Warmth of Heart and Authentic Spiritual Experience in Prayer
This is true life in God! To desire and seek God for the sake of God, and to possess Him and partake of Him in the way and measure that He wishes.
-St Theophan the Recluse, Unseen Warfare
Prayer is a beautiful thing, and a heart that is earnestly seeking God in purity will find Him. In my spiritual journey, I have found that Orthodoxy offers the deepest, most spiritually balanced, and safest way to experience God through prayer. While there are outward “formalities” and we do not encourage the heightened emotional states found in charismatic circles and among some Roman Catholic “contemplatives,” our prayers are far from lifeless.
In fact, St Theophan the Recluse heavily emphasizes praying with feeling and the need to have “warmth of the heart” in prayer. This is a good feeling that overflows from a heart that is open and loving toward God. On our end, we open ourselves to receiving this divine warmth through making an effort to pray and overcoming various difficulties. On His part, God bestows the gifts of warmth and grace at His discretion.
Perhaps our largest obstacle to obtaining warmth of heart in prayer is our lack of attention. I know what it is like to read through a few prayers and realize that outwardly I have made the sign of the cross and bowed at the appropriate times, but I haven’t paid any real attention to what I was reading.
We must brush aside distractions as they come. Do not engage the thoughts that scream “This is urgent!” or “Don’t you remember you were going to do such and such!” or even “Isn’t this a really neat theological idea? You should chew on this for a little while.”
A second obstacle is lack of confession and partaking in the sacraments of the Church. One who has an unclean conscience will find it difficult to enter deeply into communion with God. The Church offers us her mysteries, let us partake of them as frequently as is permissible.
A third great obstacle is praying with both our lips and minds, but putting no heart into it. As St Theophan would probably say, we’re reading the prayer but not feeling it. This is not an encouragement to work ourselves up into a frenzied, emotional state; prayer should be approached in humility and soberness. With that said, I should probably explain warmth of heart a little better.
WHAT IS WARMTH OF THE HEART?
The best way I can think to explain it is to imagine you are writing a love letter to the one your heart cherishes. In a moment of cleverness, you may be able to construct an elegant piece of originality and complexity. But the person who is able to simply write “I love you with all my heart” with heart-felt tears in their eyes is the person who is writing from the heart and not just the mind. It is in that manner that we should strive, with the grace of God, to pray.
If our hearts are cold and unable to bring forth warmth or tears, then we should ask God to soften them. Not every prayer will produce such an elevated state, but a consistent complete lack of warmth is something you should discuss with your spiritual father. It is God’s desire to draw close to us and for us to draw close to Him. As Christ taught us, our Heavenly Father will give generously to those who ask of Him for He is a good Father.
This post was originally much longer as I identified various pitfalls of praying with “feeling.” However, I think that would best be the topic of another post.
For wisdom from a saint regarding prayer, I highly recommend this nine page document, which is a compilation of several of the writings of St Theophan the Recluse on prayer. Bishop Alexander (Mileant) of blessed memory compiled it. As you’ll see, the translation is a bit awkward sometimes, but it is still very understandable and approachable.
For a more in depth approach, see also Unseen Warfare and The Spiritual Life and How to Be Attuned to It, both of which are excellent guides in how to deepen the spiritual and prayer life. They address a multitude of issues that each one of us have in our hearts, whether hidden or evident. These books have been turning points in the lives of people that I know.