Merton and Hesychasm

Gray Henry and Jonathan Montaldo (Editors), “Merton and Hesychasm: The Prayer of the Heart and the Eastern Church” (The Fons Vitae Thomas Merton series) [Fons Vitae, 2003]
Merton and hesychasm
“This profound work introduces the West to Eastern Christian spirituality through the lens of Thomas Merton, as practiced from the time of the Desert Fathers. Contributors to this volume present the riches of Christian contemplative methods and experience dating back to their original Christian source.”

Among the riches presented are: Key explanatory essays by Oxford’s Bishop Kallistos Ware (translator of the Philokalia) on this spiritual methodology, including “Praying with the Body”; illuminating writings on the subject by other authorities such as the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and a transcription of Merton’s lectures on the Prayer of the Heart delivered at Gethsemani.

Edited by Jonathan Montaldo, president of the International Thomas Merton Society and author of extensive works on Merton including “The Intimate Merton”.

The work includes a chaper, “Love for God and Mutual Charity:Thomas Merton’s Lectures on Hesychasm to the Novices at the Abbey of Gethsemani”, transcribed and edited by Bernadette Dieker, from which comes the following reflection on the recitation of the Jesus Prayer to drive away distracting thoughts.

“The idea is first finding your heart, getting completely centered inside where the struggle is going on, and then in your heart socking this stuff with the most powerful thing that you’ve got, which is the Name of Jesus. So you take the Jesus Prayer and you get this in the center of your heart and everything that comes up, WHAM! And you really don’t fool around, you hit it. And you hit it out loud to begin with. You’re in a cell, you’re by yourself, you’re not in the Church, and you learn this prayer by saying it with your lips, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Then you say that about 5,000 times. You keep saying it…You really work at this thing. It becomes a full time project, and you keep it up until you or the thought gives up. It’s “either/or.” Now of course this is a bit drastic. I don’t think this is what most people need to do, but it’s good to recognize that this is a basic approach that some people have. Obviously there are simpler ways of doing it, but this is the way these fellows do it.
Merton 3
Then, after saying it with your lips, you learn that you don’t have to say it out loud, you can just whisper it, and then it gets a lot quieter and you begin to calm down quite a bit. Of course, this is over a period of time. Then it becomes mental, and you think of it purely in your mind. You don’t say any words anymore, and then it gets down into your heart. Mind, Heart, see. And when it gets into your heart, it’s a question that the mind and the heart have to be one. This is the key to the whole thing. A very complex idea, it’s a very deep idea, actually. A deep psychological idea of uniting your mind and your heart. This is the key to the whole thing. It takes an awful lot of understanding, and a great deal of work, uniting the mind and the heart. What do they mean by that? Well, that requires quite a lot of discussion. The real fruit of the thing is when the prayer becomes completely spiritual–this follows pretty much the old Greek pattern of words, concepts, and then beyond concepts. This is the way that they go at this thing, and I think that it’s very interesting. We’ll come across this all the way down–there’s the whole tradition, all through Russian spirituality which keeps coming back to this, and this is one of the big things in the nineteenth century. This is one of the sources of nineteenth century Russian mysticism. I think if we keep the idea of serious interior asceticism centered on this idea of a prayer of the heart which is effective in socking these things, but don’t try to do it in the wrong way. Just keep in your memory that there is such a method, but that you can’t do it just by wanting to. But it’s something that is worth considering and you might look into it in the future as something that may have something to it. I’ll say at least that much.”


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