In my last blog I tried to distinguish between true contemplative prayer and its counterfeit, but now I want to show how authentic contemplative prayer begins, by describing the prayer that usually precedes it. But before proceeding let me make two important points. Firstly I want to make it clear that contemplation is a pure gift of God. In short it cannot be attained by man-made methods or techniques that promise instant states of transcendental awareness. The whole of the authentic Christian tradition is unanimous about this truth. Secondly that God gives it to those who have proved that they are ready to receive it by the serious way they have persevered in what has been described as ‘ordinary prayer’ for many years. When it begins, the receiver is usually unaware of it for reasons that I will explain. Here is a typical example of the sort of letter or email that I receive from people to whom God is beginning to introduce into mystical contemplation.
“Something terrible has happened and I don’t know how to tell you about it. Until last September, everything was going according to plan. I really felt that I was getting somewhere at last in the spiritual life. Prayer had become easy to me after those early difficulties that you helped me through. A few words from my favorite Scripture texts were enough to engage my whole being throughout prayer time, filling me with an exhilarating sense of God’s presence and love.
“My newfound spiritual energies spilled over into my work and especially into the prayer groups that I attend. Then, unexpectedly, sometime in September, I seemed to be holed and my spiritual resources drained away. Almost overnight I found myself out in the cold, banished without rhyme or reason from the warm hearth that I was beginning to believe was my spiritual birthright. At first I thought it was merely some temporary setback and I would return once more to the cosy fireside. But as the months passed by, the cold was clothed with an ever-deepening darkness and I was assailed by hordes of marauding distractions that cut and thrust at my mind from within.
“In spite of all this I have kept up the daily time that you had insisted I should give to prayer, though my heart was not in it. I must admit, quite frankly, that in recent weeks I have been finding excuse after excuse to escape from the prayer that was once my heaven but is now my hell. I still lead the prayer groups, but I, who was once their mainspring and inspiration, feel like an outsider. The other members of the group must have noticed the change. A regular attender asked me only yesterday if I was feeling all right. Rather than admit that I was on the verge of losing my faith, I admitted to being a little out of sorts and promised to go to the doctor as soon as possible. But it is not the doctor I need. I feel sure you are the only one who can help me, though I don’t know how. I feel I have come to the end of my tether and I don’t know what to do with myself. Please do excuse the rather dramatic and desperate tone of this letter, but it expresses no more than I feel.”
This is the reply I sent: –
“Take it from me, everything has not ended – indeed, it is only just beginning. In short, you have just come through what is usually called first fervour. Everybody must go through this particular phase in their spiritual development if they are going to come to know and experience the fullness of love for which they crave.
There are four main stages in a person’s prayer life if they persevere- Juvenile Prayer, Adolescent Prayer, Adult Prayer and Perfect Prayer. At the Juvenile stage a person is very insecure and lacks confidence in themselves and in God, so they choose to live in a stable and secure world. It is the world of prescribed prayers learnt by heart, or read from a book. It is the world of set formulas and well-tried devotional exercises. The adolescent stage follows if and when a believer decides to make their own the faith that they have imbibed with their mother’s milk. The world of the adolescent is less predictable and more exciting. Sensing that God is calling them onwards they respond by searching for him in an ever-deepening prayer experience. Fervour, spiritual arrogance and pride, characterise the make-up of the adolescent, though they are usually only aware of their fervour. Traditionally, the experience of the adolescent took place behind the closed doors of interior mental prayer. In more recent years, many people have been passing through this stage in the company of others, as members of prayer groups.
The moment of truth comes when first fervour comes to an end and a person finds him or herself deprived of all feeling in their prayer. It is sad to say it, but the vast majority give up serious personal prayer at this point, because their most recent experience has conditioned them to associate faith with feelings, or the tangible awareness of God’s presence with his actual presence. If they only knew it, God has just taken a new initiative and drawn them closer to himself than ever before. However, this new, more spiritual presence of God seems like absence to the adolescent whose previous experience of him was almost entirely sensual. The days of adolescence are now over – never to return again. This is the beginning of Adult Prayer.
This new world in which a believer finds themselves is the environment that enables them to become adults, by daily learning to give without receiving and to love without feeling that love being returned. If you think about it, you will realise that this is the only way a person can become a perfect lover. The love that is always returned in kind must remain forever suspect until it receives nothing in return and yet goes on giving. This is the beginning of mystical prayer. The great spiritual writers make it quite clear that the beginner who perseveres will be stripped of all feeling and fervour, and will be given the opportunity of becoming a perfect and selfless lover. Naturally the “bounty-hunter” who is only looking for exciting and exhilarating experiences will pack up serious personal prayer altogether at this stage. Throughout the ages Christian tradition has given various names to this painful period in the spiritual journey. For some it is the Desert, the Wilderness, for others it is the Cloud of Unknowing, the House of Self-Knowledge, the Prayer of Faith or the Dark Night of the Soul. All these different expressions are used by Christian tradition to convey the meaning and implications of the challenge with which the Gospel confronts a person who wants to become a perfect follower of Christ.
The challenge is this. Do you want to be identified with the full human being, the Perfect Adult who emerged from the tomb on the first Easter Day? Do you want to experience the fullness of love that Christ experienced at his resurrection, and share it with others? If so, then you must be prepared to share in his self-sacrificial life, in his death too, and even in his descent into hell! Anyone can follow Christ when he is working miracles, turning water into wine and handing out free food and drink. It is not difficult to be his disciple when you can see him curing the sick, giving back sight to the blind and even raising the dead. But how many can follow him into the desert to suffer hunger, thirst, loneliness and temptation? How many are prepared to carry a cross behind him, to follow him to Calvary, to descend into the very bowels of evil with him? Juveniles can’t. Adolescents can’t. It takes an adult to do that, or rather; an adolescent becomes an adult by doing that.
“For the moment, keep up the daily quality time for prayer as you did before, and keep your heart’s attention fixed upon God as best you can. Now is the time when you must learn to give without counting the cost, to love without receiving in return, so that your love may be strengthened and deepened in such a way that you may come to know and experience the height and the depth, the length and the breadth of God’s love, which surpasses all our understanding. If I can give you one practical piece of advice to help you, read and follow the advice given by the author of the ‘Cloud of Unknowing’. This book was written, and only written, to help people at this particular stage of the mystic way. It was not written for beginners, but to help those who are at the beginning of mystical contemplation. This point is made quite clearly by the author himself in his introduction.”