St Teresa in her works constantly refers to the Prayer of the Heart (Mental Prayer), that is, to the time and space given each day to the Lord, during which we are called to offer ourselves to Him. Preferably this should be twice a day, the time spent on it increasing progressively. Thus, it is advisable for the first three months two fifteen minute sessions a day, increasing subsequently, if possible with the advice of the Spiritual Director, to two thirty minute sessions a day, to be then increased to two forty-five minute sessions, the final stage being two sessions per day each lasting one hour. During this precious time, the Lord prolongs his action in us and pours into the deepest part of our being his Spirit of Love. Reading St Teresa reveals this practice to be truly essential for her, and that it is a mandatory condition without which christian life is non-existent. It is the greatest irony, meanwhile, that in the Church regular practice of the Prayer of the Heart is rare, while in some cases it is completely unknown! How can this contradiction be explained? Some argue as to the necessity and the viability of the Prayer of the Heart, while some even argue that there are many other forms of equally worthwhile prayer. Indeed, today some even consider the Prayer of the Heart as being a particular type of practice that belongs only to certain schools of spirituality, and that it does not as yet have universal status - even if it appears amongst the three main expressions of prayer in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (see ccc n° 2700-2724).
In order to obtain a clear answer to this vitally important question it is essential, first, to address the very nature of the Prayer of the Heart. It is only when a clear light is shed upon this that it becomes possible to address the actual contradiction in question. If the Prayer of the Heart is reduced to a simple pious exercise that only few practise and if its content and what happens during it is ignored, if it is imposed (i.e. observance of the form) certainly a huge opposition to its practise might arise in many if it is said to be universal, namely, open to everyone.
In her book The Way of Perfection, in order to present the Prayer of the Heart, especially its supernatural nature, St Teresa uses the 'Our Father' as the canvas for her comments on it (see Chapter 27 onward). Significantly, when she starts explaining the meaning of 'Thy Kingdom come', she alludes to entry into the Supernatural state, namely, the beginning of the Direct and Personal Action of the Holy Spirit in us. Entering into the Kingdom, or receiving it, is described as being at the very heart of God's action in the Prayer of the Heart. Can this be argued as an option as some do? Is receiving the Grace of God something optional in Christianity? Is it to be assumed that there other ways in order to become Christian?
All Christians pray. But the ways to do so are many and varied. The Mass is the prayer par excellence. Thus, during the Mass, by saying 'lift up your hearts', the priest warns us and points out that there is more than one way of participating in the Mass: by lifting or not lifting up our hearts. This means that we can either participate in the Divine Action of the Mass by entrusting our heart to Christ who is 'seated at the Right Hand of the Father', or attend Mass while remaining immersed in earthly matters and concerns. In this latter case, while our bodies are physically inside the church, while attending Mass, our lips praying and singing, our minds and hearts are really engaged with the outside world, with earthly concerns, instead of being lifted up, of being engaged in Christ.
It must be acknowledged, then, that real prayer occurs 'in Christ', 'before the Father' and 'through the Holy Spirit'. The very movement of the Prayer of the Heart invites us into the Trinity, through the Son, and in doing so we find ourselves participating in the interchange of the Love of the Trinity. It is for this reason that it can be said that many 'practise the prayer of the heart' unknowingly. Many people, while saying their prayers, place themselves into the hands of Christ, and thereby they enter into a 'state' of prayer with their heart. Any vocal prayer - any prayer said audibly as in, for example, the Mass, Divine Office, Rosary - is not opposed to the Prayer of the Heart. They are simply two halves of the same fruit. St Teresa underlines this point with great clarity in her writings. She even gives the example of an old nun who asked Teresa's advice concerning the said nun's sadness at being unable to practise the Prayer of the Heart, and of only being able to pray vocally because her mind would ramble on in a restless way inhibiting her ability to focus. St Teresa listened to her, questioning her about her method of prayer and about her daily life, only to come to the clear realization that not only was this nun unknowingly practising the Prayer of the Heart, but that she was very advanced in it. The supernatural action of God was well and truly present and active within her – an invaluable and consoling piece of discernment given to us by St. Teresa through this example!
With these added nuances, the question needs to be asked: what is then St Teresa's advice? Should the Prayer of the Heart be made widely known? Or should we let the matter rest and rely on the fact that people might be practising the Prayer of the Heart regardless, knowingly or not?
These questions raise an important issue in the life of the Church. St Paul, in his letter to the Romans, says that belief will not follow if, the message has not been first announced (see Romans 10:14). This clearly stresses that it is a fundamental mission of the Church to teach Spiritual Life and the Prayer of the Heart and to form the faithful in them. The faithful cannot be abandoned to uncertainty, praying in a random way that might or might not invite Christ into their spiritual lives. In fact, The Lord announces most decisively and very clearly in the Gospel of St John, that He wants to treat us like friends and not like slaves (see John 15:15)! Not only this, but He goes on to explain the factors that go to make up friendship. For Jesus friendship is an intimate relationship where He confides everything to his friend, explains it thoroughly, and unveils it, clearly emphasized in Matthew 13:11, namely, He leads us from within through the Holy Spirit, to the fullness of the Truth, which is himself (John 16:13). This underlines the contradiction that we cannot reach holiness using the means that the Lord came to offer us if our practice of Spiritual Life is unsure and random manner. This would be tantamount to committing a grave sin, because it is essentially to tempt God! To tempt God is to place ourselves in a dangerous and unsure position, not going about it in the way God desires, yet expecting God to save us come what may!
