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.”

Building a Prayer Life (How to Pray – Series Summary)

Building a Prayer Life

We have spent several weeks looking at the life of prayer. We have covered a lot of material, so in this final reflection I thought it might be helpful to highlight what I believe are the four most important points in the life of prayer.

1. Above all else, a prayer life is an intimate relationship with God.

From one perspective, a life of prayer can be complicated. As we have seen, there are many different approaches to prayer and all kinds of techniques for praying deeply. There are lots of different tools, books and apps that one can use. Before we get caught up with all of that, it is essential to remember that above all else, prayer is an intimate relationship with God. At its heart, prayer is utterly simple: God wants to be in relationship with you. And prayer is our side of that relationship. All of the techniques and tools are only supposed to help with that simple goal. If they help, by all means use them! But if they don’t, then don’t use them. It is that simple.

2. Lifting up your heart is the foundation of prayer

Prayer is based on a simple, essential movement. In the Eucharist, we call this ‘lifting up your heart.’ This is a way of putting aside the thoughts and activities of the world and giving your attention to God. The beauty of prayer as lifting up your heart is that you can do this anywhere: at home, at church, in the grocery store, at work… you get the idea. Every method and aid to prayer is only meant to facilitate and enhance this simple truth.

For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy.

St. Thérèse of Lisieux

3. Have a routine and a place for prayer

Consider having a special time and place where you pray every day. In the modern world, we sometimes forget the importance of ritual to structure our days and weeks. Without it, life can often seem chaotic and busy. Daily rituals of prayer help us to recenter and recapture what it is that we are all about. It is also helpful to have a prayer space, even if it is just a favourite chair. Over time, you come to look forward to praying in your space. Obviously, you do not need all of this to pray.

People often point to the Oswald Chambers quotation: “There is no need to get to a place to pray; pray wherever you are.” And I strongly agree with that. But Chambers was speaking to a different question. He was trying to encourage people that you don’t need to go to a church to pray with professional clergy. Prayer is available to anyone at any time. Of course, we can pray anywhere. But if we are going to create a habit, it is essential to have structures in place that will help us to do so.

4. Commit to a prayer life

This is the hardest part. I believe that if we wait until we have time to develop a prayer life, then we probably won’t do it. It is hard to find time to add something new to our lives. What we need to do is to understand how important prayer is, and we always find time for things that we believe are important.

It is not hard to see that prayer is important. I would suggest that this is the single most important activity that we do every day. Think about it… if we really believe that there is a God, and that this God wants to be in relationship with us, and that we were created specifically for this purpose, then spending time in prayer (daily communion with God) is the most important thing we can do. This is merely the law of relationships. For relationships to thrive, we need to put in the time. There is no other way.

Prayer is a special activity. It is clearly an ancient and universal impulse:

From primitive cave paintings to the whitewashed walls of the Royal Academy, the universal impulse to pray permeates and pulsates through human anthropology and archaeology, sociology and psychology. It is no exaggeration to say that to be human is to pray. The question, therefore, is not so much why we pray, but rather how and to whom. For billions of people today, the answer to such questions is to be found in the revolutionary life and teaching of Jesus Christ.

Pete Greig

I pray that your prayer life will grow and be a blessing to you. Though it will have its ups and downs, you will find the rhythm that works for you. Just remember:

Keep it simple,

Keep it real,

Keep it up.

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How to Pray: Prayer Is a Lifestyle

How to Pray: Prayer is a Lifestyle

This fall, we are looking at developing habits of prayer to help us grow deep roots of faith. By building our faith life on the rock of God (see Matthew 7:24), we will be stronger and more resilient as we walk through difficult times. 

In the last reflection, we looked at finding a time and place in which we can bring our prayers to God. As we develop this habit, it is important in the back of our minds to remember that the life of prayer is much larger than daily times of prayer. Two insights are important. First: at its heart, prayer is the name for a whole life lived in light of God’s mercy. More than just words, prayer is a lifestyle. Second, there is no one way of doing prayer. We come before the living God in an enormous variety of ways. Let me say a few words about both of these insights.

