Purifying Our Hearts

Saint Augustine and his mother, Saint Monica


Effective prayer always requires preparation. Some of the most important preparation required is making sure our hearts are clear of anything that might impede the quality of our prayer.

The Psalms provide us some of the best scriptural advice we can find on how to both prepare for and offer effective prayers. They also have a way of getting to the heart of the matter rather quickly. A good example of this can be found in Psalm 4. This particular Psalm contains a line that can be seen as a very brief but also very appropriate description of the very act of prayer.

Be angry, but sin not; commune with your own hearts on your beds, and be silent. Selah” (Psalm 4:4)

This one verse from the Psalm 4 really does sum up the whole process of prayer in one line. The reader is told to tremble, which in this context, is nothing more than the familiar theme of Fear of the Lord. More on that in a moment.

Next, the reader is told not to sin. Certainly, there is nothing surprising in that direction from scripture. We are told throughout both the Old and the New Testaments about the wages of sin and its potentially catastrophic consequences. We also know that it is inevitable that we will occasionally fall victim to our own human weakness. But we should never be led to despair.

The most significant part from the Psalm above is the second half of the verse, the one that offers a deeper insight into the act of prayer. The author, who was King David, is saying that the essence of true prayer is to be found within the human heart.

What David is saying is that we must enter into and examine our own hearts. In order to do this, the best position we can adopt is to ‘lie on our beds,’ by which he simply means that we are to calm ourselves. And then we must seek to maintain a high degree of silence and stillness. This silence and stillness should be both exterior and interior. We should bring ourselves to a state of full awareness that God is within us, He is always with us. In truth, all prayer is really nothing more than an increasing awareness of God’s presence.

But then, what is it that David is suggesting we meditate on? And why does David begin this line with the word “tremble? Well, as we all know, David had made his own share of mistakes in his life. Despite being specifically chosen by God to lead His people, David not only committed adultery, but also arranged the death of the woman’s (Bathsheba’s) husband, Uriah. Uriah was a man who was a faithful soldier of the King. It would be reasonable to assume that David would have good reason to Fear the Lord’s reaction to all this. (I said we would get back to that). But rather than attempt to gloss over his own failure, David seeks to acknowledge his mistake and allow God to cleanse him.

Psalm 4 offers challenging instruction to look deep within our own hearts and discern whether there is anything within us that may cause us to ‘tremble’ before God. We do not like to be reminded that God’s standard is much more challenging than just not performing sinful acts. Remember, all of David’s problems began, not when he took Bathsheba to his bed, but when he began to desire her in his heart.

“It happened, late one afternoon, when David arose from his couch and was walking upon the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; and the woman was very beautiful.” (2 Samuel 11:2)

The very next scripture verse says, “David inquired about the woman.” And, as we now know that is where all David’s trouble started. A desire lodged itself in David’s heart, and he was already moving down the path to his fall. This was no small matter, but it began innocently enough with the thought of a desire entering David’s heart. This is why David tells everyone who is willing to listen, “Meditate in your heart.” See if there is anything there that might lead to a fall.

Now many would argue that simply holding a desire in our hearts is not much cause for concern, at least not as it relates to our ability to pray effectively. But the Lord’s own words on the matter would seem to take issue with that argument.

“But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:28)

Beyond that, when Christ offered us the most important character traits necessary to make us a Holy People, the Beatitudes, He did not say, “Blessed are the pure in act.” He specifically said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” (Matthew 5:8)

This idea of being accountable for what we hold in our hearts is not a very popular idea these days. Today, there is a far greater acceptance of activities that only a few years ago we would have considered unthinkable. There is no need to identify these activities. We only need to look at our televisions or movie screens to see them or hear them. But, the challenge is whether we are willing to enter into ourselves and ask the Lord to genuinely reveal to us any aspects of our character, or the desires residing deep within our hearts, that He might find unacceptable.

It takes great courage to be willing to pray, “Create in me a clean heart, O God.” (Psalm 51:10)

There is one other word in this line from the Psalm 4 that is worth looking at, and it is the very last word. It is the word, “Selah.” This Hebrew word Selah appears throughout the Psalms. Its precise meaning is mysterious, but it is interpreted as a pause to breathe and reflect on the important words just uttered. It encourages the reader or the singer of the Psalm to stop a moment and allow the lesson that has just been communicated to enter into the heart.

With this in mind, it might be very beneficial to our prayer life if we too adopt this instruction after we pray a particularly powerful prayer, like Psalm 4; or perhaps for a prayer like the one below that was often prayed by St. Augustine of Hippo. The first line in this prayer might be enough to cause us to pause for quite some time. “Let me know myself God and know You.” If our prayer is to be truly beneficial, we need to understand what it might be that God wants to reveal to us about ourselves. This is most especially true as it relates to what we increasingly will come to understand about God and His Holiness, as well as what we know to be His desire that we too be a Holy People.

Here is St. Augustine’s complete prayer.

Lord Jesus, let me know myself and know You,
And desire nothing save only You.
Let me hate myself (this refers to our sinful nature) and love You.
Let me do everything for the sake of You.
Let me humble myself and exalt You.
Let me think of nothing except You.
Let me die to myself and live in You.
Let me accept whatever happens as from You.
Let me banish self and follow You,
And ever desire to follow You.
Let me fly from myself and take refuge in You,
That I may deserve to be defended by You.
Let me fear for myself, let me fear You,
And let me be among those who are chosen by You.
Let me distrust myself and put my trust in You.
Let me be willing to obey for the sake of You.
Let me cling to nothing save only to You,
And let me be poor because of You.
Look upon me, that I may love You.
Call me that I may see You,
And forever enjoy You.

‘Selah’

Amen.

By the way, in case any of us think this was a prayer that just rolled off St. Augustine’s tongue without any problem, we should know the fuller story. After his conversion from his former pagan ideas, St. Augustine continued for some time to live with a woman who was not his wife. He is known to have uttered a prayer some years before writing this one. That prayer went like this: “Lord, make me chaste, but not yet.” It is clear that becoming a Holy People is never an easy task.

God Bless.

Copyright © 2019, Mark Danis


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About the Author

Mark Danis

Mark Danis, OCDS, is co-host of the weekly radio program, Carmelite Conversations, which aired internationally for six years on the Radio Maria network. The program focuses on the method and blessings of contemplative prayer practiced in the in our busy day to day lives. Episodes can be streamed at http://www.carmeliteconversations.com.

Mark's primary ministry is providing teaching and spiritual direction in contemplative prayer and removing the obstacles to prayer. He is grounded primarily in the teachings of the Carmelites, most especially St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross.

Mark is a popular speaker and often gives large-group presentations and retreats on Prayer and Carmelite spirituality. He also writes a weekly reflection on prayer for a large nation-wide prayer community, and he leads a weekly prayer group focused on the Teresian Method of Prayer. Mark's most recent appearance was at the 2018 OCDS Congress where he delivered a powerful message to more than 400 Secular Carmelites.

Mark attended St. Michael’s college in Winooski, Vermont, where he received his undergraduate degree in English Literature. He later received a masters degree in theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut.

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