Anne Howard: Gerald May's The Awakened Heart


A Summer Reading Series (introduced here on June 10) recommendation:

Gerald May's The Awakened Heart (Harper, 1993)

(2nd in a series of Three Top Books on Prayer)

You can't tell this book by its cover. It has a sappy, self-helpy subtitle that belies the book's worth: "Opening Yourself to the Love You Need."

Gerald May's guide to contemplative prayer is anything but sappy. He begins his guide to contemplative practice with William Blake's words "And we are put on earth a little space, that we might learn to bear the beams of love." We are meant to "bear love," says May, to endure it, to carry it, and to bring it forth. Our desire for love is the beginning of our prayer, he says, and the beginning of our "peacemaking, justice-bringing, and healing for our world."

May does make a case for "opening to love" as the subtitle tries to say, acknowledging that despite our desire for love, we do all kinds of things to defend ourselves against "the way of love." It's his knowledge, gained as a physician, a psychiatrist, a teacher of contemplative prayer (at the Shalem Institute) and as a struggling pray-er that gives this book its zest.  He writes with long experience and keen awareness of both human glory and folly, (he is perhaps better known as the author of Will and Spirit andAddiction and Grace) speaking from his own experience that love asks us to become "sharers in grace rather than controllers of achievement."

I come back to this book again and again because I trust his sagacity, his humility, and his honesty, particularly with his own struggle between "efficiency and love." He writes:

"My efficiency mind says the only thing that counts is getting out there and working for a better world. I need to stand up and be counted, tackle injustice and sickness and poverty wherever it exists, stand in the way of war, bend my back to the cause of freedom-and do it quick and do it now and do it well . . . the heart yearns, in simple, silent pleading, for action that does not mimic love but springs forth from it, for efficiency that is not an end in itself but a beginning of love's play, for love to reign over all service." (p. 235)

Each time I return to this little paperback, I am surprised and refreshed by May's insight about human longing for relationship with the divine, and I am encouraged by his practical suggestions for entering into moment-by-moment awareness of that relationship.

His chapter on Practice begins in poetry-"at its best, practice is the active seeking of soul-space and heart-freedom, to ache and to sing, to suffer and to play"-and  ends with a primer on the essentials of prayer. This chapter is, for me, the heart of the book (I've dog-eared  nearly every page) and serves as May's introduction to four ways of "practicing loving presence" named by 16th-century Carmelite friar, Brother Lawrence. In May's hands, the treatment is ever fresh and new-just the thing for summer re-creation of the soul and spirit.


Echoes from the Edge

Summer Reading Series

By Matthew Smith, 2012-13 Beatitudes Fellow - July 29th, 2013

Matt recommends:

Kevin Watson's  A Blueprint for Discipleship: Wesley's General Rules as a Guide for Christian Living  is a highly accessible and practical invitation to recover the method in Methodism.  We use A Blueprint for Discipleship to introduce people in our community to our 21st Century Wesleyan class meetings called Kitchen Tables.  Watson's book begins with two chapters on Grace and then outlines the method that allowed Methodism to flourish in its early years.  The book closes by inviting readers to watch over one another in love by gathering weekly to grow in faith.  

Frank Barrett's  Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz  is a provocative and engaging reflection on leadership.  While not directed to a faith-based audience, we find the insightful lessons Barrett explores between jazz and leadership to be profoundly relevant to our community of faith. We used the book as a framework for an Easter worship series on jazz and the book of Acts. 

Catherine Keller's  On the Mystery: Discerning God in Process  is a thoughtful and beautiful introduction to thinking theologically.  Keller's writing is poetic and precise.  We have used this book to introduce progressive theology to younger people in our community who have been burned and bored by church in the past. 

 Matt Smith is a Pastor at The Table UMC, Sacramento, CA.

Finally, the Poet

Prayer 1

By George Herbert - July 29th, 2013


Prayer the church's banquet, angel's age,

         God's breath in man returning to his birth,

         The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,

The Christian plummet sounding heav'n and earth

Engine against th' Almighty, sinner's tow'r,

         Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,

         The six-days world transposing in an hour,

A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;

Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,

         Exalted manna, gladness of the best,

         Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,

The milky way, the bird of Paradise,

         Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul's blood,

         The land of spices; something understood.


Taken with permission from the blog of The Beatitudes Society.