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Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Prayer of the Heart is Short, Unceasing and All-Inclusive

The Way of The Heart concludes with an emphasis on three characteristics of the prayer of the heart:

• 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

Henri Nouwen explains “When we use a very simple sentence such as ‘O God, come to my assistance,’ or Jesus, master, have mercy on me,’ or a word such as ‘Lord’ or ‘Jesus’ . . . Such a simple, easily repeated prayer can slowly empty out our crowded interior life and create the quiet space where we can dwell with God. It can be like a ladder along which we can descend into the heart and ascend to God” (The Way of The Heart, Ballantine Books, 1983, page 65).

A Russian peasant was once challenged by the New Testament verse: “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Not surprisingly he wonders what this means “I began to think how it was possible to pray without ceasing, since a man has to concern himself with other things also in order to make a living.”

A wise man told the pilgrim “Ceaseless interior prayer is a continual yearning of the human spirit towards God.” In the course of his travels, the pilgrim makes the Jesus Prayer “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me” his constant companion until one day “It seemed as though my heart in its ordinary beating began to say the words of the Prayer within at each beat . . . I gave up saying the Prayer with my lips. I simply listened carefully to what my heart was saying” (quoting R.M. French, trans., The Way of the Pilgrim, New York: The Seabury Press, 1965, pages 1-3).

Can anyone, even a busy minister, pastor, teacher, journalist, parent, student, or mechanic learn to “Pray without ceasing”?

Nouwen responds that “The prayer continues to pray within me even when I am talking with others or concentrating on manual work . . . I am not suggesting that we should imitate . . . the Russian pilgrim, but I do suggest that we, too, in our busy ministry should be concerned to pray without ceasing, so that ‘Whatever we do, whether we eat or drink we do it all for the glory of God’ (1 Corinthians 10:31).

“To love and work for the glory of God cannot remain an idea about which we think once in a while. It must become an interior, unceasing doxology.

“A final characteristic of the prayer of the heart is that it includes all our concerns. When we enter with our mind into our heart and there stand in the presence of God, then all our mental preoccupations become prayer. The power of the prayer of the heart is precisely that through it all that is on our mind becomes prayer.

“We have seen how the prayer of the heart is nurtured by short prayers, is unceasing and all-inclusive. These three characteristics show how the prayer of the heart is the breath of the spiritual life and of all ministry” (The Way of The Heart, Ballantine Books, 1983, pages 68-70).

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

How to Pray the Prayer of the Heart

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.