“What are you feeling?” As the other participants in the assertiveness training seminar answered the facilitator’s question, I was at a loss as to what to say. When my turn finally came, I said, “I’m feeling a sense of questioning about this seminar.” The teacher responded, “Andrew, questioning is not a feeling. What are you feeling?” Her response stung. I was unable to answer her question. And twenty-five years later, I’m still learning about my emotional life and health.
A decade after that seminar at work, I began a two-year training course for becoming a spiritual director; I was among the first ten students in a course that would eventually become SoulStream. During our two years together, I frequently heard the mentors and fellow students speak about the importance of paying attention to our feelings in spiritual direction and in prayer. I was prodded to go beyond being cognitive and analytical. At times I felt that I was being advised to stop thinking and simply to feel: “respond from your heart, not your head.” This either/or dichotomy discomforted me—not just because it seemed to describe a truncated way of being human, but because I didn’t know how to follow this advice.
Thankfully, the course also introduced me to a phrase by Theophan the Recluse (1815-1894), who suggests a more integrated way of praying. “The principal thing is to stand [or descend] with the mind in the heart before God, and to go on standing before Him unceasingly day and night, until the end of life.”
The image of descending with the mind into the heart prompts me to pursue a kind of praying that is deeper than emotions or intellect, both of which need to be rescued from their respective pitfalls and distortions.
Lately, I’ve been wondering whether desires provide an avenue to prayer that not only integrates head and heart but goes deeper than either. Recently, while preparing to teach about pastoral care, I was delighted to discover Deborah van Deusen Hunsinger’s book Pray Without Ceasing: Revitalizing Pastoral Care. Hunsinger focuses on listening and praying as the primary means by which we offer care that participates in the koinonia—fellowship of reconciliation—that God is creating in the world. In Hunsinger’s chapters on listening, she emphasizes not only listening to people’s (and our own) feelings, but also paying attention to the needs or desires beneath those feelings.
In a previous blog post I identified sad, mad, glad, and scared as the four primary colours of human emotion. Prayer as ‘showing up’ communicates to God our feelings and the feelings of others. But identifying the desires beneath those feelings deepens our prayers. When I realize that I am sad, I could pause and consider, “What losses are prompting my grief? And what do I desire with respect to those losses?” When family members show anger or irritation, I could ask myself, “What injustice is prompting their emotion? And what do they desire that would be just?” When we feel joy, delight, happiness or contentment, we could explore, “What gift have we been given? What desire does that gift fulfill?” When fear or anxiety is your predominant feeling, you could ask, “What threat is facing me? What do I desire in light of that threat?”
I’ve discovered that my prayers deepen when I interrogate my emotions with questions about the causes and desires underlying those feelings. Then I not only ‘show up’ to God with any and all of my emotions, but I also learn to pray my deeper desires to God.
Such prayer was characteristic of Jesus. Christians claim that Jesus Christ is not only our clearest icon of God (Col. 1:15), but also our clearest image of being human (Phil. 2:7). I therefore ask my students to reflect on how Jesus experienced the full range of human emotions. I recall Jesus’ grief at Lazarus’ tomb, Jesus’ anger at people who judged him for healing a disabled man instead of resting on the Sabbath, Jesus’ joy at what his disciples learned on their missions trip, and Jesus’ distress akin to fear at the prospect of being crucified (Joh. 11:35; Mar. 3:5; Luk. 10:21; Luk. 22:41-44). And I notice that in each of these accounts, Jesus’ emotions and desires were bound up with prayer—whether his own or others’.
Of course, God does not fulfill all my desires in this life, and I know that some of my desires are simply not good. Jeff Imbach, in his award-winning book The River Within: Loving God, Living Passionately, recognizes that we experience the crucifixion of many of our desires. Some desires are executed by circumstances beyond our control (the world’s refugees know this too well). Some desires (such as lust and greed) must be killed lest they destroy us and those we love. Some desires fade the slow death of remaining unfulfilled (as when a longed-for career never materializes). Yet resurrection can be present even at the root of crucified desires. The desire for joy can be found sprouting beneath crucified greed. The desire for meaningful work in community can be uncovered beneath the lapsed desire for a particular career. The living God is present in our desires!
I am committed to paying careful attention to my feelings when I pray because, as the Psalmists wrote: “Take delight in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart” and “May [God] give you the desire of your heart and make all your plans succeed” (Psalms 37:4 and 20:4). Attentiveness to our emotions and desires opens a door to discovering God’s desires, so that we can learn to pray according to God’s will (1 Joh. 5:14).
In C.S. Lewis’ words: “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak.”
In my experience, many Christians struggle to understand the place of emotions in their life with God when they pray. While some groups rely on feelings as the key evidence of both spiritual vitality and aridness, others promote a faith that is entirely cognitive and without heart.
For more holistic life and prayer, I recommend the perspectives of Hunsinger and Imbach (in the books named above), as well as a careful reading of Weeds Among the Wheat—Discernment: Where Prayer & Action Meet by Thomas Green. Green draws on the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola (a 16th century Spanish reformer) to help us recognize which emotions are and are not of the Lord, so that we will make godly choices for our life and mission in the world.