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by David Berg


THE AWAKENED HEART by Gerald May has taken its place among the select cache of spiritual classics that I turn to for nourishment. If there is such a thing as a manual on how to initiate and progress on the spiritual journey, this is it. After three readings, I've found that it continues to teach me important spiritual lessons. May's thoroughly open, honest and unassuming writing style invites me to respond in kind as I go along with him on a tour of the soul and its relationship to its source. Along the way he invites us to accompany him in his experiences of spiritual longing, struggle, failure and freedom.

I reviewed another book by Gerald May, Addiction and Grace, for The Watershed Journal years ago. The Awakened Heart picks up where that book left off by exploring what happens to us when we ease up on our addictions and discover that the emptiness we were trying to fill is a surprisingly rich territory where we are able to get in touch with the Spirit, the core of life, and its ever present companions, love and grace.

May begins with our desire for love and that which most thwarts this desire: our adult propensity for efficiency. Our problem is that instead of focusing on the "why" of life, our reason for being which is beyond the control of our will, we fixate on the "how" of life which offers us control and the appearance of success. We use our organization, discipline and willpower to become perfectly functional people. Our instincts are not unlike those of HBO's TV mob boss Tony Soprano when he says to his psychiatrist, "I want to be in total absolute control of my whole life." Yet, Tony is not in control, though it sometimes looks like it when he's conducting "business"; neither are we despite all of our best efforts.

An example of how willfulness wove its way into a well-intentioned practice was when I started reading spiritual books in the staff lounge every day for half an hour before work. People whizzed by me, photocopying assignments and frantically attempting to get ready for the onslaught of their students. I sat there calmly and read. It was wonderful. I began to feel the words that I was reading. It was a very evocative place for me to be in the middle of all those busy workers.In fact, it became better than my "official" devotional time. People started to ask me what I was reading and this was a great avenue for conversation about spirituality. Although that was very helpful and brought a relaxed feeling to the day, it didn't last. It began to be a routine that didn't always bring the awareness I was seeking. I started to get anxious when I didn't get as much reading time as I thought I should. And I tried to grasp the calm feeling instead of letting it come and go, as it wanted to. As a result I squeezed it out of my awareness, exactly the opposite of what I intended.

Our best intentions to love go awry when we try too hard. But as May says, "love does not find its fullness in achieving complete nonattachment nor in any other kind of perfection. Love's deepest realization is found in growing, struggling, moving, longing, reaching toward perfection while living life fully as it is in the here and now."

We must let go of our grand expectations of what we can do and what we think we deserve so that we can receive what is actually being offered us in the present moment. May says what we are offered is the freedom to choose love as opposed to the power to control the details of our lives. But our freedom to choose is curtailed by ingrained habits and addictions. We are not always successful in carrying out the choices we make, even when they are oriented towards love. This often leads us into making culturally pre-programmed choices that seem to offer control, because they are based on efficiency, but which in effect dull our consciousness. They avoid our deeper longings.

May says that the real choice is neither in simply feeling our desire nor exerting control but in claiming an intention towards love. "Intention is everything because it is the only way we can truly say yes to love. Desire can only be a wanting to say yes, wistfully arising amid the confusion of countless other impulses and addictions. Control can only try to achieve results; it is immersed in the functional harshness of success and failure. Only in between, in intention, is there freedom for human authenticity."

When we claim our desire for love and intentionally choose to move towards this love, a consciousness within us that is normally dormant begins to awaken. It is a contemplative awareness that we are in the source of love, and that all we need has already been given. Leaning into this awareness and trusting the source is what prayer is all about. "Prayer is the only way we can integrate our intentions with our dependence on grace." Contrary to many people's experiences, including my own, prayer is not about domesticated habits or the contriving of words that might be suitable and acceptable to God and others. It is about being absolutely real and present to the giver of love. It is about saying yes to the gift of love that is given moment by moment. It is about letting our spirits be freed by this love.

May offers various ways of nurturing contemplative awareness. One method is through simply observing ourself, our breath or our own talking. The immediate inclination is to become trapped in self-consciousness. We habitually associate awareness with control. But as we let ourself be, the observations turn into a consciousness that includes self awareness and extends beyond it to include people, sights, sounds and even the presence of God. May makes use of the idea of "the little interior glance" first articulated by Brother Lawrence. The little interior glance is simply a look Godward when we are in the middle of our work-absorbed minds. "It is an attitude of the heart leaning toward the truth of God's presence, or a flash of the mind opening to the remembrance of being in love. It might involve a thought about God here and there during the day, feeling our desire for love now and then, performing small consecrated actions, leaving little reminders for ourselves, or anything else that can help pull us out of our forgetfulness for a moment."

Another suggestion is to spend some time in the morning looking towards the opportunities to be immediately present to love and in the evening reviewing how the day went, looking for times when we were conscious and times we were absent or kidnapped. I have been groggy and instinctual in the morning but I have found that remembering God's presence when I first wake has evoked a graced awareness that has helped me be more spiritually prepared for the day.

A recurring metaphor May uses is stretching and yielding. The idea here is to use both the assertive and receptive approaches, perhaps even uniting the two or at least getting them working together rather than against each other. In stretching towards something we use effort and intention but not willful control. In yielding we accept things the way they are instead of imposing our own ideas onto them. The interplay between the two is what contemplative practice is all about. It is not about willfulness nor is it about passivity.

Heart prayer is another devotional activity. This type of perpetual prayer involves the repetition of a word or phrase that, after much practice, keeps going on no matter what we are doing. By doing this you allow the prayer to pray itself as a symbol of grace working in us constantly.

May's last piece of spiritual advice is perhaps the thread that binds his whole approach together. It involves the nurturance of spiritual presence. I like his multi-disciplinary interpretation of contemplative presence. "Neurologically, contemplative moments are pauses in the automatic activity of conditioned brain-cell patterns. Psychologically, they are transient suspensions of compulsion. Philosophically they are 'naked intuition', the momentary direct perception that happens before we begin to think or react. Spiritually, they are tastes of freedom for love, little encounters with the Spirit, the spaciousness of salvation...There is no way to create contemplative presence; all we can do is nurture our willingness for it."

May offers several very helpful scenarios and practices to prepare ourselves to be open to contemplative presence. However, he always stresses the importance of developing our own practices that lead us to an openness to presence.

The Awakened Heart has offered me multiple approaches into the experience of contemplative presence. It has also given me an understanding of how addiction and habits affect this experience. I am grateful that there are writers such as May who don't promise simplistic answers to spiritual longings and dilemmas. I wholeheartedly recommend this book for your spiritual health!

For a review of Gerald May's Will and Spirit, click here.

See also Gerald May's article Contemplative Spiritual Formation: An Introduction.


May, Gerald. Addiction and Grace. San Francisco: Harper, 1991. 208pages. ISBN 0060655372

__________. The Awakened Heart. San Francisco: Harper, 1993. 272 pages. ISBN 0060654732



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