The Cave Of The Heart – By Mother Mary

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The Mind in the Eastern Orthodox tradition of Hesychast contemplative prayer.

For an introduction to Hesychast prayer see Mother Mary’s previous article, ‘Prayer of the Heart’ in the Newsletter, February 2010 [click here].

In many religions the mountain is a powerful spiritual symbol that reaches upwards to a summit that has been called ‘the place of truth'[1]. The cave, within the centre of the mountain, is hidden and secret. In Sanskrit, the word guha denotes cave, but it is also applied to the cavity of the heart and the heart itself.[2]

The Word

The Greek word Logos, or Word, was used in pre-Socratic philosophy to mean the source of the principle governing the cosmos. In Biblical Judaism it represented the creative power and medium of God’s communication with the human race. There is a wonderful hesychast symbol in the Biblical story of the Lord appearing to Elijah at a cave entrance on Mount Horeb. Fleeing persecution, Elijah escaped to the desert mountain where he spent the night in a cave. The word of the Lord came and told him to stand on the mountain because the Lord was about to pass by. Then a powerful wind ‘tore the mountains apart’, but the Lord was not in the wind. Then there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. A fire followed, but the Lord was not in the fire.

‘After the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.’ [3]

Elijah found the Lord not in powerful signs but in the hushed, gentleness of a whisper (hesychia means silence or stillness). In the New Testament Gospel of St. John, the Logos, becomes the creative Word of God (which is God) and incarnate in Jesus. According to Orthodox tradition, Jesus was born in a cave and it is the earth that offers up this sacred womb-like birthplace for the living Word.

‘Today the Virgin gives birth to him who is above all being, and the earth offers a cave to him whom no one can approach. Angels with shepherds give glory, and magi journey with a star, for to us there has been born a little Child, God before the ages.’ [4]

The Mind

Orthodox theology makes a distinction between three activities of the Mind. The highest is the Intellect (nous) which understands divine truth through a personal experience of God in the depths of the Heart; the Reason (dianoia) is the logical faculty that uses words to analyse, reflect and draw conclusions; the Thoughts (logosmi) are provoked by the demons and lead to temptation to destructive action. St. John of Cronstadt wrote ‘the Intellect is the servant of the heart, which is our life; if it leads the heart to truth, peace, joy and life, then it fulfils its destination, it is the truth; but if it leads the heart to doubt, disturbance, torment, despondency, darkness, then it does not fulfill its destination and is absolutely false.’ ‘it is necessary to purify this source of life, to kindle in it the pure flame of life, so that it shall burn and not be extinguished; and shall direct all thoughts, desires and tendencies of the man through all his life.’ [5] This is a journey where our Mind descends to the cave of our Heart, the very centre of our being where our relationship with God is born.

The story of Elijah shows us important prerequisites for meeting the Lord. Elijah withdrew alone to a quiet, safe place. He was not tempted to respond to impressive, powerful signs and but instead waited until he heard the Lord in the sound of a small whisper. In obedience to God, he covered his face, ‘You cannot see My Face; for no man can see My face and live’ [6] In Biblical language, the face symbolizes the essence, and we are taught that although God’s essence is beyond our comprehension, we can experience God’s energies. These elements of solitary withdrawal and the practice of obedience and discernment are advised by many teachers of hesychast prayer. How can we train our minds to quieten down, be obedediant, and not to respond to temptations when we live busy, noisy lives with many responsibilities and no chance, or no inclination, to withdraw to a remote hermitage? The Fathers have taught that when distracting thoughts arise we should turn immediately to prayer.

‘Prayer is by nature a dialog and a union of man with God. Its effect is to hold the world together. It achieves a reconciliation with God.’ [7] ‘The beginning of prayer is the expulsion of distractions from the very start by a single thought [8]; the middle stage is the concentration on what is being said or thought; its conclusion is rapture in the Lord.’ ‘Make the effort to raise up, or rather, to enclose your mind within the words of your prayer; and if, like a child, it gets tired and falters, raise it up again. The mind, after all, is naturally unstable, but the God who can do everything can also give it firm endurance.’ [9]

The Thoughts

Temptation is not a sin until we respond to it with thoughts and actions that fragment and separate us from God and other human beings. The Holy Bible teaches us that sin is when ‘your heart is not right in the sight of God. Repent therefore of this your wickedness and pray God if perhaps the thought of your heart may be forgiven you’ [10]. In Greek sin (hamartia) means ‘failure to hit the mark’, ‘to go astray’ or, ultimately, ‘failure to achieve the purpose for which one is created’ [11]. What is necessary to still our response to temptation is not so much to withdraw to isolation, but to quieten the passions and heal our soul. There is no short cut or easy exercise for this; it is a lifetime’s work. How do we begin? As the biblical quotation suggests, we begin with repentance and loving forgiveness, and we begin again and again. When a Desert Father was asked what he did all day he answered, “I fall and rise up, I fall and rise up”. In Greek, the word for repentance, or change of heart (metanioia) is the same as that for prostration; the prayer that we make by bowing down in body, mind and soul, touching the earth and rising up afresh. The watchfulness that enables us to see our errors is similar to Buddhist watchfulness and meditation on cause and effect. In our healing we are helped by three Orthodox sacraments (communion, confession and anointing with oil) and before each sacrament there are prayers for the healing of body and soul. In a talk[12] given in Indianapolis several years ago, Fr. Meletios [13], Abbot of an Orthodox monastery in California, said,

‘The automatic stream of thoughts is necessarily bad because all those thoughts tend to buzz like a bunch of bees around two themes, and one is desire, and one is fear…. But there is a positive aspect of the Mind which I have to stress is God given, and is beautiful and that is when we use our Minds. So it is one thing when we use our Minds and another when our Minds use us. When we use our Mind we are actually in the process of procreating with God. We are acting in a God like manner…. The logosmi are the source of all sin…Everything that’s sinful will start with a little thought – with a tiny, tiny, tiny feeling of discomfort. That’s all it is. That’s where it starts…Every sinful action starts as a feeling of discomfort as we try to plug the feeling with an action…Over time, this stream of thoughts builds into a sort of clump…and gradually the clump gets bigger and bigger, and it becomes the story of you…. It’s a story of you that is the puppy who can’t quite get to the food bowl. It’s the story of you who never quite gets the right job, or is never quite dealt well by his family…and this is what I think in Orthodox terms we can safely call ego. The ego is a clump of logosmi stuck together.’

Fr. Meletios then suggested that monastics are given the opportunity to live without fear, as they do not need their ego within the safety of the monastery. Outside the monastery and church we are not free to live ego-less lives because we are unprotected from others who do not hold the same values. He said that is why we need monastics, not only because they pray for us as we do our daily work, but also because they try to realise an egoless life of love. ‘Sometimes you can go there (a monastery) and receive special healing for your special brokenness…they just heal by love. There’s nothing esoteric, nothing weird about their life. They just love.’

The Cave

Some years ago I was blessed to stay at the Monastery of St. Catherine, Sinai, Egypt. Two monks invited me to join them on a pilgrimage to the cave hermitage of St. John Climacus [14], five miles into the desert. When we arrived at the cave, the young English monk beckoned me to enter alone, and then left to sit on a large rock in the desert valley. Inside the cave I could see nothing; it seemed infinitely dark. I turned to look at the entrance, but could only see a white sheet of brilliant, morning light. Gradually my eyes adjusted and I could see a low stone shelf, rather like a bed, and I went to sit on it. I had never experienced such silence before. I could only hear my body breathing and my heart beating. After an unknown time, a loud, scratching sound burst into the silence and made my heart jump. It was animal and nearby, but what was it? A lizard? a snake? I had read that the Desert Fathers made friends with lions…surely there were no longer lions in Sinai? Within three rapid thoughts I was deciding I was in danger and should leave, and I was also angry because the special silence of this saint’s cave had been broken. The logosmi were certainly at work here! Then a shaft of light revealed the source of the disturbing and frightening noise. I saw a small ant busily moving a tiny grain of rock along the stone shelf. I smiled and relaxed, but it took some time repeating the Jesus Prayer [15] before I regained concentration.

The solitary life is a quiet and simplified life that removes much temptation and stimulation. As the story of the ant suggests, small things gain greater significance and bring great joy. However, the solitary life itself does not dispel temptation and vice. It is a life that has been called the ‘front line of battle’ with the logosmi because the social interaction that often masks our ills is removed and our deeper spiritual conflict is exposed. This confrontation is why it is so important to have the help of an experienced spiritual guide and why the solitary life is not recommended for the young novice. This can also apply to home life.

‘Watch yourselves – your passions, especially in your home life, where they appear freely, like moles in a safe place. Outside our home, some of our passions are usually screened by other more decorous passions, whilst at home there is no possibility of driving away these black moles that undermine the integrity of our soul’ [16]

The Story of Humility

‘Love and humility make a holy team. The one exalts. The other supports those who have been exalted and never falls’ [17] .

Humility is called the greatest and most difficult virtue to acquire. It is the last step on the ascetic path that leads us to the entrance of the cave of the Heart. In the article on hesychasm in the previous newsletter I recounted two similar Buddhist and Christian teachings on the Middle Way. Here I conclude with two very similar Buddhist and Orthodox stories about humility.

