The Prayer of the Heart

Gurdjieff taught that techniques such as fasting, confession and prayer were not only valuable but essential for any seeker. Gurdjieff gave few indications about prayer, but he knew of and used certain Eastern methods of praying. Is it possible to develop these indications with a view to making prayer something practical?

Of particular importance are what are often called the prayers of repetition, such as the Prayer of the Heart and the Jesus Prayer. I prefer to call these “continuing prayer”. Here, etymology is enlightening. “Continue” is derived from two Latin roots, *SCOM meaning “together” and *TA / *TEN, “stretch, hold”. [*SCOM appears in Greek as “ksun” and “sun”, while in Latin the s was kept in words like “sequor” meaning “I follow”, while in words like “cum” and “con” meaning “with”, the s disappeared and the c was retained.] So, etymologically, in “continuous prayer”, the instantaneous prayer of this moment touches the instantaneous prayer of the next moment. It is an action of prayerful attention perpetuated by wish, will and – most important of all – grace.

 Continuing prayer is the “safe place” of which Mr Adie spoke to us, what he would call the “inner tabernacle” and the “oratory”. Continuing prayer is the amethyst jewel which transforms poisons into wine, it is the lamp of Galadriel which dispels dreams. It is the philosopher’s stone which converts lead to gold, because it is awareness in the intellectual part of feeling centre, and thus the bridge to intellectual part of intellectual centre and to the higher centres. This praying is inside us, as Mr Adie said. But this does not mean that it is not somehow spread among organs and blood vessels. In his words, “inside” means permeating me and my atmosphere. My “inside”, odd as it may sound, extends for about a metre all around me. One can use the planet as an analogy. In some notes published as “Notes on Saint John’s Gospel”, an anonymous pupil of Ouspensky wrote:

 “Earth is enclosed and enwrapped in a great flame of radiant power. The same power is stored inside every living form, waiting for some shock that will set it free.”

 I sense a certain truth in that. The Christian techniques of prayer can provide such shocks, but as Ouspensky stated on 23 January 1934, these techniques are useless without conscious breathing and fasting (see A Further Record, pp.295-8.) Ouspensky’s comments make sense of some rather cryptic remarks to be found in the Philokalia, especially in Nikiphorus the Monk (see volume 4 of the complete text). This is also true of the Gurdjieff method.

 Adie’s instructions tally exactly with those of Nikiphorus. Indeed, they make sense of and expand the monk’s deliberately fragmentary and incomplete instructions. Incidentally, I believe that Mme Kadloubovsky, who had a major role in the preparation of the English translation of the Philokalia, and who assembled the volume which dealt with the Prayer of the Heart, was Ouspensky’s secretary. That volume is highly recommended, and includes Nikiphorus under the name “Nicephorus the Solitary”.

 Let me relate one type of personal experience. With the continuous prayer, impressions are received entirely differently; or perhaps one should say that they are received as before with added impressions of oneself, of vividness, of almost being poised above time, added depth and dimension in everything … When one forgets the prayer, one is sometimes awoken by a feeling which is something like “who took away the third dimension?” The street scene in which one had been alive has suddenly become more like a television screen. The very gap between life with prayer and life without is arousing.

 As this suggests, continuing prayer is not some sort of monolithic granite extension: there are fluctuations and distractions. Yet, the person praying (the orant) is influenced by the prayer, and the active elements of the prayer (aim, intention, wish, feeling, understanding) which are augmented by what can metaphorically be called a stretching of the attention. The prayer is not of equal and unvarying intensity: but the moments of prayer are united in their effect by the aim and the practice of the orant, which is continually initiated, lost, reinitiated, and so on. Indeed, as Helen Adie told us, a thought can be pulled back if it has not yet left my atmosphere, and it can often take seconds to do so. The concept is strange, and no words can really express it, but hearing it on tapes now I know something of what she meant, because a person who has been taught the collected state exercise can have a sense of its truth: how by making an effort to bring back a thought or an emotion, one has a feeling of recalling something, and the incipient feeling of depletion is succeeded by an inflow of force. Thus, one can properly speak of a “continuing” prayer.

 Gurdjieff’s chapters on hypnotism, about the work of the sub-consciousness, explain how the prayer may be even more continuous, and why awareness of the bodily pulses and breathing is so significant. If “Purgatory” is the heart of the teaching, then “Hypnotism” is perhaps the backbone of the techniques.

 That said, it would be irresponsible to provide specific indications concerning continuing prayer, because such techniques must be learnt from someone experienced, who can watch the orant (or student). Otherwise, a person can become deluded, and imagine that they possess qualities they do not, or worse.

 We should not despair. It is possible to have the continuing prayer experience for the entirety of a day and even for several days together, with fluctuations and variation of intensity.

 Also, I can hardly overstate how important fasting is in disrupting the coordination of the centres and making possible new physical, feeling and intellectual experiences.

 Where does this leave us? I think it is encouraging to reflect that there are methods for prayer and self-development which can and do work. They are not easy, and one must be prepared for real shocks, but the possibility is there. It is also, I think, comforting to reflect that the Gurdjieff methods and ideas do not have to be so divorced from religion as they sometimes, perhaps even too frequently, are. For those of us who have ever had the sense of the continuous prayer and its vibration in the body, it is a much-needed reminder, because as Merlin once said (in the movie Excalibur): “It is the doom of man that he forgets.”

 Joseph Azize, March 2008, revised 28 January 2017

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