I spoke above about the authentic beauty of the Sacrament of Mercy. I would like now to speak about prayer, particularly about prayer as understood as an expression of the deep “voice of the heart” whose nature I tried to illuminate a couple chapters ago. In that chapter I also tried to make more tangible how all of the sacraments—and specifically Confession or Reconciliation—is a gratuitous gift of God’s love given to us to help realize in us, subjectively as well as objectively-ontologically, the very mystery of Redemption. The sacraments all help bring about a dimension of that “appropriation” of the mystery of Christ in his Passion and Resurrection, by which, as John Paul says, man “bears fruit not only of adoration of God but also of deep wonder at himself” (Redemptor Hominis, 11).

They are all, in a word, particularly intense irradiations of the inner life and activity of the Trinity within the visible contours of this world. This is precisely what makes them sacraments, that is, makings-visible-of-the-invisible, so that we, as incarnate body-persons, can experience the invisible, live it, and allow it to transform us. Thus, in every sacrament, the “sacrament” of the body makes contact, precisely through visible, audible, tangible means—i.e. through the senses—with the invisible grace of the Trinity, and thus enters into deeper communion with the divine life. They are thus moments of particular intensity and depth, particular flashes of light and warmth along our journey through life—this journey of healing, transformation, and deepening relationship—which will find fulfillment in the new creation, in which the sacraments as we now experience them will no more be necessary, but in which the whole universe will be utterly permeated by the Trinity, who is directly experienced in the unmediated joy of face-to-face vision and full embrace.

But the living heartbeat of all of these experiences, of all of these dimensions of our life of faith—from the greatest to the least—is prayer. Prayer is, truly, the very inner atmosphere of the life of God, and thus is also meant to be the life’s breath of the human heart. God’s life, in other words, precisely as a life of eternal Communion between the Persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is a life of ceaseless prayer. Prayer is life because prayer is relationship, it is the intimate dialogue of love between persons, in which we live, move, and have our being, and in which alone we find fulfillment. This is why, as the Second Vatican Council says, “It is of the essence of the Church that she be both human and divine, visible and yet invisibly equipped, eager to act and yet intent on contemplation, present in this world and yet not at home in it; and she is all these things in such wise that in her the human is directed and subordinated to the divine, the visible likewise to the invisible, action to contemplation, and this present world to that city yet to come, which we seek” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 2). Everything in the Church thus serves the mystery of prayer, just as everything serves the mystery of person and intimacy. For the person is “living prayer,” and intimacy is the highest form of prayer, prayer’s full blossoming in the unmediated embrace of hearts, in which every partial word is fulfilled in the silence of pure reciprocal self-donation and the breath, kiss, and embrace of intimate, total belonging.

The mysterious thing about the path of prayer is that it progresses, not through an accumulation of “successes” or through a gradual ascent to the fulfillment of one’s ideals, but rather through a deepened awareness and living of one’s innate poverty and dependence before God, such that prayer arises, not from the strength of one’s inner self-reliance or self-confidence, but from a contrite and humble heart. Here, as in all of existence, the law of life is the law of vulnerability. Only in and through vulnerability can true intimacy flower. Indeed, the weakness of authentic prayer is precisely the flip-side of its strength, since the human concept of strength is so far from that proper to God himself. Human strength is so often understood as a quality inhering in the self, in autonomy and self-determination. Perhaps this is even the way that the words about self-mastery above were understood. But in fact the true strength proper to a human person lies not in the self, but in God, and thus in the depth and totality of the reliance of the human spirit on God.

This is true even in our understanding of virtue, which is often described as a quality inhering in the personal subject as a possession of their own. It is absolutely true that virtue is a habitus, which is an abiding disposition to choose the beautiful, good, and true with spontaneity, ease, and joy. But this habitus, this disposition comes to flower, not merely in the enclosed subject and in the relation between the human faculties—though this too is true—but above all, and at the foundation of all, in the ever deepened dependency of the human person on the sustaining grace of God, and in the ceaseless acceptance of his gratuitous grace. The core of all virtue, in other words, is not firmness, but vulnerable receptivity, docility to the ever new gift of God’s creative love; it is a childlike docility which precisely holds and makes possible the constancy of love, fidelity, and virtue which carries us through every moment of life in the integrity of love. All human firmness and strength is always fragile unless it is rooted in reliance upon the perfect security of God’s own all-powerful Love. Indeed, to even think of virtue in terms of a possession of the self, and thus as something established within the world of the “I,” is misleading, as virtue consists, not merely in this, but also, and perhaps even more fundamentally, in the bond of living relation established between the human person, the human faculties, and the values outside of the person. Virtue is a living relation, a disposition of authentic attunement to what is real, and above all to God himself who is the Origin, Foundation, and Consummation of all things. This understanding of virtue, without taking away any of the depth and beauty of the traditional explanations, also deepens them even more and sinks their roots into the heart of the dispositions of God himself.

