Learning Your Heart: Practicing Prayer of the Heart

Light on the Master.

One of the richest ways that I’ve learned to connect to the truth of my heart over the last several years is through what Henri Nouwen calls prayer of the heart

In his book The Way of the Heart (which I highly recommend — it’s a simple yet tremendous book), Nouwen distinguishes between prayer of the mind and prayer of the heart.

Prayer of the mind, he says, is what happens when we merely talk to God or think about God. Both of these activities are done from a place of detachment. We talk to God about things on our mind or things we’re trying to work out. This becomes a pseudo-form of prayer because we are, in effect, merely talking to ourselves. And thinking about God creates no engagement with God at all. What we think is prayer is more intellectual exercise or the creation of theological propositions. Who we are at our core has not shown up at all.

Prayer of the heart, however, is a different experience of prayer altogether. 

Prayer of the heart happens when the truth of who we are encounters the truth of who God is. 

How does that happen?

Nouwen gives us a helpful mental image of what this looks like. He quotes one of the desert fathers, who said:

“To pray is to descend with the mind into the heart, and there to stand before the face of the Lord, ever-present, all-seing, within you.”

— The Way of the Heart, p. 73

What a great and helpful image this offers us! When I practice prayer of the heart, then, I actually imagine my mind descending through my body and landing every so slowly in the place of my heart.

My mind is often a jumbled, monkey-mind mix of thoughts and anxieties and projections and fears and to-do lists and questions, all colliding together and struggling to find any semblance of resolution or rest. But when my mind and heart begin to dwell together, the reality of who I am, in all my fullness, is present. The truth of myself is laid bare. I become aware of who I am and what is truly there.

And there, I find God standing before me, encountering this fullness of the truth of myself.

He sees me, and I see him. Here, we share a conversation.

We begin to engage in relationship.

Can you take a few moments and practice this prayer of the heart? Imagine your mind — everything within it — descending through your body and coming to rest in the place of your heart. Lay bare the truth of who you are in that moment. Then imagine the Lord God before you in that place. Allow him to see the truth of yourself, and allow yourself to look openly back upon him. What is this experience like for you?