We’re not monks. At least most of us reading this blog aren’t so far as I know. (Do let me know if you are a monk and somehow come across these words.) We ordinary Christians don’t usually live in an actual desert (though some parts of Texas and California are very close to being exactly that!). So how can we, Jesus-following disciples and citizens of the world in the 21st century, practice the prayer of the heart?
How do you do that? Let me know, and I’ll pass your practices along to others.
As Henri Nouwen writes towards the end of The Way of The Heart (pages 63-64):
• The prayer of the heart is nurtured by short, simple prayers
• The prayer of the heart is unceasing
• The prayer of the heart is all-inclusive
As Nouwen observes, the Desert Fathers discourage the use of too many words. Abba Macarius said: “There is no need at all to make long discourses; it is enough to stretch out one’s hand and say, ‘Lord as you will, and as you know, have mercy.’ And if the conflict grows fiercer say: ‘Lord, help.’ He knows very well what we need and he shows us his mercy.’
“John Climacus is even more explicit: ‘When you pray do not try to express yourself in fancy words, for often it is the simple, repetitious phrases of a little child that our Father in heaven finds most irresistible . . . One phrase on the lips of the tax collector was enough to win God’s mercy . . . Wordiness in prayer often subjects the mind to fantasy and dissipation; single words of their very nature tend to concentrate the mind.’ The quiet repetition of a single word can help us descend with the mind into the heart . . . a word or sentence repeated frequently can help us to concentrate, to move to the center, to create an inner stillness and thus to listen to the voice of God.
“When, for instance, we have spent twenty minutes in the early morning sitting in the presence of God with the words ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’ they may slowly build a little nest for themselves in our heart and stay there for the rest of our busy day. Even while we are talking, studying, gardening, or building, the prayer can continue in our heart and keep us aware of God’s ever-present guidance.
“The discipline is not directed toward coming to a deeper insight into what it means that God is our Shepherd, but toward coming to the inner experience of God’s shepherding action in whatever we think, say, or do” (The Way of The Heart, Ballantine Books, 1983, page 65).
Try it. Carve out 5 to 10 minutes one morning this week. Then pray the prayer of the heart.
As you go through your busy day, use the pauses and breaks, the interruptions, the brief moments of downtime, the transitions between activities, the commute, or a few minutes at the close of your day to repeat the prayer of your heart.