I spoke in the last chapter of the progress of the prayer of the heart, maturing and deepening through an ever more vulnerable and honest surrender of our hearts to God, who sees and loves us in all of our brokenness and sin. Gradually this process, by God’s ever-present grace, draws us from a perpetual fear of our weaknesses and failures and rather into the disposition of acceptance, which allows us no longer to flee and turn our gaze from them, but rather to open them to God with childlike simplicity and matter-of-factness, since we trust that, in every new revelation of our woundedness, the gift of the Father is secretly present. Indeed, this progressions leads even to a vivid awareness of the profound depth of our sins and the harm that they cause to ourselves and to others, and the pain that resounds in the heart of God himself. This is the place of the “dark night” spoken of by John of the Cross and other mystics, in which the radiant light of God shines so powerfully into our hearts that it shows up all the disorder within us, such that we can no longer ignore it, but must either be overcome by it in self-relying despondency, or surrender it at last, in the powerlessness of vulnerable love and unconditional trust, into the welcoming embrace of our merciful God. Yes, and the paradoxical and beautiful thing about this is precisely that this deepening awareness of our poverty and brokenness, of our desperate need for God, grows hand in hand with a deepened certainty and security in the all-sustaining and all-pervading love of the One who will not forsake or abandon us.

Thus, in the midst of this encounter of our misery and sin with the redeeming gaze of eternal Love, gradually the deep “voice of the heart” surges to the surface and finds expression. And this voice comes forth, not as something we can limit and control, something we can categorize or harness, as if we could turn back on it and watch ourselves praying, listening to the very cry of our heart even as we speak it. Rather, the Spirit carries us ardently beyond our own control in the security that is the letting go of all control into the embrace of the One who holds the universe. Here the words of Jesus prove true: “As the wind blows where it wills, and you do not know where it comes from or where it is going, so it is of those who are born of the Spirit” (Jn 3:8). And again, as Saint Paul writes, “We do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes within us with sighs too deep for words” (Rom 8:26). Yes, for “who knows what is innermost within a man except the man’s spirit within him? So also no one comprehends what is within God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the gifts given to us by God” (1 Cor 2:11-12). Thus the Spirit alive within us, joining himself to our own spirit in a synergy of love and prayer, harmonizes with the Spirit in God, such that we are certain of having our prayers answered: for it is but one Spirit, the Holy Spirit, who speaks into us from God and who responds to God within us! Here the Spirit, whose great works is unity, brings us into intimacy with God through an ineffable dialogue of love that surpasses words or concepts, while also filling them with an unheard-of depth of meaning.

He takes up our weak and faltering human activity, and purifies and elevates it by joining it to his own divine and supernatural activity. This is the experience of what is termed “infused contemplation,” a ray of divine light, a touch or kiss or embrace of God himself who is present to us and is active within us. Contemplation in these terms can be compared to a human encounter of touch, in which two persons, who have been speaking to one another in words, draw closer in the contact that surpasses words, and speak a language that words can never adequately capture. Or it can be likened to the natural experience of intuition, in which a reality I have encountered so many times before suddenly “unveils” itself before me, and grips my heart in a new way, in a depth of beauty and closeness that I did not know before. But all created analogies, while helpful, fall short of the full richness of contemplative prayer, for here it is the uncreated God himself who is directly operative within our humanity and our experience, making himself known to us, tangible to us, in a real way, even if this knowledge and this contact cannot yet attain the fullness which is proper only to eternity and the new creation.

At first we may feel very far from any living contact with this “prayer of God within us,” this infused activity of contemplation, which is the rich savor present in all words and experiences while also surpassing them. But this does not mean that God is not present or active. Rather this crying of the Spirit within us is not some “stage” of the spiritual journey, reserved for those who have achieved a certain level of development, or for those who have surpassed the stage of meditation or vocal prayer. Rather, it is the living heartbeat of prayer from the very beginning to the very end, the very means of our incorporation into the eternal life of God, into the dialogue of love between the Father and the Son in their one Spirit. But the human person becomes susceptible to this reality only over time, as the mind, affectivity, and will are purified and joined more and more—through faith, hope, and love—to the manner of living and loving proper to God; as the imagination, emotions, and sensation become joined to the human spirit, which in turn is surrendered to the divine Spirit. And yet God is present from the beginning, imbuing all of our frail and faltering efforts, and present even in our failures and struggles and infidelities, seeking to draw us closer to him and to harmonize our own heart with the throbbing of his heart, until they beat together in unison as one.

