Opening the Heart for Lent
Listen to the long stillness:
New life is stirring
New dreams are on the wing
New hopes are being readied:
Humankind is fashioning a new heart
Humankind is forging a new mind
God is at work.
This is the season of Promise.
On Ash Wednesday we always hear the words of the prophet Joel: "Return to me with your whole heart."
Lent is an invitation toward whole-heartedness. The heart is an ancient metaphor for the seat of our whole being—to be whole-hearted means to bring our entire selves before God, our intellect, our emotional life, our dreams and intuitions, our deepest longings. Many of us feel divided, in internal conflict between what we most desire and how we live our lives. The ancient monks described the "cave of the heart" as that inner place where we encounter God and wrestle with our inner voices. Instead of resisting these voices, and dividing ourselves, the desert mothers and fathers invite us to be fully present to them, to create a welcoming space within. All of our "negative" feelings have something to teach us about ourselves and even about God when we stop running and create room in the cave of our hearts to tend to what is really happening in us. We become aware of our interior dynamics and slowly becoming attuned to the promptings of our inner wisdom and respond to life through this lens, discovering God in each moment both within and without.
Lent is a time when we consider the commitments we want to make to cultivate our whole-heartedness and the things we want to let go of to make more room for presence to God. The desert journey is one where our comforts are stripped away so we can see more clearly.
I invite you into a very simple Heart-Centered Practice that only takes about five minutes and can be done almost anywhere, but can completely shift your grounding and awareness so you respond to the world from a more heart-centered place:
Begin by becoming aware of your body. Notice how your body is feeling, simply being present to sensations you are experiencing, welcoming in both the body's delight and discomfort.
Connect to your breath, deepening it gently. As you inhale, imagine God breathing life into you. As you exhale, allow yourself to experience a moment of release and surrender into this time and place, becoming fully present. Take a couple cycles of breath to simply notice this life-sustaining rhythm, which continues moment by moment even when you are unaware of it.
In your imagination, gently allow your breath to carry your awareness from your head (which is your thinking, analyzing, judging center) down to your heart center (where you experience life from a place of greater integration, feeling, and intuition). Consider placing your hand on your heart to experience a physical connection with your heart center and draw your awareness to this place.
Breathe into your heart center and begin to notice what you are feeling right now in this moment without judging or trying to change it. Take a few moments to simply be present to whatever it is you are feeling and making some room within yourself to experience this without pushing it away.
Call to mind the spark of God, which the ancient monks and mystics tell us dwells in your heart. Bring the compassion of God to however you are feeling right now, not trying to change anything, but just gently holding yourself in this space.
As you experience yourself filling with compassion for your own experience, imagine breathing that compassion out into the world and connecting to other hearts—both human and animal—beating across the world in a rhythm of love.
Gently allow your breath to bring your awareness back to the room and take a moment to name what you noticed in this experience.
This practice is especially powerful when we find ourselves feeling tenderhearted, anxious, sad, or any emotion that feels uncomfortable or confusing. The idea is not to resolve the emotion or figure it out, but to simply allow it to have a moment of space within us. Try pausing once or twice a day for this practice in the next few days and see if you discover anything.
What are the things that numb your heart from really feeling life?
How might you make space in the midst of busy lives to experience this whole-heartedness?
This article originally appeared at AbbeyoftheArts.com and is reprinted with permission.
Christine Valters Paintner, Ph.D., is a Benedictine Oblate and the online Abbess of Abbey of the Arts, a virtual monastery without walls offering online classes and resources in contemplative practice and creative expression. She is the author of seven books on monastic spirituality and creativity including The Artist's Rule: Nurturing Your Creative Soul with Monastic Wisdom (Ave Maria Press), Desert Fathers and Mothers: Early Christian Wisdom Sayings (SkyLight Paths), and Eyes of the Heart: Photography as a Christian Contemplative Practice (forthcoming 2013 from Ave Maria Press). Christine earned her Ph.D. in Christian Spirituality from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, and her work focuses on the intersection of the arts, contemplative spirituality and practice, and the wisdom of the seasons. Visit her website Abbey of the Arts.