The Origins of Heart Rhythm Meditation

The Desert Fathers


Heart Rhythm Meditation emerged in the time of the Apostles of Christ as the "Prayer of the Heart" or as it was later called, "The Jesus Prayer", and has been used in monasteries ever since. In Heart Rhythm Meditation we place a name or phrase on the heartbeat. The words Kyrie Eleison, Christe Eleison, greek for "Lord have mercy upon us, Christ have mercy upon us", as used in The Christian Mass, may be placed on the heartbeat. Or, as the objective is to produce a sound similar to the heartbeat, a single word of two, short syllables, like "Christe" (pronounced Chris-tay) may be repeated silently on each "lub-dub" of the heartbeat.

In the following quotations, these identifying characteristics of Heart Rhythm Meditation are mentioned -- conscious breath, breathing through the heart, awareness of one's heartbeat, directing your glance into the heart, repeating the sacred name on the heartbeat or breath, and feeling the presence of God in your own physical heart.


Abba Philemon

Student and companion of the holy Apostle Paul. Died in 54 AD. Mentioned in De Vitis Patrum, Book VIII by Palladius, bishop of Helenopolis, who lived from 365 to 425 AD.

The following is from a sixth century book called The Life of Abba Philemon which contains the first written form of the Prayer of the Heart, the Jesus Prayer.

By means of silence you can thoroughly cleanse your mind and give it constant spiritual occupation. As the eye turned on sensory objects looks closely at what it sees, so a pure mind turned toward spiritual things is uplifted by the object of its contemplation. The mind becomes perfect when it enters into the sphere of essential knowledge and is united with God. Having thus attained kingly rank, the mind is no longer poor and it is not carried away by false desires, even if all the kingdoms of the world were offered to it.

Above all strive to guard your mind and practice recollection; be patient in difficult circumstances and try at all costs to preserve the spiritual blessings which you have acquired.

Even when satisfying your most urgent needs, do not allow your mind to be idle but compel it to continue secretly to learn and to pray.

In this way you will be able to understand the depth of the divine Scripture and the power which is concealed in it.

Brief Directives for Prayer of the Heart

  1. Sit or stand in a dimly lit and quiet place.
  2. Recollect yourself.
  3. With the help of your imagination find the place of the heart and stay there with attention.
  4. Lead the mind from the head into the heart and say, "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me," quietly with the lips or mentally, whichever is more convenient; say the prayer slowly and reverently.
  5. As much as possible guard the attention of your mind and do not allow any thoughts to enter in.
  6. Be patient and peaceful.
  7. Be moderate in food, drink, and sleep.
  8. Learn to love silence.
  9. Read the Scriptures and the writings of the Fathers about prayer.
  10. As much as possible avoid distracting occupations.

Saint Callistus

Was pope from about 217 to about 222. d. 222

A monk should always live with the name of Lord Jesus, so that the heart absorbs the Lord and the Lord the heart, and the two become one.

Anthony the Great

(ca. 251-356), also known as Saint Anthony, Anthony of Egypt, Anthony the Abbot, Anthony of the Desert, Anthony the Anchorite, Anthony of Thebes, Abba Antonius, and Father of All Monks, was a Christian saint from Egypt and a prominent leader among the Desert Fathers.

The following is from The Life of Anthony, pub. 4th century, written by Athanasius of Alexandria (lived 293-373)

Always breathe Christ. For ye know the treachery of the demons, how fierce they are, but how little power they have. Wherefore fear them not, but rather ever breathe Christ, and trust Him.

St. Hesychius

Hermit and disciple of St. Hilarion. Died 380 AD.

Do not allow negligence to overtake you but destroy your enemies with the name of Jesus. Let His sweet name be joined to your breath and then you will know the value of silence.

If you wish to cover distracting thoughts and to guard your heart, let the Jesus Prayer be attuned to your breathing and in a few days you will see your desire accomplished.

St. John Chrysostom

Archbishop of Constantinople, born in 347 in Antioch, Syria, died in 407.

I entreat you, brother, never to stop reciting this prayer.

Everyone should say the Prayer no matter what he is doing; whether he eats, drinks, sits, serves, or travels, he should not cease reciting the Prayer, and the name of the Lord Jesus Christ will descend into the depths of the heart, will subdue the pernicious serpent, and will regenerate and save the soul.

Abide in unceasing calling of the name Lord Jesus so that the heart can absorb the Lord and the Lord the heart and the two become one.

And, also, do not separate your heart from God but always guard in it the memory of our Lord Jesus Christ, until the name of the Lord is rooted in the depths of the heart and you do not think of anything else, so that Christ will be exalted in you.

