Two weekends ago I enjoyed two different cultural efforts: a concert by the Heartland Community Chorus at St. Jerome Church in Troy (this concert was repeated at Highland St. Paul), and the performance of Annie Jr. by the Drama Club of St. John Neumann School in Maryville.
Over many years, I have learned to appreciate the skills and attention needed to sing and act effectively. As a presider at worship, of course, I am always putting my singing into service. And although it has been 20 years since I last performed in a theatrical production, the proclamation of the Word of God always calls for a sense of drama.
The major surprise to me in my years of effort in these arts has been this: It is never enough merely to know one’s lines or lyrics and simply rattle them off. One’s performance is never complete until there is an appreciation for the feeling which makes a particular piece of music or drama worth performing. The performer must be united with the feeling which the author of the work intends to express.
In my survey of the various kinds of prayer, I come now to what is called “prayer of the heart.” Whereas previously we have looked at prayer which calls for words or thinking, prayer of the heart is how we pray through our feelings.
Feelings, of course, are not necessarily valued highly in our day and age. And this is unfortunate. I am thankful to have been led to an appreciation of my feeling life. I understand that feelings such as anger, fear, and love are my spontaneous response to the immediate situations I find myself in. These feelings are precious; they represent my personal investment in my life here and now. Of course they are a basis for prayer.
Anger is the prelude to asking what is wrong, and how I can set things right. Fear speeds me up or slows me down to make good decisions. Love leads me to want to understand and appreciate the people I love.
Feelings, as we know, can be “messy.” Acknowledging them means that we concede our limits and vulnerability. We feel precisely because we are at the mercy of things we cannot control or subdue.
So I have been grateful for St. Paul’s discussion of prayer as “groaning,” as we find in the eighth chapter of the Letter to the Romans. Paul writes that God the Holy Spirit “intercedes with inexpressible groanings.” When we find that words are inadequate, groaning may well seem to be the right thing for us to do. How liberating it is to recognize that our groaning is united with the groaning of the Holy Spirit!
It has been said that the Psalms, the prayer book of the Temple of Jerusalem, are “a series of shouts.” Jesus, from the cross, prayed “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”; this is the beginning of Psalm 22. At Mass, the singing of that day’s psalm is perhaps the prime opportunity for “prayer of the heart.”
So, yes, we can take whatever feeling we are experiencing, and we can allow that feeling to direct our prayer. In addition to groaning, we may find ourselves moved to tears. St. Teresa of Avila wrote about “the gift of tears,” which may well be the most vivid example of a state in which words are replaced by a feeling of being caught up in inexpressible wonder.
Jesus was pleased to experience the entire spectrum of feeling which you and I experience. He did not shun these feelings; neither must we. Prayer of the heart is far from neat and tidy. Even so, it is an utterly honest cry to our God as we live out our life’s mystery.