One of the great spiritual battles/journeys is being able to get beyond and outside our own self. St. Augustine wrote that one of the chief effects of sin is making man curvatus in se (turned in on himself, turned inward). Forgetful of God, we lose our way. Called to look outward and upward, to behold the Lord and His glory, we instead 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 that things depend on us. Yes, we are turned inward and 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 turns us upward and outward. Gradually, our prayer turns more toward God and is less anxious about our own aches and pains. It is enough to give them over to God and trust in His providence. Gradually, we simply prefer to experience the Lord quietly, in increasingly wordless contemplation. As we advance along the ways of prayer, we are drawn by God into a kind of silence during prayer. But that silence is more than the absence of sound; it is a state characterized by us being turned more toward God. An old monastic tale (from I know not where) relates,
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 toward God. A kind of holy silence becomes private prayer’s more common pattern. This does not mean that nothing is happening. Rather it means that the soul has a communion with God that 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 toward God. The gift of silence comes from resting in God, from being less focused on ourselves and more and more focused on God. From the ancient hymn, “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 in order to experience. Be still and know that He is God. An old spiritual says, “Hush … Somebody’s callin’ my name.” Yes, pray for holy silence; pray beyond words and images. These are the beginnings of contemplative prayer.
Another gift that is given to those who experience deeper prayer is a sense of spaciousness, a sense of openness. As the soul is turned less inward and more outward, it makes sense that one would experience a kind of spaciousness. Those who have attained a deeper level of 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 experience the spaciousness and latitude of knowing God. No longer confined by the experience of being turned inward (curvatus in se), the soul has room to breathe. Although many people who begin to experience contemplative prayer are not able to reduce the experience to words, they describe an experience of 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 nearly all who experience it agree that words cannot really express it adequately.
St. Paul writes 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 “unsayable.” 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.”
So here is another gift of deepening prayer to be sought: spaciousness, the openness that comes from being turned outward and upward toward 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’s so wide, you can’t get ’round him. You must come IN, by and through the Lamb.”
Silence and spaciousness: two gifts of the deeper level of prayer we call contemplative prayer, prayer that moves beyond words and images, beyond the self to God Himself.
22 Replies to “Two Gifts of Deeper Prayer: Silence and Spaciousness”
Any advice on how to practice the above?
Devote your life to the process with faith and conviction. Take the sufferings of the world in stride and question the motives of your doubts. Don’t have a preconceived idea of what God looks like, He patiently reveals Himself when you are desparate and blessed enough to catch a glimps of life through His eyes and realize it’s not you.
Isn’t contemplative prayer a gift? It can’t be forced.
Where did I say or even imply forced? Rather, I imagine there are salutary practices that “sweep the threshold” so to speak. I’d be interested in other people’s experience.
Read specifically Chapter X. Abbott Isaac was a 4th century desert father.
Patience. Perseverance. Practice. Journal. Show up. Repeat this process for the rest of your temporal life.
Read great books on prayer. Attend mass. Go to confession. Find a spiritual advisor. Attend a Cursillo retreat.
The aforementioned are just some of the aids that have helped me in my prayer life – which is ever evolving and it’s incredibly hard – to pray daily. I’ve approached the discipline of prayer the same way I approached my training for the first half-marathon I ran: training. Transformation is about training, not trying, as Matthew Kelly said.
JMJ I like to suggest books by Fr. Thomas Dubay, S.M. He’s a Retreat master and spiritual director for religious communities around the country, as well as a highly regarded speaker at conferences and retreats for lay people. He has hosted five different 13 part tv series on the topics of spiirtuality and prayer, and is the author of (best selling) such acclaimed spiritual works as Fire Within, Prayer Primer and Happy Are You Poor. Without Conversion, Perseverence in Prayer (vocal, mental etc.) their is no contemplative prayer. A great book, DEEP CONVERSION DEEP Prayer. it will be almost impossible to grow to grow in the Love of god without a Spiritual Director. ‘Respectfuly with Love, Joseph J. Pippet, N. Cape May, N.J.
A really great guide on how to achieve contemplative prayer can be found in the audio course titiled “Spiritual Theology” that is essentially a class on the subject offered by Dr Brant Pitri (just google it and you will find the link).
It is hard to described spaciousness but if this is what the Holy Spirit is guiding and leading me after my deep prayer in silence, i think this is what you call as total surrender to God by being obedient in following His Words and commandment and leading your life into His divine will in order that you may able to share God’s glory to other human being or to your fellowmen. Now a days we lack courageous men who really testify for God’s goodness. Oftentimes the people who discover God would take HIM to themselves, makes their own interpretation of doing the will of God based on their human will and human reason and not on the divine will of God. And it takes a lot of prayer and perseverance in doing and making your life a total indwelling of His Holy Spirit. It is dying to oneself and letting God’s Spirit totally control your whole being even if you are just a laity in the true Catholic Church.
Scott, This is how my prayer life has evolved. I grew up a Christian, but felt something was missing. I was drawn to the mindfulness meditation practices of Buddhism which I practiced for several years. Again I felt something was missing and was drawn back to my Christian roots. I began studying about Christian contemplative prayer. Since I had already established a mindfulness meditation practice, I was able to convert it to a Christian meditation practice which I have done for several years. I use a mat and meditation bench which puts me in a comfortable position on my knees in which I can sit comfortably. I have a meditation timer which I set for my usual daily time of 30 minutes. I have a small altar with a crucifix and other sacred objects. I start out with my thanks, praise, asking for forgiveness and intercessory prayer. Then I repeat Psalm 46:10 like this: Be still and know that I AM God. Be still and know that I AM. Be still and know. Be still. Be. (And I add “Be with Thee, listening and loving.) And then I just sit. Thoughts pop into my head, but I try not to add on to them and try to let them go as soon as possible. I ask God to forgive my distractions. I feel like all God wants is my attention. And that’s what I try to do. Pay attention to Him. This is the way I have built my relationship with God. It’s very personal. It takes time and perseverance. I pray almost every day like this even when I don’t feel like it or I think I’m too busy. Everyone has to work it out for themselves, but this is my experience.
