PRAYER: Heart And Mind (Part One) by Brother David Steindl-Rast

An Approach to Life in Fullness

Heart And Mind (Part One) by Brother David Steindl-Rast

From Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer


Gratefulness is a mindful response, as we have seen.  Our intellect, our will, our feelings are all engaged when we are grateful.  But when we say mindful, someone might still get the impression that we want to stress the mind over against the rest of our person.  It might be less misleading to speak of the heart rather than the mind.  Gratefulness is a full response.  We sense that.  And we sense also that this kind of fullness cannot go together with halfheartedness.  Gratefulness is always wholehearted.  Our whole person is engaged in it.  And this is precisely what the symbol of the heart stands for – the whole person.

When lovers say to one another, I will give you my heart,” they do not mean, “I will give you part of myself.”  Not even the best part will do.  What they want to say is that they are willing to give themselves, all of themselves, their innermost being.  More than that: the heart is not a static symbol.  It is dynamic, alive.  The heart is the pulsating core of our aliveness in more than merely the physical sense.  To say, “I will give you my heart,” is to say, “I will give you my life.”  Gratefulness is full aliveness, and that very aliveness is summed up in the symbol of the heart.  All of my past history, all of my future possibilities, this heartbeat in the present moment holds all of it together.

The key word for speaking of the heart is “together.”  The heart is center of our being where intellect and will and feelings, mind, and body, past and future come together.  When we discover that spot where our life holds together, we discover the heart.  That is why I call the heart the taproot of the whole person.  When we grasp the taproot of a dandelion to be pulled, or of a dogwood tree to be transplanted, we know that we have taken hold of the whole plant.  And there are moments when something touched that very root of our being.  It went to our heart.

We all remember times when something took hold of our heart.  We know from experience that such moments of wholehearted mindfulness are moments of blissful wholeness, of communion, moments when we feel one with all.  What triggers this decision, a blow of fate that hits us hard, a memorable encounter, a long-awaited event.  But more often what stirs us so deeply will be a surprisingly small matter, an everyday occurrence, something done a hundred times before.  There seems to be no reason why at the hundred and first time it should move us so amazingly, but it does.  A mother looks at her baby asleep in the crib every afternoon, yet today the sight floods her whole heart with a gratefulness too deep for words.  Or you drive a stretch of highway you pass twice a day, yet this time the hum of the car, the red and white flags at the used car lot, the very ordinariness of the moment seizes your heart with extraordinary power.

It is almost impossible to capture such high points of aliveness in words.  But words can point to them and stir up memories.  What one remembers most about these moments of the heart is a deep, all-pervading, overflowing sense of gratefulness.  This gratefulness is not the same as thanksgiving.  It gives rise to thanksgiving, but it lies deeper.  Even before it bursts forth into thanks to God or to life, the experience deserves the name gratefulness because it is one’s full response to a gratuitously given moment.  When those two come together, gratuitousness and fullness, one is suddenly together.  One is responding from the heart, from that center where all is together.

Remembering such moments of the heart, we can easily see that “together” is a word that fits.  The experience pulls us together at a deep level.  But remembering the experience will in turn help us realize that the word “together” means here a great deal more than we might have suspected.  We are together with ourselves at our heart of hearts in a full and deep sense, but so fully and so deeply that this also means being together with everyone else.

When we reach our innermost heart, we reach a realm where we are not only intimately at home with ourselves, but intimately united with others, all others.  The heart is not a lonely place.  It is the realm where solitude and togetherness coincide.  Our own experience proves this, does it not?  Can one ever say, “Now I am truly together with myself, yet I remain alienated from others”?  Or could one say, “I am truly together with others, or even just with one other person I love, yet I remain alienated from myself”?  Unthinkable!  The moment we are one with ourselves, we are one with all others.  We have overcome alienation.  And the heart stands for that core of being where, long before alienation, primordial togetherness held sway.

Those are the two poles of our most basic choice: alienation and togetherness, synonyms for sin and salvation.  “Sin” is a word that has lost much of its usefulness today.  Too many people just do not understand that term anymore.  And what is the point of using a language that is more likely than not to be misunderstood?  But when I say “alienation” everyone knows what I mean.  The term suggests to our experience today something that is practically identical with what one used to call “sin” in the past.  Togetherness, on the other hand, is what our whole being longs for.  An older vocabulary called it “salvation.”  “Salvation” used to have that sense of an all-embracing wholeness which the word “together” suggests to us.  In our innermost heart we know that wholeness is more basic, more primordial than alienation, and so we never quite lose an inborn trust that in the end we shall be whole and together.

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