In the previous podcast I spoke of the value of prayer in response to our present time of darkening and ecological crisis. This draws me to share a talk I gave on the “Prayer of the Heart: Mystical Prayer in the Sufi and Christian Tradition” at the Prayer Symposium of the Church of Religious Science a few years ago. At the end of the talk I include a prayer for the Earth.
As I mention at the beginning of this talk, in recent years I am drawn more and more to prayer. At this time in my own journey, I am often reminded of Prospero’s words at the end of Shakespeare’s final play, The Tempest, when the magus says that he will break his staff and drown his book and finally, “And my ending is despair, unless I be relieved by prayer.”
As I experience our world becoming darker and more self-destructive, I am drawn more into prayer as a refuge and response. Prayer, like the first cry of a newborn child or the final gasp of a dying person is that most essential response of the heart and soul. It returns us to the only connection that can truly sustain us.
In recent years I have been drawn more and more deeply into prayer. I have been doing spiritual practice for almost fifty years now, but I find prayer takes me deeper and deeper within myself, into that relationship, into that communion, into that sacred space which for the Sufis is within the heart, where I can be with my Beloved, with God, with the One Being, whatever name you like to call That which is beyond any name. And I will explore this Sufi prayer, this prayer of deep silence, of deep inner contemplation, but first to acknowledge there are many, many different forms of prayer. We have just heard the Call to Prayer, we have just heard beautiful music that touches the soul with the prayer of the spirit that cries out to God. And as Rumi said, “There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” There are many, many different forms of prayer. I was brought up in the Christian tradition and grew up with The Lord’s Prayer, which is a very, very beautiful prayer, and even today I meditate often on a particular line in it, “May Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” to invoke the spirit, the blessings, the guidance, and the power of the Divine into our life here, which often sadly seems to be lacking from that presence, that power, that guidance; or it is hidden from us, it is not lacking but it is often hidden from us. And at the core of prayer is really both the cry of the individual—I feel really prayer is born from need, we need, we are the one who is given and we need—and prayer that cries from the heart, that cries to God, that cries to this extraordinary beautiful Being, comes from our deepest need… to be with that oneness to which we really belong.
So there are many, many different forms of prayer. And before I came in here I was reading a beautiful little book, by Ernest Holmes about prayer. And one thing we have very much in common in these two mystical traditions is to use prayer for healing. It’s something we do in our community before we go into deep prayer, into deep meditation, we pray for those who are in need. I very much believe in the power of prayer. We just go and we ask that those who need healing are healed, and there is a Sufi saying that “if the heart has heard the prayer, God has heard the prayer,” and it is that place of direct connection. We Sufis, we are known as lovers of God, that is in a way our soul purpose, our deepest purpose to be here is to be a lover of God, a place, as the mystical poet William Blake said, “And I am put on earth a little space to learn to bear the beams of love.” And it is really our calling to live that meeting of the Divine in our everyday life, in our prayer.
Now the prayer that I’m going to talk about today, which I call the Prayer of the Heart. It’s also very present in the Christian mystical tradition, in particular in the 16th century mystic St. Teresa of Avila. If any of you get a chance to read, she wrote probably the most detailed manual on mystical prayer. She called it The Prayer of Quiet. It is that tradition of being quiet and to be present with God in quiet, in silence. And this is really the core of the particular mystical prayer to which I am drawn, is just to be in a place of listening. It is called divine receptivity. To be present in our heart and listen to God. To be present in our heart in silence and wait, to have patience, to be a still space for the Beloved. Sadly in our present culture today we are continually bombarded by sounds, by images, streamed into our consciousness whether we know it or not. And for me part of the foundation of spiritual practice, of mystical practice, is to create a space where we can listen, where we can be used, “I do not ask to see, I do not ask to know, I ask only to be used.” And it is this still space of listening I think is a very good way to begin. One listens with the ears, inwardly, what the Sufis call the “ear of the heart.” The heart is an extraordinary organ of consciousness. There is the “eye of the heart” that sees the oneness in everything. “If thine eye be single, then thy whole body shall be full of light.” And there is the “ear of the heart” that hears the still small voice of God, that hears that Divine speaking to us. And in fact Rumi, the Sufi mystical poet, he talks about this when he says,
Make everything in you an ear, each atom of your being, and you will hear at every moment what the Source is whispering to you, just to you and for you, without any need for my words or anyone else’s. You are—we all are—the beloved of the Beloved, and in every moment, in every event of your life, the Beloved is whispering to you, exactly what you need to hear and know. Who can ever explain this miracle? It simply is. Listen and you will discover it every passing moment. Listen and your whole life will become a conversation in thought and act between you and Him, directly, wordlessly, now and always.
This is the inner listening of the heart, the prayer of the heart, which is really, eventually, after years of practice, is a continual dialogue with the Beloved, with God. We are always present with our Beloved, with the Divine in our inner and outer life. We are the beloved of the Beloved. This is one of the core teachings of mysticism. We are loved by God more than we know—infinitely, sweetly, tenderly. Sadly, often in today’s world we are too busy to notice it, we are too busy to live it. That’s why gatherings like this are so precious because they draw us back to this secret, this secret of love, this secret of being with our Beloved in silence and love, whatever else is happening in the outer world. And as I say, eventually it becomes this dialogue of love, this dialogue of lover and Beloved.
Now I started this practice when I was nineteen, and just sat in silence for many years. Being in silence, learning about silence, and then years later I discovered a very similar practice in Christian mysticism, which made me overjoyed because in our world there is so much division, we belong to this or we belong to that, and it seems to be even more constellated at this present time very sadly. And to find that at the root of so many mystical traditions, so many mystical teachings, it is the same; it is the same God, it is the same heart, the human being in their essence are the same, however they may appear on the surface.
To that purpose I wrote this little book, The Prayer of the Heart in Christian and Sufi Mysticism, to show this oneness that belongs to these mystical teachings. And I want to share with you how the Sufi and the Christian teachings—say particularly of the Christian mystic St. Teresa of Avila—are blended together. And I would say at the beginning that St. Teresa, who founded many nunneries, was very practical in her mysticism. She is supposed to have said, “When you are eating cabbage, eat cabbage. When you are praying, pray.” And she talks about the stages of prayer, and I think this is important to understand how to go deeper into prayer, how to go deeper into silence. And here she is, talking about mystical prayer, what she called the Prayer of Quiet. And she said, “The first stage is recollection: to recollect the Beloved, to recollect that Spirit, to make a connection.” One of the great human mysteries—and even after half a century on the mystical path, I don’t begin to understand it—is that we experience being separate from God, being separate from the Source, and yet we can never be separate from the Source. There is only one Spirit indwelling in all of us. There is only one Being of which we are each an expression, each a living embodiment. We each carry a spark of the one divine light in our heart, in our being. But the beginning of the serious practice of prayer is to make a connection with that oneness, with that living presence. And it’s hard work friends, as many of you know. Particularly today when we live in a culture that doesn’t celebrate prayer, that celebrates distractions. As we were shown we had to switch off our cellphones to come in—to remember to turn off the distractions that gobble us up.
And the beginning of prayer is to make this connection back to the Source, to put aside all of the thoughts, all of the feelings. Just as you take off your shoes to enter the presence of God, you put aside all of the distractions of life to enter that still space within yourself, where you can be alone with God. And St. Teresa, being very practical, gave an image of this work and she said it’s like watering a garden. And the first stage is the gardener has to go to the well, pull up the bucket with lots of effort and take it into the garden and water the plants in the garden. It’s a lot of effort. And this first stage of prayer, yes, it is effort, but it’s incredibly worthwhile as many of you know. To make that inner relationship in silence within the heart, of prayer, of being with God, of being with your Beloved, of being with the one who sustains you in more ways than you know.
And the second stage after this is the stage of quiet. You reach a place inside of you where you can be quiet. It seems very simple, but as my Teacher said, “Mystics teach simple things, but those simple things change people’s lives.” To learn to be inwardly quiet. Just to learn to be in a space of inner receptivity, what’s called divine receptivity, which is quiet. And it is there that the real miracle of mystical life begins to take place as you experience the indwelling spirit that moves through you, that comes alive with you. The Sufis have a saying “pregnant with God,” in the manger of your heart, in that still inner space, this miracle of divine birth happens within you. And we each have those moments when it happens to us. I remember the first time it happened to me, and I was just lying in silence, in prayer, in my Teacher’s house, and I suddenly felt like butterfly wings on the edge of my heart. That’s the only way I can describe it. I’d never experienced love like that. And in a few moments every cell of my body was just filled with love. This is the Spirit working within us, in its most mysterious, intimate ways. And it is like, I say it is like that first love, that first touch of the Beloved in your heart, that first moment when you begin to experience the reality of what it means to live in the presence of God—to be touched by that infinite, sweet love that belongs to the heart. And that can only come when you have prepared a space. Sufis are often very erotic in their writings because this lover and Beloved relationship can be very erotic. And it’s as if you have to prepare the bedchamber. You don’t want the Beloved to come in when there’s a mess on the floor, when the clothes are scattered. You create a space of inner quiet, and peace, and tranquility, and eventually it becomes like a refuge—prayer for me is a refuge, it is a place to be with my Beloved.