JMJ Dear Heidi J. I think it’s time you thought about getting off your mat and talked to a Catholic priest about a Spiritual Director. Respectfuly with Love, Joseph J. Pippet
Dear one in Christ Jesus, How glorious to read of your asking regarding the practice, Scott.
What I have to offer is what I have been given. And in the doing of it that which led me. And in the following of the lead is that which delivered/delivers me where it is I am to be.
First and foremost, a gentle reminder?
God created each of us for His delight.
What: Be present to Him Who Is. Seek to be fully present to Him Who Is.
Where: In Silence and in Solitude.
When: Any place (interior/exterior) where we know the silence and solitude of being fully present to Him; many times during each day though in different ways.
Why: To know Him. To love Him. To serve Him in this life that we be with Him beyond this life.
To carry and accomplish that portion He offers to us in this life.
In prayer, God takes us unto Himself to that which we shall do in Him, in Heaven, in the Life Eternal.
He Who is Omniscient knows you Perfectly.
Only He knows where you are right now in this very moment.
All one need do to begin is to show up and to keep showing up and to never stop showing up.
Trust in Him. Surrender unto Him. Ignore all distractions. Any and all “thoughts” which are earthbound keep sending them along like little sheep through the gate. Expect that the more serious you are in the practice the more the prince of this world will seek to keep you from prayer.
Beyond this: Listen. He is ever Present to us. His Providence for us is unfolding in each and every moment. Pay attention to Him!
The CCC section on prayer and its footnotes.
Daily readings/meditations/reflections from Sacred Scripture, The Magisterium and Tradition
If you do not already pray the Divine Office, the website Universalis.com has The Office of Readings. Each day, in addition to the psalmody, the two readings, one from Sacred Scripture and the other a Patristic reading.
Ask people you know who pray to pray for you.
Were it not for being made docile and responding to where He led me, to a holy priest who knew to be simple, as God is Perfectly Simple, to tell me to “Go, pray.” I would not now be living the Contemplative LIfe for which He created me.
Wow. Monsignor. You knocked this one out of the park. What a beautiful reflection.
I have a similar experience to you Heidi. I was a Buddhist for years after having been an unbaptized son of cultural non practicing Catholics. I believed in God, believed that Jesus was God, but I was never catechized and so I dabbled in Buddhism for about a decade after I left home. Something brought me back to Jesus Christ and ultimately to baptism in the Catholic Church, but there was so much good in mindfulness and breath meditation that I never really left that behind, although I now use it in a Christian context. The style of prayer most like that of Buddhist meditation is hands down the Jesus Prayer. That is what I’ve used more than anything else,although sometimes just watching my breathing and body awareness in the silence before our Lord in the tabernacle is enough too.
There’s really no other religious tradition outside Christianity whose techniques are as powerful and compatible with a Christian context than some of the things one sees with Zen meditation, not to mention the mystery of something like the Trinity is akin to a koan.
I understand the attraction to meditation expounded by the Buddhist traditions, and since the 1970s there has been a slow, but obvious turning of the American ethos from the mindset of Western philosophy to that of the East. However, this version of Eastern philosophy, including meditation, has been modified in order to be more appealing to the West. My degree is in Religious Studies and in the 1970s my professor who taught Buddhism and Eastern philosopy, explained that the essence of Buddah’s teaching was not only athiestic, but required the total rejection of the material. To reach the deepest state of meditation and sublime transcendence (Nhrvanna, Nirvanna) is the opposite journey from what the article by Msg.Pope speaks to. Buddha did not speak of looking outward, but rather inward; not about looking upward to God, but turning inward and rejecting all that exists to come to that inner state of non-existence. In fact, Buddhist meditation is Nihilistic and thus the opposite of Spacious. As St John said, if all that Jesus said and did while on Earth were to be written down, there would never be enough books to contain it. I recommend Eucharistic Adoration on a regular basis.
1. The more we reveal ourselves to God, the more He reveals Himself to us.
2. Consider taking a course in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola.
3. Read, “Abandonment to Device Providence” by Jean-Pierre de Caussade.
4. For me, too many distractions at home; I prefer spending time in a small Adoration Chapel.
Also, there are excellent videos on YouTube by Fr. Timothy Gallagher concerning meditation, discernment of spirit, etc., which may be of interest in pursuing a deeper, more meaningful prayer life.
Jesus prayed without ceasing. Jesus and God our Father have a deep and abiding love for each other. And their faith in each other is beyond what we can imagine. But Jesus has invited us to join in with Them. This is beyond incredible. God the sender and God the sendee who between them have created all there is, have invited us to take part in this relationship, and also benefit from the same thing Jesus had access to while He walked this earth. The more you learn about God the more one finds that he will, as I do thank Him almost continuously. I know that 10 billion years from now I will still be thanking Him. Don’t pass over prayer, it is the power of God. And never underestimate their love for us. We were once in the Father, He gave us to his son and they did not lose any. But consider where we are as they pass us one to the other, we are from heart to heart, there is no thing that separates us from Jesus. He called you forth from the womb, thank Him for that, you will be surprised how many places you can get to when all you do is thank God. You know cattle are always looking at the ground, they always looking at their next meal, don’t be like them.
Monsignor, please write more on this topic!
The Only Right prayer is a prayer done through Jesus, with Jesus and In Jesus, nothing less!
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