The Prayer of the Heart

A woman balances on a swing in front of a waterfall, illustrating how the prayer of the heart brings life into balance.

A Series on the Human Heart as the Temple of God, Part 3 of 3

There is only one secret to the spiritual life that you need to know: the human heart was made for God. It sounds impossibly simple, but understand that it is more profound an insight than most people know. Life is busy and complex. It is difficult sometimes to know what decisions to make. For instance, there is nothing simple about discerning how to allocate money and resources wisely. We also struggle with how to get through pain and grief. And yet… for all its complexity, there is a simplicity at the heart of life that can easily get lost.

You Are Your Ability to Love

Who are you? In one sense, you can spend a lifetime learning the answer. But in a deeper sense, you are simply your ability to love. You are your heart. And you were made to love God above all things. I will go out on a limb and say that if you have this right, then most of the rest of your life will fall into place.

This is the foundation of everything else. It is why Jesus says that ultimately all the laws of God boil down to two: love God and love your neighbour. Make sure that loving God is first and the neighbour is second. Why? It is not because there is a competition between God and everything else, nor is it because God needs to know that God is first. Rather, it means that making the love of God your highest aim sets everything else in place.

One reason life can be so difficult is that our loves fall easily out of balance. This is the real meaning of idolatry. Created things like money, desire, power, possessions, and relationships are all good. They only become problematic when they are loved and desired out of balance. Giving them God’s place in our lives and attention distorts everything else.

Keeping on Track with the Prayer of the Heart

How do you keep God first and everything else in balance? One way is through prayer, particularly the Prayer of the Heart. If you explore this prayer practice, you will probably find a simple and powerful way called the Jesus Prayer. This is a humble plea for God’s love and mercy through one repeated phrase: Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me. Christians have used this prayer for centuries to help keep their lives centred on God.

The human heart was made for God. The heart is the dwelling place of God, the temple of the Holy Spirit. We can distill the Prayer of the Heart even more than these seven words, and say that it is only about bringing our hearts before Jesus. To really experience this truth, we must strip down our prayers and come before God just as we are, in all our poverty. By that I mean without big thoughts about God, with no desire to impress or get something, no excuses about our behaviour or choices, no big plans for how life should be, no thinking about how important or rich you are. Just you – plain and simple, stripped down. Find the simplest words you can to express love, and then stay there.

The Prayer of the Heart is Reaching with Love

The Prayer of the Heart seems so simple that most people pass it by, yet it carries the deepest wisdom. Carlo Carretto tells us,

“Don’t try to reach God with your understanding; that is impossible. Reach him in love; that is possible.”

God really only wants you to know one thing: that you are loved and that you are called to love others. When you pray, keep the logic of it simple, and you will find that wisdom will meet you in the practice.

As I end this series, I invite you to meditate on these words by Carlo Carretto that sum up the Christian vision of the Prayer of the Heart:

“The love of God is by nature pure, balanced and holy. Whoever is dominated by it lives in deep peace, has an ordered view of things, and knows the meaning of true freedom. But the love of God, too, passing into our heart must be worked at, cultivated, pruned, fertilized. And the most uncompromising farmer is God.”

Keeping Awake: Discerning How God Speaks

Keeping Awake: Discerning How God Speaks

Welcome to the season of Advent, the time of preparation for the coming of the Christ child, the one who brings light and blessing. The message of Advent comes from the Gospel lesson we read last Sunday. Jesus says, “And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” (Mark 13:37) What does it mean to keep awake? There are different ways to answer this, but at the simplest level, keeping awake means listening to God and getting to know how God speaks.

What Being Blessed Really Means

Once, when Jesus was teaching (Luke 11:27-28), someone was deeply touched by his wisdom. She exclaimed how blessed Jesus’ mother must be for giving birth to such a child. I am guessing that the speaker was also a mother who wanted to express her gratitude. Normally, Jesus might have agreed that his mother was pretty special, but here he answers differently to make a point. He says, “On the contrary, blessed are those who hear the Word of God and observe it.” One of our most important tasks is to listen to the Word of God.

God is speaking to you constantly. Are you listening? This is the question that Jesus wants us to take seriously. God does not usually speak to us like we speak to one another. Because God uses a different kind of speaking, we have to develop a different kind of listening.

How God Speaks

First and foremost, God has spoken through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. This is why we call Jesus the Word of God (John 1:1-3). To understand what Jesus’ life says, we turn to the second most important way God has spoken: through the writings that tell the story of Jesus, that reflect on the meaning of his life, and that tell the story of his ancestors. These are the Scriptures. We listen to the Word by reading, praying and reflecting on them. God also speaks through history, including the events of your life and the people you know.

This way of listening may be unfamiliar to us, and so the meaning is not immediately obvious. For this reason, listening becomes what we call discernment: a considered, prayerful process of tuning our spiritual ears to God’s voice.

The Call of Advent

Advent is the promise that Christ is coming. He comes at Christmas, but he also comes every day. His grace and love is constantly active. Do we see it? Do we hear it? Are we a part of it?

This Advent, consider how you listen to God and how you discern God’s voice. God is speaking to you. Are you listening? Do you keep awake?

Book Study: Surprise the World! — Listen to the Holy Spirit

Surprise the World: LISTEN

In this series, we are looking at Michael Frost’s book, Surprise the World!, with its challenge to live surprising lives. He uses the acronym B.E.L.L.S. to describe how this might look. In our last two reflections, we covered the first two letters, which stand for BLESS and EAT. Today, we are looking at the third habit: LISTEN to the Holy Spirit.

Listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit is crucial for our missional life. Frost tells us that we need to be attentive to the guiding of the Holy Spirit as we move out into the world to bless people and to eat with them. We need the Holy Spirit to help us in this crazy and complex world. We need the grace of the Holy Spirit to help us not to give into the two mission killers: fear and laziness.

It is easy to be afraid of what people will say when they find out that we are followers of Christ. Laziness tells us that we don’t have time and that we should take care of ourselves first. It is good to take care of ourselves as long as we don’t get stuck there. The grace of the Holy Spirit calls us into both/and rather than either/or.

We don’t just listen to the Holy Spirit for guidance. It is also about spending rejuvenating time with God. God’s call on our lives is more of a marathon than a sprint. To be effective, we also need to be centered. In his book Satisfy Your Soul, Bruce Demarest writes,

A quieted heart is our best preparation for all this work of God… Meditation refocuses us from ourselves and from the world so that we reflect on God’s Word, His nature, His abilities, and His works… The goal is simply to permit the Holy Spirit to activate the life-giving Word of God.

The paradox of living a missional life is that for the extraverts, being a blessing to people and eating with them is a real blessing, whereas the idea of sitting quietly seems like a drag. On the other hand, introverts can enjoy the silence but dread the effort of getting out and being with people. Frost writes that while he appreciates the dilemma, we need to be balanced. We need both the action in the world, and the nurturing time with God. For those who are not used to time in prayer, he suggests picking one significant period of time each week in the presence of God. In this way, we step outside the frantic and harried nature of life, and we will have something to give those around us.

Here are his suggestions:

1) Set Aside a Designated Time

Don’t try to do this on the run or whenever you find time. Set aside a block of at least twenty minutes to listen to God.

2) Eliminate Distractions

The quieter and less busy the room, the better. If there is a distraction, then your mind will go to it. Turn the phone off.

3) Let God In

Start by simply enjoying God’s presence. If you find your mind wandering, use a short prayer to bring you back.

4) Follow God’s Promptings

The Spirit might bring something to mind, like someone’s name or face. Pray for them and be on the lookout for ways to be a blessing to them. Learn to discern the movement of the Spirit in your soul over time. Frost writes, “As we become more familiar with listening to the Spirit as a kind of weekly rhythm, we’ll also find ourselves becoming more adept at hearing the Spirit in real time, in the midst of encounters with our neighbours, as we bless or share a meal or otherwise get in the way of the people around us.” LISTEN.

(NOTE: These reflections are only meant to be a synopsis and study of Michael Frost’s work, Surprise the World! Our purpose is to encourage our readers with these great ideas. If you interested in going further, please go read the book. We encourage you to support your local independent bookstore.)

How to Pray: Silence and Contemplation

How to Pray: Silence & Contemplation

And prayer is more
Than an order of words,
the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind,
or the sound of the voice praying.

T.S. Eliot (1888-1965)

One of the great misunderstandings about prayer is that it is mostly about saying the right words. Often people will ask me to pray for them because they feel that they won’t get the words ‘right.’ I hope that I have made it clear that this isn’t the point of prayer. God just wants our heart.

Today, we are reflecting on the fact that some of the deepest forms of prayer have no words at all. Psalm 46:10 reflects that God tells us to “be still and know that I am God.” Prayer comes to a point where we just enjoy the presence of God and don’t feel the need to fill the space with words. This is contemplation and silence, one of the richest forms of prayer. It is similar to two friends who have spent so much time together that they don’t need to speak. They are just comfortable in each other’s presence. Likewise, sometimes God just calls us to rest in his presence. In this reflection, I want to talk about the process of coming into a contemplative space, and then end with a reflection on the gift of silence.

It is ironic that the deepest prayer is also the simplest prayer. But simpler doesn’t always mean easier. It is hard for us to enter a centered contemplative space because people are prone to distractions and may find it uncomfortable to sit in silence. For most of us, we have to ease our way into this form of prayer.

