Recently I received this message from a new reader of this blog…
Hi Carl, I found your site yesterday.
I am a beginner and the Lord has been telling me to practice simple inner awareness of love. Is this what you’re doing?
I find it very difficult and I’m not sure I’m doing it right. I’m super frustrated. I’m not sure of what or how I’m to be aware. Am I supposed to just notice feelings, and or sensations in my body? He also spoke about my “body of love”. Also, this is different than the silent prayer. Jesus has also spoke about heart to heart connection. This is where I’m confused. How can I just be nothing, pitiful, weak… he also said, and offer my heart to his and connect with him, because I’m actually lifting my heart to his… please help!
Thanks for your email. It sounds like you are experiencing a call to a more silent and contemplative way of praying. The way you describe it, it sounds like a truly beautiful call indeed.
Contemplation has been defined as “A form of wordless prayer in which mind and heart focus on God’s greatness and goodness in affective, loving adoration; to look on Jesus and the mysteries of his life with faith and love.” When you speak of a “simple inner awareness of love,” to me that sounds a lot like “wordless prayer…in affective, loving adoration”!
So yes, I do think you are being called to something similar to the way I pray and what I write about in this blog. Contemplative prayer is an umbrella term for several different methods or approaches to prayer, but generally speaking they all involve “wordless adoration” — in other words, the emphasis is not on language or thought, “talking to God,” but on gently resting in silence, where the love of the heart takes center stage, rather than the chatter of the mind.
I think it is very normal, especially when beginning to pray this way, to feel like you’re not doing it “right.” Indeed, I wrote a blog post about this just recently; you can read it here: What Contemplatives Think of Their Prayer Practice.
I think this is because, despite how seemingly simple this way of praying is, it is actually challenging — because the old brain won’t shut up! We seek to “be still and know God” — to lovingly be present to God in silence — but in practice it seems like the mind keeps filling up silence with noisy thoughts, distractions, daydreams, ideas, worries, and commentary.
What is it that Shrek said about the talking donkey? “Getting him to shut up is the trick.” Likewise, encouraging that inner commentator to, at least, slow down, is a big part of the challenge of this way of praying. Another big part of the challenge: learning to humbly accept that the inner chatterbox will never fully go away.
Silent prayer is an exercise in learning how to pray imperfectly. We seek to be still and know God with love, but often the best we can manage is to fidget for twenty minutes while hopefully capturing glimpses of the silence that slows between all our thoughts and feelings.
“I’m not sure of what or how I’m to be aware.”
The prophet Isaiah described God as a God “who hides” (Isaiah 45:15). So while the glib answer to your question might be “just be aware of God’s presence,” I find that’s not a very helpful bit of advice. How can we be aware of the hidden God?
This is why I think silence is so important to contemplative ways of praying.
Sometimes we can think about God’s presence or feel God’s presence or even imagine God’s presence. I think each of these approaches can be useful, and can help us to deepen our sense of intimacy with God. But they are all brain-activities, which take the focus away from our heart and back to our head. So while they may be appropriate in some forms of prayer, in silent prayer we take the time to actually let go of all our thoughts, feelings, and imaginings of God. We let go in order to rest in the silence, trusting that God is present even though we aren’t consciously aware of it.
So: try to be aware of silence. You may only catch glimpses of it, especially in between all your thoughts and feelings. That’s okay. It’s like learning to notice the peace of paper on which writing is printed. The writing gives you ideas, words, thoughts. But the piece of paper holds it all for you. In a similar way, our mind/brain gives us all our thoughts and feelings (about God and about all aspects of life). But all of our mental activity arises out of a deep interior silence, and that silence is the “camouflage” that our loving, hidden God wears.
I can’t stress this enough: especially at first, you may only catch the occasional glimpse of the silence within. Learn to accept that and to trust it. The silence is always there, we’re just not always aware of it, since we get so caught up in our thoughts: the words on the page, rather than the page itself.
“Am I supposed to just notice feelings, and or sensations in my body?”
There’s nothing wrong with noticing feelings and sensations, but again, that’s the words rather than the page. When you catch yourself paying attention to whatever is distracting you from silence, gently return your awareness to the openness of silence itself.
This is why many methods of silent prayer involve using a prayer word or phrase to gently focus your attention. Whenever you notice your mind wandering, return to the sacred word, and allow that to “tether” your mind so that your heart can simply rest in the silence, the silence between every thought and every heartbeat.
“How can I just be nothing, pitiful, weak… and offer my heart to his and connect with him?”
I’m not sure I fully understand this question, but let me give it a try. It seems that you are conscious of your own limitations: your nothingness, your vulnerability, your littleness, especially in the face of the majestic beauty and awe that is the glory of God.
Now, being conscious of our littleness, how dare we presume to be intimate with the vast, awe-inspiring beauty and majesty of God?
It’s a great question. And the only answer I know is, “because God seeks us.”
I can’t explain how my heart becomes one with God’s heart. But I believe it happens. As St. Paul writes in Romans 5:5, “Hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” My heart may be “nothing, pitiful, weak” but that’s not enough to stop God from pouring divine love into it! And divine love given through the very Spirit of God.
Ironically, the practice of silent prayer both deepens a sense of humility (that’s the feeling like you’re nothing, or weak) but simultaneously it deepens a sense of being loved and cared for. It can actually be toxic to focus on being nothing, pitiful, weak — if that’s the end of your self-assessment. That can be self-contempt rather than true humility. But it’s just as toxic to cultivate hubris or pride. So what is a healthy self-concept? Simply this: I am loved, just as I am, with all my strengths and weaknesses.
Knowing that God loves me, takes the emphasis off of me — whether I am nothing or something, pitiful or beautiful, weak or strong. It takes the emphasis off of me and places our attention where it belongs: on God, on God’s beauty, God’s strength, God’s glory, God’s felicity, God’s love…
And all of this is given to us. Poured from the limitless heart of God into our tiny, mortal, human hearts. How this is done, I do not know. But I believe it… with all my heart.
I think the human heart is like Dr. Who’s “Tardis” — it’s bigger on the inside than on the outside. Inside our heart, it’s big enough for God’s presence, for heaven. It’s a miracle given to us, by God. All we have to do is accept it — and then let that divine love direct our lives.
Praying the “Body of Love”
You mention receiving a word about the “body of love” — I’m not familiar with this exact phrase, but it calls to mind the truth that we meet God in our bodies, through prayer, through silence, through contemplation. We meet the God who pours love into our hearts. If love is poured in our hearts (and I for one am not going to argue with St. Paul about this!), then truly our bodies are “bodies of love” — divine love.
So when you pray, be present in your body, knowing that the Holy Spirit is likewise present, pouring love into your heart. Allow that love to flow in, to, and through you, back to God and out to all people. Safe and secure in this knowledge that you are loved, pray a single, sacred word of love, and rest in the silence (even if lots of thoughts keep flowing by).
I hope this is helpful. Thanks for such a great question!
Featured photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash.