One of the great spiritual battles and journeys is to get beyond, and outside our self. St. Augustine described one of the chief effects of sin was that man was curvatus in se (turned in on himself, i.e. turned inward). Forgetful of God we loose our way. Called to look outward and upward, to behold the Lord and his glory, instead we focus inward and downward, on things that are passing, noisy, troubling, and far less noble. No longer seeing our Father’s face and experiencing joyful confidence, we cower with fear, foolishly thinking things depend on us. Yes, we are turned inward, and I would add, downward. Scripture bids us, If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. (Col 3:1)

One of the graces of deeper prayer, if we persevere through the years, is that the Lord to turn us upward and outward. And, gradually our prayer turns more toward God and is less anxious about our own aches and pains. For now, it is enough to give them to God and trust his providence. Gradually, we simply prefer to experience the Lord quietly, in increasingly wordless contemplation. God draws us to a kind of silence in prayer as we advance along its ways. But that silence is more than an absence of sound, but instead results from us being turned more toward God. An old monastic tale from, I know not where, says:

Sometimes there would be a rush of noisy visitors and the silence of the monastery would be shattered. This would upset the disciples; but not the Abbot, who seemed just as content with the noise as with the silence. To his protesting disciples he said one day, “Silence is not the absence of sound, but the absence of self.”

Yes, as prayer deepens and becomes more contemplative the human person is turned more to God and a kind of holy silence becomes private prayer’s more common pattern. This does not mean nothing is happening, the soul has communion with God, but it is deeper than words or images. It is heart speaking to heart (cor ad cor loquitur). This is a deep communion with God that results from our being turned outward again to God. And the gift of silence comes from resting in God, from being less focused on ourselves, more and more on God: Let all mortal flesh keep silence, and with (holy) fear and trembling stand, ponder nothing earthly minded….. Yes, there is a time for intercessory prayer, but not now. Don’t just do something, stand there. Don’t rush to express, rest to experience. Be still, know that He is God. An old spiritual says, Hush….Somebody’s callin’ my name. Yes, pray for and desire holy silence, praying beyond words and images. Here are the beginnings of contemplative prayer.

Another gift that is given to those who are experiencing deeper prayer is a sense of spaciousness and openness. As the soul is less turned inward and increasingly turned outward, it makes sense that one would experience a kind of spaciousness. Those who have attained to deeper prayer often speak of this. Scripture does as well. Consider some of the following passages:

  1. For the Lord has brought me out to a wide-open place. He rescued me because he was pleased with me. (Ps 18:19)
  2. I called on the LORD in distress: the LORD answered me, and set me in a large place. (Ps 118:5)
  3. The Lord brought me out into a spacious place; he rescued me because he delighted in me. (2 Sam 22:20)
  4. You have not handed me over to the enemy but have set my feet in a spacious place. (Psalm 31:8)
  5. Hear me when I call, O God of my righteousness: you have enlarged me when I was in distress; have mercy on me, and hear my prayer (Ps 4:1)
  6. And I shall walk in a wide place, for I have sought your precepts. (Psalm 119:45)
  7. And he moved from there and dug another well, and they did not quarrel over it. So he called its name Rehoboth (which means latitude or width), saying, “For now the LORD has made room for us, and we shall be fruitful in the land.” (Gen 26:22)

Yes, as we are turned outward and upward to God we soon enough experience the spaciousness, and latitude of knowing God. No longer pressed and confined by the experience of being turned inward (curvatus in se), the soul has room to breathe. Many people who begin to experience contemplative prayer, though not able to reduce the experience to words, express an experience of the the spaciousness of God. But this spaciousness is more than a physical sense of space. It is a sense of openness, of lightness, of freedom from burden and from being pressed down, it is an experience of relief. But again, all who experience it agree, words cannot really express it well.

St. Paul speaks of the unspeakable quality of deep prayer as well, though his experience likely goes beyond what we call contemplative prayer:

I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell. (2 Cor 12:2-4)

Yes, it is “un-sayable,” words fail. St. Augustine was said to remark of the Christian mysteries: If you don’t ask me I know. If you ask me, I don’t know.

But here too is a gift of deepening prayer to be sought: spaciousness, and that openness that comes from being turned outward and upward by God. An old Spiritual says, My God is so high, you can’t get over him, He’s so low, you can’t get under him, he so wide, you can’t get round him. You must come IN, by and through the Lamb.

