Thomas Merton on Hesychastic Prayer  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Today marks the centennial of Thomas Merton's birth.  Although he died in 1968, his influence remains significant today, and extends far beyond the bounds of the Roman Catholic Church.  A Trappist monk, his spiritual interests likewise extended far beyond the bounds of Western monasticism.  He was particularly engaged with the hesychastic tradition of Eastern Orthodoxy.  As novice master of Gethsemani he was charged with teaching the young monks about asceticism and mystical theology.  He did not exclude the Christian East from his syllabus. 

A sample of this can be found in Merton and Hesychasm, Bernadette Dieker  and Jonathan Montaldo, eds, Louisville, Kentucky, Fons Vitae, 2003.  The chapter is "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.  The quote below, found on pp 471-472, deals with 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.

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.

This entry was posted on Saturday, January 31, 2015 at Saturday, January 31, 2015 . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


Hi, I've been reading Thomas Merton's 'Contemplative Prayer'. In it he mentions 'the prayer of the heart' many times, but never gets around to explicitly saying what it is. It's kind of assumed by his target audience. I suspected it was the Jesus Prayer, or it may have just been the name of Jesus. Either way, I wasn't sure. I'm glad I found your post. Thank you!

August 17, 2015 at 6:42 PM

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