For, as creatures, how else can we be virtuous—how else can we be good, and wedded to all that is good—but to be in relationship with the One who alone is good, with God himself? Thus we find liberty, not only through the accumulation of habits (though there is an element of this), but above all through the deepening of relationship, such that our very inner dispositions, the very contours of our being, are healed, transfigured, and made whole by contact with the gift coming to us from the outside. And this liberty found in dependence on reality coming to us from the outside, and above all in dependence on God himself, is not due only to our neediness as creatures. In fact, this relational nature of virtue and goodness simply manifests and shares in the very nature of God’s life itself, which is a life of vulnerability eternally consummated in perfect intimacy: and thus a life of sheer security and boundless power, the power of constancy and creativity in Love. The Son before the Father lives this mystery without ceasing. “No one knows the Son except the Father, nor the Father except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Mt 11:27). “The Son does nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise. For the Father loves the Son, and shows him all that he himself is doing” (Jn 5:19-20). “I no longer call you servants, but friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (Jn 15:15). We see here that the ceaseless receptivity and dependence of the Son before his Father is but an expression of his acceptance of the Father’s gratuitous gift of love: for the Father loves the Son. And this love is the Son’s very life, constituting him in his identity as the Beloved. To live in dependence on the Father, therefore, is not to bind himself to limitation, but to experience the true expansive freedom of love. For how could there be any freedom outside of the Father, the Origin and Consummation of all? How could there be any freedom or happiness outside of intimacy with him, an intimacy in which Father communes with Son and Son with Father in the mutual self-donation of tenderest love, which is the very vibrating presence of the Spirit whom they share?

Yes, the whole of life is enfolded in the gratuity of the divine gift, in the pure, all-embracing mystery of Love, which is the very presence of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the vibrant circulation of their own existence of mutual self-giving and eternally consummated intimacy. All else unfolds within this complete and all-sufficient gift, and expresses it, and precisely because of this, it unfolds in freedom, in the liberty of childhood, which is not a burdensome task or demand but rather the very creativity and inventiveness of love responding to Love, indeed of God’s very Love within us. Yes, the mysterious heartbeat of life is prayer, and prayer is love and lightheartedness, it is sober playfulness and joyful reverence; it is the blossoming of joy, the gift of the heart, the relaxation of surrender, in response to, in acceptance of, the gratuitous gift of Love that comes to us in each moment and in each thing, great and small.

In this context, we see just how true it is that the life of God, the life of the human person, and indeed the life of the universe itself, is living prayer. It is the ceaseless circulation of loving relationship, the current of reception and gift between “I” and “Thou,” and the bond of “We” established between them in the beauty, goodness, and truth of reality. To pray, therefore, is to enter into this mystery; it is to let God himself approach me with his deep desire to give me a participation in the innermost secret of his life, this life of love and intimacy as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He addresses me in a tender dialogue of love, and seeks my response. He seeks a response of listening and speaking, of receiving and giving, both in words and beyond words, in the ineffable silence of the heart as well as in the whole rich fabric of my life in its entirety and in its every moment. Thus, to live the mystery of prayer is to live the reality of Baptism to the full, to live my identity as God’s beloved child, and to let it grow to maturity within me.

