Cave of the Heart (iv) : PART TWO Introduction


And these words
which I command you today
shall be upon your heart
Deuteronomy VI:6.

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Part Two: M’arat ha-Lev
The time and the place of contemplative prayer


The “World which is to come” is not in the future. It is the moment which is now. The “day” on which “God is One and His Name shall be one” is here if we would only listen.

How can anyone listen to God personally?
How can anyone meet him in prayer?
Nobody can see Him and live.

Any perception we may have of Him comes heavily screened.

As this perception of Him is being formed we decode it according to our communal and personal “preferences”.

We may distort it, even disfigure it in the process.

So “who” or “what” is the contemplative listening to?

In Jewish prayer the name of God is composed of the four letters YH and VH. This name is never pronounced but is read as “Adonai” (Lord). It was pronounced once a year by the High Priest in the Temple of Jerusalem at the most solemn moment of the liturgy on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. With the passage of time it is sometimes stated that the vowel sounds which belonged with those four consonants were simply “forgotten”, presumably as they had been committed only to the memory of the High Priest. I prefer to think it was not an accidental forgetting.

Whether that is true or not, it is significant to me because it makes it an ikon of how indescribable and undefineable God really is. However much we try to philosophise, there is 
always a feeling of utter helplessness in delineating or accurately expressing any concept of God's nature. 

His activities and, for many Jews, His apparent choice not to intervene are often bewildering and sometimes painfully incomprehensible, sometimes to the point of arousing the outrage of His people. It is not only the Holocaust of the last century or the persecutions of previous centuries that have provoked it. Creation is formed of what we call “good and evil” elements. The Jew believes both must have been created by God and as such are part of Him----for everything is. It seems highly appropriate to me that His very Name is a confusing mystery.

His Name, must be the most significant name there is and though it is veiled in mystery many have expressed the idea that it is a word referring to existence itself. Some have described it as a verb rather than a noun, thus hinting at the possible idea that God is (maybe) somehow more of a “How” and a “What” than a “Who”.

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To me, the revelation of the Name from the midst of the burning bush seems to be the most significantly “personal” Divine revelation there is…. and one which is there for us to feel as much as to philosophise about despite the “cloud of unknowing” thrown about any attempt to grasp it cognitively. It is a revelation but its enigmatic form is its beauty.

The kabbalists referred to God as “Ein Sof”…. This term is usually translated as “the Infinite” or “The Endless”. Ultimately we can never understand or grasp even this concept, let alone the Being it attempts to describe….but contemplative prayer is a way of developing our awareness of being in It, part of It and, somehow a crucial receptacle of It.


This awareness can arise in highly charged moments, come and gone as swiftly as the brief appearance of light on a cloud darkened sea. It can also grow imperceptibly at an agonizingly slow and apparently uneventful pace, to emerge like a crystal, revealing something which was actually there all along. Like the breath of a breeze it may come as a once in a lifetime momentary shift in perspective after which our memory of it is our only manna. Or it may not be “felt” at all and only be sensed in its results.

Anyone who approaches God in a contemplative spirit becomes painfully aware of the dynamic tension caused by His distance while simultaneously feeling His somehow personal action ever more deeply in the heart. The Name is, as it were, the embodiment of this dynamic tension…..not on parchment, not on a shiviti, but in a part of our soul which is made pregnant by contemplative awareness. This “space” is the cave of the contemplative par excellence….the m’arat ha-lev, the cave of the heart.

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It is some“where” or some“time” where an encounter with God takes place. If you are reading this it’s very likely that you know it already, but if you don’t I’ll suggest one way of putting yourself in the way of it in a moment.

God is often referred to as Ribono shel Olam, a term usually translated as Lord “of the World”, or “of the Universe”. But “olam” can also refer to time. God is the Master of All Time.

When I first took up residence in my Spanish “cave”, the momentum of my previous existence as a timetable and deadline bound school teacher did not lose impetus. After an initial period of busily “doing” house renovations, composition, nest building etc. to fill my time, it was not long before time started bending, slowing down, and sometimes, to all intents and purposes: stopping.

I enjoyed the shift in the progress of time enormously because, since early childhood, I have never been quite convinced that time was anything but an illusion. Returning to the solitary contemplative life, the moment which was the present became “slower” while the progress of the hours in a day, and of the days of the week, seemed to accelerate.

Being able to wallow in this kind of time transcendence is a precious luxury denied to all save the solitary contemplative. Most readers will have babies to feed, businesses to maintain, agendas to prepare and deadlines to meet.

But I have an unproven theory (unproven save in my personal experience) that once you have experienced even a short moment of such time-transcendence, others follow. Just one really deep period of such an experience can somehow be recalled in the midst of everyday bustle, though it might need a periodic “topping up”. It can not only be recalled, it can sometimes break in.

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God is the Master of All Time.

The God of Israel is most often viewed as “The God of History”. The notions of progressive revelation and developing peoplehood are crucial concepts in Israel's development.   But there are times in prayer and in unexpected moments in a person’s life when the “timelessness” or perhaps the “Eternal Present” of God seems to break through into our perception…. and these moments may confirm our faith in the midst of our “dark nights” and produce action as effectively as does the time-based perception of religious history as progress.

They are to a person’s life as Shabbos is to the other days in a week.

I should mention here that I have written of “moments”. The reader should understand that such moments may last a second, minutes, and even hours when reckoned in chronological time. This will have implications later in the chapter when you see that the method of prayer which I am to outline takes place at a still-point in time which is unmeasurable.

I came across two unusual concepts of Time when I was fifteen which have given me much food for thought ever since. (I am now in my fiftieth year…I am a slow learner.)

The first was anamnesis: making a past event actually present at another time.

The second was kairos: a “special time”, a window of opportunity outside of chronological time in which 
momentous events break into “our world” from the “divine world”.

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I mention them here because they are not much seen in Jewish literature and yet they have provided me with much to reflect on in my current residence in flexi-time. I heard the first in a throw-away line in an argument with an Anglican Vicar and the second whilst cleaning a friend’s garage out with a Methodist Minister…..some readers might not have had my bizarre luck, and they are concepts worth applying in a Jewish context.

Both of these concepts seem very close indeed to reality as perceived inside the m’arat ha-lev. They both suggest that chronological time is there to be used but that we are not limited by it. That the world of God’s immanence can somehow receive some element of His transcendence.

There are hints of a Jewish view of “special time” in the cyclic timescale of the Jewish festivals. Some commentators see it in the Passover Haggadah which asks us to consider ourselves as having been personally brought out of Egypt and even more poignantly in the idea that all Jewish souls (even those yet unborn) were present at the revelation of Sinai….an event which is said to “happen” every day.

And then there is the unique festival of the Sabbath.

The Sabbath is somehow always singular.

Although the Torah readings peculiar to each week, and its occurence every seventh day give Shabbos a cyclic element: once in it, Shabbos has the same eternal “tone” we experience in contemplative prayer. To me Shabbos afternoon always seems a most appropriate time to enter the m’arat ha-lev. It is somehow there already. 

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We are made in the image of God. There are so many interpretations of the implications of that short but profound statement.

Might one of them be that we are more capable than is often thought of entering into or somehow manifesting His timelessness to make it more present in the world?

The “still, small voice” which Elijah heard makes an invitation calling us to do just that.

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