1. Prayer is a Whole Life Lived in Light of the Mercy of God

Don’t worry if that is not where you find yourself now. The Christian tradition has always taught that developing a life of prayer is a growth process. Many early church teachers described this process as three stages: purgation, illumination and union. I won’t unpack these stages here, except to say that prayer is like every other serious endeavour: it takes time and practice.

For instance, we all know that if you want to become a master electrician, you can only do it by starting out as an apprentice and working your way through to the journeyman stage. This is not because there are elites at the top who want to keep you out. It is just that to be an electrician, you need experience as well as knowledge. Not only do you need to know how electrical systems work, but you have to practice the trade for long enough that you develop ‘a feel’ for how that knowledge applies in real situations. When you get that ‘feel,’ you know that you are becoming a master.

It is the same with prayer. A mature, centered Christian is someone whose life has been formed by habits of prayer, worship, service, and sacrifice over many years. They develop ‘a feel’ for how God is working in their life and in the lives of others. Every action they do is in the light of God. Ultimately, this is what we mean by a life of prayer. It is far more than sitting in your chair and praying; it is a Christ-shaped life. Prayer is a lifestyle that encompasses and affects everything we say and do. But it doesn’t start there. It starts in your chair.

2. A Lifestyle of Prayer Has Great Variety

Different times in our lives call for different ways of meeting God. Pete Greig describes nine paths of prayer. Other teachers break it up differently. But the point is there is a time for every season under heaven (Ecclesiastes 3:1). A lifestyle of prayer will look different for different people and across different stages of life.

Sometimes, we want to pray for people we love. That is Intercession. At other times, we are so grateful to God that we need to give Thanksgiving. Perhaps we find that we are in awe of something amazing that has happened, and we want to praise God for his creation. That is Adoration. Maybe we have messed up and so we come to God for forgiveness. That is Confession. Sometimes we are grieving and in great pain. That is a time for Lamentation. There is a time for Singing and Praising, and there is a time for Quiet and Stillness. There is a time for Listening and a time for Speaking. All of it is prayer.

Over the next several reflections, I am going to work through Greig’s list of nine paths: Stillness, Adoration, Petition, Intercession, Perseverance, Contemplation, Listening, Confession, and Spiritual Warfare. As we work our way through these paths of prayer, I hope you will find that prayer is not a chore; it is a great adventure!

How to Pray: Getting Started (Dry Ground–Deep Roots series)

How to Pray: Getting Started

In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (Ephesus was an ancient city on the Western coast of modern day Turkey), he is writing to encourage the local congregation. The early church had lots of things going against them, from outside pressures to internal divisions. As Paul writes to help the church through a difficult time, he also makes praying for them a priority. This is his prayer:

I pray that out of [God’s] glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

Ephesians 3:16-18

If you have the time, read this prayer through a few times. As you read it, imagine that Paul is praying it for you. Even though it was written for a congregation long ago on the other side of the world, God still uses it to bless his people here and now. Through the work of the Holy Spirit, this blessing is for you.

Hearts on Fire

I have chosen this prayer as our theme for the fall because it speaks so strongly to what God wants for us as Christians. As we are formed in the love of God, we need to find a way to move that knowledge from our heads into our hearts. God wants his love to be a living truth that sets our hearts on fire and becomes the source of our strength and life. We will keep coming back to this verse because it is full of strong spiritual truths to get us through the challenging months ahead.

I also bring up this prayer as an invitation to look at your daily rhythms of prayer. These spiritual blessings need to be nurtured in your life. They are for you, but they can easily dissipate in the face of busyness and difficulty. How can we nurture them? By attending to the relationship that we have with God in Jesus Christ. Like any relationship, it needs to be cultivated and encouraged. One of the most important ways we do this is through a life of prayer.

Prayer is a Way of Life

Remember, prayer is far more than just ‘talking’ to God or reading a list of prayer requests. In fact, we will see later that intercession is just one of nine parts of prayer! Even more than that, prayer is a way of life. It shapes a committed life of discipleship. Through it you will grow closer to God, grow in inner maturity, become a stronger and more compassionate member of the community, and know the blessings from Paul’s prayer, no matter how hard life turns out to be.

