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.