I’ve grown weary of all the talk about the heart in contemplative prayer.
Sounds terrible, doesn’t it?!
After all, the heart is the focal point of contemplative prayer!
But after a while, my heart started getting angry, feeling the burden of such attention and expectation.
Nineteenth century Russian mystic Theophan the Recluse said, “To pray is to descend with the mind into the heart, and there to stand before the face of the Lord, ever-present, all-seeing within you.”
Teachers of prayer and contemplation, like Theophan the Recluse, have emphasized the heart and taught various ways of guiding us to pray from it. I have learned and offered others various ways of integrating such prayer, especially through the imagination as we bring our attention to the heart.
But I did not realize how much modernity was still operating under the surface.
Contemplative prayer was such a welcome relief for me after prayer that emphasized the “head” with its words, whether thought or spoken. With the latter, once one had invited Jesus into or given Jesus their heart, the focus was on knowing the right beliefs and acting accordingly. All that was needed for prayer was found from the neck up (and the rest was not to be trusted!).
This disconnect was not unexpected. When modernity ushered in a time of dissecting in order to discover, the heart became associated with a particular organ in a particular location. Where is the heart? It’s in the chest, of course! It’s job is to pump blood (and woe to the person who trusts any feelings associated with it!).
The earliest Biblical people did not think of the heart (lev) in this way.
The “heart” of a person referred to the “seat of all of life.” When told to “love God with all of your heart,” this included one’s mind, soul, and strength. For the ancient people, the heart was the whole of a person—feelings, thinking, understanding, will, and wisdom. Since the heart was the center of one’s existence (physically, mentally, and emotionally), to love God with one’s heart was to allow God to be at the center of one’s whole self (body, mind, and soul).
What is at our center directs our life. Tapping into and resting in that center with God is the playground of contemplative prayer.
However, modernity broke up this inherent unity to study and evaluate the diversity of the parts and it elevated the mind above all else. Contemplative prayer with its emphasis on the heart, invited the mind to descend from it's place of self-sufficiency and recover humility. But, if modernity is still the framework, the draw is to elevate one part over the others, this time placing the heart on a pedestal rather than locating it within the whole.
During a time of meditation with a Buddhist, I was not guided to focus on my heart, but to discover any place of openness or peace within. Hearing her words offered me an unexpected ah-ha moment! I immediately was transported back to the Hebraic view of the heart. As I listened to the whole of my body and not just one part, I discovered the burden on my heart and tension in my chest began to dissipate. (Last week I mentioned this inner co-dependency with the heart.)
I chuckled as I noticed the openness was in my face, particularly my cheeks. Another time the openness was in my gut, still another behind my eyes.
All of these places were open to God but I was unable to see them for my inner eyes were focused on one place! So much wisdom just waiting to be discovered.
When God infuses all of oneself, all of oneself is a channel to experience God. The heart is found everywhere, not simply in one physical location.
Where am I best able to listen to the heart of God today? I notice an openness in my hands. Through my hands, the heart of God has something to say to the heart of me. Through my hands I listen and offer a prayer.
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Kasey is a scarf, ball and club juggling spiritual director just outside of Nashville, TN. Play helps her Type-A, Enneagram 1 personality relax, creating space for poetry and other words to emerge. She also likes playing with theological ideas like perichoresis, and all the ways we're invited into this Triune dance.