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:
- For the Lord has brought me out to a wide-open place. He rescued me because he was pleased with me. (Ps 18:19)
- I called on the LORD in distress: the LORD answered me, and set me in a large place. (Ps 118:5)
- The Lord brought me out into a spacious place; he rescued me because he delighted in me. (2 Sam 22:20)
- You have not handed me over to the enemy but have set my feet in a spacious place. (Psalm 31:8)
- 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)
- And I shall walk in a wide place, for I have sought your precepts. (Psalm 119:45)
- 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.