In order to express the central movement of prayer in its most vulnerable core, let me quote at length the words of a Carthusian monk, words which are some of the most important I have ever read. I will quote him a few time, commenting on his words after each quote, in order to unfold this process and this reality little by little before our gaze. I suggest that, since this section is so rich, that you don’t rush through it, but give yourself time to think about it, to process it, to dialogue with God about it, and to interiorize it. Let us begin:

He is Father. What does this mean? He gives us life. He gives it not as he would give something separate from himself. He gives it just in giving himself. The only gift he can make is himself, his Person, and the outcome of that gift is a Son. A Son whose love for him is infinite. A Son for whom he has nothing but tenderness and who, in return, is nothing but tenderness for his Father.

That is the Father to whom I turn: the only one who can give me life, a perfect life in his own image. He wishes me, here and now, to be in his own likeness, not as if it were some kind of overlaid veneer but because he begets me by giving me a share in his own divine nature. That is what I mean when I ask him: ‘Abba, hallowed be your name: that you should be your own very self, Abba, in me; that your name “Father” be realized perfectly in the relationship which is established between us. Abba, I ask you to be my Father, to beget me in your image and likeness purely out of love, that I, in return, through sheer graciousness on your part, may become tenderness towards you.’

Here we see precisely the personal nature, the utterly personal nature, of God’s relationship to us. He truly desires nothing else but to give his very self, to communicate his own life in the Son and the Holy Spirit, such that it becomes our own life—pervading our faculties, our senses, our whole inner “I” and our entire existence—and sweeps us up into the inner circulation of the life of the Trinity occurring in ineffable tenderness between the divine Persons. Through sheer generosity, God offers this gift—he bestows it already in grace and Baptism—and seeks to realize it fully, experientially, within me, in the heart of prayer and life, in the intimate dialogue of love between us, already begun now in this life and perfected in the eternity that awaits. To be a partaker of the divine nature! To share in the very tenderness of love lived eternally by the Father before the Son, and the Son before the Father, this tender gaze, kiss, and embrace of love and self-giving that occurs in the sweetness of the Spirit! This is my vocation and my destiny, and is meant to be, already, the living heartbeat of every moment of my life.

But we can ask: If this is truly God’s desire for us, how can it be realized in us? How can we begin to experience and live it as he desires, and as we, too, desire? Here I quote again:

What path are we going to take which will lead us to that meeting with God to which we aspire? What means are at our disposal to achieve this? Is it intelligence or an ability to learn and reason? Listen to the reply of Jesus: ‘I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned, you have revealed them to the childlike. Yes, Father, such has been your gracious will’ (Matthew 11:25-26). That is what is so astonishing: the road is closed to the learned, to those who calculate and reason. It is not to them that God has revealed his secrets. But after all, has not God given us our heads, our ability to reason, to describe things and portray them, as a means of making contact with others? These faculties have certainly been given us by God. They are worthy ones; they are essential. While recognizing their limitations, let us not disdain them.

Yet, when I turn over a problem in my mind, or, more precisely, when I consider someone very close to me, and do so with my head rather than my heart, I distance myself from that person. I think about him or her, doing so from different angles in order to analyze at my leisure, but without committing myself.

In fact, I make no commitment; I keep my own security; I maintain my distance from that person. While doing all I can to understand him or her, I do not allow myself to become involved or touched by the inner force emanating from the heart of that person. Perhaps in some instances, such an approach is a good one. If I wish to love, however, that is certainly not the way to go about it.

Jesus continues: ‘All things have been handed over to me by my Father; no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him’ (Matthew 11:27).

‘All things have been handed over to me by my Father.’ To be precise, this means that all distance between Father and Son has been abolished. Neither of them has sought to maintain his own security in the face of the other. They have accepted the challenge of committing themselves to each other completely. Thus can they know each other with that knowledge inspired by love which is presented as a mystery only the initiated can grasp. ‘No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son.’ No one knows because no one opens his heart. If we wish to know the Father, we must be willing to accept this knowledge from the Son, who will reveal him to the extent that he sees that our heart is ready to welcome him.

In order to know God really, I must renounce my own security. I must eliminate that distance which reason and imagination have allowed me to create between him and me. I must realize how vulnerable I am, and bring out into the open that vulnerability which I have hidden so well. I must accept it as part of my being and allow the true feelings of my heart to take charge. Then, and only then, will it be possible for me to enter into a relationship with the Father and the Son, and as well, with all my brothers and sisters.

