God be in my head and in my understanding;
God be in my eyes and in my looking:
God be in my mouth and in my speaking;
God be in my heart and in my thinking;
God be at my end and at my departing.
The prayer in which I opened with is one that comes from the Sarum Primer. The word Sarum derives from Sarisburgianum, which is the Latin word for the English city of Salisbury.[i] A Primer is a condensed version of the liturgies of hours, prepared for lay persons. This prayer was one that might be prayed by the common people in and around Salisbury Cathedral in the 13th and 14th centuries. In his edition of compiled prayers from the Sarum Rites, Paul Stratman explains that a characteristic of Sarum prayers is that “they have a certain precision to the choice of words. This precision and clarity are what makes the Sarum prayers meaningful and beautiful.”[ii]
We can all appreciate the beautiful poetry of this prayer—five petitions beginning with the head and ending at our departing—a metaphor for bodily death. You may know that we Brothers will sometimes sing hymn number 694—a musical setting of this prayer—at Compline. Its theme has an overall “contemplative” feel—an invitation for God to permeate the whole of our being, including passing from the temporal into the eternal. I am struck by the word choices: head/understanding, eyes/looking, mouth/speaking, end/departing. These all directly correlate to one another. However, the fourth petition seems to be an anomaly: God be in my heart and in my thinking.
For our modern ears, this sounds strange. But historians record that the ancients believed in what is known today as the “Cardiocentric hypothesis” which was the belief that the heart controlled sensation, thought, and body movement. Modern science has since debunked this hypothesis, but it helps us to understand the thinking of how the heart and mind dichotomy were related in ancient thought. In a paper presented in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology in 2021, Dr. Vincent Figueredo tells us that the ancient Greeks believed there were two souls in the body: psyche—in the brain—was the eternal life soul, and thymos—in the heart—controlled emotions and desires.[iii] In the Homeric poems, thymos is one of a family of terms associated with the internal psychological process of not only emotion, but also thought, volition, and motivation.[iv]
While the heart as the source of thinking is dissonant with modern science, many of us here might not find it strange at all. You might know the saying associated with Rumi: “On this path, let your heart be your guide. For the body is resistant and full of fear.” Or from the 1988 Disney film The Land Before Time, when Littlefoot’s mother advises: “Let your heart guide you…it whispers, so listen closely.”[v] If you resonate with these, you might be known as a ‘heart-thinker,’ which means you make decisions and behave based on how you’re feeling rather than what may be rational. Among the characteristics of heart-thinkers are: you wear your heart on your sleeve; you may ‘overshare’ when having a deep, meaningful conversation; you need a lot of time before making decisions; you get angry when you see dishonesty and injustice; you dream big; and so on. Interestingly, when reading an article on heart-thinking, I recognized that many of these characteristics line up with people who are neurodivergent: those who might have ADHD like myself, or are on the Autism Spectrum.
With this in mind, many spiritual teachers and guides have counseled that we need to be discerning when thinking with the heart. The desert monastics in the third and fourth centuries knew that their retreat into the desert did not rid them of their thoughts of wealth, honor, status, relationships, and comfort. If anything, they were intensified and could be a great barrier to prayer. Benedictine nun, Mary Margaret Funk writes that Abba Anthony (credited with being the first desert monastic) “realized that his thoughts mattered and had to be taken seriously or he could not pray. He began to train himself to notice his thoughts, laying them out, rather than resisting them. This holy father learned to redirect his thoughts; either by rethinking them or by placing a prayer alongside the thought.”[vi]
Fast forward to the Victorian era. In his Lenten opus “Self-Discipline,” Fr. Arthur Hall, an early member of our Society, included a chapter on the Discipline of the Mind. He writes: “Thoughts are the best criterion of our inner-life. What subjects does your mind wonder off to in prayer? What are your first and last thoughts of the day? What do you catch yourself thinking unconsciously? Although we cannot prevent their suggestion, we do have the power of willing or not to dwell upon them. Temptation is not sin. The dwelling, welcome, pleasure in the temptation (which leads to action) is sinful.”[vii] Perhaps this is what St. Paul was struggling with when he confesses: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”[viii]It makes me wonder what was on Paul’s heart that day. What is your experience with heart-thinking? What has manifested in your life as a result? If you are like me, perhaps the outcomes have been a mixed bag—some virtuous and others quite disastrous. You may be familiar with the adage, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
As I have meditated on this Sarum prayer, I’ve come to experience this fourth petition in different light. The other petitions for me seem to have more of an outward direction—God informing our understanding, seeing, speaking, and departing. But, the invitation for God to be in the heart and to inform our thinking has an inward motion. One morning after I had first arrived at the monastery, when I was a postulant, I remember waking up with a sense of dread. There was so much to learn, so much to do, so much to take in, that I felt overwhelmed. I did not have a good sense of self-esteem in those days and I felt like a fraud and a failure. Ever had one of those days? As we were praying Morning Prayer, a verse from Psalm 26 seemed to leap out at me. Verse 8 says: “Lord, I love the house in which you dwell and the place where your glory abides.” At once, I felt a sense of peaceful curiosity. My doubts and anxieties seem to melt away as I contemplated this verse, wondering what God was trying to tell me. My eyes were drawn to the Sanctuary Lamps signifying Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist which we reserve in the Tabernacle in St. John’s Chapel. I was comforted by this knowing that I was in the house of God, singing God’s praise with my new tribe of monastic brothers. But, as I returned to my cell for our morning prayer hour, it dawned on me that the Tabernacle was a sacramental sign of my heart.
As I entered my cell, this saying of the desert monastics entered my consciousness: “Go sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” It was then that I came to see the cell is a symbol of intimacy with God—the wedding chamber where my relationship with God is consummated in prayer. The true cell is the human heart. I realized in that moment with Jesus, that my heart was the place of God’s abiding glory! With that realization of God’s abiding presence in the Tabernacle of my heart, my morning changed from gloomy to one resplendent with the knowledge of God’s life, love, and provision for me. God was praying in me and I had not been aware. In our reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, he says, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”
For me, this petition for “God to be in my heart and in my thinking,” is a prayer for the awareness of God’s glory abiding in me, buoying me up—assuring me that I am beloved by God, and that I belong to God as his child. The founder of our Society, Richard Meux Benson, once wrote: “We cannot have an abiding faith in the Incarnation unless we recognize consequences in our selves proportionate, and nothing can be proportionate to God becoming flesh short of the great mystery of ourselves becoming one with God as His children.”[ix]How are you aware of God’s presence in the cell of your heart? How is God in your thinking? Or rather, how is the Spirit of God praying in you? Your answer, or rather your prayer, is a response to that awareness. It is there that Jesus is waiting to consummate his love for you in the intimate adoration of prayer. I close with Fr. Benson: “The eyes need not to see the power of God, if the heart gazes upon it; and, if the heart gazes upon it, the life cannot but manifest it.”[x] Amen.
[i] Stratman, P. C. (2019). God Be in My Head: Prayers from Old Sarum. Paul C. Stratman.
[vi] Funk, M. M. (2005). Thoughts matter: The practice of the spiritual life. Continuum.
[vii] Hall, A. C. A. (1894). Self-Discipline: Six Addresses. J. Pott.
[viii] Romans 7:15
[ix] Benson, R. M. (1898). The Final Passover. Longmans, Green, and Co.
[x] Benson, R. M. (1935). Instructions on the Religious Life. A. R. Mowbray.
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