Entering Silence and Contemplation: Me and God

Think of it in three stages. The first is the ‘me and God’ stage. In this stage we find something to fix our thoughts on. This helps us with the issue of distraction. This could be a short piece of Scripture like we talked about in the Lectio Divina series. But it could also be a picture or an object. It could be an image or a concept. We use this ‘something’ to help us focus our attention. As we meditate on it, we explore this object of attention with our mind.

Whenever we get distracted, we come back to our object. During this time of meditation, we find our soul starts to quiet down and the distractions of life fade away.

God and Me

When this happens, we enter the ‘God and me’ stage. As our souls quiet down, the center of gravity changes. It is no longer about me coming to God, but God takes centre stage in my prayer. I find that I am no longer working so hard to stay focused. I am able to release the object that has helped me up to this point. Here I am just sitting in the presence of God.

But don’t think that nothing is happening. You are fully open to the grace and love of God at this point with no agenda. The effects do not emerge within the time of prayer. But you will find if you do practice this form of prayer regularly, you will be surprised that you are calmer, more observant and more patient. Silence and contemplation are part of the slow transformation process of being a disciple.

God Alone

On a rare occasion, there is a third stage. It is the ‘God alone’ stage. This is where you are so absorbed in God that God is everything in the prayer. But this is rare, and is always a gift from God. Be content with the experience of ‘God and me.’

Feeding Our Souls with Silence and Contemplation

Silence is food for the soul. There is so much noise and busyness in the world. This is good; there is a time and a place to be active. But we can’t forget that there is also a time and a place to be still.

Sometimes I will leave my phone and work on my desk and go for a walk. This isn’t just to get exercise. I also try to still my thoughts. It’s so easy to bring everything with me! I just open my ears and eyes to what is around me. Then I find that silence is not the absence of noise. It is the absence of being distracted and stressed; it is being present. This is good food for the soul.


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Praying with Psalm 131 (Lectio Divina Series – An Example)

Praying with Psalm 131 (Lectio Divina Series)

In this reflection, I want to write about my own experience with Lectio Divina, praying with Psalm 131. I want to show you that this process can be very personal. Because it is personal, my meditations here won’t be the same as you would have. That is exactly the point. Lectio Divina is a way to listen to God speaking to YOU, personally. I chose this particular Psalm to share with you because God used it to lead me on a bit of a roller coaster ride.

Reading (Lectio)

Psalm 131 is extremely short. I read through it very slowly and still finished it quickly. So, I read through it several times. Even though it is only a few verses long, three images really leapt out at me. They were all from the first two verses, while the last verse didn’t seem to impact me at all. In this session of reading prayerfully, I just left it as an afterthought and never returned to it.

The first image was this strong declaration from the writer, David, that his heart isn’t proud. This declaration drives to a second declaration that he doesn’t concern himself with things beyond his understanding. He just leaves them alone. Third, he uses the vivid image of a child, just past the stage of nursing, content to be in his mother’s arms. For David, this image of God as a mother, gently holding him, hit me somewhere deeply inside.

Ponder (Meditatio)

I started to ponder this passage and ended up having a bit of a spiritual crisis. It came from the second part of verse 1, where David reflects, “I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me.” I found that verse emotionally compelling. As I read it, I felt that I wanted to be in the same place that David was, spiritually. But, as I read, I realized I wasn’t even close.

It hit me that I actually live my whole life “concerning myself with great matters.” This is what I am all about. I am driven to seek out answers to hard questions. As I ponder, I am never satisfied with simple resolutions. I spend huge amounts of time wrestling with big questions like, Who is God? Why is there suffering in the world? Which religion is true? What do we really mean by atonement? What is true justice? This is not just a drive. Indeed, I love having conversations with people about big questions. I love reading and absorbing what people in the past have said. It fills me joy and energy and purpose. It is literally my favourite pastime.

This was my personal spiritual crisis: I felt the truth of what David was writing, but I also felt that God has called me to be a thinker and writer. I genuinely believe that this is my vocation.

Prayer (Oratio)

As I brought my dilemma to God, I prayed: How do I put them together!? The way forward was beyond me. Then, praying with Psalm 131 gave me an insight. I saw the irony: this is exactly what David was talking about. I believe that God spoke to me that day through this realization. Of course I couldn’t put it together, because there are “great matters” that are beyond me.

I didn’t feel that God was forcing me to an answer to the dilemma. He was just revealing it to me. The answer wasn’t so much a solution as an invitation to continue to ponder and pray. As I prayed, I would grow. But I needed to trust God even when I couldn’t see the way forward. This pondering led me into silent rest in God.

