Scripture very bluntly tells us that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God — and so, my brothers and sisters, I feel that I must begin today’s sermon by confessing one of my own sins.
When I was a little boy — and I am not proud to admit this, but it is the truth — when I was a little boy, maybe four or five years old, I was a thief — and the object of my nefarious activity was the sugar bowl in my mother’s kitchen.
Yes, my cunning little pre-school mind figured out that when no one was looking, I could take a spoon and help myself to a little bit of sugar. I don’t know how many times I committed this act of larceny — maybe just once or twice — but by the grace of God, my budding career as a hardened criminal was short-circuited when my mother confronted me.
Apparently I had not done a very good job at hiding the evidence of my underhanded deeds, and she asked me, point blank, if I had been sneaking some sugar without her permission.
Well, I may have been a thief, but I was not a liar, and so I admitted to the deed. After more than fifty years, I don’t remember the details of my punishment, but I suspect it fit the crime.
But what I do remember was her stern warning — that even if she were not watching me, God was — and God would know if I ever did wrong again.
Alas, to this day I still have more of a sweet tooth than is good for me, and while I opted out of the life of crime, I’m afraid I have found more subtle and nuanced ways to sin over the years. And even though my mother has gone to be with the Lord, her warning remains in force: for, as Saint Paul reminds us in today’s Epistle reading, God does indeed search the heart.
When God Searches The Heart, What Is God Looking For?
Yes, God searches the heart. If you were like me, you may have grown up in a family and church environment that tended to stress how sinful and even how depraved the human condition is. The more we think of ourselves as sinful, the more ominous that statement may seem.
God searches the heart. There is no use hiding our sins, our temptations, our rationalizations, our envy and jealousy and bitterness. God knows it all.
But I believe it is a terrible distortion of the gospel, to jump to the conclusion that God searches our hearts only because God wants an inventory of our sin. In fact, I would be so bold as to say that when God searches our hearts, our sin is the least of God’s worries.
There was a saint of the seventh century who lived in Syria, called Saint Isaac of Ninevah, — yes, the same Ninevah that Jonah called to repentance. Saint Isaac’s sermons are classics of spiritual writing, and still seem relevant and meaningful here in the 21st century. In one of his writings, Saint Isaac makes this bold statement:
As a handful of sand thrown into the great sea, so are the sins of all flesh in comparison with the mind of God. And just as a strongly flowing spring is not obstructed by a handful of dust, so the mercy of the Creator is not stemmed by the vices of His creatures.
Think about that: the love of God is like the ocean, and the sins of all humanity, throughout all of history, is nothing more than a handful of sand by comparison.
Discovering this was an important step in my journey of healing — healing my way of thinking about God. I had to let go of the childish notion that God was like a watchdog, aggressively keeping an eye on me to make sure I did not sin.
Instead, I slowly began to recognize a much more Biblical perspective — that God is a vast ocean of love, endlessly merciful and wanting nothing more than to share Divine love with me, and with the world through me — and indeed, through all of us.
So if God does not search our hearts just to take inventory of our failings, why then does God search our hearts?
I would suggest that God searches our hearts because God wants to love us, and wants us to love God in return — and, of course, to love one another, sharing the love that God freely gives us with each other, in an endless circle of joy.
The Gifts of the Heart
You know, the Bible has a lot to say about the human heart. As it turns out, God is in the habit of giving us gifts in our hearts. Let me share with you three examples of how God has place gifts in our hearts — in every one of our hearts!
In Ecclesiastes 3:11 we read:
God has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart.
Eternity is in our hearts! Other Bible translations render this as “God has put the world in the human heart” or even that God has put timelessness in our hearts.
The Hebrew word here is olam which means “eternity, forever, timelessness, that which has no beginning or no end.” The implication of this word is that the entirety of the space-item continuum, of the cosmos — all of this has been given to us, hidden in our hearts.
If you want to bring it back down to earth, consider the second chapter of Proverbs, which proclaims that “the Lord gives wisdom” and that “wisdom will come into your heart.” Alongside this we can add a passage from Jeremiah (31:33), where God speaks:
I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
God’s law and God’s wisdom: both gifts, given to us in our hearts. Even a small child understands the difference between fair and unfair. When my mother caught me with my hand in the sugar jar, I knew I had done something wrong.
Even though for centuries now human beings have become gifted at complexifying our thoughts about morality and right and wrong, hiding behind clouds of sophistication and rationalization, in our heart we all carry within us the intuitive ability to discern between right and wrong, fair and unfair, and justice and injustice.
