The Mind in the Heart – Thoughts on Prayer

Lois Lang-Sims


Keep the mind in the heart before God – Orthodox precept

St Gregory of Nazianzen, one of the great teachers and theologians of the early Church, wrote: "It is more important to remember God than it is to remember to breathe."

To remember God is to pray. Whether or not one is "saying prayers" is not the point. Saying prayers may accompany and facilitate true prayer: when it does this it becomes a salutary and strengthening practice; but it cannot of itself produce the inwardness of prayer, which is the movement of the human soul as it re-orientates itself to breathe in the Holy Spirit, as we breathe fresh air into our lungs so that it may permeate our bodies and preserve them in this earthly life. And the life of the Spirit is, as St Gregory tells us, more important than the life of the body because it was (and is) for the sake of the former that the latter was (and is) created, and for no other purpose, so that we may re-turn whence we came, that is to say – to God. This is the "one thing only" of which Plato declared that we should seek and follow nothing else. The truth, which the great contemplatives have sought and discovered in the depths of prayer, is that there is in reality no-thing else, for in God is all the is-ness that there is. Dame Julian of Norwich, fourteenth-century anchorite, defined in a paradox the status of our human nature when she wrote: "And I saw no difference between God and our substance but as it were all God; and yet mine understanding took it that our substance is in God: that is to say that God is God and our substance is a creature in God."

We may take it, then, that we are insofar as we participate in God's I AM. Prayer is the recognition and remembrance of this state of being in him, moved by his will, without any further reliance upon our own. Evagrios of Pontus, a pupil of St Gregory, who became a monk in Egypt and an influential teacher of mystical theology, made this daring statement:

Faith is so innate a good thing
it can be found even in those
who have not yet learned to believe in God.

Never in the course of human history can this truth have been more widely exemplified for all to see than today, when the institutional structures of religion are collapsing all around us, producing an environment in which true faith, existing hidden in the innermost soul, is often unable to find an appropriate language in which to define itself. Its possessor, not recognizing the treasure that is his, falls back upon regarding himself as an agnostic or an atheist. God knows us, however, very much better than we know ourselves. He sees in each one of us the secret orientation of the soul, our hidden life.

The great spiritual directors of the Catholic and Orthodox traditions have explained in figurative language how the structure of the human soul enables the mind to be drawn upwards (the will consenting) to its own apex, at which point it comes into contact and communion with God's descending Spirit. This "apex", which can equally well be described as the "centre", is that "place of the heart" wherein we dwell in the state of prayer. To enter that state it is necessary for the heart to be purified by repentance (represented in the baptism of Jesus by John), so that it may reflect, as in a clear mirror, the Holy Light that pours on it from above. Then, by God's mercy, the soul will, in the course of time, in this life or in some other dimension as yet unknown, become so perfectly commingled with that Light that, as Julian says, there will seem to be no difference – although there must still remain a clear distinction – between the reflection and its heavenly Source.

Only for this ultimate mystery to be accomplished, repentance must be complete and the soul humbled to the dust. Prayer as we know it – we who are so very far from being saints – is but the slow and often toilsome process of that accomplishment, not yet its established state; and yet in a paradox beyond the capacity of human reasoning to comprehend, that state is present in the eternal Here-and-Now, so that here and now we are aligned by faith to that which we shall be when time folds up in God.

Meanwhile, if we are to begin to understand the practice of prayer, which is the one essential activity for which we were made (all other activities rightly performed being aspects of this one), upon which depends the fulfilment of our humanity and our ultimate salvation, we must re-learn and re-establish as a guiding principle certain metaphysical truths relating to the organization of the human psyche in relation to the Spirit. These truths were accepted in the past, effortlessly and as a matter of course, by all Christians because they were infused into the common mind by the influence of a sacred tradition. Now largely forgotten, they can be rediscovered in the writings of spiritually qualified teachers, whose unfamiliar language may at first baffle us.

Three passages must here suffice to exemplify the unanimity of mind between their authors, whose lives were widely separated in time. In 18th-century France, Fr Jean de Caussade SJ, confessor and spiritual director of an enclosed community of nuns, wrote as follows to one of his penitents:

First you must know that we possess, as it were, two souls and two personalities: an animal soul, earthly and sensitive in nature, that is called the lower part, and a spiritual soul, known as the upper part, in which dwells man's free will. Secondly, that all that takes place in the lower and animal part – fancies, feelings, undisciplined impulses – all this is in us, but not of us, and is by its nature involuntary and undeliberate. All this can certainly urge, though it cannot compel, the will to that free and unforced consent which alone constitutes sin.

In our own time an anonymous French priest of the Carthusian Order, extracts from whose correspondence have been published under the title They Speak by Silences (available from Cistercian Publications), echoes this description when he writes:

Our own great error and that of so many others these days is that we confuse feelings with the soul. Feelings belong to the lower part of the soul, but only in so far as it is immersed in matter and subject to all its fluctuating conditions... Trials, fears, bitterness – these all belong to the lower part; they have little to do with our true will."

