Guarding the Heart, ch. 1.
9. Divine Names, ch. 4.
10. Epistle 1.
11. In one of his letters to Barlaam.
12. On Prayer, ch. 2.
13. St. Neilos, ch. 67.
14. On Prayer, ch. 2.
15 . On Those Who Think They Are justiﬁed by Works, ch. 1.
17. Quoted in the Life of Peter.
18. St. Diadochos, ch. 57.
19. The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Homily 27.
20- On Those Who Think They Are Justiﬁed by Works, ch. 1.
21. The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Homily 28.
22. St. Diadochos, ch. 24.
23. St Isaac, ch. 83.
24. Biography of St. Syngletike
25 . St. Isaac, Epistle 4
26. St Isaac Homily 69
27. St John Climacus, The Ladder, Homily 27
28. St. Macarius, Homily 3, ch. 4
29. St Isaac Homily 73
30. St. Isaac Homily 54
31. St Isaac Homily 85
32. Against Eunomios
33. See more about this subject in the introduction and at the end of the Philokalia.