Wisdom, meanwhile, is our God-given capacity to sort out even the thorniest of life’s problems. It may take time: it may not happen in a day, or a decade, or a lifetime. But God has given us the ability to discern God’s law and to discover how to apply the demands of love and charity, goodness and generosity, mercy and forgiveness, to every situation — even in today’s complicated world.
I don’t know about you, but to me the idea that my heart carries in it the world of eternity, the seeds of wisdom, and the law of God makes me think that my heart is pretty valuable indeed — although, certainly, that’s true for all of us.
But when we turn to the New Testament, Saint Paul reveals an ever greater gift has been given to us in our hearts.
The Heart’s Greatest Gift
In the fifth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans, Saint Paul says,
Hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
This bears repeating. “Hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
This puts the idea of God searching our heart into context, doesn’t it? Of course God searches our hearts: for God is in our hearts.
The Bible clearly teaches that the body is a temple of the Holy Spirit — which would make your heart the Holy of Holies, the throne of the Holy Spirit.
I just love the idea that God’s love has been poured into our hearts — think of your heart as a chalice, as the cup of salvation, as the Holy Grail. Your heart contains the love of God just as the communion cup contains the wine of the Lord’s Supper.
I’m emphasizing how our hearts contain the gifts of God for a very simple, but important, reason — because the heart is essential to the life of prayer.
The Heart and Prayer
In the fourteenth century, an anonymous English monk wrote a book about prayer called The Cloud of Unknowing. In this book, the author makes this bold statement:
Through God’s grace, our minds can explore, understand, and reflect on creation and even on God’s works but we can’t think our way to God. That’s why I’m willing to abandon everything I know, to love the one thing I cannot think. He can be loved, but not thought. By love, God can be embraced and held, but not by thinking. It is good sometimes to meditate on God’s amazing love as part of illumination and contemplation, but true contemplative work is something entirely different. Even meditating on God’s love must be put down and covered with a cloud of forgetting.
Wow. We cannot think our way to God.
If that became common knowledge in the church today, it would put a lot of theologians out of work. Don’t get me wrong: Jesus instructed us to love God with our whole minds, and that pretty much implies making the effort to cultivate careful knowledge about who God is, what God expects of us, and how we can most truly serve and worship God.
I don’t think even the author of The Cloud of Unknowing wants us to just settle for an uninformed faith. But his bold declaration: that the heart can take us to where the mind never can — is the essence of historical Christian spirituality, and, I believe, the secret to a meaningful and enriching life of prayer in our day.
In today’s Gospel Reading from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus instructs his disciples to pray by going into their “inner room” where they would pray in secret. What I find interesting is that Jesus doesn’t say “and the Father who hears your secret prayers will reward you.” No, he says “and the Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
It’s right there in the original Greek. So the prayer that Jesus commends to us is not a prayer that God hears but a prayer that God sees. In other words, it is not a prayer of the lips, but of the heart.
Granted, Jesus goes on to teach his disciples the Lord’s Prayer. So this is not an either/or situation: we will always pray using our words, our lips, our thoughts. But that’s not the only way to pray.
This notion of the inner room has inspired many ideas over the centuries. Followers of Jesus talk about having a prayer closet, a war room, or even simply thinking of the soul as their “inner room.” What many people in the west don’t know is that, in ancient times, orthodox Christians insisted that the human heart is the inner room of which Jesus speaks.
Therefore, to pray, we must enter our hearts, close the door of whatever distracts us in the external world, and there we pray to God, in such a way that God receives our prayer, not by hearing, but by sight.
Indeed, Eastern Orthodox Christians speak of what they call the “Prayer of the Heart.” The Prayer of the Heart is one of the most ancient ways of Christian praying, with its roots going all the way back to the 3rd and fourth centuries, when monks and nuns in the deserts of Palestine and Egypt gave their entire lives to the pursuit of prayer.
The prayer of the heart began with the name of Jesus. Saint Paul promises us that “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” To the desert fathers and mothers, that made things exquisitely simple: there is no better way to pray than to pray the name of Jesus.
But the desert fathers and mothers were also inspired by the story of Jesus’s temptation in the desert, where he resists the beguiling offers from the devil by quoting scripture in response to each temptation. Following this, a tradition began in the desert of memorizing verses from scripture and using them as the content of regular, ongoing prayer.
