Too Deep For Words
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We’ve been talking about spiritual practices as rest and will continue to through these weeks. I want us to hear again the invitation to rest this morning as we consider the prayer of the heart. “Be still and know that I am God.”
“For you alone, O Lord, my soul waits in silence.”
Now I am completely aware of the irony of using words to communicate something that is ultimately beyond words (week after week I use a lot of words). If you’re in a job in which you too use a lot of words then you’ll know what that is like. Whatever job we’re doing or not doing or are retired from; whatever we may be studying; we know that we are assailed by words every day. Words are constantly coming at us. Again I realize the irony of what is going on here but stick with me for a while and we’re going to get to some silence together. As we consider what it means to pray the prayer of the heart. The prayer of silence and rest. Centering prayer it’s sometimes called. Breath prayer it’s sometimes called, and each of these names has their own nuance, and we’ll talk a little more about breathing in a while. It doesn’t negate other forms of prayer. The prayer of the heart is not setting itself up here in opposition to prayers that use words. Prayers that we pray which someone else has written, prayers that we pray out loud extemporaneously. These all have their part to play as we follow Christ.
The prayer of the heart is different though. It might even be seen as something a little deeper. Something that goes beyond our minds, our intellects. Again it doesn’t mean that we don’t use our minds or are intellects, I would never condone such a thing.
What it does do is recognize prayer as a gift. Prayer as an act that stems from God’s grace. An act that doesn’t always need many words. Here’s the thing about using a lot of words. Three things actually 1) Words can fail us. Sometimes words fail. I have this pillow cover that Nicole ordered for me a while ago in my office. It says “When words fail, music speaks. Again the irony as you’re saying “You’re always with the blah blah blah,” though you know the music is big for me as well. Sometimes words fail to convey what we feel, or how much something or someone means to us.
Secondly, when it comes to being a tool to explain things, words can come up short. I had no idea this happened until a couple of years ago. It just doesn’t get a lot of play in history I guess. In 1974 a French tightrope walker named Philippe Petit set up a tightrope between the two towers of the World Trade Centre and walked across it. He was arrested and taken to a hospital for psychiatric evaluation. He was asked why he did it. This is how someone describes it – “Philippe Petit, at first somewhat puzzled by the question, said: ‘Well… if I see three oranges I have to juggle, and if I see two towers, I have to walk.’ That answer says it all. What is most obvious, most close, doesn’t need an explanation. Who asks a child why he plays with a ball; who asks a tightrope walker why he walks on his tightrope - and who asks a lover why he loves?”
You know what I’m talking about. Ask a parent why they love a child. Ask a child why they love a parent. Ask a pastor why they’re a pastor. Ask a follower of Christ why they love God. It’s more than words.
Thirdly it moves prayer beyond mere communication. When we think of words as a means of communication, we can see speech as means to an end. What words can I use to convince you of something? If only I could find the right words then I could achieve such and such a result. The right words can help me win the argument or get people on my side and the talking heads talk on and on and on… If we see prayer as only something that we do in order to get things from God, then we are making God in our own image – how often do we only communicate with people when we need something from them? If there are people in our lives with whom we only communicate when we need or want something, chances are slim that it is a very deep relationship.
Do we want to get beyond mere communication and into deeper communion with God?
Do we crave something deeper with God? Prayer can be seen as the thing that undergirds all the spiritual practices we’re looking at, and it’s not by accident that we’ve put it in the middle of the five. We pray as we seek to immerse ourselves in divine reading. We pray when we ask God to search our hearts as we did last week. We wait in solitude. We wait in silence. French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil wrote this: “Waiting patiently in expectation is the foundation of the spiritual life.”
Waiting patiently yet expectantly on God as the foundation of our spiritual life. I waited patiently for the Lord, he inclined to me and heard my cry. Patience and expectation go very well together, don’t they? There’s a great line in Psalm 123:2 that goes – “As the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master, as the eye of a maid to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the Lord our God until he has mercy on us.”
Patience and expectation. It helps to consider these two things when we think of the paradox that is at the heart of prayer. You knew I was going to talk about a paradox at some point yes? The paradox that is at the heart of prayer is this. Prayer is grace. Prayer is a gift. We are only able to pray because of God. It is only through the Holy Spirit of God that we are able to call Jesus “Lord.” At the same time, we do not know how to pray as we ought. Prayer is something that we need to learn. We hear the words of the disciples of Christ and make them our own “Teach us to pray.” We should all consider ourselves beginners in prayer. Which does not need to be about a bunch of words. “Do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do,” says Christ. The invitation to rest in prayer should be a welcome one. How often have we been in a prayer meeting wondering how we were going to pray, wondering how others might judge our prayer even?