And over time, as the human persons continues to speak a “yes” of heart and life to the invitation of God, it becomes capable of hearing, surrendering to, and speaking in the Spirit who speaks within us, letting its own prayer of love flow back to God from whom love has first come. Thus we can say that, in the progress of maturation in prayer—just as in other areas of maturation—our prayer is at first more superficial, more reliant on external means such as meditation on a text of Scripture or another book, or pre-formulated vocal prayers, etc.; but gradually, as our mind, affectivity, and will are enriched by the truth of God given to us in divine revelation, as we become acquainted with the richness of reality bathed in the light of God’s love, and with God himself in his mysterious beauty, all of our faculties come to be gathered together in the simple center-point of the heart.

This does not necessarily mean that we lose the capacity or desire to read, to reflect, to voice our prayer to God in tangible and intelligible words and images—though this too may happen, as we are caught up in the mystery that surpasses words and thought and brings us to a place of stillness; though this path may also, on the contrary, fill and simplify words and thought and speech itself with the simple fullness of presence. It may, indeed, do both, at different times and in different ways, according to the intentions of God and the capacities and needs of the human heart, though in an ever deepening profundity of gaze and surrender, and thus in a deeper spontaneity, arising from a more interior place in the wellspring of the heart, responding in a more mature contact with the fullness of the real and with the all-surpassing mystery of God himself. But this path of simplification into the mystery of interior silence and unmediated heart-contact in prayer (which surpasses the direct activity of the mind and will and even affectivity in faith, hope, and love) definitely does not mean that we lose a conscious contact with the Trinity to whom our prayer is directed, and who prays within us, as well as with the fullness of natural and supernatural reality. Rather, our prayer is always a prayer to our Father, our loving Abba, in the beloved Son, to whom we are conformed in adoption and who is also our divine Bridegroom, in the breath and the magnetism of the Holy Spirit.

Indeed, the Trinitarian nature of prayer deepens and becomes more explicit as prayer matures, as each of the divine Persons unveils for us ever more deeply and explicitly not only their singular beauty in the heart of the life of God—their incomparable Personhood in relation with the other Persons of the Trinity—but also the depth and expansiveness of their relation with humanity and with creation, and especially their intimate activity within the receptive human heart. Thus the praying person comes to know the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, each of them uniquely in the beauty that is their own, but also in their unity in the single mystery of the Godhead, in the divinity that they share as one in an indivisible “We” of Love. Caught up, through sheer grace, into the living heart of this mystery of God, into the very throbbing heartbeat of their love and intimacy, into the dialogue of love that occurs between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the human person feels and knows from within the very atmosphere of the life of God, the very joy of his ineffable being, the very communication and communion of the Trinity’s ever-consummated encounter of mutual belonging and total intimacy.

And yet this participation in the life of God, since it occurs not in direct and unmediated vision (which is proper only to the next life) but rather in faith, hope, and love, always remains to some degree veiled and hidden from our eyes and our experience. It is lived, in other words, in the form of trust, desire, and surrender, in the living dispositions of the heart that reflect and share in the heart of God: and thus it occurs in the “night.” And yet this night is not sheer blackness, pure darkness, but a darkness filled with mysterious rays of light, with glimpses of intuition, insight, and love-filled contemplation, with the impulse of the heart in longing and aspiration, and in the echoing silence of stillness that vibrates with the eternal movement of God’s own all-pervading activity. Yes, how paradoxical is the mystery of the night, which is bathed with sweet light, and yet which also cradles the anguish of sorrow for one’s own sin and the sinful state of the entire world! How paradoxical is this night, in which the human spirit reaches out to touch the face of God beyond the veil of mortality, and yet also feels the pain of unfulfilled desire in the very expansion of desire, longing for the consummation that has not yet come! How paradoxical, in which the love-wounded heart is impelled beyond the limitations of all created things towards the unlimited and boundless beauty of God, towards the everlasting and infinite Communion of the Trinity, and yet also comes to see and embrace this very infinite beauty as it is present, mysteriously, precisely in the sacrament of littleness and limitation! Here the ordinariness and humility of daily life is not rejected as unworthy of God, unworthy of the heart that loves him; rather, it is filled and permeated with a newfound meaning and beauty, even as it is also shot through with a new pain: a pain that is fruitful and salvific, a healing pain which shares in the redeeming pain of Christ on the Cross, birthing the newness of the Resurrection.