One of my favorite Sufis, one of the very early Sufis, she was called Rabi’a. She was born into poverty and sold as a slave when she was very young. She had this deep, deep commitment to God. And she used to pray during the night, she would spend her nights in prayer. And one night her owner came and saw this light coming from under her door in the middle of the night, and he thought, what is she doing, using candles? And he opened the door and there she was in prayer and there was the light of the Beloved around her—that divine light was around her. So he released her from slavery and she actually became one of the first Sufis to really speak about this love affair with God. And she wrote poems that she left behind her, a long, long time ago. One of the first great women Sufis. And one of the ones that touched me very much is:
O God, the stars are shining:
All eyes have closed in sleep;
The kings have locked their doors.
Each lover is alone, in secret, with the one he loves.
And I am here too: alone, hidden from all of them—
And it is this quality of mystical prayer. I remember when my children were young—they are now grown up, I have grandchildren—life was very busy, life was very hectic, I was a schoolteacher. Then there would come this blessed moment by eight, eight thirty, the children would fall asleep. My wife usually fell asleep on my daughter’s bed reading to her and I would read to my son in bed, and then he would fall asleep, and there was this extraordinary moment of the day, because my son used to wake up early, like five o’clock in the morning, and he’d be, “Hey Dad, let’s get on with the day.” And I can still remember it, going into bed early, turning my face to the wall and just going inwardly in my heart to be with my Beloved. This place of quiet, this place of presence, this place of prayer.
To me prayer is…yes, many times I have cried out in the night, many times I have asked for help, for understanding, for compassion, to help me in this maze of life. To help me to get closer, to help me because of the mistakes I have made. And those are prayers all of us cry out at some time or another. We are needy, we are frail, we need help. And some people say to me, “But why should I bother God? He is so busy, He has so many more important things to do.” And I say, but He likes to be asked, He likes to be needed. It’s the one thing He doesn’t have, or It doesn’t have, or She doesn’t have—there is no gender there—that one Being has everything, all the power and all the wisdom. What It doesn’t have is human need. What It doesn’t have is despair. What It doesn’t have is longing. And that is our contribution, we cry out to God and in that crying there is a mystical mystery, that we are God’s prayer. Our need is God’s prayer. This is one of the deepest secret qualities of mystical prayer. As Rumi says, “We are intimate beyond belief.” And that companionship is so precious for the mystic, is so… it is what takes us through the days. And as I say, I’ve gotten older, yes I’ve got more time—and one of the things some of you may notice getting older, often one is awake in the night. And it is such an opportunity just to go into the heart and to pray, just to be with that indwelling presence in silence. Now, yes, sometimes I still ask, more often I just want to rest in silence. To be in this space that belongs to God, in a world that for some strange reason seems to have forgotten God. All of us who are drawn to mystical life, this is one of the crosses that we bear—that we live in a culture that really, much of the culture has forgotten God. And it is our calling to remember and to be in a place of remembrance. And for me silent prayer within the heart is a place of remembrance—it’s a place of stillness, it’s a place of being with God, it’s a place of giving oneself to God in silence, in the completeness of silence. Just like in our human lovemaking, we may begin whispering sweet nothings in our beloved’s ear, but when we are taken deeply into the lovemaking, we close our eyes, we go in silence we give ourselves, until that final cry. And this is the second stage of prayer, which is Quiet.
And as the last image I said suggests, it goes to the third stage of prayer which is Union. And this is one of the great mysteries of mystical prayer, the great mysteries of being a human being, is we begin with the sense we are a separate person—we fight our own battles, we stand on our own feet if we’re strong enough. But the mystic finally is taken within the heart into a place of union. “I am He whom I love, He whom I love is me.” We are taken to this place of incredible oneness. We dissolve in love, as Rumi says, “like sugar in water.” And this is common to all mysticism. We spoke about the outer oneness, this is the inner oneness. This is what St. Teresa also talks about and the Sufis talk about—this real mystery of merging into oneness within the heart, that is really our human heritage, we are one with God. We always were, we always will be, because there is only one Being, who in Its extraordinary generosity, wonder… has given us life, has given us this experience of our own individual self which we then give back to God. And we can give it through acts of service in the outer world. We can give it through being a part of a community, like here, that remembers God in song, in music, in prayer. And we can give it just by giving our heart inwardly to our Beloved in silence and then being taken. As all lovers know, you are taken… you are lost in love. This is the final stage of mystical prayer, this union with God. And it’s … sometimes it’s ecstatic, sometimes it’s sweet, sometimes you come out of prayer and you don’t know where you have been. You know you have been somewhere but you don’t know where… And this is the silence of the Beloved that takes us home, takes us into this oneness of love. One can say different ways to describe this, again as the Sufi poet Rumi said, “They are like footprints in the sand that go to the water’s edge.” Once you go into the ocean of oneness, into the ocean of love, there are no words anymore—you are just taken deeper and deeper and deeper into this oneness with your Beloved, you are absorbed more and more completely in love. And then you come out… bewildered, not knowing where you have been, but something in you has changed because you have tasted the truth of your own divine nature. And just by being inwardly silent within yourself.
