The Art of Contemplative Prayer
Church documents concerning monastic communities have invited them to become schools of prayer. Our current Lenten Series is an effort on the part of our community of contemplative nuns to offer that service to the community which surrounds us, to people who hunger for a deeper spirituality and prayer life. The following is an excerpt from the second presentation in the series.
How can justice be done to this topic in the single hour we share here? We have over 5,500 volumes in our monastery library, most of them concerned with the practice of contemplative life and prayer. As I began to prepare, I said to myself, “What can you be thinking? How can you pretend to even approach this topic when the spiritual giants St. Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross wrote whole books?”
All that can be offered here is what the Italians call a “ferverino”, a little fervent input, a spiritual pep talk, a heartfelt invitation, a word of encouragement, a shot in the arm. While in no way comprehensive, it comes from the experience, however limited, of a fellow traveler, who remains surveying the moat that must be traversed to reach Teresa of Avila’s interior castle.
The word “art” in the title of this presentation was chosen very purposefully.
Painting is an art. You can only teach so much about perspective, anatomy, paint mediums, and brushes versus palette knives. The rest relies on the eye, the hand, the imagination of the painter at work and the artist’s illusive inspiration. In the same way, the practice of medicine is an art. The physician applies on the principles and findings of hard science according to his own knowledge, experience and diagnostic instincts. Therefore, just as you would not say that painting and the practice of medicine are methods, the practice of contemplative prayer is not a method either. It is an art, an art learned over time, an art form unique to the individual, an art in which the Holy Spirit has the upper hand...
Contemplative prayer is not a method. IT IS AN ART. It is a turning toward, an orientation to, a predisposition for being present to the transcendent and all loving OTHER, the Lord our God. It has also been described as a long, loving look at the real in which we make ourselves present and available, assuming interiorly an open, listening and receptive posture. This is not at all a passive posture although it can seem to be wasting time with God.
This place of total presence and availability can been seen as the ‘inner room’ which Jesus directed us to enter when we pray. BUT, how can we find this inner room, what will lead us there, what is the path we should take, the directions to follow? This is another aspect of the art form. What activity, what practice will facilitate my entrance into this room? What will provide the doorway for me to slip through so that I can get to the place of my tryst with God?
This is the only consideration where a question of method may play a part.
You may think that in a monastery it is so easy to make the transition, to calm body mind and emotions so as to enter the inner room, the monastic cell of ones heart. Certainly it is easier here than in your world. Thousands of years of fine tuning monastic practice have yielded a way of life centered on making the room readily accessible. However, we too reside in the world of 2008. We must fulfill obligations, clean house, earn an income, pay bills, be devoted in loving charity to community members, family and friends. But the obstacles we experience, the hurdles we must jump or go around are not as high as those you encounter.
When I get into bed at night it feels so good. But I know that I cannot just turn over and expect to fall asleep. My body doesn’t work that way. I am still too ‘rev’d’ up by the events of the day. Experience has taught me that even fifteen minutes of reading, fifteen minutes in which my muscles can relax, and respiration slow down will mean that when I do turn over sleep will not be far behind. Similarly, in my former life, it took a quiet ride home from work to depressurize. If I came to the monastery to sit in the chapel, or if I went home to pray alone in my room, I couldn’t just jump in. Usually what helped me to approach that inner room was to read an office from the Liturgy of the Hours. In the process of reading the psalms I would come near the threshold and by the time I was done I could put my foot through the door. I was physically, mentally and emotionally ready to just BE in the presence of God, to hold the fixed gaze. When my mind wandered, I caught myself and said the name of Jesus, renewing my intention to move from brain to heart and to be present to him alone.
What might your method be, your transitional path from busy every day demanding life into that inner room to which Jesus invites? It might be the Rosary recited thoughtfully. It might be a time of Lectio Divina, holy reading, of scripture or a spiritual classic. This is a prayerful and meditative way of reading. Many great books on this, especially one by the Trappist monk, Michael Casey. Perhaps it could be CENTERING PRAYER as taught by the Trappists Thomas Keating and the late Basil Pennington. Or the ancient tradition of repeating the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” or “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me a sinner.” Another path that works for me is writing in my journal. I can vent, talk about what I need or the needs of others in the world or list all those things for which I am grateful. Often an entry will end in a prayer. Someone else may find a slow contemplative walk just the ticket. By this I do not mean race walking or meeting the exercise requirement of your latest diet. This is a very deliberate slow paced stroll – a walk in which you do smell the roses and listen to the birds...
What is it like to spend time in the inner room? First of all what happens there is completely out of your hands except to the degree that you are committed to staying. To get technical, this is the place in which we can enter into infused or mystical contemplation. But don’t wait for it to happen. The late medieval classic on contemplative prayer is aptly titled The Cloud of Unknowing. The movement of the soul required here is such a total surrender, such a turning over of the self to God that it is most often experienced as a great darkness, especially for the ego. The ego is like the spoiled child stamping its feet at having been put aside in favor of another. In this case the other is God. Over time this negation of the ego allows a strengthening of the true self, the self that God created, the deepest self where we are most intimately united with God. The false self, the persona of the ego, was created for our protection in a harsh world. But that persona is hard to leave behind even when we clearly see that it is no longer needed. By our contemplative prayer we can over time, without even becoming aware, begin to shed that false self and find ourselves behaving in new ways, ways more true to our inmost, god-created selves. But don’t kid yourself, the ego will not go down without a fight. Yet from the very energy of our resistance new life can be born.
So, if it is a dark and empty place, if the flash of darkness is very rare, if there is a chance that I may never see it at all, why bother? Only love and desire, only your pure intention will keep bringing you back. But slowly, surely, maybe in barely perceptible ways things will change. Merton spoke of finding oneself by losing oneself even as we survey the heart of darkness. After a while friends may say things like, “I see something different in you. You’ve changed. What’s your secret?” Another paradoxical development may be that by spending time at the solitary center in union with God, you become, in turn, through God united with all that is. This is the gradual apprehension of the essential oneness of all creation.
A while back I was stuck in a long line of traffic. The wait gave me time to read each of an odd assortment of bumper stickers plastered to the rear of the car in front of me. One so struck me that I grabbed a pad to write down. It was quote from the writer and Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Han, “We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness."