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Prayer of the Heart in Christian and Sufi Mysticism

The Prayer of the Heart in Christian and Sufi Mysticism
by Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee
Point Reyes Station, CA: The Golden Sufi Center, 2012
128 pages
Reviewed by Linda Douty

As we plunge more deeply into the religious depths of our own traditions, we seem to end up swimming in the waters of collective mysticism. This truth is profoundly reflected in this small but significant book. The Prayer of the Heart in Christian and Sufi Mysticism, as explored by Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, is the divine meeting place of all mystics. For example, Thomas Merton, a spiritual writer and Christian monk, found himself drawn not only to Buddhism but to Sufism. In the foreword, Cynthia Bourgeault writes, “In the mirror of Sufism Merton came to recognize his own Christian heart deeply illumined” (xiv).

Vaughan-Lee reminds us that prayer is born of the need God creates in each of us and that learning to listen to God is the key prayer posture that must be assumed by the one who prays. He cites the importance of distinguishing between the voice of the ego and the voice of divine authority, “The danger is always that the ego subtly subverts inner listening for its own purposes … we need to be careful if the inner voice tells us what we want to hear. In my own experience, I have often found the unexpected nature of an answer or inner guidance most clearly points to its being genuine.… It is also a valuable guide to notice if the ego or our personal self has anything to gain from what an inner voice tells us. A real inner voice nourishes the spirit, but rarely our material life or surface self” (8–9).

Wisely borrowing from the writings of Teresa of Avila, Vaughan-Lee outlines four stages of prayer—recollection, quiet, union, and ecstasy—and uses the familiar image of a gardener watering his garden, “At the beginning, the gardener must make a great effort to draw the water up from the well, but slowly the drawing of the water becomes easier and the effort of the gardener becomes less and less, until in the final stage there is no longer even a gardener, only the Lord Himself soaking the garden in abundant rain”(15). Each of those stages is then thoroughly explored in language readily accessible to the reader.

The centrality of the human experience of breath becomes the bridge that links the inner and outer worlds of the pray-er so that the prayer infuses all of life. On the Sufi path, the “journey to God” becomes the “journey in God.”

The dynamic quality of prayer of the heart prevents too much introspection, too much of a God-and-me enterprise. In the final chapters, prayers for others and for the earth itself become part of the sacred prayer process, naturally flowing from deep union with God. Vaughan-Lee ends with comments on his own prayer of the heart, “There came the time when this prayer became continuous, a prayer without ceasing—because how can the heart forget its Beloved? ... This awakening within the heart, this birth of continual prayer, is one of the miracles of the path” (80).

For spiritual director and spiritual directee alike, this book is a welcome exposition of the boundlessness of prayer, describing in eloquent words an experience that is indeed beyond words—the inner listening of the heart, and the secret of pray without ceasing in which we discover how prayer becomes alive within the heart.

Linda Douty is a spiritual director and retreat leader living in Memphis, Tennessee, USA. She is the author of two new books, Praying in the Messiness of Life: 7 Ways to Renew Your Relationship with God and How Did I Get to Be 70 When I’m 35 Inside?: Spiritual Surprises of Later Life.

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