Prayer of the Heart in Christian and Sufi Mysticism

Prayer of the Heart in Christian and Sufi Mysticism

by Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee

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Guiding the reader through the stages of mystical prayer—a way to create a living relationship with the Divine within the heart—this book draws upon Christian and Sufi sources such as St. Teresa of Avila, ‘Attâr, St. John of the Cross, and Rûmî. Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee describes the stages of prayer: how prayer is first born of


Guiding the reader through the stages of mystical prayer—a way to create a living relationship with the Divine within the heart—this book draws upon Christian and Sufi sources such as St. Teresa of Avila, ‘Attâr, St. John of the Cross, and Rûmî. Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee describes the stages of prayer: how prayer is first born of need, but then takes one deep within the heart, into the stages of union and ecstasy. Through mystical prayer, one is drawn into the silence of real communion with God. Here, in the silence within the heart, a meeting and merging takes place that carries one beyond the self into the mystery of divine presence. This exploration delves into the secret of how to pray without ceasing, in which prayer becomes alive within the heart, and includes a chapter on the need to pray for the well-being of the Earth. It brings together the Christian and Sufi mystical traditions and will benefit any practitioner of prayer who is drawn to discover a relationship with God within their heart.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Vaughan-Lee (Love Is a Fire) complements intensity with brevity, which allows him to ignite passion, but keep it bounded. The author, a Sufi teacher, parallels the prayer practices of Sufi and Christian mysticism with ease, for both faiths encourage praying without ceasing. These prayers of the heart come “through grace and not through effort.” Vaughan-Lee begins with the spiritual need for listening in quietude to shush the loud duality of mind and ego so as to achieve oneness with God. He bases his thinking on his experience as a teacher of Islamic mysticism and matches his life’s vocation with that of St. Theresa of Avila, whose stages of prayer he reviews in one chapter. In the next, he compares the Jesus Prayer with the practice of Sufi dhikr, repetitive prayer, especially of God’s name. He quotes Rumi, Sa’id al-Kharraz, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and St. Paul, among others, as easily as if they are family. He defines the circle of love—from God, to God—and dedicates a chapter to prayer for the earth as a sacred being. Vaughan-Lee’s prayerful prose is poetic, inclusive, and intelligent. (May 1)
From the Publisher

"Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee . . . brings together the Christian and Sufi inner paths of devotion in a beautiful, compelling way. Combining his own deep personal experience with writings ranging from St. Teresa of Avila to Mevlana Rûmî and Abdul Qadir Jilani, Llewellyn has produced something unique: not an academic treatise, but a poetic book on prayer meaningful to the everyday lives of seekers in both traditions, a prayer of the heart in its own right."  —Neil Douglas-Klotz, author, Prayers of the Cosmos and The Sufi Book of Life

"Like his spiritual sister, Teresa of Avila, Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee sees prayer not as something we do, but rather a gift the Beloved has hidden within the innermost chamber of our hearts. Our whole life is an answer to the call to discover that treasure, to become prayer. With an extraordinary blend of passion and dignity, Llewellyn guides us deep into the blazing quiet of our own being, where prayer becomes the magic carpet that carries us to union with object of our most profound longing—a union that results in the melting of lover into Beloved, so that only love remains. This, Llewellyn teaches us, is our sacred birthright."  —Mirabai Starr, author and translator, Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross, The Interior Castle, and The Book of My Life by St. Teresa of Avila

"This is a precious little book . . . one of those rare works that emerge from the heart and leads us into unified consciousness. Its gentle and poetic words . . . reminding me to return home." —Edward W. Bastian, PhD, President, Spiritual Paths Foundation

"An excellent book. . . . As we recover more and more of the ancient contemplative traditions, we are finding immense similarities in goal, practice, and effects. . . . Vaughan-Lee makes this sacred journey both clear and inviting." —Fr. Richard Rohr, author and Franciscan Priest, Center for Action and Contemplation

"This exquisitely beautiful book opens us up tenderly to the astonishing mysteries of the human heart.We experience a 'Glow of Presence.' We feel loved, blessed and kissed by Spirit." —Imam Jamal Rahman, cofounder of Interfaith Community Church in Seattle, and author, The Fragrance of Faith

"Seamlessly moves between the Christian and Sufi mystics and bears witness to the divine love that permeates the mystical dimensions of the world's great religions. . . . A little gem that will be savored and treasured by all who are drawn along the path of love." —James Finley, PhD, Merton scholar and author, Christian Meditation, The Contemplative Heart, and Merton's Palace of Nowhere

"The author . . . parallels the prayer practices of Sufi and Christian mysticism with ease. . . . Vaughan-Lee's prayerful prose is poetic, inclusive, and intelligent." —Publishers Weekly (April 9, 2012)

"Draws together the Christian and Sufi traditions of mystical prayer. . . . Vaughan-Lee's clearly written little guide will be gratifying and absorbing for those interested in mysticism and alternate routes toward the love of God." —Library Journal (May 2012)

Library Journal
The Sufi is a figure often invoked and spoken of in religious circles but too rarely encountered. This brief volume from Sufi teacher Vaughan-Lee draws together the Christian and Sufi traditions of mystical prayer, using examples and insights from Teresa of Avila, Rumi, and John of the Cross, among others, to guide the willing reader toward the mystical apperception of the divine presence. VERDICT Vaughan-Lee's clearly written little guide will be gratifying and absorbing for those interested in mysticism and alternate routes toward the love of God.