The particular nuances of the subjective experience of prayer, from its incipient beginning to its full blossoming, are highly individualized, expressing the unique contours of the singular person’s heart and of God’s unique relationship of love with them. Nonetheless, the essence of intimacy, the true nature of love and communion, is the same for all persons, since it is nothing but a living share in the very life of the Trinity. Each of us, incomparably unique, is nonetheless sharing in a single mystery, in the one and indivisible life of our awesome God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And to let him draw near to us and to communicate himself to us—to welcome his gift in faith, to allow it to expand us in hope, and to let it harness us in a total reciprocal gift in love—is not only to enter into union with him (though it is certainly and primarily this!), but also to enter into union with all of our brothers and sisters and with the whole created universe. This is because by our union with God, we are truly in union with the heart of all reality, for he is the white-hot light from which all the rays of created reality flow, and to which they return, in which, indeed, they unceasingly inhere. To be in him, therefore, is to be in touch with the center and deepest meaning of all things; to be loved by him is also to learn to hear the word of love spoken in and through all things; and to love him is also to dilate in the capacity to love each person and all things in their true and innate value and dignity. In the very living heartbeat of prayer, therefore—even if it occurs in the hiddenness of my own room and in the most secrete recesses of my heart—the convergence of incomparable singularity and universal communion is also manifest.

And all prayer, taking fully into account the uniqueness of each person—or rather being realized precisely in the uniqueness of the person—does progress in similar ways. In particular, it progresses from more superficial to more profound, from the surface to the depth, and from complex to simple. Isn’t this the nature of love in all forms of relationship? How much more true it is in our relationship with God, who is utter Profundity, utter Depth, and the Simplicity of utter fullness in whom all the diverse lines converge on a single point in the Trinitarian embrace! All that was before approached from the “outside,” with a piecemeal searching for the partial glimmers of God hidden within it, is now approach with a deeper intuition that, so to speak, penetrates more quickly to its very heart and its deepest significance. Living more and more in the center-point, one approaches all things from this place. Scripture becomes more and more simple, and indeed it comes to live inside oneself, and thus the need to read it perhaps becomes less, even as it speaks more fully in every word and verse. Nature itself becomes more radiant and full, more transparent to the beauty of God of whom it speaks; indeed, the praying heart becomes capable of hearing and co-speaking with God his own word of affirmation towards created reality, and to find deep delight in this. But in all things as well as beyond all things, what occupies the heart so much, what harnesses every movement, thought, and desire of the heart is precisely to make ever deeper contact with God himself in his direct and unmediated fullness.

Of course, this kind of encounter and intimacy is not possible in its consummate fullness until the veil of this mortal life is torn and the person enters into eternity. But it can be glimpsed, tasted, in the mysterious realm of the heart, in which the naked God is present to the naked human person in the self-communication of love, awakening reciprocal loving gift, and thus sealing a breathtakingly profound and true intimacy, even if such intimacy remains hidden in this life. And this communication of God and his child, of Christ and the bridal heart, of the Spirit and the human person—spiritualized by grace—constitutes the living heartbeat of prayer, which gives meaning to everything else and fills it with fullness. Yes, this communication surpasses everything else in its depth and profundity, but it does not therefore drain anything else of meaning. Rather, it casts forth light, from this center place, into everything else, illumining it and revealing its true beauty and significance. And thus everything becomes both a vessel of gift which the human heart receives with gratitude and a spirit of humble and lighthearted responsibility, as well as an arrow of beauty from God’s heart which wounds the human heart with even more ardent longing for intimacy with God himself beyond his imperfect manifestations in created reality.

Thus, through the love that is the perfect union of eros and agape, that is the harmony of receptivity and gift, the voice of the heart emerges in unison with the voice of the Spirit, and reposes in the heart of the Trinity himself. And God’s word and gift, too, reposes in the heart of man or woman, such that the words of Christ are fulfilled: “Whoever loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him, and manifest myself to him…and we will come to him and make our home within him” (Jn 14:21, 23). And again, “If you abide in me and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you will, and it shall be done for you” (Jn 15:7), and again, “Even as you, Father, are in me, and I am in you, may they also be in us” (Jn 17:21). A silent glance of the eyes, or a few words or syllables in the ears, or the sense of touch, and the heart vibrates with longing for God, and cries out to him in ineffable love and surrender. Or the heart sits in silence in prayer, eyes closed and in solitude, and in this darkness, in which all created things have become hushed—waiting in expectation with the longing heart for the manifestation of God—the ray of divine light pours forth, not directly visible, but felt mysteriously welling up from the deepest and most hidden place of the heart. Here peace flows forth, and longing, and gratitude—and, beyond all feeling while also giving rise to feeling, the living activity of God within the human person in faith, hope, and love. Yes, and it is in faith, hope, and love—these dispositions that, as they mature, harness all the rest of our humanity in every moment—that we are united to God as he really is, in the fullness of his mystery, as well as in his mediated gift of self through created reality. In all things and beyond all things we come to welcome him, and to give ourselves back to him, letting each moment thus be a sacrament of encounter, a sacrament in which, through which, and beyond which the very invisible, infinite, eternal, and uncreated Reality kisses us, and espouses us to himself.