Today we look at the journey which prayer creates—what Nouwen calls (as do many others) “descending from the mind into the heart” (p. 22).
Admittedly, we are entering one of the most challenging aspects of prayer, and surely not one that we can grasp in a single posting. As the occasion presents itself, I will return to the theme of contemplative prayer and explore it further.
Happily, what Nouwen does say about this kind of praying is simple enough for us to grasp what he means and then apply it to our lives.
As we pray, our minds easily and naturally become filled with ideas and impressions. We cannot prevent this, nor should we. We pray with our total self, so whatever “mental” dimensions accompany our prayer are to be embraced, not rejected. We may have to manage certain thoughts (e.g. wandering ones), but we must not try to “stop thinking” when we pray—as if some kind of “blank-ness” is a mark of prayer.
Instead, as Nouwen notes, we take our thoughts and allow them to descend into our heart, where they become influential feelings (e.g. compassion, resolution) that can activate our wills toward inward and outward holiness. This kind of praying saves us from vague and abstract thinking. When we move our prayers from our minds into our hearts, we are in a position to enact what we have been thinking about.
This is probably why I like Evelyn Underhill’s definition of meditation: thinking in the presence of God. I believe it’s what Nouwen is describing—the experience of putting our thoughts before God, so that the Spirit can “envliven” them in ways that make them more than fleeting ideas.
And as Nouwen points out, this movement from mind to heart can go on all day long, and help us move farther into “praying without ceasing.”