As I say at the beginning, you have to work—you have to draw the water out of the well, you have to practice stillness, you have to put aside all the thought forms. But then in the final stage of prayer, as St. Teresa says, it just rains. It was like seeing my garden yesterday. You know, after a Summer of irrigating everything—of watering the vegetables as regularly as I could, making sure everything had enough water—suddenly, ah! I don’t have to do anything anymore for the rest of the year. It’s raining! And that is when prayer takes you into itself. That is when you are taken by God to God, you are taken by love to love. And then there is no going back. And the only wonder is, how come people don’t know about it? How come they live, what the Sufis call “outside the veil” not knowing this inner secret that is waiting to be lived in all of us?
So that’s what I wanted to share with you, a little taste of Sufi prayer which is also in the Christian mystical tradition, this prayer of silence, of being an indwelling place of silence for God to come. That begins with listening and putting aside the thought forms, turning off the cellphone. And then being taken into that secret within yourself, which is so infinitely precious and really the greatest wonder of being a human being. Being taken by silence, by love, into to the very depths which is oneness with everything—and then comes this moment you’re one with all the stars and all the sunsets and all the dreams and all the people of the whole world. It is all one, it is all indwelling within you because there is nothing other than God.
And I just want to add something to this. I mentioned at the beginning about the importance of prayer and healing, and I have seen in our community the power of prayer and healing—how people have got unexpectedly better. I can give many, many, many examples. But I sense in our present time there is something else also infinitely precious that needs healing—the Earth. Whether it’s our Mother, whether it’s the creation that gives us life, that gives us air, that gives us water, that gives us food, that gives us children, that gives us this whole miraculous experience. It is being devastated. Our culture is destroying it, abusing it in horrible, horrible ways. And it’s one of the great sadnesses—despite everything I have been given mystically, all of the grace of God I have experienced—I am still often left with this sadness of what we are doing to this beautiful, beautiful planet. Because it’s incredibly beautiful. And those first images from the astronauts in space—this one single, living, blue planet, that is such a mystery, such a wonder, that has been given into our care, and we are destroying it. And so in recent years I have made part of the practice—my practice and the practice I teach—to include the Earth in our prayers. Just as we would pray for a sick friend, for a sick mother, include the Earth in our prayers—in a simple way of placing the Earth as a living being into your spiritual consciousness and offering it to God. This is what the Sufis call the remembrance of the heart: in the heart we remember something to God. Forgetfulness, I always see is so poisonous. If we forget our spiritual nature, if we forget God… And remembrance is so sacred. And prayer is infinitely powerful, we remember It to God; It needs our prayers, It needs divine love. As Joanna Macy said, “To fall in love with the Earth again.” It needs that feeling of love.
So friends I want to take you into prayer for a short while. And first of all in this prayer the body should just be comfortable, the body should just be relaxed. And if you need to, do a few deep breaths to return to that rhythm of your being, just the simple in-and-out-breath that can relax you. And then you have to find within yourself a place of stillness. For the Sufis it is within the heart—because we work with the heart, we work with divine love within the heart, it’s with feeling. But whatever your spiritual practice has been, go to that place inside of you and rest in silence in this indwelling sacred space within yourself, in the temple of your own being. And don’t look for anything outside, just be there in silence. And in a moment you leave everything behind and just go deeper into that silence, deeper into the love, deeper into the experience of the Divine within yourself. But first, just place within yourself, within your heart, the Earth as a living being, as a single living being, which It is. And offer it to God, offer it to the one Being who guides our breath, who guides our days, to that intimate connection that we all have with the Source, with the Beloved, with the One. And just offer it for a moment up to God, and then we go deeper into the silence, into this place of Quiet within ourselves, into the silence of being with God.