Silent Prayer (Contemplatio)

I realized deeply in my soul that, although I love the act of thinking and wrestling with big questions, ultimately all of that points beyond itself to God. I don’t have to have all those answers just to sit and love God. In fact, my calling can also be my idolatry. Sometimes I need to set them aside and be with God. As my praying with Psalm 131 led me to silent contemplation, I imagined myself as this weaned child just resting in the arms of his mother, and that was enough.

Over to You

Obviously, Lectio Divina doesn’t always lead to a spiritual crisis. As we pray, we often just discover insights about ourselves and our relationship with God. But because we each come to God with our own concerns, this way of praying through Scripture can be very personal. God is speaking to your questions, your situation, your joys, your fears. Our task is to listen, not to know the answers. As we said at the beginning of this series, ‘listening’ is one of the most important spiritual skills we can develop.

Contemplative Prayer (Lectio Divina Series – “Contemplatio”)

Contemplative Prayer

Contemplation is the highest expression of [our] intellectual and spiritual life. It is that life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive. It is spiritual wonder. It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being. It is gratitude for life, for awareness and for being. It is a vivid realization of the fact that life and being in us proceed from an invisible, transcendent and infinitely abundant Source. Contemplation is, above all, awareness of the reality of that Source. It knows the Source, obscurely, inexplicably, but with a certitude that goes both beyond reason and beyond simple faith.

Thomas Merton

We now reach the last movement of Lectio Divina: Contemplation. This is the natural culmination of everything else you have done. Be aware that it can be the most beautiful part of your time of prayer, but it can also easily be the hardest. Contemplative prayer is also the hardest to explain because of its utter simplicity. Here are the instructions: just sit there. Don’t think about anything or do anything. Don’t expect anything. Just sit there. Actually, there is one other instruction: be attentive to where you are and to the God in whose presence you sit.

Moving Beyond Words

Contemplative prayer is a form of silent prayer. This is sometimes confusing because it often seems that prayer is all about words. We use words in the liturgy, words in praying for others, words in reading the Bible, words while singing, and words when just talking to God.

Word-filled prayer is very important; language is a great gift. But we need to understand that words are not the final goal. They point to something beyond themselves. For instance, when I tell my kids to come and eat dinner, the word “dinner” is not what is important. They don’t stop and say, “What a great word, Dad!” They rush by me to get to the actual plate of food sitting on the table full of food. The food is the dinner, not the word.

Contemplation is similar. It is the recognition every word we use in prayer is pointing beyond itself. Words point us beyond ourselves to the great mystery that words can’t capture. In the end, they are only signposts on the way, leading to what is really important: God. In my story of my children and dinner, the real point is not hearing the word, but that they enjoy the delicious food we have prepared. At some point, in a similar way, we leave the words of prayer behind, and just enjoy the presence of the God who made us for just this profound relationship.

Contemplative Prayer is Savouring and Attentiveness

I recognize that this can still be confusing. Let me suggest two other human scenarios that might help us to glimpse what contemplation is. First, imagine that you are eating the best meal you have ever had. It is in that little restaurant that people have told you about. You didn’t believe that food could be that good, but you went anyways. Then you put the first bite in your mouth… and oh…my… goodness!! The flavours are so rich and succulent. Your table mate asks how it is. You pause because you just want to savour that taste for a moment before answering. That savouring is a form of contemplation. You don’t think about it; you just experience it.

Second, imagine walking on the beach with a friend. It is the perfect day: warm but not hot, the faint scent of salt, the water pleasantly wet on your feet. You talk for awhile as you walk, but over time you just drift into silence. It is just pleasant to be there with your friend, all your senses taking in everything. There is nothing you need to say. It is enough just to be there.

This quiet attentiveness to what is around you is also a form of contemplation. Walter Burghardt calls it “a long, loving look at the real.” While this is easier to do when things are pleasant, to be attentive is a way of deepening spiritually in all circumstances. You can start simply with a few minutes at the end of Lectio Divina.

Beginning to Practice Contemplative Prayer

Contemplation is just sitting there. Don’t think. Just be…in the presence of God. I recognize that this is deceptively simple, so there are techniques to help quiet the thoughts and words that constantly drift through our minds.

Let me give you a little trick that most people use, even established contemplatives. When you have finished praying about your reading, choose one of the words in the reading that spoke to you. Maybe the word was faith or love or God or joy or follow. It could be anything.

As you find your mind wandering, say that word in your mind. Let the word be the tool you use to re-focus on the presence of God with you. When you wander again, say the word again. Say it as much as you need. I find that sometimes I need the words a lot. That is fine. The point is not to accomplish anything, but to be in God’s presence with no agenda. Just sit in the truth that God loves you so much.

Next time, as an example, I will reflect on a session of Lectio Divina I did with Psalm 131.