Finally, a monk named John Cassian suggested that one verse from the Psalms was the perfect prayer: “O God, come to my assistance; O Lord, make haste to help me.”
In a similar way, the monks who prayed the name of Jesus eventually took several verses from the New Testament, and wove them together to create what they considered the perfect prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me.” This is the Jesus Prayer: the Prayer of the Heart. It was immortalized in a book called The Way of a Pilgrim.
The Heart of Prayer is Making Your Heart a Prayer
What these different approaches to prayer have in common is a recognition that the heart of prayer is the heart. Since God searches our heart, the heart of prayer must be simply making ourselves available to God. Therefore, the words we pray — whether simply the name of Jesus, or a verse or two from Sacred Scripture — are meant to hold the heart like a frame holds a picture.
In other words, the words are not the heart of the prayer, no matter how beautiful or eloquent they might be. Rather, the silent love in our hearts — that is the heart of our prayer.
Almost from the beginning, proponents of the Prayer of the Heart encouraged Christians to repeat the name of Jesus, or to report their chosen verse of scripture, as a way of centering their attention on prayer, so that the mind does not just wander off into a thousand different distracting ideas.
This way of praying became the foundation of The Cloud of Unknowing, which I mentioned earlier, and has been revived in our time through the Centering Prayer movement that has emerged in the last four decades.
Many people will notice the similarity between the Prayer of the Heart, or Centering Prayer, and Roman Catholic practices like the Rosary, or, for that matter, the eastern meditation practice of reciting a mantra in order to meditate.
Repetition is Not a Problem (But Verbosity Is)
Even thought this kind of repetitive praying has been part of Christian spirituality for many centuries now, some Christians wonder if it is an appropriate way to pray, especially given Jesus’s warning not to “heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do” — or, in the older language of the King James Version, to avoid “vain repetition” while praying.
So let’s take a look at what Jesus is saying in the Sermon on the Mount, and see if it can shed light on our desire to pray to God in our time.
In Matthew 6:7, Jesus instructs his followers,
When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.
The Greek word that the King James Bible translates as “vain repetitions” carries the meaning of “babbling” or “stammering.” What it implies is using lots of words to say what could just as easily be communicated in a more succinct manner. If you wanted to use a modern-day idiom, what Jesus is saying here is “don’t beat around the bush” when you pray.
He is not attacking repetition, nor is he criticizing the use of a short word or phrase to allow us to focus our heart on loving God in a way that goes deeper than words.
There is a long tradition in the Bible that commends silence as the essential ingredient in spirituality. “Be still and know that I am God,” says Psalm 46; and the prophet Habakkuk notes that “the Lord is in his holy temple, let all the earth keep silent before him.” Now, of course, Habakkuk was talking about the temple in the Jerusalem — but for followers of Jesus, where is the temple of God?
Well, it’s the human body of course! Remember the question Saint Paul asked the Corinthians: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you?” As I said earlier: If the body is God’s temple, then the human heart is the holy of holies. And God searches our heart, for God has poured his holy spirit into our heart through love.
Since God searches our heart, the heart of prayer must be simply making ourselves available to God. For God is in the temple of our hearts, therefore let us keep silent before him. And we find the silence in our hearts when we pray using few words, and allowing love to be our compass and silence to be our north star.
Saint Paul acknowledges that we do not always even know how to pray. But even then, silence is our ally: for the “Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”
When we do not know how to pray, the Spirit prays through us, and so we participate in the great dance of the Holy Trinity: for by our baptism we are members of the Body of Christ, we have received the Holy Spirit in our hearts, and by that very Spirit our lives become a prayer to God the Father.
A Final Thought
My home town is Decatur, Georgia, and a local artist named James Dean — no relation to the 1950s movie star — has become famous for creating a series of children’s books featuring a character called “PETE THE CAT.” Pete the Cat’s tagline is simple and beautiful: “It’s all good.”
It’s all good!
This is a snappy way of affirming what Saint Paul promises us: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” Yes, indeed, in Christ, it is all good. In our hearts, the home of the Holy Spirit, it’s all good. And so when we pray, even when we have no words, my brothers and sisters, it’s all good! Amen.
N.B. The above homily was delivered on Sunday, June 24, 2018 at the Hoover Auditorium Sunday Worship at the Lakeside Chautauqua, Lakeside, OH. Here are the lessons for this homily: Romans 8:24-30 and Matthew 6:5-8.
Photos (Lakeside Pier, and Hoover Auditorium) by Fran McColman.