We have all had the experience of being in conversation with someone who is not attentive, looks over our shoulder, glances at his watch, scrolls up and down on his phone, etc. while we speak. Every one of us also knows what it means to speak with someone who is truly listening and grasps even the unspoken things that we’ve communicated.
Quite often this description matches both interlocutors in our prayer life. Our Lord hears all that we say, knows what’s in our heart – even those things we don’t say to Him, and is wholly attentive to our every movement of the will and mind towards Him or away from Him. We, on the other hand, too often come to Him with mixed intentions, our distractions, our phones. How can we be more like Him in this relationship? How can we be wholly attentive to everything He’s saying and awake to those things He does not say but holds in His Heart?
For sure, we come to Him as we are, in our littleness, with our wounds, brokenness, and need. These present no obstacles to His grace. Indeed, this is precisely what He wants us to bring to Him. It’s the other things we bring to Him that hinder our progress in the spiritual life: our disordered attachments.
St. John of the Cross tells us that it doesn’t take much to keep a bird earthbound. It need not be a heavy chain when a thin thread will do the same job. Our little attachments to created things – and it always begins in the thoughts – keep us tethered to the things of this earth and hinder whatever spiritual progress we would otherwise make. When our hearts are divided, we make it difficult for Him to do what only He can do for us. When referring to disordered attachments, we do not mean sinful things; but rather the disproportionate importance we can give to good and legitimate loves; this could be people, possessions, activities, hobbies, plans, entertainment, news, etc.
Love for Christ is not at odds with our love for creatures. To the contrary, it is the all-encompassing and absolute love that wants to elevate all of our relationships, activities, etc. to participate in a singular love for Him. Yet our problem is always the same: we take what we like and make it an end in itself rather than an offering to Christ. If my brother and I share an interest in oil painting (or fishing, or playing music, etc.) and materially spend the exact same amount of time at it, he can be sanctified through it by offering it consciously to Christ, doing his best at it to God’s glory, making it a prayer.
I, on the other hand, can enjoy it as an activity, think about it in terms of the joy it gives me, look forward to it, throw myself into it, think about it afterwards, yet there is no reference to Our Lord in all of this. In fact, during my prayer times, thoughts of oil painting come to me because of this disordered attachment. Indeed, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us that our distractions in prayer reveal to us the nature of the disorder in our hearts (2729).
Such a divided heart as that will never objectively ascend to God in deep prayer because it has chosen a lesser god. I may get all sorts of consolations in prayer, but they are not necessarily from God. The enemy can produce all sorts of saccharine feelings if it will keep me in the mediocrity of a divided heart.
Our hearts were made to love and be loved. When disorder enters into our love for creatures, proportionately, our love for God cools. These are the threads that keep the soul earthbound and hinder any significant ascent to our divine Spouse. Much like a tiny insect that attacks a plant and saps it of its vigor, these attachments keep our spiritual lives from flourishing and rob from us the freedom to love Him as He wants and deserves.
The Book of Proverbs counsels:
“My son, be attentive to my words; incline your ear to my sayings. Let them not escape from your sight; keep them within your heart. For they are life to him who finds them, and healing to all his flesh. Keep your heart with all vigilance; for from it flow the springs of life” (Proverbs 4:20-23).
Regarding this singularity of heart, St. Thomas Aquinas says:
“Purity is necessary if the mind is to be applied to God, because the human mind is sullied when it is attached to inferior things; just as anything is rendered impure by being mixed with something baser, e. g. silver when mixed with lead. The mind ought to be withdrawn from inferior objects if it is to be united to the supreme object; and therefore the mind that lacks purity cannot be applied to God.”
The desert fathers wrote and taught extensively on this sort of vigilance called nepsis – a watchful sobriety that takes stock of every thought so as not to become apuppet to one’s passions. St. Peter warns us: Be sober (νήψατε-nepsate), be vigilant (γρηγορήσατε-gregoresate, meaning stay awake); because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour. (I Peter 5:8)
This notion of nepsis means to be wholly aware of what is going on in my heart and mind, taking stock of what might seek to compete with my all-encompassing love for Christ in order to dismiss it or, if not objectionable, seeing it through the prism of His Heart, in reference to Him. It requires the attentiveness of a mother who, although busy about doing many things, is awake to whatever sound may come from her baby’s crib. Love requires this attentiveness and vigilance.
The Catechism once again:
“In positive terms, the battle against the possessive and dominating self requires vigilance, sobriety of heart. When Jesus insists on vigilance, he always relates it to himself, to his coming on the last day and every day: today. The bridegroom comes in the middle of the night; the light that must not be extinguished is that of faith: “‘Come,’ my heart says, ‘seek his face!'” (2730).
This seeking the Face of Christ is the most effective way to overcome disordered attachments. It requires us to consciously and habitually attach our hearts to the Heart of Christ. As Logos He is Divine Order and the One who orders all, not least of all our crooked and wayward hearts. Living in the habitual awareness that one is under His loving gaze, the object of His affections, and returning those affections by elevating one’s heart and mind to Him throughout the day is how this is done. More than a method it is a relationship. Rather than something to do, prayer is Someone to encounter, face to Face, albeit in the dark.
When smitten by love, the lover refers everything to his beloved. This is our task. But how to get there? Asking for the grace is a good start.
Here is part of a prayer written by St. Thomas Aquinas:
“Give me, O God, an ever-watchful heart which nothing can ever lure away from You; a noble heart, which no unworthy affection can draw downwards to the earth; an upright heart, which no evil can warp; an unconquerable heart, which no tribulation can crush; a free heart, which no perverted affection can claim for its own. Bestow on me, O God, understanding to know You, diligence to seek You, and wisdom to find You; a life which may please You, and a hope which may embrace You at the last.”
The more we ask for the grace and cooperate with it through interior vigilance the more focused and settled our prayer becomes. Lesser loves make no (or very little) claim on our attention when with Him. In time, our hearts and minds are all His and we experience fewer distractions in prayer. Little by little we become all His.