Two gifts of the deeper prayer we call contemplative prayer, prayer which moves beyond words and images, beyond the self to God Himself.

10 Responses

  1. Nick says:

    Saint Augustine said of time, “If you ask me what it is, I don’t know. If you do not ask, I know.” Or something like that.

  2. Blake Helgoth says:

    Msgr.,

    Thank you for the beautiful post. There is a deep experience of the Spirit in the reading of it. I do, however, think it is necessary to offer a word of caution to readers of the blog. Contemplative prayer is a gift, one that we let ourselves be taken by. It is not something we can procure for ourselves. We should continue in mental prayer, using the intellect by meditating on the great truths of our Faith in order to stir the will to greater and greater love ending in good resolutions, until we are draw to into deeper prayer by our Lord. There are many that speak of contemplative prayer as something we can acomplish on our own and it is certainly not that.

  3. Will says:

    http://catholicism.org/talk-mentalprayer.html

    Mental Prayer?

    Quick excerpt:
    While it is not of strict necessity for salvation — which prayer in general is — the specific exercise of mental prayer is, to quote Adolphe Tanquerey, “the most effective means of assuring one’s salvation.” The same author goes on to state that the more one is involved in any active apostolate – no matter what one’s state in life – the more one is in need of this practice. Sad experience shows the fruits of the active apostolic worker who feeds himself a spiritual starvation diet. Dom Chautard, in his highly-recommended The Soul of the Apostolate, gives a devastating description of such an individual. His arguments, and more importantly, his appeal to experience, show that for the active apostolic worker, mental prayer is virtually indispensable. He is only reaffirming the doctrine of the saints. Saint Alphonsus goes so far as to say that mental prayer is morally necessary for salvation. Saint Theresa of Avila, who seems almost fanatical in her insistence on mental prayer, goes further: “He who neglects mental prayer needs not a devil to carry him to hell, but he brings himself there with his own hands.” Her fellow Carmelite, Saint John of the Cross, said, “Without the aid of mental prayer, the soul cannot triumph over the forces of the demon.”

    About this necessity of mental prayer, I don’t want to cause anyone to become scrupulous or despairing. Saint John Damascene’s classical definition of prayer is “an elevation of the soul to God.” In this most basic form, prayer is necessary for salvation for all who have the use of reason. Because prayer in general — even vocal prayer — requires attention of the mind, we can say that mental prayer, i.e., prayer “of the mind” — is necessary for salvation. But this general sort of mental prayer is not the specific exercise that we are introducing here. Spiritual writers are careful to note that the acts of mental prayer that are necessary for salvation can be performed in spiritual exercises other than the sharply focused one commonly called mental prayer, so we are not speaking of something of the same necessity as Faith or Baptism.

    However, Saint Alphonsus teaches that “It is morally impossible for him who neglects meditation to live without sin.” He even says that over and above the Rosary, the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin, and fasting, mental prayer is more effective because of its incompatibility with sin. The reason for this, he said, is that those in mortal sin can persevere in these other practices, but nobody can continue the practice of mental prayer in the state of mortal sin. He will either repent or quit the practice of mental prayer. These thoughts should not be taken lightly from the Church’s Doctor of Moral theology, especially since he was a very experienced physician of souls.

  4. Mary Ann Erickson says:

    Beautiful post. It spoke to my soul. I just became aware of a new book written by Cardinal Giovanni Lojolo (may not be in English yet) titled: Mary: Silence and Words. He speaks of the silence of Our Lady as: Impenetrable, Transparent and Penetrating.

  5. Anne says:

    Thank you for the marvelous post! When we pray as a family we turn out the lights, kneel by a window with a beautiful view of the night sky and listen for a moment to the wind, or the last bird chirping, or even just the stillness. And then we pray. I imagine the universe expanding in silence, beauty and order and the Father perceiving my family kneeling before Him. His greatness and our smallness. His immense love, and our hands and minds letting go of the trivialities we cling to and raising our open minds and hands to be filled with his love. Is that contemplation?
    I can also find the same experience in one other place…in a silent church before the Blessed Sacrament or at the moment of receiving Holy Communion.
    I have not reached anywhere near the state of the holy monk who could be in a state of contemplation with the daily chaos of life surrounding him…but I certainly will try!

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