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Prayer of the Heart in Christian & Sufi Mysticism

By Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee

The Golden Sufi Center

Copyright © 2012 The Golden Sufi Center
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-890350-38-3



* * *

Inner Receptivity

Prayer is born from need. We feel alone and in need. And only the Divine can answer this need. This need draws us to the place of prayer within us, to our heart that looks towards God.

Calling out from the depths of our being, we make known our need to our self and to God. We pray according to our need, and according to the need of the moment. At different times our needs are different. We may pray for forgiveness, for understanding, for kindness. We may pray that our relationships not be clouded in mistrust or that our children not suffer. All of the myriad difficulties that we encounter in our daily life we can embrace in our prayer, the difficulties of our own self and of family and friends, the troubles of the world. We hope to bring God's attention to these problems, so that infinite love and grace can reach into our world and help with the pain of being human.

Prayer is infinitely powerful because it connects us with God's infinite power. Praying, we offer up the difficulties of living in a world in which the Divine often appears to be absent, in the deepest knowledge that only the Divine who is the source of all life and all love can really help us. We who are so small and alone look to God, and so turn our attention from the many back to the One. Sometimes people think, "Why should I bother God? How can my difficulties be of concern to this Great Being?" But this is the voice of the ego, because it sets the individual falsely apart from God. We are a part of God's world, and if we are in need we should turn towards God.

So many times it appears that our prayer is not heard, that we are forgotten, alone. And yet as the mystic says, "If the heart has heard the prayer, God has heard the prayer." And more important than any specific answer is the act itself of prayer, the turning towards God. In our busy lives it is so easy to forget the Divine, to be immersed in our own problems and our own selves. The mystic knows that what really matters is the inner connection of the heart in which our heart opens and cries. It is something so simple and yet so easily overlooked. Prayer is a way to be with God.

We each have our own way of being with this innermost mystery, our own way of prayer. For some of us prayer takes place in the dark hours of the night, when we lie awake and our need is most pressing. Some find it easiest to pray as they walk, or find the presence of nature a way to gain access to this inner communion. Others may pray while they are in their garden, feeling the presence of the Divine among their flowers. Some pray when they see suffering, while others may find their heart opens when they experience beauty. For the mystic the prayer of the heart draws us deep within the center of our being where we can be alone with our Beloved, where the heart can cry and we can be present with its cry. Where we can speak and live the deepest longing of our soul: to be with God.

Both the Sufi and Christian mystical traditions have cultivated a practice of contemplation that takes us deep into the heart where we can be alone with God. Sufism is a path of love in which the lover is taken by love and longing back to the Beloved, from the experience of separation from God to the state of union within the heart. In Sufism we follow this return to love through the practice of a heart meditation or muraqaba in which we put the mind into the heart. Immersing our self in the heart, we allow the energy of love to slow down the mind and its many thoughts, until eventually we arrive at a state of empty receptivity, in which we patiently wait within the heart. Even if thoughts come and go, we do not pay them any attention but remain in this state of empty inner awareness. In this interior place we may come to hear the words of our Beloved, experience divine presence, or merge deeper into the silence that belongs to love.

In Christian mysticism the Prayer of Quiet is a practice of being silent and listening to God. In this listening stillness, this inner receptivity, the soul becomes infused with divine presence. St. Teresa of Avila describes how Prayer of Quiet is a spark of the true love of God that makes itself felt as peace and overwhelming joy or bliss. Our faculties are absorbed in God, who works within us. Even speaking [e.g., vocal prayer and meditation] wearies our soul; "it wishes to do nothing but love."

Prayer of Quiet also has similarities with Centering Prayer developed by Father Thomas Keating, which draws the practitioner into a state of receptive stillness, bringing the mind into the heart. In the words of Father Keating, "Silence is the language God speaks." This practice has its seeds in the contemplative prayer of the early Desert Fathers. Centering Prayer often begins with meditating on a word or phrase, while Prayer of Quiet, like the Sufi heart meditation, focuses on silence and inner receptivity.

