Heart, Mind & Prayer
Today’s post is from the writings of the late Gerald May
Sometimes, instead of praying, I find myself thinking about praying; evaluating how I’m praying, figuring out what is proper or most effective. While these mental gymnastics may be well intentioned, and in fact have some real value as reflections before or after prayer, their effect during prayer is to keep me from really praying. They keep me in the mind and out of the heart.
As long as attention resides solely in the mind, we may spend our time producing scenes in which images of ourselves pray to images of God. This can become very effortful and can lead to a kind of “pretending” at prayer. Real prayer requires at least an attempt to leave such mental struggles and allow our attention to sink deeply, simply, and nakedly into the heart. Bringing attention to the heart is not a complicated process, but it does take real intention and courage. It involves a gentle, steady and wakeful willingness to let ourselves be just who we are before God and to let God be just how God will be within us. This demands no special generation of images. Nothing need be contrived or censored. It is a disarmingly simple matter of relaxing and allowing whatever we really feel, perceive, want or fear to surface as it will. It is seldom easy and sometimes impossible to be successful at this, but the attempt needs to be made.
Courage is necessary because what we experience at this heart level may be so painful, boring, frightening, or beautiful we can hardly bear it, and the deeper perceptions of “me” and God that emerge may be threateningly unlike our usual mental images. To remain in the heart and permit such a fierce and simple honesty is the real work of prayer.
In my own heart-experience I often feel childlike, tender and dependent; and the God-presence that meets my heart may be so overwhelmingly loving that I feel I simply must escape. At other times, the hopes and fears of my heart just seem to lie there in emptiness, with no sense at all of God’s response. Then, too, I want to escape, back to mind-images where I can make something happen.
It takes a strong commitment to try to remain in the heart regardless of what may come, but with time and grace, one’s trust in the open mystery of God and self can grow into an ever deepening, heartfelt prayer.
As I reflect upon my own history of prayer and meditation, I can identify two parallel but very different patterns of growth. On the surface are mental concepts and images of self, world and God that have evolved over the years. These are more theologically and psychologically mature than they used to be, and they are valuable. But somewhere nearer my heart, another evolution has been taking place. Here there is a little child, a child without concept; a child who is growing in trust and hope and love, but who in some way will forever remain a child. Here also is a growing sense of God, a God beyond image yet palpable, intimate, and inexpressibly loving. Perhaps in true maturity these growing paths of mind and heart become one. I don’t know. But it does seem that if our hearts can be given attention in prayer, then our minds can find their home.
Gerald May was a member of Shalem’s staff from 1973 until his death in 2005. In this the 10th anniversary of his passing, we are offering a piece by him that first appeared in the Shalem News, Winter 1984, and is part of his collected newsletter articles, Living in Love. To purchase your own copy of Living in Love, click here.
In honor of Gerald May’s life, Shalem has created the Gerald May Seminar, featuring a variety of contemplative and spiritual leaders. This year’s speaker is James Finley, a clinical psychologist and renowned leader of retreats and workshops throughout the US and Canada. His Friday lecture topic is Turning to Thomas Merton As Our Guide in Contemplative Living and Saturday’s workshop is on The Spirituality of Healing. Purchase tickets to the event here. If you cannot join us in person, Friday’s lecture is available for live stream, which you can purchase here.