How to Pray: Getting Started

I want to come back now to your life of prayer with two simple questions: when and where? Attending to our relationship with God takes both time and location. The irony of course is that for many of us, one or both of those are in short supply. We can certainly pray on the fly, but deeper prayer takes intention.

When are you going to pray during the week and where is it going to be? I have a couple of places that I go to for prayer. They are comfortable, and I usually have a hot drink with me, either coffee or tea. Whatever you choose, remember these wise words from Pete Greig:

After decades of night-and-day prayer, I have come to believe that 99 percent of it is just showing up: making the effort to become consciously present to the God who is constantly present to us.

– Pete Greig

Reading the Bible Prayerfully (Lectio Divina Series – “Meditatio”)

The Hope Canteen: Reading the Bible Prayerfully

In the previous article, I wrote about not hurrying through Scripture. Rather, we should read slowly and deliberately. This is because we are LISTENING, listening very closely. True listening is hard to do, because it needs to be without agenda as much as possible. Even so, taking our time and listening carefully opens the way to reading the Bible prayerfully.

For example, imagine my wife says that she has a good idea about what we should do this weekend. I already have an idea about what we should be doing this weekend, and without listening to her, I already know that my idea is a lot better. I have an agenda, and it keeps me from hearing what she has to say. I have already determined that it is not as good as my idea, and I am only listening to find reasons to show her why my idea is better. This does not honour my wife or our relationship. I would do better to put my agenda aside and listen to what she has to say. This act of putting aside my agenda and paying attention is what I am calling listening.

Deep Listening to Scripture

When we read Scripture, we use this same kind of listening, but we call it “meditation.” This could be confusing. When the Bible uses the word “meditation,” it doesn’t mean sitting in silence, something that is a lot closer to the Christian practice of contemplation. Meditation in the Bible comes from the Hebrew word “to mutter.” We see this in Psalm 1 as it describes the truly happy: “Their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they MEDITATE [mutter] day and night.” Muttering implies that the reader stops and repeats what they just read, so that they can get a deeper sense of what is written.

Ruminating on Scripture

In the Middle Ages, writers talked about ruminating on Scripture. Ruminating comes from the image of a cow chewing its cud. It means that they are covering the same ground over and over. The passage is full of meaning; we need to sit for a time with the image or idea we are meditating on.

The author of our Book of Common Prayer, Thomas Cranmer, wrote a wonderful prayer that describes ruminating on Scripture. He wanted to capture the Reformation desire that people would come to love the Bible as the Word of God. He wanted them to use the Bible, not just as a source of information or to do theology, but as a way to connect to the living God, who still speaks through its pages. The prayer goes like this:

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ.

By using that strange but delightful phrase, ‘inwardly digest them’, Cranmer asks us not just to learn the truths of Scripture by rote, but to absorb them into our very souls. Meditation is being spiritually nourished by Holy Scripture.

God Is Always Speaking Through Scripture

Lectio Divina assumes that, in reading the Bible prayerfully, you will find something that speaks to your heart. In his book on meditating on Scripture, Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it like this: “In our meditation, we ponder the chosen text on the strength of the promise that it has something utterly personal to say to us for this day and for our Christian life.” This is an incredible promise! To claim it, we need to be able to listen carefully and put aside our agenda during our prayer time.

The Lectio Divina Practice of Meditating on Scripture

The practice of meditating on Scripture works like this: as you are reading the passage slowly, pay close attention to how you are feeling and what you notice. Usually, an image, a verse, a phrase, or even just a word will stand out to you. You may just note something interesting. At other times, you might find something you are excited about, or strongly dislike. Whatever it is, stop here and ponder for a moment. First, ask what it means for the Biblical writer. Then, ask what it means for you. Why do you think this place in your reading is interesting to you? You are trying to draw a living connection between the world of the Bible and your world. Our goal is to live in light of what God is doing in the Gospel.

Listening to God’s Word

When something in Scripture speaks to you, it is a good indication that God is using it to tell you something about a question or experience you are having. Sometimes, what God is saying will be clear. Other times, you will need to ponder and pray about it for a while. Either way, after you have meditated on your passage, turn to God in prayer. I will say more about this in the next reflection.

Steps of Lectio Divina: The Four Movements

Steps of Lectio Divina

Lectio Divina is not as fancy as the name might suggest. I would use a different name, but this one has such an ancient tradition that I will leave it be. Remember, though, that it is just a way to read the scriptures devotionally. In this article, we are looking at the four movements, or steps, of lectio divina.

Reading the Bible to Get to Know God

You can read the Bible to find out facts about Jesus, learn Israelite history or to explore questions of theology. Most people, however, just want to know God personally. They want to grow in their faith. Lectio divina is a simple but profound way of doing exactly that. While we are looking at the traditional steps of lectio divina here, what I love about this way of prayer is that it is so flexible. It can be adapted in so many ways. If you are not familiar with this way of reading, I would encourage you to try it and see what you think.

Four Steps of Lectio Divina

In the last article, I wrote a little bit about how Lectio Divina envisions a slow and gentle process of reading prayerfully through scripture and being formed by it. This time, I want to give an overview of the different movements in Lectio Divina. I will expand on each of these in subsequent articles.

Traditionally, there are four movements in Lectio Divina, and they make simple logical sense.

1) Read a passage of scripture

2) Think about it

3) Pray about what you thought about

4) Don’t rush off. Let it sink in.

That’s it. Super simple. But the beauty of Lectio Divina is that the more you do it, the more profound the movements can become. Let me say a brief word about each movement.

1) Read (Lectio)

(I will give you the Latin titles too, just for interest’s sake.) This way of reading is different than how you would read a newspaper. Typically, when I am reading the paper, I am also eating lunch and involved in a conversation with my wife. I am usually scanning headlines to see what interests me. When I find something, I usually read pretty fast because I want to get through the article and on to something else. At the end, I throw the whole thing in the recycling.

Reading devotionally is the opposite in every way. The reading needs to be short so I can read it slowly, perhaps a few times. I try to get away from distractions, and I keep the passage with me through the day. This is a contemplative form of reading. It is not just for information, but for encounter. It requires attention and humility.

2) Think (Meditatio)

A better English word would be ponder. Thinking sometimes gives too much the impression of problem solving. Pondering is slower. It means something like weighing or considering. The image I like to use is imagine a young man who has just received a letter from his girlfriend. (Back in the days when there were letters!) He doesn’t just read through it and put it in his desk. He lovingly and attentively reads and re-reads certain lines. This is his beloved speaking to him through words. Those words are rich in meaning. He squeezes every bit of meaning out of them and looks for more. This is meditation in the Biblical sense.

3) Pray (Oratio)

As I said in my first article in this series, we believe the Bible was written “for them, but to us as well.” The idea is that in pondering scripture we find that God still has a word for us today. There is something in there that will stand out to you. It will speak to the questions you have today. It might be crystal clear what God is saying, or it might be unclear and odd. Either way, our first step is always to go to God in prayer.

We take the insights that we found in pondering and we pray to God about them, asking for insight and wisdom. We might ask for help in applying the insight. It might be a prayer of thanksgiving. In Lectio Divina, we let this process flow naturally.

4) Sit (Contemplatio)

This is the hardest movement to explain because it is the simplest. What do you mean just sit? In my experience, at the end of this process, after I have read, and pondered and prayed, my heart is calm. My mind is relaxed. Inside, I have found what I call a devotional space. (This doesn’t always happen, by the way, and it doesn’t have to.) Sometimes I find there is a deep love for God inside. Sometimes it is just a pleasant quiet. The Christian tradition advises not to rush off, but to enjoy just being with God. Even if you don’t feel something, our tradition still advises to sit there for a time and reverence God.

5) Live (Via Activa)

Wait! You said there were only four movements. There are, but there is also an implied fifth movement. Christianity is a way of life. You need to go from prayer to your life: going shopping, picking up the kids, visiting your friends, going to work, doing the dishes, watching TV, and making dinner. In all of these, your prayer goes with you. Through the prayer, over time, you will come to see the grace of God everywhere.