Learning to pray is learning to listen. Within the heart we learn to wait with patience for God's words, which may come even when we have not asked. Listening itself is a form of prayer, in which our whole being is receptive. Prayer is communion with God; we share with Him our needs, and we also learn to be attentive, as Rumi so beautifully describes:

Make everything in you an ear, each atom of your being, and you will hear at every moment what the Source is whispering to you, just to you and for you, without any need for my words or anyone else's. You are — we all are — the beloved of the Beloved, and in every moment, in every event of your life, the Beloved is whispering to you exactly what you need to hear and know. Who can ever explain this miracle? It simply is. Listen and you will discover it every passing moment. Listen, and your whole life will become a conversation in thought and act between you and Him, directly, wordlessly, now and always .

Listening within the heart is attuning our self to our Beloved. We develop the ear of the heart, the inner listening of the soul. Sometimes God communicates directly with words. The Beloved does not often speak in a loud voice, or come banging on the door. Mostly God speaks very quietly, answering our prayers, giving us guidance, or whispering about the secrets of the soul, the mysteries of divine love. We may hear these words as a still, small voice, or a thought suddenly appearing. And our work is to learn to listen, to create an inner space where this voice is not drowned out by the constant chatter of the mind, by anxieties or desires.

In this silence of receptive prayer, the Prayer of Quiet, God can speak directly to the soul. In the words of Miguel de Molinos, one of the defenders of the religious revival of Quietism:

By not speaking nor desiring, and not thinking, she [the contemplative spirit] arrives at the true and perfect mystical silence wherein God speaks with the soul, communicates Himself to it, and in the abyss of its own depths teaches it the most perfect and exalted wisdom. He calls and guides it to this inward solitude and mystical silence, when He says He will speak to it alone in the most secret and hidden part of the heart.


In Interior Castle St. Teresa describes in detail "the way in which, when He is pleased to do so, God speaks to the soul." She writes of the different ways God speaks to the soul:

Some of them seem to come from without; others from the innermost depths of the soul; others from the higher part; while others, again, are so completely outside the soul that they can be heard with the ears, and seem to be uttered by a human voice.

She specifically differentiates among three types of divine locution: corporeal, actually heard by the physical powers of hearing; imaginary, heard, but by the faculty of the imagination; and spiritual, without sound but imprinted into the depths of the soul.

But St. Teresa warns about the dangers of being deceived by any voices heard in prayer; they should be treated with caution, even disregarded. If they come from God they will return. But she warns that some words may come from the devil, and she gives helpful guidance as to how to discriminate. She says that "whether they come from within, from above or from without, has nothing to do with their coming from God." Instead, the signs of their divine origin are, first, "the sense of power and authority which they bear with them." Secondly, "that a great tranquility dwells in the soul, which becomes peacefully recollected. ... The third sign is that these words do not vanish from the memory for a very long time: some, indeed, never vanish at all."

She also describes other ways in which God speaks to the soul which we can tell to be genuine, rather than either the voice of the devil or our own imagination. The first reason is that "a genuine spiritual voice is so clear that the soul remembers every word."

The second reason is that ... the voice comes unexpectedly ... often it refers to things one never thought could happen. ...

The third reason is that in genuine locutions the soul seems to be hearing something, whereas in locutions invented by the imagination, someone seems to be composing bit by bit what the soul wishes to hear.

The fourth reason is that there is a great difference in the words themselves: in a genuine locution one single word may contain a world of meaning such as the understanding alone could never put rapidly into human language.

The fifth reason is that ... not only can words be heard, but ... much more can be understood than the words themselves convey.

All those who learn to listen within know the importance of discrimination: what is the genuine voice of God and what is the voice of the ego, or even split-off parts of our personality or psyche. How easily we are deceived by our mind and ego into imagining what we want to hear, how quickly we are led astray. These guidelines of St. Teresa that come from her own experiences are as valuable today as when they were written centuries ago.

The danger is always that the ego subtly subverts inner listening for its own purposes. The mind and the ego collude to create the voice and the messages that can so easily seduce us; nothing knows our weaknesses better than our own ego. And as we often long for guidance or spiritual reassurance, particularly in our contemporary Western culture that offers so little of either, 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. Because the direction of the answer or the language used is so different to anything I could have thought or imagined, I know that it comes from Another rather than my own mind. 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.

One should also always pay attention to the danger of inflation — any sense of being special or any spiritual self-importance developing from what we hear within. We need the wisdom of humility and also the safeguard of common sense. Common sense is a very necessary quality when balancing our inner and outer life. The inner voice may speak to us of the secrets of the soul, but rarely gives us unbalanced advice or instructions.

If we listen with discrimination we find that we are given the wisdom and understanding we need, in ways we do not expect. Sometimes a word, a phrase or a knowing is unexpectedly present within us, in answer to a question asked or unasked, or pointing us in a new or needed direction. In Sufism we may find this knowing "impressed into the heart," as if Another had secretly imprinted it there.