This means, concretely, that I must live on the level of my heart. I must give my heart the right to its own existence, to reveal itself as it will and to express itself in its own way, i.e. with the deepest of feelings—confidence, joy and enthusiasm, but also fear and sometimes anguish and anger. This does not mean living on the level of superficial sensibility. On the contrary, it means accepting that profound currents well up within us and lead us to an authentic encounter with our brothers and sisters.

That is what it means to be ‘a little child’: he who reacts with spontaneity and allows himself to be enveloped by the love of the person before him. How difficult it is for us to have the courage to be as children!

These reflections are in line both with the Gospel and with psychological development. The two areas are clearly distinct but complement and interpenetrate each other. We must learn to see everything with the loving regard of Jesus, not only created realities but also the Divine Persons. This is what I call ‘seeing with the heart’: to accept that the Son reveals the Father to me at the one level at which I am able to assimilate this revelation—the level where, by virtue of my human nature, there can be found within me an image of the intimate communion that exists between Father and Son: the level of my heart.

These sober and yet profoundly rich words mark out beautifully the path of the prayer of the heart. We can feel in the tenderness of these words the very throbbing heartbeat of the tenderness of the relationship that God desires to have with each one of us, his children. And how clearly they express one of the central themes of this book: that intimacy can blossom to complete maturity only through the reciprocal sharing of vulnerability. Yes, vulnerability is the path to intimacy, and the very living atmosphere of intimacy, in which heart communicates with heart without defenses, without control, without any security except that provided by love itself.

And the beautiful thing is that God has already initiated this movement of vulnerability. He has already opened his heart. He is not hiding in some enclosed divine security waiting for me to be vulnerable, to open myself, into order to draw near to me and welcome me close. Rather, his divine life is a perfect union of vulnerability and security, of nakedness and intimacy, and, from this eternal heartbeat of vulnerable love, he draws near to me—draws near to me in the Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection of Christ, and in each moment and circumstance of my life—opening himself to receive me, to be affected by me, moved by me, touched by me, and, in this acceptance, also to bestow the gift of himself. Prayer is my response to this divine invitation, my reciprocal vulnerability awakened by and responding to the vulnerability of God. It is the surging echo of my own created heart in response to the throbbing of his divine heart.

And as I let my heart find its voice, listening to the true inner currents of desire, fear, hope, joy, anger, sadness, and every other experience that wells up within me, I realize that there is within me a world of profound woundedness and disorder. I realize that my response to God’s pure and vulnerable gift of himself is not pure and vulnerable, but a mixture of fear, self-defense, tendency to control, and all the other particular habits of sin and concupiscence that bind me. This is not everything, of course, for I can only confront these tendencies, and hurt because of them, since they do not represent the true and deepest voice of my heart, but rather aberrations. But they are there nonetheless, and I cannot deny them, cannot flee from them or ignore them. Rather, they must be faced with honesty and vulnerability. What do I do then? Do I wage war against them? Do I try to understand them down to the root so as to cut them off, to eliminate them from within me? Do I develop habits against them through the traditional practices of asceticism and self-mastery?

Of course, these things have a certain place, as self-discipline and reflectiveness on our own wounds and sinful tendencies helps us to navigate through them towards wholeness. But the problem is that if these things are primary, or even if they are not entirely born from, enfolded within, and lead ever deeper into something beyond themselves, they become another “possession,” and thus cannot unlock the prison of my heart into the poverty, dependency, and vulnerability for which I was made. What is the definitive path to wholeness, then? It is nothing but relationship. Of course, it is nothing but relationship. It is the relationship of simple and wholehearted surrender of our whole being—in all of our wounds, sins, and struggles, as well as all of our desires and aspirations—into the welcoming embrace of the One who loves us. Jesus himself invites us to this path, when he says: “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart” (Mt 11:28-29).

Hence there is a type of purification in which, before any other endeavor, one must turn to Jesus and come to him in order to ‘find rest.’ After asking us to renounce being ‘wise and understanding’, Jesus issues us with an invitation to become as little children. To enter into the way of the heart is to realize that the only true purity is a gift of Jesus. ‘Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls’ (Matthew 11:29)

The fundamental purification starts the moment I take all the contamination and confusion with which I am afflicted and go to meet Jesus. This is not a task any easier than the traditional ascetic approach, but it is more effective, since it obliges us to live a life established in truth: the truth about ourselves, as it forces us to open our eyes to the reality of our state of sin; the truth about Jesus, who is truly the Savior of our souls, not merely in a general and distant sense, but on the basis of direct contact with each and every one of the shortcomings with which we are afflicted. I have to learn, therefore, to offer up to him, without any reservation or afterthought, all the impurities of my heart, as they come to light, whether through the interplay of circumstance, or through some deep movement in my heart as it seeks to attain its real freedom at last.

