The Catholic Thing
A Lenten Meditation Print E-mail
By Robert Louis Wilken   
Friday, 20 March 2009

A traditional prayer recited before Lauds and Vespers in the Church's Divine Office reads: “Open, O Lord, my mouth to bless Your holy name: cleanse my heart from all idle, distorted, and wandering thoughts; enlighten my understanding, set fire to my affections, and grant that I may be able to pray this office worthily, attentively, and with devotion, so that my prayer will be worthy of rising before your divine Majesty. Through Christ our Lord.”

I first learned this prayer in Latin at the Benedictine monastery of St. Anselmo, on the Aventine hill in Rome, and I have said it for years before praying the several offices in the Liturgy of the Hours. In a few brief words it expresses the thoughts that go through one’s mind at the beginning of a time of prayer. Prayer has to do not only with the words we say, but the disposition of the heart. Wandering thoughts and a distracted mind easily turn us away from the business at hand, but it is the heart that holds us to God. Hence the petitions: “cleanse my heart” and “set fire to my affections.” Without love, without a heart fixed on God, prayer is a futile exercise, words vanishing in the air.

The word “heart” appears frequently in the psalms. One day some years ago I began underlining it when I prayed the office. I was astonished at how often “heart” occurs in the psalms. Here are a few examples chosen at random:

“I will give thanks with my whole heart.” (Ps 9)

“My heart shall rejoice in thy salvation.”(Ps 13)

“I keep the Lord always before me. . . . Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices” (Ps 16).

“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer” (Ps 19).

“Thou hast said, ‘Seek ye my face.’ My heart says to thee, “Thy face, Lord, do I seek.” (Ps 17).

“My heart became hot within me” (Ps 39).

“Create in me a clean heart, O God” (Ps 51)

My heart is firmly fixed, O God, my heart is fixed.” (Ps 57)

“Blessed are the men whose strength is in thee, in whose hearts are the highways to Zion” (Ps 84).

“Teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts to wisdom” (Ps 90)

“I incline my heart to perform thy statutes” (Ps 119:112).

The activity of the heart even carries over into our sleep: “In the night my heart instructs me” (Ps 16). So the hymn sung at Compline, Te lucis ante terminum (“To thee before the close of day”), has these verses: :"Te corda nostra somnient, te per soporem sentient” (“Our hearts dream of you, they have you in mind while we sleep”).

The heart is the organ of prayer, even when we are not conscious of what we are doing. Unlike the mind, which is acquisitive, aggressive, and critical, the mark of the heart is receptivity, openness, love. It is a place to be filled, a thing to be ignited. The mind receives on its own terms, always filtering, discriminating, judging, but the heart is patient; it waits, watches, listens, making space for what it is to receive. Recall the line from “Amazing Grace”: “Twas grace that taught my heart to fear.” The heart delights not in its own cleverness, but in the presence of the beloved.

All the great spiritual writers in the Church’s history have known that without a heart ablaze with love for God our spiritual lives languish. For it is the heart that lifts us to God and holds us to God. When the soul is wounded by the piercing shafts of Christ’s love it offers love in return. In the famous passage at the beginning of Augustine’s Confessions, it is the “heart” that is restless till it rests in God. And later in the same book he says it is love that carried him to God. “By God’s gift we are set on fire and carried upwards; we grow hot and ascend. We climb ‘the ascents in our heart’" (Ps 83:6).

The work of prayer is tutoring the heart, a quite different thing from training the mind or disciplining the will. Prayer is an apprenticeship in keeping the great commandment, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart. . . .” It is a work without ending, as necessary to our inner life as the rhythm of breathing to our physical life. And it occupies us for a lifetime and beyond.

Commenting on the psalm verse, “I have hidden your words in my heart” (Ps 119:11), St. Bernard wrote: “Keep God’s word in this way. Let it enter into your very being, let it take possession of your desires and your life. Feed on goodness and your souls will delight in its richness. Remember to earn your bread in this way or your heart will wither away.”

Robert Louis Wilken is William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia. Among his many books are The Christians as the Romans Saw Them and The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God.

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Comments (7)Add Comment
written by William Dennis, March 20, 2009
Ah! My restless heart! How similar our time to that of Augustine's,.declining civilizations and economic woes. Does truth change with cultures or is power truth? In those Manichean times Augustine found it necessary to believe in that One out of time and space who claimed to be Truth This unfathomable beliief can only come through an open heart and not just a rational mind. In all past civilizations, there has never been One like Him.. "Oh God create in me a pure heart," and calm heart .
written by samuel, March 20, 2009
Sure the search for the truth drives a genuine heart and like that of St Augustine it never rests till it rest in the Lord. Where do I go to hide from your face,east west knew me from the foundation of the world,I'll always Love you Lord--thanks for loving me first
written by Bill Daugherty, March 20, 2009
Thank you for this timely reflection and especially for the little prayer before the Office. Distraction and intruding thoughts are my worst enemies during prayer. I think this will help.
written by francisco neira, March 21, 2009
This meditation is very useful, just precisely this week I was wondering that when a tedious feeling against cotidianity arises in your mind, it is a real challenge to pray (in any form), but despite praying the Our Father or any other written prayers with distressful thoughts crashing on you, the truly important thing is the disposition of the heart to "be there" in the presence of God, even if your mind does not acknowledge it or it questions if you are doing the thing right. (I mean praying.)
written by debby, March 23, 2009
I loved your article. I found myself singing Psalms I learned as a child while house cleaning over the weekend, esp the one you referenced Ps.19. Sat Gospel was the Tax Collector & the Pharisee in the temple. I found the Holy Spirit showing me that in my heart I enter all of life as the Pharisee 1st. I need to see my heart AS IT IS & beg for the humility of the Tax collector. On my own: my heart is deceitful above all things, who can know it?
Thank you so much for the beautiful reminder.
written by enlighten my understanding, se, March 24, 2009
please..can i ask for the latin translation of the said prayer: “Open, O Lord, my mouth to bless Your holy name: cleanse my heart from all idle, distorted, and wandering thoughts; enlighten my understanding, set fire to my affections, and grant that I may be able to pray this office worthily, attentively, and with devotion, so that my prayer will be worthy of rising before your divine Majesty. Through Christ our Lord.”


your seminarian,
written by Mr. WAC, March 24, 2009
I think the line to which you refer in "Amazing Grace" is:

'Twas Grace that taught my heart to fear;
And Grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that Grace appear;
The hour I first believed.

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