The Prayer of the Heart

Written by Kacie Drake ChattHOP Staff

Where do your spirit and soul live?

Don’t worry, it’s not a trick question.

But just in case you need reminding: your spirit and soul are not floating about in some cosmic void. Your spirit and soul dwell within your body. Your body and spirit and heart and mind are all, as King David would say, “knit together.”

I was recently at an appointment with a soft tissue therapist, and he asked me, in essence, why are you here? Well… chronic back pain, spinal issues, insatiable tension in my neck and shoulders, and a side of perpetual existential crisis. In essence, my back and body feel claustrophobic. 

So, as I have been learning to listen to what the pain in my physical body is telling me, and contemplate why I keep choosing the word “claustrophobic,” I have had to get brave and address the complicated, powerful, tender, deceitful, passionate, anxious, pure thing that is my heart.

Thus began this awkward prayer to God from Psalm 139: “Search me, O God, and know my heart. Try me, and know my anxious thoughts.” And then, I ask Him: when you search me and know my heart, God, can you let me know what’s going on inside of there?

Of course I’m not talking about the beating and bloody organ that is my physical heart; I’m talking about the Hebrew word lebab – which translates as the inner man or will. 

Search me, God, and know me – my inner being, my will, my mind, my heart. Search me, God, and know me at the core

Care to guess where the actual tension in my body is stemming from? The core. That place below the breast, in between the ribs, right over the stomach. The solar plexus.

This is the place that feels nervous, twisting and turning before a performance. The place referred to when you hear “my stomach is in knots.” The place that immediately feels empty and hollow after bad news or significant loss, as if its contents had been flipped upside down and drained. The place that somehow “feels” if a decision is right or not. The place over which you cross your arms when you are feeling uncomfortable or vulnerable. The place that you clutch and protect when you curl into the fetal position.

This is the heart. This is my place of tension. My inner being, my will, my emotions are ever-struggling, filled with too many things, unable to rest.

The Way of the Heart, by Henri Nouwen, contains one of the most impactful writings on prayer I have ever read. 

In it, he describes the heart as the source of all physical, emotional, intellectual, volitional, and moral energies, and says, “Our heart determines our personality, and is therefore not only the place where God dwells, but also the place to which Satan directs his fiercest attacks.”

This heart is the place of prayer.

So how to find rest? How to pray? How to alleviate the tension and claustrophobia of the heart? The inner man? How to pray and be transformed?

These questions are kaleidoscopic in the number of ways they can be viewed and answered, but I want to share some of the things Nouwen addresses:

Praying without ceasing.

Don’t worry. It’s not what you might think. The literal translation of the words “pray always” is “come to rest.” This word is hesychia in Greek, and it is a rest that has little to do with the absence of conflict or pain, but a resting in God in the midst of very intense daily struggle.

What does that prayer look like? This was the most helpful thing for me: the difference between praying with the mind, and praying with the heart.

Prayer of the mind versus prayer of the heart.

Most of us are familiar only with the prayer of the mind. This is the idea that prayer is simply speaking with God or thinking about God. Good things? Absolutely! But not sustainable in light of the command “pray without ceasing.” (And if you have a mind that goes 5 billion times a minute like mine, praying only out of intellect and emotion is rarely restful, it only leads to more questions, complexity, and confusion, and in the end, makes me feel farther from God and resembling something akin to a whimpering puppy.)

“How can we possibly expect anyone to find real nurture, comfort, and consolation from a prayer life that taxes the mind beyond its limits and adds one more exhausting activity to the many already scheduled ones?…. The crisis of [this] prayer life is that our minds may be filled with ideas of God while our hearts remain far from him.”

So what is prayer of the heart?

Theophan the Recluse would say “to pray is to descend with the mind into the heart, and there to stand before the face of the Lord, ever-present, all-seing, within you.” Macarius the Great would say, “The chief task of the [monk] is to enter into his heart.”

“The Desert Fathers show us that real prayer penetrates to the marrow of our soul and leaves nothing untouched. It opens the eyes of our soul to the truth of ourselves as well as to the truth of God. It challenges us to hide absolutely nothing from God and to surrender ourselves unconditionally to his mercy. It unmasks the many illusions about ourselves and about God and leads us into the true relationship of the sinner to the merciful God. This truth is what gives us rest.” 

I’m beginning to learn this prayer of the heart, this prayer to be everything before God.

The battle over each of our identities is brutal and full of attack. Doesn’t it make sense that each attack on our identity, when we are tempted to believe we are alone, stupid, embarrassed, afraid, is really an attack on our place of prayer, the place where we commune with God. And you know what’s glorious?

This is the place Jesus tore the veil for, the place that allows us to enter before Him now, not someday, but now. The place where we can be with Him, full of paradox: broken and beloved, sinful and pure, empty and filled, angry and joyful.

And “when that vision remains clear and sharp, it will be possible to move into the midst of a tumultuous world with a heart at rest.”


Disclaimer: I am not a scholar on Nouwen, (and the people he quoted: Theophany the Recluse, or Macarius the Great), but this book has hit me straight to the core and has been massively helpful to me in wrestling with prayer and contemporary ministry. If you may find yourself at odds with any of them, I apologize, and hope these words have been encouraging to you regardless.