Every time I discover one of these bonds which paralyze me, the most important thing is not to wage direct war against it, because in most cases I would feel satisfied with lopping off the branches without getting at the roots. What matters is to lay bare the roots and bring them into the open, however ugly and unpleasant they may be. It is a question of accepting them as they are, and of offering them up consciously and freely to the Savior. In this way there is no risk that the classic prayer, ‘Jesus, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner’, be an ineffectual repetition. It is an acknowledgement ever renewed that another meeting is about to take place between the purifying heart of Jesus and my own polluted heart.

Clearly, in this process, an element of pure natural human psychology is present, but why should that be shocking? Does not the work of grace always build on nature? In the present instance, it provides a substratum for redemption, which effects a transformation in my heart, a healing of wounds, through a personal encounter with the resurrected Jesus. In this way we progressively acquire the habit of ever returning to him, especially with all that is confusing, obscure or disquieting within us.

This is an attitude of heart which is frightening at first. We have been told so often that we can offer up to the Lord only that which is good and beautiful; that we cannot bring to him anything which is not virtuous. Is it not a contradiction of the truth of the Gospel to say this? Jesus himself declares that he has not come for those who are well but for the sick. Hence we must learn without false shame, to place ourselves before the divine doctor in all our misery honestly admitting everything in us which is wrong, untrue and opposed to God. Only he can heal us.

The very fact that we suppose that God only wants us to offer to him what is already holy and righteous, already “presentable,” shows just how much the true beauty of the Gospel is a scandal to sinful humanity. But precisely in its unexpected nature, it is the remedy that our hearts need, and that they truly seek. It is, after all, so much easier to offer God all of the “pretty” aspects of ourselves, all of those things that make us feel secure and in control, that give us a sense of success and self-righteousness. But then what about our profound need for him, our utter reliance on his all-sustaining love and goodness, not to mention our desperate need for forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing? After all, we know that if we can only present to God what is pretty, what is in our control, then we are not actually showing our nakedness, our deep vulnerability, and the question will always remain: Will he still love me, if he sees who I truly am? If he sees all the depths of my woundedness, my sin, my stupidity, my infidelity, will he still enfold me in his love? The fact is that he already sees it; but he wants to meet us there explicitly, to make our very poverty a place of encounter and deepened communion. In the place of poverty we learn vulnerability; and in the place of vulnerability we learn intimacy.

We will spend more time with this in a moment, but first a little side note. With all this talk about the “voice of the heart,” and about listening to and being honest with our deep wounds, struggles, and aspirations, haven’t we begun to focus too much on ourselves, and not enough on God? Haven’t we stepped away from the rich beauty of incarnate reality, from the body, and collapsed into self-watching. Now, of course, this can be a struggle for all of us; but the point in what has been said until now is quite the opposite: it is an invitation to open ourselves out to the One who loves us, who sees us, and who approaches us unceasingly in all the concreteness of our existence, in the body and the spirit, and in the contours of our life in this world, here and now. It is thus an invitation to rediscover the relational nature of our body, of our very personhood, and to live this in complete vulnerability, in the flow of mutual seeing, of reception and surrender, between ourselves and God. Let’s focus for a moment more on the body and its relation to our “I,” our inner person. Yes, let us try to feel for a moment the vulnerability of the body:

One is frequently tempted to interpret the conception ‘prayer of the heart’ in a symbolic way. To speak of the heart would be a figurative manner of evoking an interior, and therefore a spiritual, reality. This is wrong. All the movements of the heart, which are the mainstay of our relationship with the Father, are movements tied to our sentient, material being. We know from experience—sometimes even at the cost of our own health, that truly deep emotions affect our heart physically. Entering into the prayer of the heart is not possible unless we are determined to live very consciously and resolutely in contact with our corporal dimension. God created us so. Genesis tells us of Yahweh’s creation of man from the mud of the earth, while at the same time asserting with total reassurance that this material being is made in God’s own image. Our body is not a hindrance to our relationship with God. On the contrary, it is the work of God himself who created us as his sons, called to receive him as their heritage.

