Spiritual Reading 25

25. Loving-Kindness Practice

The human psyche is both individual and collective. This is why we need a personal spirituality with a collective consciousness. The mystical body of Christ is the equivalent of the collective life of humanity. Personal devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the heart of the mystical body of humanity, therefore always includes consciousness of the world and its needs. Our prayers are never for ourselves alone, as we are not selves alone, but for humanity too, as we are both personal and collective beings. Loving-kindness is a practice that makes this connectedness come to life. The Sacred Heart of Jesus is a powerful and palpable symbol of loving-kindness.

The practice of loving-kindness consists of sending/granting love, compassion, joy, and equanimity to ourselves, to those we love, to those toward whom we are indifferent, to those with whom we have difficulties or who are enemies, and finally to all people everywhere. We begin by asking for the four immeasurable graces —love, compassion, joy, equanimity— from the Sacred Heart. We express gratitude as we see ourselves becoming more loving, compassionate, joyful, and acceptant of “fortune’s buffets and rewards with equal thanks,” as Hamlet describes equanimity.

In loving-kindness we ask for the four graces for ourselves first and then for others. The fact that loving-kindness practice begins with a love of oneself reminds us that it is not selfish to love ourselves. Friendliness toward oneself is an appropriate place for love to begin. The Sacred Heart of Jesus shows this clearly: in the exchange of hearts, Jesus offers us his love for himself to us. Meister Eckhart tells us: “In giving us his love, God has given us the Holy Spirit so that we can love him with the love with which he loves himself.” St. Augustine adds: “In the end there will be one Christ loving himself in all his members.” To say we are not lovable to ourselves is to say God is wrong in finding us lovable. It is also a denial of the second great commandment: “to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.”

A spirituality of heart means that we treat ourselves with gentleness and nurturance. Aristotle wrote: “The heart is… the soul’s ability to nourish itself.” Friendliness toward ourselves helps exile the “SS” from one’s life: self-sabotage. We are letting go of hating ourself and of falling prey to our inner critic. Instead of the critical voice that puts us down, Christ now speaks within us in his own “gentle and humble of heart” encouraging words. Meister Eckhart adds: “The heavenly Father is my true father and I am his Son. I am identically his son and no other, because the Father does only one kind of thing, making no distinctions. Thus it is that I am his only begotten Son.” This is a revolutionary re-evaluation of oneself. It is also a mystical realization that we—and all beings— are divinely loving in our core, i.e., have a sacred heart of ineradicable goodness.

Loving-kindness also means friendly love of others in compassionate, caring, and kind ways. Compassion is not to be thought of as a duty. It wants to happen. The heart automatically responds to pain compassionately. We can override this inclination with ego layerings such as control, criticism, envy, attachment to an outcome, vindictive rejoicing in others’ pain, or fear of having to become gentle, generous, or loving toward others or even toward ourselves.

St. Theresa of Avila found a way to feel compassion toward others: “I shape my heart like theirs and theirs like mine.” This is the practice of walking in another’s shoes. We look for ways to understand how others feel and we begin to see the pain or fear that may lurk behind some of their behavior. Then it is easier to respond with love rather than with indifference or hate.

The mystery of redemption is that God joins us in our suffering. Loving-kindness is also our way of joining others in their suffering by acknowledging that the pain we feel here and now is identical to that being felt by others in the world and we join them with compassion and a prayer for mutual healing. When I suffer with a sense of solidarity with others who are suffering in the way I am, I am offering my suffering to help them. This is a form of prayer.

Loving-kindness means beaming love, happiness, and the serene light of Christ’s kingdom to all beings. This can convert the world and all beings to Christ. We are praying not proselytizing since we use the practice silently. Loving-kindness means we never give up on others but always trust that Jesus has a way of loving that wins over, transforms, and opens any person. We join in that way by loving-kindness practices. We cannot be afraid to ask for too much just as Jesus did not fear he might give too much.

The practice of loving-kindness can become a prayer recited each evening by the whole family. It is reminiscent to most of us already of childhood bedside prayers in which we prayed for God’s blessings for each family member near and far. The extension of prayer beyond local limits is not new. Loving-kindness builds on that original traditional style and deepens it.

The practice of mindfulness is an adjunct to loving-kindness since it helps us remain present in the moment. Mindfulness meditation happens as we focus on our breathing in and out rather than entertaining our thoughts and becoming bound by the layers of ego that so ruthlessly seeks to gain control of our minds. We free ourselves of distractions not by being bouncers or critics but simply by returning to an awareness of our breathing. Gradually, we exchange our ego-centered thoughts with here and now presence. Our loving-kindness practice rounds out the transformation by replacing any vindictive plans with kindly ones. Whenever we think ill of someone, we amend a critical thought with a prayer that the person become enlightened and responsive to grace.

Both mindfulness and loving-kindness are originally Buddhist practices that are easily adapted to Christian devotional life. Father Bede Griffiths, O.S.B., reminds us that we need not be afraid to learn from other traditions: “Without Christianity I don’t think oriental religions, Hinduism and Buddhism, can answer the needs of the modern world. But without the enrichment of the mystical traditions of Asia I doubt whether the Western churches can really discover the fullness of Christ which we are seeking.”

Here is a fourfold Sacred Heart devotion of loving-kindness:

  1. Loving-kindness in the Christian view, is simply the practice of extending your prayer life to include others in anything you ask for yourself. Whenever you pray or use affirmations for yourself, extend your prayer or affirmation to include first those you love, then those with whom you have difficulty, then the whole world. For example, if you pray for the grace to face an illness with courage and patience, you extend your prayer to include all friends, enemies, etc., who might be facing the same issue. “I ask for this grace for myself, for those I love, for those to whom I am indifferent, for my enemies, and for all beings everywhere. May we all have courage and patience in the face our illnesses. May we all handle them with equanimity and look for the graces they may have in store for us. May the heart of Jesus beat in every human breast.”
  2. “Pray for those who persecute you” is lived out precisely by the practice of loving-kindness. When someone acts in a hurtful or disrespectful way toward you, send him a blessing instead of a curse. For instance, if someone cuts you off in traffic, you do not swear at him and aggressively lean on your horn. Instead, you pray that he arrives safely and does not harm anyone. This will feel false at first because you may still be caught in road —insulted ego— rage, but gradually it will become easier and soon you will be truly sincere in your wishing others the best. Likewise, when watching the news and seeing a national or world leader you dislike, do not say: “He is stupid” or “evil” but rather “May he become converted to Christ’s way and become a pioneer of peace.” This is converting insult to prayer.

Use this same technique toward those who are kind to you or to those you respect. Show appreciation directly and verbally but then also include a prayer for their spiritual growth and happiness. End your practice by commending the person who disturbed or who has helped you to the Sacred Heart.

  1. You can make a commitment to Christ no longer to engage in retaliation, even in small ways, but to return blessing for hurt. At the same time, you do not let people humiliate you or take advantage of you but you protect yourself and your personal boundaries. You might pray this way: “I protect my heart. Jesus protect my heart.” When someone is mean to you, engage with him nonviolently. Then say silently: “May he find the love in Jesus’ heart and may he let go of hurting others.” This may feel forced at first because you may still be caught in the wish to retaliate, but gradually it will become a feature of who you really are, Christ by grace, and you will be truly genuine in giving your blessing. You will like yourself more and, paradoxically, you will let go of your ego-centeredness more easily. End the practice by commending whoever has hurt you to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.