Whole person prayer
Following the publication of Prayer Zone Workout for the Heart, I was invited to speak to students of Spiritual Formation at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, in South Hamilton, Massachusetts. I discussed with them my understanding of prayer as being holistic—involving the mind, spirit, and body. Here, I want to expand this concept of holistic prayer.
Prayer, of course, is a matter of the mind. It is with the mind that we shape our thoughts into words that are either spoken aloud or silently. These thoughts become prayers of praise, thanksgiving, repentance, petition, and intercession.
One area of our mind that we can use in prayer is the imagination. Ignatius of Loyola is widely known for incorporating the imagination in his Spiritual Exercises. Ignatius encourages the pray-er to imagine him- or herself present in the events of the gospels, experiencing the events by recreating sounds and smells, and eliciting feelings and emotions. These journeys, it is suggested, foster a heartfelt desire to know Jesus and to cultivate a deeper encounter and relationship with God. In the exercises of Prayer Zone Workout for the Heart, I encourage you to imagine yourself, with the use of scripture, in God’s throne room. Planting yourself in that room, in the presence of God and of Jesus Christ, heightens the senses and emotions and aids your focus when speaking and listening in prayer. Theologian Richard Foster says that the imagination helps anchor our thoughts and center our attention when we pray. Using our creative minds in this way not only increases our concentration, but facilitates prayers that unite our thoughts, emotions, and senses—stirring our hearts into prayer as well.
This stirring is critical because prayer is also an affair of the spirit—or heart. In my book, I refer to our spiritual heart as distinct from our physical heart. I also understand the spiritual heart to be a combination of our consciousness, thought, and will, as well as our emotions. It is the center of our being. Therefore, we engage more deeply in prayer when our thoughts move from our minds to dwell in our spiritual hearts. From there they form words—rich with meaning and purpose, rather than sterile and spoken by rote—that flow from the depths of our being. One of the first times I realized that I was praying with my spiritual heart, I was overcome with emotion, comprehension, and purpose; I began to cry, for I understood that I had been neglecting my relationship with God and that I needed to change. These reactions represented my praying heart.
The biblical character of Hannah is a good example of someone who prayed using her spiritual heart. The book of Samuel actually says that Hannah was praying in her heart (1 Samuel 1:13)—so fervently that Eli, the priest who was watching her in the temple, thought that Hannah was drunk! But Hannah explained that she had not been pouring wine into her body to drown her sorrows; instead, she had been pouring out her anguish, from the center of her soul, to God.
Although it may not be apparent, prayer is also a concern of the physical body. The most familiar ways in which we use the physical body in prayer are the acts of kneeling, or folding our hands. Other examples include prostrating ourselves before God, or lifting our hands and arms. These postures are physical manifestations of the reverence for God that we also hold in our minds and spiritual hearts. In the Bible, we see David use his body in prayer. David danced in praise to God, much to the disgust of his wife.
Practices such as breath prayer are another way to engage the body. Breath prayer is a short phrase repeated with each breath. Dawn Duncan Harrell explains that the repetitious work of breath prayer can “discipline the frenetic upper layers of the mind to continually return to Jesus, while allowing deeper thoughts and feelings to rise to the surface, be recognized, and be yielded to him.” In this way, prayer involves the physical body through breathing, as well as the mind and our spiritual heart.
Prayer Zone Workout for the Heart stresses the idea that the physical heart should not be neglected in prayer. We use the physical heart in cardiovascular exercise. This exercise requires the movement of our limbs—arms, legs, feet—but they are only peripheral aspects of the body. It is the heart that is central, and engaging it in prayer complements the importance of our spiritual heart; both are at the core of human beings.
My prayer exercises are specifically designed around this insight: the physical and spiritual hearts are complementary in prayer. The structure of a Prayer Zone Workout fits with a cardiovascular or aerobic exercise routine. An aerobic exercise routine usually includes a warm-up, high-intensity exercise, low-intensity exercise, and a period of cool-down. This pattern is mirrored in the exercises I write. Prayer begins with a time of warm-up. We prepare our hearts for more intense activity by coming into the presence of God and focusing on him. Next follows high-intensity prayer when we talk to God, particularly about any anxieties. This type of prayer can be intense and strenuous and can, metaphorically, raise our spiritual heart rate. Our spiritual heart activity matches the increased rate of our physical hearts. Then we transition to low-intensity physical and spiritual activity, which allows the heart to recover. We allow God to work in our spiritual hearts, and we listen to him. Finally, during cool-down, when our physical heart rate returns to normal, our prayers prepare us for leaving God’s presence and going back to our daily activities.
Ultimately, the most significant component of holistic prayer is the eternal. The eternal, we are told in scripture, is part of the human heart. Ecclesiastes 3:11 tell us that God has set eternity in the human heart. Human beings have the capacity for eternal things. In prayer we connect the eternal within ourselves to the eternal that transcends our existence. In Prayer Zone Workout for the Heart, the prayers of our mind, body, and spirit are expressed in relationship with the eternal God, with whom we can communicate because of the eternal presence of his Son, Jesus Christ.