The whole economy of the Incarnation of the Son of God places us within the same perspective. The early Church fought fiercely to defend the fact that Jesus really was man. He was born and lived in the flesh and in the flesh he taught us, suffered, died and was resurrected. …

The consequence of all this is that I cannot pray unless I pray from within my body. I cannot prescind from my incarnate reality when I turn to God. It is not simply a matter of religious discipline if certain movements are prescribed, or if I am limited by material conditions when I turn towards God. This is in line with the unique reality: God loves me as I am, as he made me to be. Why should I try to be more spiritual than he?

Hence, I learn to live on the level of my body, and within all the constraints which this places on me. Food, sleep, relaxation, illness, the limits of my strength—none of these constitutes an obstacle between God and myself. On the contrary, they are as a length of faultlessly woven cloth which swathes my concrete daily existence in the intimacy of divine reality.

Who among us has not had the experience, sometimes so terribly painful, of being hemmed in—almost imprisoned—by problems of health, for example? If our hearts be honest, we can only say one thing: it is God who comes to us in such grievous afflictions. In fact, they constitute the point at which the love of God enters into our life. Our heart welcomes God to the extent that it is attentive to this reality, which we might tend to consider inferior to our spiritual vocation. We must beware of this untruth which the Prince of lies seeks to instill in our heart. Let us not pretend to be pure spirits; we can be something better—children of God.

I remember vividly the first time I read this passage. I recall with visceral emotion and also with clear memory where I was sitting and what stirred within me. It was a warm day around springtime, close to a year after my first retreat at the Carthusian monastery, and nearing the beginning of my second, and I sat on a little makeshift bench under the porch of my father’s barn (where his camper was parked in which I had been living a life devoted to prayer, solitude, and silence). The whole chapter from which I have been quoting, indeed, spoke deeply to me, but it is the case that sometimes those moments in which we are made most present to our own bodiliness are those moments that remain most present to us over the passage of time. This is because, being more truly incarnate, they are impressed upon us more deeply—for here the heart feels in the body with all of its attention, and the body feels in union with the heart.

Anyway, I sat on that little bench with the book in my hands, and looked out over the dry earth and the sky, and ached with longing for God. I knew that what this man had written was true, and I had always, in a way, known it (even whenever I had read so many other things that seemed to tell me the opposite). After years of frustrating and confusing suffering in seeking the face of God and the contours of the unique way of life that he intended for me, I had come close to my wit’s end, and was scarred and filled with shame—and yet a deep longing for the One who had touched me so young, and called me so strongly, remained within me. It consumed me. But I felt incapable of drawing near to him as I desired to do. I felt like he was always just beyond, slipping away, untouchable (which is true!). But here was the answer I sought, and, as I said, the answer that I always knew. Even if I could not touch him and contain him, or, more accurately (for this I already knew was impossible and did not desire it), even if I could not experience him in an ecstasy beyond the body and in unmediated fullness as spoken of by some of the mystics, God already approached me in the body, and approached me in every moment and circumstance. The very limitations of my own unique existence, the very frailty of my body, the very capacities of my attention, my mind, and my strength, and all the specific circumstances of my life in time and place and historical trajectory—they were all truly as a seamless cloth woven over me to enshroud me in the divine mystery of his presence and his love.

To pray, therefore, was not to somehow transcend my own body or my historical existence, but rather to live this existence such that in some way, at the very heart of it, I was in touch with the deepest and most transcendent realities: with the Trinity and his plan for me and for the entire universe. It was, then, primarily a matter of relaxing from my ideals and expectations, and into the concreteness of the real, in which God approached me. It was to open myself to receive him, to listen to him, to welcome him ever anew, as he gave himself to me—the eternal Father begetting his Son in me at every instant, and, in his Son, begetting me too. It was to let the Spirit breathe in and through me from the Father, and, with me, back to the Father again. The deepest longings of the human heart, the most profound aspirations for beauty, goodness, and truth, are not quenched by this moment-by-moment contact. They are not somehow eliminated in an absorption in the present instant as if nothing else matters. Rather, they are given ultimate validity and truth in touch with the One who is always in touch with me, where Eternity intersects with time, and Eternity holds every moment of time as it holds all of history—drawing the lines together into the convergence of all things in the Heart of Christ.