St. John Climacus

Lived 579-649 AD, author of The Ladder of Divine Ascent

May the memory of Jesus be united with your breathing.

St. Nicephorus

Patriarch of Constantinople, 806-815, b. about 758; d. 2 June, 829.

  1. Sitting down in a quiet place
  2. take your mind and lead it into the heart by the path of breathing and,
  3. keeping it there attentively,
  4. say without ceasing, 'Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me!" [Christe Eleison]
  5. Do this until the activity in the heart becomes natural and ceaseless.

Philotheus of Sinai

6th or 7th century author of The Philokalia, which is referenced in the classic text, "The Way of a Pilgrim."

Let us go forward with the heart completely attentive and the soul fully conscious. For if attentiveness and prayer are daily joined together, they become like Elias' fire-bearing chariot, raising us to heaven. What do I mean? A spiritual heaven, with sun, moon and stars, is formed in the blessed heart of one who has reach a state of awareness, or who strives to attain it.

The goal of the one who strives after righteousness, on which his mind should be firmly set, is to treasure the presence of God in his heart as a priceless pearl or some other precious jewel. He should disregard everything, even his present life, for the sake of having God in his heart.

And so every hour and every moment let us zealously guard our heart from thoughts that obscure the mirror of our soul, which should only reflect the radiant image of Jesus Christ, who is the wisdom and the power of God the Father. Let us continuously seek the kingdom within our heart and we will certainly find the seed, the pearl, and the yeast and everything else if we purify the eye of our mind; for Christ said, "The kingdom of God is within you" (Luke 17:20).

St. Simeon the New Theologian

A saint of the 11th century. Abbot of the Monastery of St. Mamas and a hermit. He is considered the greatest theologian since St. Gregory the Theologian in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Died in 1022.

Your mind should guard your heart in time of prayer; the mind should constantly descend into the heart and from the depths of the heart offer up prayer to God.

You should do all this until such time as you taste the sweetness of the Lord. When finally the mind is in the heart and it tastes how sweet the Lord is, then it will not wish to leave the heart but will say with St. Peter, "Lord, it is wonderful for us to be here" (Matt. 17:4); then the mind will constantly look into the heart, and if it wanders, it will return there again and again.

For those who have no knowledge and understanding of this inner activity it will seem difficult and oppressive. But those who have taste the sweetness of the Lord in prayer will cry with St. Paul, "Nothing therefore can come between us and the love of Christ" (Rom. 8:35).

If you wish to learn how to descend into the heart and remain there I will tell you.

First you must observe the following three conditions: You must be free from all cares, not only from vain and unholy cares but even from good things. In other words, you should be dead to everything; your conscience should be pure and it should not denounce you in anything. You should be completely free from passionate attachments; your thoughts should not be inclined toward anything worldly. Then:

  1. Sit alone in a quiet place, close the door, take your mind from every temporal and vain thing,
  2. Bow your head toward your chest, and stay attentively inside of yourself, not in the head but in the heart.
  3. Holding the mind there with your inner eyes watch your breathing.
  4. With your mind find the place of the heart and let it abide there.
  5. In the beginning you will experience darkness and discomfort, but if you will continue this activity of attention without interruption, you will attain unceasing joy.
  6. If the mind continues with this activity, it will find the place of the heart and will see things it never knew and saw before.
  7. Then, no matter what distracting thoughts would come, it will immediately repel and destroy them through the name of Jesus.
  8. From this time also the mind will experience anger toward the demons and will pursue and overcome them.
  9. In addition what usually follows from this you will learn by experience if with the help of God you will guard your attention and keep your mind on the prayer "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me!"

[This describes The Heart Rhythm Practice of "Diving into the Heart". We think of it as healing the wounds of the heart rather than the pursuit of demons.]

St. Gregory of Sinai

St. Gregory is a saint of the 13th century who lived fully in the spirit and teachings of the early Desert Fathers. St. Gregory spent the last 25 years of his life on Mount Athos.

Having received the spirit of Jesus Christ by means of a pure prayer of the heart, we should communicate mystically with the Lord.

  • But not understanding the greatness, honor, and glory resulting from grace and not caring about our spiritual growth through the keeping of the commandments and reaching true contemplation, we are careless and throw ourselves into the abyss of insensitivity and darkness.
  • It happens also that we think very little of God's presence and do not realize that we should be as rays of grace.
  • We believe but not with a living faith.
  • Despite the new spirit which we have received in baptism, we fail to live in love.
  • If we do repent and begin to keep the commandments, we keep only the letter of the law and not the spirit.
  • And we are so alienated from spiritual life that even when we see it in others we imagine it as error and confusion.

