Engaging the Heart through the Tongue

"And [I] used to take the opportunity at such times, to fix myself to view the clouds ... And while I viewed, used to spend my time, as it always seemed natural to me, to sing or chant forth my meditations, to speak my thoughts in soliloquies, and speak with a singing voice." Jonathan Edwards, Personal Narrative (c. 1739), from A Jonathan Edwards Reader, p. 285.

A great many ideas fly through our heads all day long: conscious thoughts, impressions or sensations from our surroundings, seemingly random connections between one thing and another, or remembrances of tasks left undone. While all these fleeting thoughts are ours in the sense that they occur within our own brains, only some, perhaps only a few, are the result of our conscious control and deliberate, intentional thought processes. Some are unwelcome distractions, nagging reminders of some unfulfilled duty that is outside our current activity but brought our of our subconscious.

Those who have sought to build the habit of personal prayer will be very familiar with the myriad distractions that enter when one deliberately purposes to seek solitutude, quiet the heart before God, and direct one's thoughts toward Him. As this babble of thoughts is such a constant process in our normal course of life, it naturally intrudes into these times of meditation as well. Often I find that i must assign the first few minutes of such time solely to the task of letting these many thoughts reverberate and then dissipate from my mind, before there is enough quietness to allow my time of prayer to proceed.

Of this continual flow of thoughts and impressions, there are some we wish to take hold of and focus on, to develop further. As we might strain to hear the words of a song that is playing in a room full of noisy conversation, we struggle to separate the desired thought from the constant background noise of our brain's chatter, and to center our attention on it. One helpful way to do this is, exemplified by Jonathan Edwards in the quote above, is to speak such thoughts aloud, converting them from a semi-conscious internal state to an external one. 

One reason this approach is effective is simply that verbalizing them increases their impact on our senses: before they passed through our heads in the quiet of thought, but now they are outside us, in our ears.  But perhaps the key difference is that by speaking them aloud, we use our will to elevate a thought from a passing, transitory occurrence to something we hold on and handle, and turn over in our minds. No longer simply an intellectual curiosity, such verbalized prayer becomes something we commit ourselves to by virtue of pronouncing it. Converting it to audible words gives it a strength and power beyond that of passing thought.

In this way our emotions become, not the initiator, but the partner of our wills, reinforcing and amplifying our intention, using the will to engage the emotion in what we choose to pursue. It's like engaging the transmission of a car, not simply coasting along, now slowed and now accelerated by whatever hills we encounter along the way.