Yes, precisely here and now I can live life to the full, and not in some expected future in which circumstances will be different, in which my plans will be realized, in which my vocation will come to full flower, in which this painful suffering will have passed, etc. It is here, it is now, that God wants to speak to me, and to hear my response, in the never-ceasing dialogue of love. It is here that the prayer of the heart flowers and comes to maturity. And as this prayer progresses, I come to feel more and more, not only my own inner frustrations and sins, but also another movement, another force of life breathing within me, and breathing with me, back to the Father. It is the Spirit of God alive in me, vibrating through my very flesh back to God, the Creator of all and my tender Father, whose beloved child I am.

But here let us return to our Carthusian friend:

Besides noticing these disordered movements of the heart, especially after Jesus begins re-establishing his order within us, we also notice movements which are less disturbed and which even end up quite harmonious. Thus, without our being aware of it, the center of our heart learns to reach out spontaneously towards our Lord. It is only after the event, and looking back at what has occurred, that we actually realize that our Lord’s Spirit has been discreetly and silently at work in the depths of our heart. Gradually, as peace is established in these depths, a certain mysterious dynamism is set in motion with which we must learn to co-operate.

So we learn to integrate all the movements of our heart: the good, the not so good and even the bad, in order to be able to turn them towards God. Some of these movements come straight from God and return to him, while others need to be converted and transformed through the death and Resurrection of Jesus. All need to be consciously integrated into that dynamism of the Spirit spread throughout our hearts. It is a question of being alert to the movements of our heart, so that we can unite them freely and consciously to the work of the Holy Spirit within us.

None of this implies any mystical grace. It means being aware, with simplicity and gentleness, that our heart is alive and that we can offer this life to the Holy Spirit, to be carried in his own movement towards the Father.

St. Paul states that the Holy Spirit intercedes for us with ‘sighs too deep for words’. This last phrase is noteworthy. The Holy Spirit’s normal activity is not to give us lucid ideas or special lights, nor indeed, to give us anything in particular. The work of the Holy Spirit is to draw us towards the Father. ‘For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God’ (Romans 8:14-15). The Holy Spirit is a witness, a dynamic force which carries us forward. We certainly do not seek to capture it, to plumb its nature or control it. To attempt to do so would be to drive it out of our hearts and to extinguish it. Let us leave the Spirit free to pray within us in his own shrouded way, hidden and mysterious; we will discern his action by its fruits. To the extent that we become aware that we are learning how to pray, and, without knowing exactly how we are able to make requests to God and have them granted, to that extent we understand that the Holy Spirit is praying within us, despite all our weaknesses.

Now we at last come near to the end of our reflections on the prayer of the heart—which, as I tried to emphasize, is not some specialized experience focused on for certain moments, nor some mystical gift for an elite few, but is rather meant to be the simple living heartbeat of every moment of life for every child of God. It can permeate every circumstance of our existence, regardless of what we may happen to be doing. It can fill all the activities of our day, from the most active manual labor to the simple chores of cooking, cleaning, and weeding the garden, to conversations with others, to all the forms of Christian service, to moments of rest and leisure, to our meals, to our very sleep, and, of course, to the explicit times set aside for us to be more exclusively attentive and present to God in silent prayer and meditation. What a beautiful gift this is! Our tender and loving God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—wants to be in intimate relationship with us at every moment of our life, until this life is eternally consummated with him in eternity!

And to the degree that we consent to this invitation, stepping into the honesty and vulnerability of love, into the dialogue of the heart, we will grow into union with him and be made whole. We will live the very meaning of our existence in all of its facets, and taste already now, even in times of suffering and pain, the very mystery of eternity. For what is this mystery, what is the meaning of our existence, what is the very fabric of the universe and of our own flesh and blood? It is nothing but the vulnerable love and enduring intimacy of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in which we have been created to share. So let me now conclude these reflections with a final quote, one which expresses precisely the throbbing heartbeat of the Gospel in its paradoxical and liberating beauty. For here we see laid before us the heart of love as the intimacy of persons made one in the vulnerability of mutual self-giving, and in the joy of cherishing tenderness. I quote:

Let us return to some of the cardinal points which we have discussed. Let us review them and integrate them, because they represent the keystone of the prayer of the heart.