Christ's mission of teaching spiritual life continues in and through the Church. Throughout the centuries, God has deliberately provided us with a vast amount of rich teachings on the Spiritual Life, to ensure his Church makes wise use of them. A simple example will suffice to illustrate this. The following dialogue from the Mass shows what Christ desires :
- Lift up your hearts
- We lift them up to the Lord
- Let us give thanks to the Lord
- It right and just...
The role of the Church, for instance, should consequently be to explain to the faithful the clear and precise sense of the spiritual content of the this dialogue. It is necessary for us to learn what is required of us when the priest invites us to lift up our hearts. To begin with, we have to learn where the Lord is situated when we are invited to lift up our hearts to Him. St Paul explains it when he says: Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. (Col 3:1) However, who is Christ for us? He is our Dwelling Place our Temple, comes the answer in St. John 2:21. Moreover He invites us to dwell in Him (John 15:4). On a more personal level, then, what method can be used to lift up our hearts? Through recollecting ourselves, as St Teresa explains in the Prayer of Recollection (Way of Perfection chapters 28-29), or in addition if you prefer, by offering ourselves to Him (See the Act of Oblation of St Therese of Lisieux).
Pauline Levy Lazzarini, “Lift up your Heart”, 2008
If the act of lifting up our heart does not occur, Christ will not be able to come and take possession of it, in order to dwell within us and pour His holy Spirit into us! One will continue attending the Mass pro forma only being bodily present, but the Mass will not be lived 'at the level' of Christ. As can now be appreciated, 'participating in the Eucharist' is a profoundly spiritual act based on the teaching on the Prayer of the Heart.
The above-mentioned teaching is very bold, to say the least, and certainly not many it may be assumed will 'hear' it. But the Gospel itself is extremely audacious and there is a tendency to dilute it. The Lord himself said that God is Spirit, and whoever wants to worship Him has to do it in Spirit and in Truth (see John 4:24). In order to worship God who is Spirit, then, one has to be in Him! By the Incarnation and the Redemption the Triune God himself opened his heart to us so we could dwell in Him.
Through his Passion, Death, Resurrection and Ascension Christ, then, prepares a Dwelling Place for us in himself, in his heart. By this He imparts to us the knowledge that He does not remain in situ - that is, at the right hand of the Father. On the contrary, He comes to us, in order to embrace us, lift us, so that He might dwell in us. In this way He allows us to access Him in his own domain. This eminently lays bare what it means to be 'in the world' (John 17:14-18) and to live in the Trinity, rooted in Christ, at one and the same time. This is what it means to be Baptised, that is, to be immersed in Christ, to take root in Him.
The following verses aptly voice Jesus' answer when we lift up our heart to Him, the culminating point of the Prayer of the Heart:
"In My Father's House are many dwelling places […]
If I go and prepare a place for you,
I will come again and will take you to Myself,
that where I am, there you may be also. » (John 14:2-3)
By Baptism, Christ dwells within our heart. But this is not meant to force us to remain continuously immersed in Him, begging the question that we ask ourselves whether we are within his heart, or outside of it. This is the very reason for his plea not to leave Him alone in our heart, but to return to Him through renewed loving acts of our free will and dwell with Him. To dwell in Christ is obviously not something that comes automatically because of our Baptism. This latter rather opens the way for us, but does not ensure we remain in Christ ! It is up to us to express our free will in order to be reintroduced into Him. This is why Christ keeps insisting with the words: dwell in me as I dwell in you (John 15:4). It is as if He is saying to each one of us: 'I dwell in you by the virtue of your Baptism, but now, I invite you to use your free will, and I myself opened this way for you to come and dwell in me' (Hebrews 10:19-20)!
Although all that has been outlined is not optional, it is still difficult to practise, or better said, it is challenging because we discover that Christ will not force himself upon us, but that the ultimate responsibility is ours, and that it is we ourselves who need to be involved in the process. As St Augustine says, we are the co-authors of our salvation. Expressed succinctly it declares that If God did not ask our permission to create us, we will not be saved without our taking part in it. The realization of the enormity of this responsibility, may lead to the the impression that a deeply spiritual life, or this aspect of the Gospel, is for some privileged persons only.
St Teresa like us as regards the aforesaid, is very well aware that all the Baptised are called to holiness! But meeting with Christ, hearing his Call and really listening to Him, she would agree, is quite another challenge. Her agreement would be endorsed by Teresa herself having gone through this selfsame process of discovery. Indeed, she is particularly aware that discovering Christ in one's life is something different, it is a special grace of which we are all unworthy.
In this light, then, listening to St Teresa's teaching increases our awareness of the enormous chasm between the general theory, that is ’all are called to be holy’, and the practice of it, namely how this can become a reality for random persons, through a real meeting with Christ. For this specific person, it is important to offer the richness of the teaching on how to pray the Prayer of the Heart, because without it, the call to holiness remains totally inert.