It has been said that success in contemplative prayer rests on the ability to dwell on the present and stay there, and that nothing helps one more to do this than being aware of the feelings one’s senses do or do not impart. Seemingly it’s another paradox that sensations, a prime distraction, are also the reference points for the “now.” As long as my spirit is glued to this body the route to “now” follows sensibility. This sensibility pertains to the perception of time, place, and various awarenesses of the body.
The ideal contemplative “now” is the momentary lapse of any perception of time, place or bodily awareness. It is the perception of the reality of these reference points and then the cultivated suspension of them that glimpses the “now.”
Why is this holy grail so fascinating? It is because there are no qualifiers on the present as there are on the past and on the future. It just is! In our feeble way ofconceiving it, it is the only temporal reference to You. If we can but touch it momentarily Your time becomes our time and that oneness we seek just “ is.”The consciousness of a human is not Your consciousness – yet it is the only consciousness wepossess. Even at its farthest limits we must concede that any degree of success we have incontemplating Youis purely human. We can never, without Your grace and Your spirit, rise above that. Even then You must work within our limitations.
There is certainly so much more to the concept of the eternal present that we are totally incapable of even beginning to conceive. Yet, with the help of Your grace, our limitations can sometimes be stretched to new heights.
We feel and sense like men, because that’s what we are. We love like men because that’s what we are. You understand this better than we do. It is precisely the feelings and the love of men that You want. Where, beyond this, can we go?And still there is this part of the soul we are vaguely aware of- a transcendental feeling that neither our language, our understanding nor our vision can give body to, but we know it’s there and we know we can only get at it using the tools we have. It is therefore, in this sense, that our human concepts of senses and feelings, of imagination and understanding are, though flawed, the only means by which we can approach the present.
The transcending of these cornerstones of humanity only begins to be approached by heightened experiences of that other part of the soul that is so cluttered and buried that it breathes just barely. The fact that I can write about it says that the flawed senses and feelings of humanity yearn to define it, yearn to clear away all the clutter and let the transcendent feeling sing.
If only I could feel, sense, understand, or imagine it as easily as I do mundane things. If only that other part of the soul dominated, then “now” would be the framework of reality and all else gossamer. But this is angelic, not human. All I can do is use lame words to describe this desire. In the knowledge that the best of words do fail me is the feeling of an indescribable transcendent sense that is the mystery of me and ever lurks.It is there, at the point of this wordless ”now.”
The experiences of Peter, James and John on the mountain at Your transfiguration were, for them, beyond words. The moment transcended anything else they had ever experienced. The rush of emotion left them to say only, “Lord, itis good to be here with You.” In the context of the event, that simple expression is pregnant with meaning. It is also a most descriptive exclamation of our deepest encounters with You in prayer. Evenin this place, in this life, on this earth, it is good to be here when itis with You. It is moving!In fact, as the three apostles demonstrated, it is so moving that theythought they had to dosomething about it like setting up a tent or erecting a shrine. That’s the human side. This is so good, let’s do something about it.
So often we too are at this point and because we shift into this mode of doing something we miss the divine moment of just “being” with You. It is the being with You that is good. Nothing we can do can make it better. You will touch us in Your way. When we try to add to, or adorn, or enhance that moment in our way we diminish it. Yet we always succumb to that temptation. There is always a “but” with us. Lord, it is good to be here with You, but let us build a shrine.
Contemplation depends on the eradication of this urge. If we are ever able to say purely and simply, “Lord, it is good to be here with You,” – and rest in nothing more than that, we will have grasped the foundation of contemplative prayer. This is the heart of it: a losing of self, time, place and the urge to do something in the present momentin order to just be with You. Nothing more!
There is no more important prayer than a prayer of thanksgiving. We cannot add to You with praise, we cannot elicit or coax Your love which is freely and bountifully given to all – but we can show You we are grateful. Among countless blessings and manifestations of Your love for me is the opportunity for time with You at peace, in a quiet place, in Your presence. Just being with You in this way has come to be a great joy in my life. It hints, in a miniscule way, at the rapture of being truly united with You in heaven – and, for this touch of heaven here on earth, Jesus, I thank You.
When the holiday season comes upon us I cannot help but ponder how the fundamental simplicity of Thanksgiving and Christmas have become hopelessly muddled and complicated by popular culture. In this country the one holiday with any vestige of You left in it is Thanksgiving. It is our most religious national holiday. Yet it is dimly so. The mass of our population would, I fear, think of not much more than what they receive out of it: a family gathering, a big meal of turkey and trimmings, a day off from work or school, and football games.
If we really do well always and everywhere to give You thanks, then a day of special national commemoration of this is most apropos. Rich or poor, happy or sad, healthy or ill, the gift of life provides us with the opportunity of seeking You, and for this not so much praise and adoration ( which adds nothing to You) but thanks and gratitude are due – it is all we have. We do well on that national day off to look around the dinner table or look into the faces watching football and feel deeply thankful that, by Your grace and love, we are here now.
More of a travesty is Christmas. Millimeter by millimeter each progressive year pushes You further and further out of the picture. Apparently the goal is to totally eliminate You and allow this to become what ithas inevitably been becoming – a pagan-like day of worshiping the gods of greed and materialism.
For years my ranting and ravings about the holidays have been dismissed as, I think, the mutterings of a fanatic. It eludes me as to how it is so impossible to think of celebrating (and I do meancelebrating)Christmas without the gifts and frenzied shopping, wrapping, and unwrapping. Just once I’d like to try it. But that would be selfish – or, at least I’d be made to think it was selfish.
And Thanksgiving: I will alwaysremember one Thanksgiving when the kids were young and, during the grace before the meal, everyone at the table was asked to utter those things for which they were most grateful. If nothing else it was a communal focusing experience. Yet, in subsequent Thanksgivings nobody ever said, ‘that was good, let’s do it again.’
One of our sons was getting married a couple years back. Because of the upcoming wedding and it’s expenses we sat down as a family and talked about having a different Christmas that year. My suggestion of giving ourselves in some way to others was politely ignored in favor of a gift exchange. My influence in my own family is not much – and that’s good! It is a way for me to diminish myself so that You may increase. Sometimes I think that with You and me it’s not so much that You work through me as it is that You work around me.
I was struck recently at Mass by the words from a preface: “…our praise adds nothing to Your glory. Even the desire to thank You is itself a gift from You…,” to which one is inclined to add:’ for which we thank You.’I’ve thought about it and even written to You before about it. It just seems so outstandingly sensible that the best prayer we can make is one of loving gratitude for Yourself, Your love, Your presence, and all Your gifts and blessings – and even for the gift of the desire to be grateful. No matter the apparent lack of blessings in this life, no matter how sick or wretched an individual is, the greatest good of even that miserable existence is still You, and, difficult though it may be in times of misery, gratitude and love is the best prayer. Indeed, because for such a person it is so difficult, it may be more sincere and perfect than for the ordinary person like myself who is just “cruising” along.
We must use for profit what we have been given – not bury it. If the desire to be grateful is a gift given to us, we must use that gift and constantly thank You. You are the source and the end of all love.It is like a river in which each of us swims or flounders with the current.
I’ve been thinking about the three traditional ends of prayer: petition, thanksgiving and praise. It has never struck me so strongly as it has over the last few weeks, which have been very difficult, that among these, prayers of thanksgiving may be the only ones that need expression.
Prayers of petition, it seems, are more for the benefit of the person praying. It helps to know that You know. You see and understand all our needs and wants and You take care of us with a love born out by the cross.
When we praise You in our prayers we cannot add a bit to Your glory, but we can extol it so that others may see and join us.
Only in prayers of thanksgiving are we able to give something of ourselves to You which You do not expect or demand. Did not only one leper return but You healed them all? The thanks I owe You cannot be humanly measured, but gratitude is truly an expression of love and You do not ask me to beg things of You, nor do You ask that I sing Your praises. What You seek is my love. Thank-You.
Merton has noted that when he’d try to make his faculties act in order to intensify his sense of union with You, all he would experience was a sense of frustration. There seems to be a powerful but elusive tool in just “letting go” and “resting in the Lord.”
The more my “self” enters into my spiritual life, the more muddled it becomes. There is much forgetting, much erasing of the self, much letting go and much resting in You that is needed. These are very hard things to do. None of them can happen even in limited ways without first trusting in Your love. It is hard to forget my many faults and shortcomings. They loom large before me and mock the hypocritewho would aspire to You. But what is needed is to permanently cast them into oblivion and go on.
It is hard to love and trust so implicitly that I simply let go and relinquish all control to You. This chafes at my controlling nature.What is needed is a huge exhaling self-abandonment that loosens the tight grasp of my hands and mind and turns everything overto You.
In these times it is hard to rest in You when life in the world is so grossly restless. But what is needed is the constant image before me of being in Your hands, of confidence in You and Your love – not confidence that peace can, in any way, come from me. There can be no rest in my “self.” Therefore it is imperative that Irest in You. Until I can fullymake these necessary efforts to not strain at such efforts, until the full realization of these truths ( without straining myself to attain them) dawns and grows and is accepted in me, Merton’s frustration will prevail.
The phenomenal power of words to both expand and limit every possible nook and cranny of our lives is overwhelming. It is nearly inconceivable to try to imagine life without words. Even for the deaf or mute there is no escaping words. We speak words, we hear words, we write words, we read words and, most significantly, we think words. The sanctity of the word to the gift of life is immeasurable. Your own covenants, commandments and teachings were and are words. What would we know about You without words? Yet, there is something artificial, makeshift, and lacking about words. It’s as if there’s something beyond words that words cannot convey – something that captures specifically the essences that elude words.
Here I am using words to try and fathom something for which there is no word. The fact that forms of communication can take place without words gives hope. There is body-language, art, music (all of which, except maybe the last, we translate into words). Yet, certain looks, movements, or postures from another send us a wordless message. Beauty in nature or art shows us the poverty of words and communicates a pure indescribable presence. Like music, there is a deep spiritual quality about which, in a sense, there is a similarity to You when contemplated – an indescribable encounter! In fact, it may just be that such things, by extension, point more directly to a level of understanding the spiritual which, without words, comes much closer to You than the much beloved scriptures and/or lectio divina.It touches our center and, in an enlightened sense, describes the goal of centering prayer: to get away from thoughtsformed in words and allow our being to be bathed in a wordless presence, a reality of the now whichcommunicates our own spirit to us.
This is the experience I seek. Snatched moments of pure wordless “now”whereno senses intrude – only being. It is an instantaneous moment of being awash in existence that comes from touching our indescribable source deep within that is not seen, heard, or felt – it just is!To get there, words not only fail but they cloud and obscure. The grace to lift this veil of words comes from You. It is a special gift that I think You reserve for only a few; a few who have transcended a religion of words and seek more mystical forms of union with You. This is for me, at the moment, the Holy Grail of my quest, my journey. Only You know how words fail me.
Both in centering prayer and in quotidian life my object is to create a space for You. Without intentional and concerted efforts to make this space, You are locked out.In The Imitation recently I read, and was taken, by the words, “God only fills empty vessels.” The more one meditates on these words the clearer it becomes that God seeks this emptiness but we are the ones who must make it. But what is the nature of this emptiness, this space?
In centering prayer it is the Herculean task of being totally physically still, in silence, and voiding the mind of everything. This is the toughest part!
My mind is so full of “junk” that it is nigh unto impossible to plug all the leaks in the dam of my thoughts. But the effort to do this, over time, results in occasional snatches of emptiness – and You fill them.
In regards to life itself on a daily basis, this vessel can only be emptied by a detachment from all things. This is not easy since possessions of both major and minor items of life surround us. The trick is to possess them but not allow them to possess you. To make this “space” there must truly be cultivated an indifference to the things of this world. At the same time that is not to say that these things, which are also Your gifts, may not be enjoyed. Thus, it is not easy for us to create this emptiness, this space so that You might fill us.
As our lives go on from year to year, and even from generation to generation, they become more complicated and busy with things that don’t allow us to make space for You. Yet it remains that You cannot dwell where there is no space for You. The contemplative aspect of the spiritual life has much to do with seeking and finding this emptiness so that You might fill it. What also helps to reserve You space is the constant quest to keep You present in the busy-nessof mundane activities.
I just now finished readinga Merton letter in which he says he feels it may be impossible for an American to achieve true simplicity in the depths of his heart. I can understand this expression written over 30 years ago. Today he might expand the geographical boundaries of the statement to the global complexities of life. Yet I shy from using this as an excuse. To the will the power is given to empty one’s self and make You space.
We all want peace. We pray for peace in a troubled world. We wish each other peace. We strive for peace within our family and in our workplace.
Since reading more about centering prayer and trying to practice it, I’ve learned some enlightening things about peace. First of all, it may just be that my mind is my own greatest enemy in experiencing real peace. I wonder how often any of us really stop to consider how unbelievably and constantly active the mind is.It is well-nigh impossible to render one’s mind at total peace and still remain conscious. The mind pumps a non-stop stream of images, ideas, words, recollections, musings and junk through our consciousness. Try to stop it!It’s almost impossible. Yet, to experience something of Your peaceful presencewithin ourselves it is necessary to drain everything perceptible from that reservoirof trivia.
Secondly, peace is already in us. We were born with peace. But somehow the mind warswith ourinherent peace and that human side takes over from our spiritual essence. It usually wins and peace is lost. It then becomes something to strive for “out there”. Yet, really, it’s “in here” all the time, buried in garbage. With your help I can sometimes get beyond most of that – resting in Your peace – but I know It’s not easy working with me.