Fear of one’s weaknesses is a basic reaction of any human being. From the day we first realize, in one respect or another, that we cannot rely on our own strength, a tendency to worry takes root which can grow into great anxiety. All that we have said up to now leads to the loss of personal security by bringing to light what we have termed our vulnerability, our hidden disorders and the limits of our created condition. Each time, then, we have said to ourselves there is only one solution—to recognize the reality of what we are and place it in the hands of the Lord.

Recall the episode of the stilling of the waters. The Apostles are panic-stricken by the way their boat is being tossed about in the storm and go to wake Jesus. Astonished, he turns to them and asks: ‘Why are you afraid, O men of little faith?’ (Matthew 8:26). Then, with one gesture, he calms the waves.

So why be afraid of my own weaknesses? It is a fact that they exist; but for a long time I have refused to look them in the face. Gradually, I have assumed them, and am now obliged to recognize them as part of me. These are not extraneous to me, which I could rid myself of once and for all. Moreover, if I wished to forget them, the Father would soon bring them back to my attention. He would permit some fault or other in the face of which I would be unable to deny that I am a sinner. He would allow my health to play tricks on me, so that I would admit defeat and deliver myself defenseless to the love of the Father. He would make me realize, beyond the shadow of a doubt, how limited by abilities are.

What is new is that in the future these weaknesses, instead of representing a danger, give me the opportunity to make contact with God. For this reason I must gradually allow myself to become at ease with them, no longer considering them as a disturbing side of my personality, but as something willed and accepted by the Father; not as some hopeless inevitability but as a basic presupposition for the gift to me of divine life. When I suddenly find myself faced with a previously unknown weakness, my first reflex in the future will not be to panic but to ask myself where the Father may be hidden in it.

We cannot avoid asking ourselves a question: is this transformation of a weakness which seems to be nothing but defeat into a victory of love a sort of second thought on God’s part, an alchemy whereby he changes evil into good or, on the contrary, are we not in the presence of a fundamental dimension of the divine order?

One could say a great deal about this. Let us be satisfied with simply stating that, even in the natural order, all true love is a victory of weakness. Love does not consist in dominating, possessing or imposing one’s will on someone. Rather love is to welcome without defenses the other as he or she comes to meet me. In return, one is sure of being welcomed unreservedly by the other without being judged or condemned, and without invidious comparisons. There are no contests of strength between two people who love each other. There is a kind of mutual understanding from within which a reciprocal trust emerges.

Such an experience, even if inevitably imperfect, is already a very compelling one. Yet it is but a reflection of a divine reality. Once we really begin to believe in the infinite tenderness of the Father, we are, as it were, obliged to descend ever more fully and joyfully into a realm in which we neither possess nor understand nor control anything.

Thus, almost without being aware of it, we enter into communion with the divine life. The relation between Father and Son in the Spirit is, at a level completely beyond our comprehension, a perfect embodiment of weakness transformed into communion.

In a way closer to ourselves, this intimate tenderness of the thrice-holy God is revealed in the relationship between the incarnate Son and his Father. We cannot help but be struck by the serenity and sense of infinite security with which Jesus quietly proclaims that he has nothing of his own, and that he can do nothing but what he sees the Father doing. What man would accept such powerlessness? Nevertheless, this is the path we must follow if we wish to live in the depths of our heart as God has made it, and as he transfigures it through the death and Resurrection of his Son.

Mary points us in the same direction. The Magnificat is at once a song of triumph and a recognition of total powerlessness. The two go hand in hand. From the beginning, she realized and accepted her utter weakness; thus does she find herself in a state of readiness to receive the Son which the Father gives her. She becomes the Mother of God because she is the closest to the poverty of God.i


i. These quotes are all taken from The Wound of Love: A Carthusian Miscellany, trans. An Anglican Solitary (Cistercian Publications: Kalamazoo, Michigan, 1994), Pages 74-90.