In this way we are dead in the spirit, alive but not in Christ and not in accordance with the conviction that what is born of the spirit should be spiritual.

However, what we have received in holy baptism of the life of Jesus Christ is not destroyed but is only buried as some treasure in the earth. But wisdom and grace demand a concern about this in order to reveal it and bring it into the open. But how?

Two methods can lead us to this actualization:

  1. In the first place, this gift is open to the one who keeps the commandments; and to the degree that we keep the commandments, we experience light and wisdom.
  2. In the second place, the method by which we can acquire this gift is ceaseless calling on the Lord Jesus or constant awareness of God's presence.

The first means is powerful, but the second is even more powerful and it supports the first. Therefore, if we sincerely wish to reveal the abundance of grace buried in us, we will hasten to acquire the habit of the second method, the Prayer of the Heart, and we will practice this imageless activity until it warms our heart and enflames it to unspeakable love for the Lord.

The active prayer of the heart and mind can be accomplished in the following way:

  1. Sitting on a chair, bring your mind from the head into the heart and hold it there.
  2. From there call with your mind and heart, "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me!"
  3. Regulate your breathing also, because rhythmic breathing can disperse distracting thoughts.
  4. When you are aware of thoughts, do not pay attention to them regardless of whether they are good or not.
  5. With your mind enter the heart and call on the Lord Jesus often and patiently and in this way you will soon overwhelm and destroy these thoughts through God's name.

Nicephorus the Solitary

Lived in second half of the thirteenth century, came from Calabria, was a monk at Constantinople and then on Mount Athos.

  • First of all let your life be tranquil, free from all care, and at peace with all.
  • Then enter your room, shut yourself in, and, sitting in a corner, say what I shall tell you:
  • You know that we only exhale our breath, the air that we inhale, because of our heart.
  • Sit down, recollect your spirit, introduce it - I mean your spirit- into your nostrils; that is the route your breath takes to reach the heart.
  • Pull it in, forcing it to descend to your heart at the same time as the air is breathed in.
  • When it is there, you will see the joy that follows; you will have nothing to regret.
  • Just as the man who returns home after an absence can no longer contain his joy at being able to see his wife and children again, so the spirit when it is united to the soul overflows with joy and ineffable delight.
  • So, my brother, accustom your spirit not to be hasty to emerge.

[This describes The Heart Rhythm Practice of "The Heart's Breath" in which the inhalation is brought into the heart and held there.]

While your spirit is there, you must neither be silent nor remain idle. But do not have any occupation or meditation other than the cry, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me!" No truce, not at any price.

This practice, by keeping your spirit protected from wandering, makes it impregnable and beyond the reach of suggestions from the enemy, each day it raises it in the love and the desire of God.

  • You know that breathing brings air into the heart.
  • And so sit quietly and take your mind and lead it by the path of breathing into the very heart and hold it there; do not give it freedom to escape as it would wish to.
  • While holding it there do not leave your mind idle but give it the following holy words to say: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me!'' And let the mind repeat them day and night.
  • Try to get accustomed to this inner dwelling with the assigned prayer and do not allow your mind to leave the heart too soon, because at the beginning it will get very tired and lonely in such interior confinement.
  • Then when it gets used to it, the mind will be happy and joyful to be there and it will want of itself to stay there. just as a man who returns home from a foreign country is beside himself with joy at seeing his wife and children, in like manner the mind, when it is united with the heart, is full of unspeakable joy and delight.
  • When you are successful in entering the heart by this means which I have shown you, give thanks to God and continue with this activity unceasingly, for it will teach you what you cannot learn in any other way.

Saint John of Kronstadt

A member of the synod of the Russian Orthodox church. Lived 1829-1908 in Russia.

When you pray, keep to the rule that it is better to say five words from the depth of your heart than ten thousand words with your tongue only.

Thomas Merton

Lived 1915 to 1968. Cistercian monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky.

The heart is the faculty by which man knows God and therefore Sufism develops the heart. This is a very important concept in the contemplative life, both in Sufism and in the Christian tradition: to develop a heart that knows God. Not just a heart that loves God, but a heart that knows God. How does one know God in the heart? By praying in the heart.

The Sufis have ways of learning to pray so that you are really praying in the heart, from the heart, not just saying words, not just thinking good thoughts or making intentions or acts of the will, but from the heart.

So man knows God with his heart, but loves God with his life. It is your living self that is an act of constant love for God and this innermost secret of man is that by which he contemplates God; it is the secret of man in God Himself.

-- speaking to a group of Catholic sisters in Alaska, 2 and 1/2 months before his death.