John of Aparea, 5th-century desert solitary, has another way of expressing the same truth:

As long as the soul is in the body,
its own senses are inoperative.
As soon as it is separated from the body,
it can move in and for itself.
And this separation need not be understood
only as if it were a question
of the soul's leaving the body,
for it can also be considered as the separation
of the psychic awareness from the body.
Though the soul may still be in the body
it surely finds itself outside the body.
While the body still moves in the world
the psychic consciousness transcends the world.

The "psychic awareness" alluded to here is a property of the human soul which can become, as it were, trapped in the physical brain, so that we begin to imagine that it actually originates in that organ and dies with it. This is a radical error that can only arise in a society that has lost its hold upon religion: in truth it is the lower mind only that capitulates in this way, making itself cravenly dependent upon the interactions between our genetic inheritance and our psycho-physical environment, until these two factors become the sole determinants of our actions, words and thoughts.

St John of the Desert reminds us that we must learn to be independent of this lower mind, training it in the service of the soul as this begins to be drawn into and established at the apex (centre) of our being. There the true Self – as distinct from the egoic system, which belongs to the body and will be transformed and made whole in the body when the will is surrendered entirely to God – is even now at rest in him, in the Now of eternity.

This programme of spiritual discipline and self-transformation begins with the discovery and activation of the innermost will, which is so often at variance with the egoic will. The latter is a slave of the body and its impulses, but when we "keep the mind in the heart before God" (de Caussade goes so far as to say that "What is meant by the will is the heart") we are following what has always been, and will always be, our true will, freed from the domination of the ego. That innermost will yearns to lose itself forever in the Will of God, and to that End will bring us, we are told, blindfolded into the dark.

There are two kinds of spiritual darkness: the darkness of the nearness of the presence of God, which is in reality a Light, but one too bright for our endurance; and the darkness of our blemished human nature, hiding from us that Light of the Spirit as it begins to permeate the higher levels of the mind. The first darkness is experienced only by those who are far advanced in holiness, the true saints whose number and identity are known only in heaven. Most of us are so very far from being saints that in our pride we may regard the slow and halting dawn of that Light as our own achievement; so we may think of the second darkness as being at the same time the consequence of sin and the dispensation of a loving Providence; for God in his mercy takes even our sins and uses them to make us humble and obedient. There is a sense in which, having sinned, we may be thankful for our sins. But the primary sin is pride: when this is dead, the soul returns to God.

Acceptance of darkness, then, is an absolutely necessary condition of learning how to pray. In the darkness of our prayer, when we cannot even know if we are praying at all, our only source of reassurance is our faith; and faith has its dwelling in the heart, beyond the reach of the brain, inaccessible to psychological or neurological research. We cannot feel our faith in God. The Catholic priest and spiritual director, Father Vincent McNabb, arranged to have inscribed upon his coffin an alternative translation of the words addressed to Jesus by Peter on the shores of the Sea of Tiberias after the Resurrection: "Lord, thou knowest if I love thee" (John 21:17).

For this is something that we cannot know until it is revealed to us in heaven; and then we shall know that our love for one another and for God was not our own but his. For he is Love. St Thérèse of Lisieux, the "Little Flower", endured the last 18 months of her brief and suffering life in a state of aridity, supported only by an unfelt faith. Teresa of Avila (the "great Teresa", as she is often called, though we have no means of measuring the "greatness" of the saints) is famous for her mystical ecstasies, her written descriptions of one of them having inspired the sculptor Bernini's extraordinary depiction of the orgasm of the soul exposed to a shaft of supernatural Love; but she herself was well aware that such experiences are neither a reward of holiness not a sign of its achievement. She knew too that remarkably exact imitations of authentic mystical states can be produced, as she would say, "by the Devil", where today we might be more inclined to speak of mental illness. For this reason she submitted detailed accounts of her visions and locutions to her confessor (who was for a time that most relentlessly analytical of all mystics, albeit himself a poet, St John of the Cross), and humbly submitted herself to his judgment.

We can learn from the three Teresas whose sanctity has been confirmed by common consent (the third being, of course, Mother Teresa of Calcutta) three lessons about prayer: its presence in aridity and darkness; the irrelevance to its authenticity of the presence or absence of mystical experience; and how it is substantially present in those acts of charity and self-sacrifice that are the soul's response to God and the earthly reflection of his love.

Dialogue between the Soul and God
Lord, I am not worthy of all these things of which I read in spiritual books:
how shall I pray to thee?
Pray to me in the heart lovingly and that will be enough:
have faith.
Lord, how can I know whether or not I love thee?
Have faith.
Lord, what is this faith?
Is that indeed enough?
Child, since I love thee, yes, it is enough.

Lois Lang-Sims is the author of The Christian Mystery, One Thing Only and other books, including Letters to Lalage, documenting her friendship with Charles Williams.