Guard of Heart
By Bob Mischke
“If you do Centering Prayer and
don’t bring it into active life –
like the active prayer phrase, the Welcoming Prayer,
and Guard of the Heart – you will have trouble.”
Thomas Keating, 2016
Some fifteen years ago, I asked Fr. Thomas to explain the practice of Guard of the Heart to me – more than what I had found in Open Mind, Open Heart and Invitation to Love. Something was drawing me to this practice. Several years later I asked Fr. Thomas if he would go through those explanations again with me and let me record his descriptions so we could perhaps write them up and share them with others. Seventeen revisions and two years later we got it done. I learned that this was how Fr. Thomas worked, with scrupulous attention to every word and comma until his carefully crafted words reflected some nuances of his deep understanding, and as much as possible, the ineffable. He wanted this description of Guard of the Heart to be as helpful to us as possible. I encouraged him to publish it in our Contemplative Outreach newsletter but before that happened, he gracefully joined the Communion of Saints, continuing, I believe, to assist us. So finally, here is Fr. Thomass’ description of Guard of the Heart.
Guard of the Heart:
One practice to bring the effects of contemplative prayer into daily life is traditionally known as “Guard of the Heart.” “Heart” is the deep self or seat of motivation. It refers to our inmost intention. If we want to get to our destination, which is abiding inner peace, we have to keep our intention on course. This consists of letting go of every emotional disturbance as it arises and before we start thinking about it.
When something arises independently of our plans, we spontaneously try to modify it. Our first reaction, however, should be openness to what is actually happening so that if our plans are upset, we are not upset. This method is more sophisticated than dismantling the emotional programs for happiness because it deals with the whole of life. It expresses our ongoing intention to be with God in the present moment and sustains it. Guard of the Heart is based on the sense of interior peace that comes when our human will is united by intention with God’s will.
The fruit of Guard of the Heart is the habitual willingness to modify our plans at a moment’s notice. It disposes us to let go of personal likes and dislikes and to accept painful situations as they arise. Then we can decide what to do with them and whether to modify, correct or improve them. In this way, the ordinary events and ups and downs of daily life become the focus of our practice. Monastic structures are not the path to holiness for lay folks; the routines of daily life are. Contemplative prayer is aimed at transforming daily life with its never-ending round of ordinary activities and to remain in God’s presence no matter what is happening.
Whenever our basic sense of peace is disturbed, we need to reaffirm our intention to be united with God by some simple and appropriate act or acts. Our intention to abide in constant union of our will with God’s will might be compared to a radio beam that used to guide an airplane. If the plane moved off course a signal would warn the pilot to readjust his direction. If the plane veered too much to the right, he would get a signal like “beep, beep, beep.” If the plane went too far to the left, he would get some other sound. If he was on course, he would hear nothing. Our warning signal in Guard of the Heart is the loss of peace, which could be large or small, depending on how far off course we actually have drifted.
The intention of Guard of the Heart is to be in God’s loving Presence both in prayer and action, either working to carry out God’s will, or just loving God in silent attentiveness. The Holy Spirit plans the itinerary. If we remain on course, there is no sound. If we hit a strong headwind that blows us off course, we hear “beep, beep, beep,” announcing the need to refocus our intention.
Never grieve over being off course. Just return to your original direction by renewing your intention, which is a movement of the heart to be with God and surrendered uninterruptedly to God’s will. Once you return to your original intention, the warning noise will stop.
This is a relatively simple but reliable practice. You don’t have to go through steps like listing your possible motives for getting off-course. In heavy weather or turbulence, as for example when you are talking too much or get into an argument or similar straights, you may bounce around a bit. Airline pilots call this turbulence. You will then have to give more attention to your intention because your silent on-course direction has been interrupted. You lost it through nobody’s fault. It was just bad weather.
The following are three ways of keeping yourself on course in everyday affairs. The first is to place disturbing thoughts as soon as they arise into God’s lap, or to give them to God as a gift. The second is to apply your attention to whatever you are actually doing, concentrating on the activity or duty of the moment. Third, if you find you are unoccupied when disturbing thoughts arise, pick up a book or take up some prearranged project. All three methods can help to avoid the commentaries that reinforce interior turmoil.
Jesus in his teaching seems less interested in raising us to highly enlightened states of consciousness than in becoming one with us in our experience of ordinary daily life. To relive the sacred mysteries of his earthly life in each of us is his plan and desire; to share every moment of our lives with him is the practical living out of divine union. His presence manifests in every action, however trivial from our point of view. We are invited by grace to have no movement of body, mind, and heart except from the Spirit, who wills to take us over entirely and inspire all our thoughts, words, and actions.
(Fr. Thomas Keating, 2017)
I have come to love this practice. It is the closest thing in my experience in our Centering Prayer world to what Eckhart Tolle calls “Presence Practice” – staying in the present moment with awareness. The desert fathers called it “watchfulness.”
Fr. Thomas refers to Guard of the Heart as a practice a little more advanced. It’s a beautiful and powerful complement to Centering Prayer which teaches us about the inner room. Then, as he says, we ask Spirit to extend the walls of our inner room to all of our life. The active prayer phrase quiets internal commentary. The Welcoming Prayer releases false-self programs. Then when our hearts are “on course” the “beep, beep, beep” signals us to release inevitable false-self emanations and stay on course. Our heart is our governor, our homing device.
When Rabbi Rami Shapiro asked Fr. Thomas how he was preparing to die, he “cupped his hands and said ‘Every time Thomas comes up, I let Thomas go.'” This is shared from the Divine Indwelling – a poignant description, in my view, of Guard of the Heart practice.
I give thanks to Fr. Thomas for this practice and all the wealth it gives us. I suspect he had me, for one, in mind when he smilingly closed with this comment: “You have to choose the one that helps you most. You don’t have to be serious about this – you can experiment with one or the other.”
“It is not enough to do the practice itself even if this is done twice a day, unless at the same time one carries into daily life the effects of the humility … as time goes on the Divine Therapist extends the walls of our office, so to speak, our inner room, to the whole of life so that everything becomes a process of purification, of healing, and of releasing the unconscious.”
– Thomas Keating, Heartfulness: Transformation in Christ video series
About Bob: My Centering Prayer journey began in 1993 after reading The Cloud of Unknowing in South America while on a spiritual retreat. I had just left my medical practice of ear surgery early to find a deeper form of healing. I looked up Fr. Thomas Keating and his work, and have been involved in Centering Prayer ever since with the Center for Contemplative Living in Denver. I was fortunate to be able to visit with Fr. Thomas regularly all the years he resided at St. Benedict’s Monastery. I currently serve on the Center for Contemplative Living Advisory Council, and present Introductory Workshops, Welcoming Prayer, Guard of the Heart and our 9-month course called Contemplative Living Experience program. I am a member of the Contemplative Outreach Facilitator Training Team and attend annual retreats at St. Benedict’s monastery.