There is also the simple wonder of hearing the words of our Beloved, of knowing that we are not forgotten or alone. Spiritual life is a solitary journey, even in the company of other wayfarers. One can often feel very alone, and it's a deep blessing to hear and know the presence of the One we love. Listening within gives us access to a quality of spiritual companionship that brings infinite wonder. Like manna from heaven, it nourishes us in the very center of our being. In the words of St. Teresa,

Each day the soul wonders more, for she feels that they [the words] have never left her, and perceives quite clearly, in the way that I have described, that they are in the interior of her heart — in the most interior place of all and in its greatest depths. So although, not being a learned person, she cannot say how this is, she feels within her this Divine companionship.

Being Attentive to Love

Prayer is communion with God; we share with our Beloved our needs, and we also learn to be attentive to His words, to His needs for us. And sometimes our Beloved communes with us with images rather than words, speaking with luminous pictures or symbols that speak directly to our soul. These images stay with us long after the time of prayer has passed, and we are drawn to meditate on them over the days and weeks that follow. I have found that such images may be full of meaning that unfolds itself gradually into consciousness, attuning us to the deeper dimension of our own soul and our relationship with God. Some lovers may also hear music or smell fragrances that come from the garden of the heart, and that touch them in unexpected ways.

Or our Beloved may speak to us in dreams, whose words carry an energy that we know does not belong to our psyche, as when I was told that "He has a special tenderness for His own personal idiots." Sometimes we open a book and know that the words that we read are a message from our Beloved. In so many ways our Beloved speaks to us, answers our prayers, reveals Himself in the inner and outer worlds, "on the horizons and in themselves." There are many ways our Beloved shares with us the wonder of what is real. But words are the most usual way our Beloved communicates to us.

Our listening within the heart attunes us to our Beloved. Divine words have a higher frequency than ordinary discourse; they are more subtle and easily overlooked. By listening within the heart we develop the ear of the heart, the inner listening of the soul that can perceive at this higher frequency. Still, such listening requires both attentiveness and discrimination, as it is not always easy to discriminate between the voice of the ego and the voice of our Beloved. But there is a distinct difference: the words of the ego and mind belong to duality; the words of the heart carry the imprint of oneness. In the heart there is no argument, no you and me, just an unfolding oneness. The heart embraces a difficulty, while the ego takes sides.

Listening, waiting for love's words, turns us away from our own needs to being attentive to His need. In our need we call to our Beloved, and then we wait at the doorway of the heart, listening for an answer. But gradually, imperceptibly, this inner listening becomes more important than our own need. Our questions become fewer, our inner attention grows. Once the Beloved begins to nourish us with His response, the soul's need for companionship is nurtured; the soul is no longer a starving infant crying in the darkness of abandonment.

We look to Him and He looks to us. Many times God's response to our prayers is so deep or so subtle that we do not notice it — it is not captured by consciousness. But when we are made aware of divine grace then the inner communion of the soul with its Maker is brought into consciousness. Sometimes our Beloved's response is a feeling, an increased awareness, an intuition. Love may open our heart more fully, or touch the heart of another. The response may come to us in the outer world, as a synchronicity that captures our attention, a change of situation or a healing that is given.

When our Beloved speaks to us, hints to us, then we know we belong to love, and we begin to feel the security of this belonging. Love's response carries the intimacy of this relationship. Even in the times of dryness, when our Beloved does not speak to us, we carry the memory of His words. As St. Teresa says, "these words do not vanish from the memory for a very long time." Then, when in His mercy we again hear His words, we know that we are known, not just as part of the great mass of humanity, but as an individual, with our own unique qualities and needs. Our Beloved has come to us and reminded us that we are loved with special care and tenderness.

We pray to our Beloved who answers us. Knowing that our prayers are heard, we feel the wonder of experiencing that the inner connection of the soul to God exists, not just as an abstract idea, but as a living reality. Being told that God cares for us is very different from experiencing the intimacy and individual nature of this care. The response to our prayers brings into our consciousness, into our daily life, the soul's link to its Beloved. We then no longer believe in God, we know.



* * *

Mystical prayer draws us into a more and more intimate relationship with our soul and with God. St. Teresa of Avila describes prayer and meditation as the door into the castle of the soul; she compares souls without prayer to people whose bodies are paralyzed. In her autobiography, The Life of St. Teresa of Jesus, she outlines four stages of prayer: recollection, quiet, union, and ecstasy. She uses the image of a gardener watering his garden to describe these stages. 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.


Excerpted from Prayer of the Heart in Christian & Sufi Mysticism by Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee. Copyright © 2012 The Golden Sufi Center. Excerpted by permission of The Golden Sufi Center.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee is a Sufi teacher who has lectured extensively throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe, and is the author of more than 15 books, including Alchemy of Light, Return of the Feminine and the World Soul, and Spiritual Power. He lives in Inverness, California.

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