Monday, November 16, 2009

A merciful heart...

Love unites all, whether created or uncreated. The heart of God, the heart of all creation, and our own hearts become one in love. That's what all the great mystics have been trying to tell us through the ages. Benedict, Francis, Hildegard of Bingen, Hadewijch of Brabant, Meister Eckhart, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Dag Hammarskjold, Thomas Merton, and many others, all in their own ways and their own languages, have witnessed to the unifying power of the divine love. All of them, however, spoke with a knowledge that came to them not through intellectual arguments but through contemplative prayer. The Spirit of Jesus allowed them to see the heart of God, the heart of the universe, and their own hearts as one. It is in the heart of God that we can come to the full realisation of the unity of all that is, created and uncreated.

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey

It is in the presence of this unity that the intercessory dimension, so often overlooked in recent contemplative literature, is to be found. Contemplative prayer is not at all the same thing as the common Western misunderstanding of Eastern mysticism - a inward-looking, self-regarding means to personal peace, or personal development. Peace and growth may well result from contemplative prayer, but that is not what it is about.

Contemplative prayer, in the Christian practice, is the bringing of this "unifying power of the divine love"  through the heart of the one praying, into a suffering, broken creation. It is done in the love of Christ which, by the Holy Spirit, lives in the heart of the person praying; it is being simultaneously present to God and to the suffering of "all that is made" (Julian of Norwich) that breaks open the heart of the contemplative so that she or he cannot ignore the least pain or wound in any living thing.

I have quoted him before, but St. Isaac of Nineveh, writing in the 7th century AD, summed this up better than anyone:

An elder was once asked, "What is a merciful heart?" He replied:

"It is a heart on fire for the whole of creation, for humanity, for the birds, for the animals, for demons, and for all that exists. By the recollection of them the eyes of a merciful person pour forth tears in abundance. By the strong and vehement mercy that grips such a person’s heart, and by such great compassion, the heart is humbled and one cannot bear to hear or to see any injury or slight sorrow in any in creation.

For this reason, such a person offers up tearful prayer continually even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth, and for those who harm her or him, that they be protected and receive mercy. And in like manner such a person prays for the family of reptiles because of the great compassion that burns with without measure in a heart that is in the likeness of God."

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