How Do I Meditate on Scripture?: An introduction to the Lectio Divina Series

Lectio Divina

If you were to ask me what is the single most important habit you could cultivate to grow spiritually, my simple answer would be to meditate on Scripture daily. There are so many benefits to this habit. Scripture is the primary witness to the amazing life of Jesus Christ and the faith of the people of Israel. It is also the primary way that God speaks to us. The Bible teaches that we receive faith through hearing the Word of God: faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:17)

Learning to Listen

What this means is that we really need to develop our skills in LISTENING. In the central confession of Judaism, the people are commanded: “HEAR O Israel, the Lord is one.” In the Bible, God is personal and speaks. God is not some impersonal force like the Platonic One. God is a God who enters into history, has a story, enters into covenant relationship with his people, and still speaks to us today.

We are called into a life-giving relationship with God, and the primary way we connect with the God who speaks is to listen to his Word. As we meditate on Scripture, we develop this skill of listening. True listening takes humility and time. We have to develop the skill of pondering or meditating on what the scriptures say. We need to pray deeply on the insights we find there, and finally we need just to be able to enjoy being in the presence of God.

Meditating on Scripture to Grow in Relationship with God

Over the centuries, the Christian church has developed a simple and accessible way to meditate on Scripture. This method is normally referred to by its Latin title: Lectio Divina. This simply translates to “Holy Reading.” It is a way of listening deeply to the Word of God. Lectio Divina has two purposes: to grow in love of God and in relationship with God, and to cultivate a heart of wisdom.

The Bible Isn’t Always Easy to Understand

The Bible is a hard book to read for most people. First of all, there are so many details! The pages of the Scriptures are packed with dozens of stories and hundreds of names and places we have never heard of. Because it is actually a library of books rather than a single book, there doesn’t seem to be a logical thread connecting the beginning, middle and end. There are so many different interweaving themes, literary styles and genres, that it can be difficult to keep them straight. How do we understand it all? Lectio Divina suggests that we don’t need to.

The vision of Lectio Divina is that we don’t need to grasp Scripture all at once. Rather, it is a much simpler vision of reading just a little, slowly and prayerfully every day of your life. You ponder the puzzles, make rich connections, gather insights, wrestle with ambiguities, and constantly ask, “How is God speaking to me in this?”

Meditating on Scripture to Take Our Place in its Story

We assume that Scripture is written ‘for them, but to us as well.’ To say it is for them is to admit that the Bible is NOT written for us. It was written for people who lived long ago in strange lands, referring to unfamiliar customs, and asking questions that were important for them, but not for us. Therefore, it is sometimes helpful to have a Bible dictionary or commentary handy to help us understand someone of the cultural things we don’t get.

We also assume that the Bible has an eternal voice. It is written ‘to us as well.’ It tells the story of God’s plan for the salvation of the world in Jesus Christ. The Biblical writers want us to see this story as OUR story as well. The story of the Bible forms our lives because it is the story of salvation.

The Lectio Divina Series

In this series, I am going to walk us through the stages of Lectio Divina. Some people teach this as a technique. This is not what I am trying to do here. Instead, I want to give you the principles that can guide a prayerful way of reading scripture. These principles can be used with a variety of different techniques. This way of praying scripture is very important to me because it is my daily bread and butter. I practice it everyday to grow closer to God and, hopefully, to grow in wisdom. And I am happy to share it with you.

  1. How Do I Meditate on Scripture? An Introduction to the Lectio Divina Series
  2. Steps of Lectio Divina: The Four Movements
  3. Slow Reading and the Bible (“Lectio”)
  4. Reading the Bible Prayerfully (“Meditatio”)
  5. Praying with Scripture (“Oratio”)
  6. Contemplative Prayer (“Contemplatio”)
  7. Praying with Psalm 131: A Personal Example of Lectio Divina
  8. How Do I Know What to Read in the Bible?

They Will Know We Are Christians by Our Love

Learning discipleship and love

When I was a young kid in the 1980s, my favourite summer activity was going to camp at the local Lutheran church. It was on a lake, so we could swim and play on a floating ‘island.’ We would hike, canoe and do crafts during the day, but the best part was at night when we would gather around a campfire and sing songs. There was one song that I loved the most. Continue reading “They Will Know We Are Christians by Our Love”