St. Macarius [one of the desert hermits] was asked to explain a phrase of a Psalm: “The meditation of my heart is in your sight.” He proceeded to give one of the earliest descriptions of the “prayer of the heart” which consisted in invoking the name of Christ, with profound attention, in the very ground of one’s being, that is to say “in the heart” considered as the root and source of all one’s own inner truth. To invoke the name of Christ “in one’s heart” was equivalent to calling upon him with the deepest and most earnest intensity of faith, manifested by the concentration of one’s entire being upon a prayer stripped of all non-essentials and reduced to nothing but the invocation of his name with the simple petition for help. Macarius said: “There is no other perfect meditation than the saving and blessed Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ dwelling without interruption in you, as it is written ‘I will cry out like the swallow and I will meditate like the turtledove!’ This is what is done by the devout [person] who perseveres in invoking the saving Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” –Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer (New York: Image Books, 1996), p. 22.
Merton goes on to describe the development of this form of prayer into a rich tradition in Eastern monasticism, but here he is interested in the “heart” of the matter, the invocation of the Name of Jesus with loving attention. To do this involves a turning of the whole person toward the divine mercy, summed up and expressed in the person of Jesus, who is present in the Holy Name, which as Scripture reminds us is closely tied to his role as Savior. To dwell on his Name is to invite his presence and that of the Spirit of love. Other forms of prayer may be desirable to cultivate, but true prayer is not so much a technique as a gift. In the utterly simple prayer of the heart, we turn to God empty handed and cry out for the Gift in whom all other gifts are given.
The prayer of the heart is closely related to what monastic tradition calls being “recollected.” This notion is itself analogous to what Twelve Step recovery names “serenity,” or what is meant by “centering prayer.” It would be an error to think of this as a withdrawal from the world. Serenity is not removal from the storm but peace within the storm. Centering prayer must never become “self-centering prayer.” Rather it is an attempt to pay attention to the inescapable presence of God, which grounds our very existence. The mercy of God comes as an unbidden gift, not because God ever leaves us, but because we choose to turn away. As Augustine once summed up the matter “You were with me; I was not with you.”
In dwelling on the Name of Jesus with loving attention, we remember who we are and whose we are, and we are plunged into the never failing river of grace that makes glad the City of God. To the extent that we are open to this grace, we will die to every lying way, to every overreach of ego, to all self-hatred and malice toward our neighbor. We will also find ourselves, as we are taken lifted up by the hand and given new life in the Kingdom.
Never underestimate the power of the Name, or the simplicity of true prayer. In the end, it is always the cry of a dearly beloved but frail and poor creature for help. And it is always answered before it so much as finds its voice. For the desire to pray is itself a grace, the beginning of an answer. And the act of prayer is at once our very own action, and the work of the living God.