Bringing the nous into the heart

This is from John Mcguckin’s The Path of Christianity: The First Thousand Years, pp. 862-869.  It is very difficult for many people to approach the ancient fathers on prayer.  For some, it looks too much like Buddhism.  And for many activists theologians, it doesn’t make sense to do hesychasm when you can be lobbying on Capitol Hill.  Nevertheless, the “stillness” model rests upon a particularly sophisticated anthropology, one that can help us in our technological age.  Indeed, one that can counter (with God’s help) deep state monarch programming.all flame

Have you ever prayed and felt dead?  Like the prayer wasn’t real?  Maybe it’s because you carried into prayer the mindset you had when you were watching the Kardashians ten minutes ago.  The Fathers teach us how to develop a mindset for prayer.  This mindset is important because it prevents us from having a “fractured psyche.”

St Gregory of Sinai clearly states that forgetfulness of God is a disease of the soul and of the faculty of reason. It has a direct impact on human memory, which ends up divided, diffused and fragmented, a prey to tempting thoughts. If I forget God, my memory will crumble into pieces, resulting in scattered, wayward thinking: “Dia-logismos”.

Now, on to McGuckin: “The heart is the inner place where the creature stood before God” (Path 865).  Heart isn’t quite the same thing as nous.

  • It is a biblical cipher for the whole spiritual personality.
  • It is sometimes expressed by the word wisdom (Prov. 19.8).
  • It is a synonym for the innermost self (Rom. 7.22).

So how does this apply to prayer?  Where does the doctrine cash out?  The fathers practiced the monologistos prayer.  It was a short phrase from Scripture that was repeated over and over until it soaked the consciousness (870).  That sounds like it violates Jesus’s command not to pray over and over like the heathen, but several things need to be noted:

  • He probably meant pagan incantations.
  • You are going to have something soaking your mind anyway.  Your mind is never neutral.  You will either soak it with God or with Katy Perry songs.  Take your pic.  Would you rather wake up in the middle of the night singing, “Romeo save me/I can’t ever be alone” or with

McGuckin notes the effect of this practice, “Charging and reorienting the human  consciousness, focusing it, as it were, like a lens on the singleness of the idea of the presence of God” (871).  The ancients knew that our minds wonder during prayer.  This trained us to begin the struggle of prayer.

The Anthropology of Prayer

We have a body (physical impulses), soul (feelings and desires), and nous (spiritual intellect). If the body was agitated, the other two “ranges” of consciousness would be pulled down as well (871).  Therefore, the monks knew that bodily needs are controlled by redirection.

That takes care of the body.  What about the soul?  Our prayer lives are usually by default rooted in our soul (consciousness).  This is where we live habitually. The monologistos prayer quiets down our soul. McGuckin succinctly points out, “Thoughts generate thoughts.  Words make words.  Monologistos prayer kills those unnecessary words” (872).

When the soul is finally quieted, the nous descends to the heart and one reaches stillness. This is what the hesychasts knew.  You aren’t just doing funny breathing.  At this point when you slow down the breathing, your body calms even more.

Everyone wants to claim that the human person is a body-soul unity, or some kind of unity.  I think it is the genius of Palamas to see how the person is a unity.  There is a dynamic interplay between body, soul, and nous.

10 thoughts on “Bringing the nous into the heart

  1. I still don’t understand how repetitions of Scripture is anything remotely biblical. However, I understand that if reading and repeating Scripture again and again qualifies as meditation, as the Psalmist will speak of now and then. I don’t see a problem with that, seeking God through His Word, but that’s something different. But, do you think it’s worth not worth separating meditation from prayer?

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    • Here is how I look at it. Paul says to pray at all times. We can gloss that several ways:
      1. He just means a lot.
      2. he means it literally.

      We know from modern brain studies that the mind can do several things at once. One can function in regular activities while praying at the edges of your consciousness. I can’t speak for others, but I have a flighty attention span. I’ll either be singing beer-drinking country songs in my head, or I can be mentally saying Scripture passages. I’m doing one or the other.

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      • But that seems to be an unusual interpretation of prayer. Such makes sense if it’s applied more strictly to meditation, because it seems to warp the rather personal sense of prayer one sees, pretty exclusively, in Scripture. I’m all for your points on cognition and how we’re able to multi-task, but that only makes it clearer that a life of meditation on the Word is the backdrop for prayer (the logical flow of “if you ask anything in my Name…”)

        As for praying without ceasing, I take it to mean in the way that Orthodox Jews, to this day, have written prayers for all the mundane facts of life (even bowel-movements) giving praise, thanks, and petition. Where else does prayer, in Scripture, remotely look like hesychasm? Meditation, yes, but not prayer. Prayer requires an addressee and addressed, and I’m not sure how what you’re describing fits in that.

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      • Looking at the verse again: it seems as if prayer is grammatically limited to requests, being wedged between “always rejoicing” and “in everything give thanks”. These two normally fit within the parameters of prayer. The purpose of “pray without ceasing” appears to be that the Christian should never give up in requesting, petitioning, and begging God. But perhaps, given our more expansive definitions of prayer, I understand what you’re saying. Prayer proper (begging/petitioning) is within an umbrella of actions we direct towards God, which would include meditative practices, rejoicing, thanksgiving etc. which then might make sense within the schema you’re laying down. In that way, even though the interpretation of “pray without ceasing” is wrong, the content of the doctrine is true.

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