Moving from communication to communion with God. How can we even talk about something which is such a marvelous mystery? Communion with God. Intimacy with God. Henri Nouwen puts it like this: “In Jesus, God became one of us to lead us through Jesus into the intimacy of his divine life. Jesus came to us to become as we are and left us to allow him to become as he is. By giving us the Spirit, his breath, he became closer to us than we are to ourselves.”
The prayer of the heart is a way for us to become ever more aware of how close God is. It’s a way for us to say with the writer of Ecclesiastes “let my words be few.” To say along with the Psalmist “for you alone O God my soul waits in silence.” To say along with the prophet Isaiah “In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength.”
I have to say this is a most welcome invitation for me (and yes yes I know I’m still talking). Like longtime friends who can sit in companionable silence. Like married couples who communicate so much with a look or a gesture. To enter into deeper communion with God. You know I always love the plant images. In her book, RHB talks about planting flowers in early spring (something for us to look forward to for sure). She writes of how the containers are packed with roots: “There is little to no dirt left in the containers, and some of the roots are even dangling through the water holes, desperately searching for water and nutrients. I wrestle the flowers carefully from their tight, overcrowded holders, careful to do it gently enough that I don’t mangle them or rip them from their roots. Part of the pleasure of it all is setting them in a larger space where there is fresh dirt for the root system to spread out; and knowing that this spaciousness will produce… flowers throughout the season.”
In much the same way, the prayer of the heart provides, perhaps, a more spacious way to pray. It is a way for prayer to touch the centre of our being. Our heart. When we say heart here, do not think that a distinction is being made between the intellect and the emotions. We are never to be setting those two in opposition, and the call is to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. By using the term heart we’re not reducing prayer to merely good feeling. The word heart in the Biblical tradition is, as someone has described, “the source of all physical, emotional, intellectual, volitional, and emotional energies… the centre of perception and understanding.” The basis of our will. The source of our personality.
Our centre. The prayer is sometimes known as centering prayer. To find there the one who is our still point. Christ. T.S. Elliot wrote the phrase “The still point of the turning world.” For the follower of Christ, this is Christ. The one who dwells in our hearts. The still point in a turning world with all its questions and fears and rivalries and uncertainties and…. Words. Always so many words. The still point in a cacophony of words. The prayer of the heart being a way to meet Christ there; to meet the one who is closer than our very breath. To become aware of this through the prayer of the heart, also known as breath prayer. A way of praying the prayer of the heart. Praying half of the prayer as you breathe in, the second half as you breathe out. Returning to it when other images intrude or our mind starts to wander. Imagine how our day might go if we took 15 minutes in the stillness of the morning to pray simply “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”
Which is where the words part of the prayer of the heart comes in. A short phrase – a plea, an affirmation – that is imbued with so much meaning. One of the oldest examples is known simply as The Jesus Prayer – “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” It’s the prayer of your heart. The cry of my heart. “With my whole heart, I cry” as the Psalmist describes it. The cry of our heart. When I can’t sleep and my mind is racing and going from one thing to another to the point where I can hardly take it, the prayer of the heart brings me back to my still point, Christ. There are a lot of prayers you can find in the Bible which might be the prayer of your heart. Things like “Teacher, let me see again.” “For you alone my soul waits in silence.” “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.” “My Lord and my God.”
You might want to come up with your own prayer of the heart. In her book, RHB suggests going back to the thing that is the desire of your heart. This was the question that we looked at when we started this series two weeks ago. Put this together with the most meaningful name or image for God. It might be Shepherd. It might be Gracious and Merciful Heavenly Father, or Holy Dove, or Refining Fire, Prince of Peace, Lamb of God, or King of the Nations. It might be “Refining fire, purify my heart.” “Prince of Peace, grant me your peace.” “Holy dove, rest on me that I might rest in you.”
You get the idea. Now I will stop talking. I invite us all to step into a time of prayer of the heart. A simple phrase that means more than words ever could. If your mind starts to wander simply come back to the prayer. Let’s use this time to rest in God, to let the Spirit intercede with sighs too deep for words, to meet Jesus, our centre, our still point in a turning world, in the depths of us. Let us wait on the Lord in silence.
As we respond to God’s word to us this morning we’re going to sing. May this song be a continuation of our individual prayers together. Hear the invitation from God. Be still and know. Hear truths of God. I am the Lord that heals. My boundless mercy shall endure. I love you with a steadfast love. Respond in faith and trust. May this be the response of each and every one of us this morning. Let’s sing.