The True Sound of Truth

[18] A devoted Buddhist meditator, after years concentrating on a particular mantra, had attained enough insight to begin teaching. A few years of successful teaching left the meditator with no thoughts about learning from anyone; but upon hearing about a famous hermit living nearby, the opportunity was too exciting to be passed up. The hermit lived alone on an island at the middle of a lake, so the meditator hired a man with a boat to row across to the island. As they shared some tea made with herbs the meditator asked him about his spiritual practice. The old man said he had no spiritual practice, except for a mantra which he repeated all the time to himself. The meditator was pleased: the hermit was using the same mantra he used himself — but when the hermit spoke the mantra aloud, the meditator was horrified! “What’s wrong?” asked the hermit. “I don’t know what to say. I’m afraid you’ve wasted your whole life! You are pronouncing the mantra incorrectly!” “Oh, Dear! That is terrible. How should I say it?” The meditator gave the correct pronunciation, and the old hermit was very grateful, asking to be left alone so he could get started right away. On the way back across the lake the meditator, was pondering the sad fate of the hermit. “It’s so fortunate that I came along. At least he will have a little time to practice correctly before he dies.” Just then, the meditator noticed that the boatman was looking quite shocked, and turned to see the hermit standing respectfully on the water, next to the boat. “Excuse me, please. I hate to bother you, but I’ve forgotten the correct pronunciation again. Would you please repeat it for me?” “You obviously don’t need it,” stammered the meditator; but the old man persisted in his polite request until the meditator relented and told him again the way he thought the mantra should be pronounced. The old hermit was saying the mantra very carefully, slowly, over and over, as he walked across the surface of the water back to the island.

The Three Hermits

[19] An Orthodox bishop was traveling by boat with pilgrims from Archangel to the Solovetsk monastery. On the way he heard that on an obscure little island there were three old hermits that had spent their entire lives trying to save their souls. The bishop became intrigued and implored the captain to stop the ship so that he could visit them. The captain reluctantly agreed and dropped anchor near the island. The bishop was then placed on a boat and with a group of oarsmen sent ashore. The three hermits were dressed raggedly with long white beards to their knees. In total humility they welcomed the bishop, making deep bows. After he blessed them he asked them what they were doing to save their souls and serve God. They replied that they had no idea how to serve God. They just served and supported each other. The bishop realized that the poor hermits didn’t even know how to pray, since all they did was lift their arms up toward heaven and repeat, “Three are Ye, three are we, have mercy upon us.” The bishop thought it his ecclesiastical duty to teach the illiterate hermits the Lord’s Prayer. They, however, were poor learners and required a whole day of instruction. But lo and behold! During sunset as the boat left the island all the passengers saw a sight in the distance that filled them with fright. The three hermits were running on water as if it were dry land. When they came by the side of the ship they implored the bishop to remind them of the Lord’s Prayer because, poor fellows, they had already completely forgotten it. The bishop crossed himself in awe and told the hermits to continue their own prayers, for they had no need for instruction. Then he bowed deeply before the old men and asked them to pray for him as they turned and ran back across the sea to their island. And a light shone until daybreak on the spot where they were lost to sight.

‘The Lord is so holy, so simple in His holiness, that one single evil or impure thought deprives us of Him. Hence it follows that the saints are all light; they are all one fragrance, like the light of the sun, like the purest air. Lord, grant this simple holiness to me also!’ [20]

Mother Mary, St. Sunniva Skete, Fetlar, Shetland Isles, ZE2 9DJ, U.K.

Further Reading / References:

1. Réne Guénon, The Mountain and the Cave,

2. René Guénon, The Heart and the Cave, published on above website.

3. 1 Kings: 19:9 Holy Bible NIV

4. St. Romanos the Melodist, Nativity Kontakion

5. St John of Cronstadt, The Education of the Mind, A Treasury of Russian Spirituality

6. Exodus 33:20 Holy Bible NIV

7. St John Climacus, Prayer, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Paulist Press, 1982

8. Ibid. Which might mean the repetition of a single phrased prayer

9. Ibid.

10. Acts 8:21-22 Holy Bible NIV

11. Glossary, Philokalia, Faber & Faber, 1984

12. Life as a Mystery a talk given in 2008 at an Orthodox church in Indianapolis, USA. This is an edited transcription. The complete talk can be heard on Ancient Faith Radio website at:

13. Fr. Meletios also has a podcast ‘Jottings from a Holy Mountain’ on Ancient Faith Radio.
He has written two books: ‘Steps of Transformation’ 2003, ‘Bread & Water, Wine & Oil’ 2007, both published by Conciliar Press

14. St. John Climacus was a …century hermit and Abbot of St Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai. He wrote The Ladder of Divine Ascent, a very influential book on hesychast ascetism.

15. The Jesus Prayer in its short form is the repetition of ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me’. It is a prayer that can be practised anywhere, but the classic pose is seated alone on a low stool, in a quiet place, with a lowered head and no icons or candles. Sometimes a knotted woollen or wooden beaded prayer rope is used and traditionally monastics are given a rope that the Abbot or Abbess used the night before their tonsure.

16. St John of Cronstadt

17. St. John Climacus


19. A story told by Leo Tolstoy and published in The Story and its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction, Ann Charters, ed., New York; St. Martin’s Press, 1987, also in The Mountain of Silence by Kyriacos Markides, Doubleday, 2002

20. St. John of Cronstadt