How to Pray: Lift Up Your Hearts

You are sitting in your chair, and you are getting ready to pray. How do you start? One basic move in prayer is the foundation for everything else. It is so simple, and yet so essential. It is easy to do, and it opens us up to the presence of God. In the Christian faith we call this most basic of all spiritual moves ‘lift up your heart.’

‘Lift up your hearts’ in the Eucharist

The words should sound familiar to you. It is at the center of the dialogue we pray at the beginning of the celebration of the Eucharist. After we pray for the Lord to be with us, the priest calls out to the congregation: “Lift up your hearts!” The congregation replies enthusiastically, “We lift them to the Lord!” This action of all of us ‘lifting our hearts’ sets the stage for everything that follows. As we hear the prayers and take communion, our whole self—body and soul—is united with God.

The Bible on bringing our truest selves to God

To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. (Psalm 25:1)

This idea of ascending to God in the Spirit is all through the Scriptures. In Psalm 25, David begins his prayer: “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.” In Colossians 3, Paul encourages us to “set our hearts on the things above.” In Psalm 141, we have the beautiful image of our prayers rising up to heaven like incense and we pray “may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice.” The biblical imagery speaks to the longing of our hearts and souls to be united with God. Often the terms heart, mind and soul are used interchangeably. All of them mean that we are bringing our truest selves to God.

‘Lift up your hearts’ in the Christian tradition

The Orans of Kiev, an 11th Century icon of the Virgin Mary at prayer

The Christian tradition has deeply meditated on this action of ‘lifting up our hearts’. In the third century, Cyprian wrote, “When we stand for prayer, most beloved brethren, we should be alert and intent on our petitions with a whole heart. Let every carnal and worldly thought depart, and let the mind dwell on nothing other than that alone for which it prays. Therefore, the priest also before his prayer prepares the minds of the brethren by first uttering a preface, saying: “Lift up your hearts,” so that when the people respond: “We lift them up to the Lord,” they may be admonished that they should ponder on nothing other than the Lord.”

Later, Augustine wrote, “What is peace? Listen to the apostle, he was talking about Christ: “He is our peace, who made both into one.” So peace is Christ. Where did it go? “He was crucified and buried, he rose from the dead, he ascended into heaven.” There you have where peace went. How am I to follow it? Lift up your heart. Listen how you should follow; every day you hear it briefly when you are told Lift up your heart. Think about it more deeply and there you are, following.”

‘Lift up your hearts’ in your own prayer

What does this mean for us as we are sitting in our chairs? As the primal move in prayer, lifting up our hearts is just setting aside the things of our lives temporarily and turning our attention to God. But it is more than our attention; we are also giving God our hearts. It is not just our words, but our emotions and desires, our hopes and our fears, our strivings and failures. In other words, lifting up our hearts is giving ourselves in a way that is deeper than words. We can lift our hearts to God with sorrow and lament or with praise and adoration. In both cases, the ‘real’ us connects to the ‘real’ God.

Choose a time and place. Sink into your comfortable chair. Take a slow deep breath and let it out slowly. Then pray quietly: “God, I lift my heart to you…”

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