The Living and Broken Heart: Prayer as Infinite Desire

If there are depths left in a soul, if a person has not traded himself to win at the superficialities of worldly success, then the castle-keeps within will be invested by deepest suffering.

And when we are squeezed at our core, it is as if we have become all solar plexus and dealt such a blow we can but feel death: "There is a hidden anguish which is inaudible to men."

In the second matins reading for the day, Saint Augustine exegetes Psalm 38, and shows again his profound sensitivity to the pain of the world, thus vindicating God in the only possible theodicy: one that emphasizes the divine empathy.

"[W]hen a man's heart is so taken up with some particular concern that the hurt inside finds vocal expression, one looks for the reason. And one will say to oneself: perhaps this is what causes his anguish, or perhaps such and such has happened to him. But who can be certain of the cause except God, Who hears and sees his anguish? Therefore the psalmist says: 'In the anguish of my heart I groaned aloud.' For if men hear at all, they usually hear only bodily groaning and know nothing of the anguish of the heart from which it issues."

God the Father always hears our sighs and screams. And He answers with His crucified Word.

We need to know this, for otherwise we will be tempted to close our hearts to protect ourselves from the pain of the world. And that means extinguishing the fiery desire of our hearts. This happens in two modes: 1) the parodies of desire in which love is usurped by a desire to dominate, and 2) the common "religious option" of playing everything safe when it comes to intimacy and passionate openness to the world.

Either way, the Father's Word of Love is spurned. If we are to respond to the Father's total love for us, our desire must be infinitized, not deformed or suppressed. 

If the suffering of our hearts is felt by God, it is because Being Itself is Love. And our hearts suffer because they want love above all, and cannot find it.

The correlate of the God on fire with love for us must be a humanity on fire with love for Him and for every neighbor:

"Who then knows the cause of man's groaning? 'All my desire is before You.' No, it is not open before other men, for they cannot understand the heart; 'but before You is all my desire.' If your desire lies open to Him Who is your Father and Who sees in secret, He will answer you."

So begins the conversation, the whispered urgencies of new love, the ladder between heaven and earth, sustaining the world: prayer.

"For the desire of your heart is itself your prayer. And if the desire is constant, so is your prayer. The Apostle Paul had a purpose in saying: 'Pray without ceasing.' ...Whatever else you may be doing, if you but fix your desire on God's Sabbath rest, your prayer will be ceaseless."

Saint Augustine brings this to a point in a magnificent line: "Therefore, if you wish to pray without ceasing, do not cease to desire." 

The only alternative to ever-increasing desire, to the sublimities by which love in its newness continues to be new, is to close one's heart, to grow cold and sink wordlessly from the heaven of desire:

"The constancy of your desire will itself be the ceaseless voice of your prayer. And that voice of your prayer will be silent only when your love ceases. For who are silent? Those of whom it is said: 'Because evil has abounded, the love of many will grow cold.' 

"The chilling of love means that the heart is silent; while burning love is the outcry of the heart. If your love is without ceasing, you are crying out always; if you always cry out, you are always desiring; and if you desire, you are calling to mind your eternal rest in the Lord."

I want to conclude by bringing Saint Augustine into conversation with Rilke on this point, whose first Duino Elegy famously begins:

“Who, if I screamed, would hear me in the angelic/orders? Even should one take me/to his heart suddenly, I would evaporate/in his more powerful existence. For beauty is nothing/but the beginning of terror, which we barely endure,/and we marvel because it calmly disdains/to destroy us. Every angel is terrifying.”

It is hard to be open to beauty. It means being open to the pain of the world. It is terrifying. It destabilizes our personal homeostasis. It costs far more than the world considers "prudent." 

And yet. If we would enter into the conversation that binds heaven and earth, the luminous commerce of prayer, then we must scream out of a heart wounded and bleeding. Thus we will find that an ancient and ever-new Love has always encompassed everything. Then our hearts will bloom in the desert. And desire will make the world light with the lightsomeness of first love. And we will rise.