“The mind doesn’t see the essence; only the heart sees the essence,” wrote Saint-Exuperéy in The Little Prince.  When we hear the word ‘heart’ we immediately think of the emotion of love.  But in the Scriptures the heart has a much broader meaning than this: it refers to the whole inner life of a person.  It is the opposite of the face, where everything appears.  “Do not keep judging by appearances,” said Jesus, “let your judgement be according to what is right” (John 7:24).

Our faith is an affair of the heart.  This doesn’t mean that it is a private matter.  On the contrary it touches the depth in everyone, and so it is what brings us most profoundly together.  I remember reading two works that were written around 1910, one of them from the head, the other from the heart.  (No need to elaborate further here.)  The one written from the head made great pretensions to being timeless and universal, the other made no such pretensions at all.  But strangely, after a hundred years, the ‘head’ document is utterly dated and obsolete; while the other is as fresh as when it was written.  I suspect that it will still be fresh centuries from now, and perhaps forever.  The heart may seem very local and limited, very private and shy, but it touches the heart of the whole world and all ages.  Our faith goes even further: it tells us our heart can touch the heart of God. 

Contemplation does not mean thinking and turning things over in our minds.  It does not mean remembering and repeating snatches of prayers and poems that lie around in our minds.  It does not mean visualising God or Jesus or the saints.  These are all good and useful practises, and they have their place in the prayer-life of a Christian.  They can be part of the lead-up to contemplation, but contemplation itself is simpler than all of them.  It is silent presence to the God who is “closer to us than we are to ourselves.” 

‘Simple’ does not necessarily mean easy.  We are more at home with a degree of complexity.  Try being completely silent for an hour with one of your friends; you will be aware of a constant urge to break into conversation – which is much more complex than silence.   The silence that is contemplation requires a certain vigilance, an alertness that keeps the wandering mind from running away with us.  We tend to be a little afraid of silence: unwelcome memories tend to flood into the empty space; or we become restless and feel we should be doing something useful instead of sitting here doing nothing.  To persevere with it, we need to believe in its value.  What is its value?  It is the presence of God, so it is beyond price, as God is beyond price. 

When we speak of silence in this context we usually mean silence of the mind.  But there is also need for silence of the heart.  Left to itself, the mind would settle like a dish of water.  But the restlessness of the heart keeps it agitated.  There is a kind of unfocused ‘wanting’ in us: we want something, but we don’t know what we want; we just want to be occupied.  We want to be occupied because we want to avoid the great silence….

Contemplation means going willingly into that silence, because that is where God's silent inspiration can best be heard.  At first it seems like going into an empty room.  We have eyes only for what is missing: we look for the usual aids to distraction – TV, DVDs, magazines…, and a couch for napping.  They are nowhere to be found.  But if we allow ourselves to stay there and become accustomed to it, we begin to appreciate the room itself.  The word ‘room’ means space, so a room that is cluttered with things is less a room!  If we remain faithful to a practice of contemplation we begin to realise a great spaciousness in our own being, echoing the infinite spaciousness of God.  “Deep calls to deep” (Psalm 41). 

Many of the parables recall us to this quiet place.  Just think of the parables of the leaven in the batch (Mt 13; Lk 13), the hidden treasure (Mt 13), the pearl (Mt 13), the sower (Mt 13; Mk 4)….  All of these suggest quietness, hiddenness, interiority.  These are not the qualities of the face; they are the qualities of the heart.  And as Saint-Exuperéy said, “only the heart sees the essence.”

Donagh O'Shea

These are brief articles, one per month,
on a wide variety of topics concerning the living of the Christian life.