Chapter 4: Experiences of Prayer and Contemplation
In Part I we were introduced to three attempts to renew the life of prayer and contemplation. These attempts set out to introduce people to that life. Now we will meet people who have found themselves on that road of prayer and contemplation. These stories invoke the age-old Christian mystical tradition, yet they are the stories of people today, people who for the most part who are married and working at demanding jobs. As such they are a rich source upon which we can reflect in order to try to grasp the nature and practice of Christian contemplation.
A Visit with a Contemplative
Jim Arraj: Serious efforts are being made today to rediscover the Christian mystical tradition, and the heart of that tradition revolves around the experience of infused contemplation. In this interview we asked a friend who has received graces of infused contemplation to share with us what it is like. She told us that what she experienced as infused contemplation is an awareness of something from God coming down into her.
A Contemplative: And it’s tangible. It’s not physical, but it’s just as tangible as touching something that’s physical. And I also experienced that a part of me is drawn up in God and held in God, and it feels like my attention is held in God. The amount of my attention that is held in God varies. There are times when my attention is held in God, and my mind can in a way wander at the same time, but this sense of being held remains. That’s kind of hard to describe, but that’s a part of it – that there are degrees of how much I feel absorbed into it.
There were a lot of experiences that I think led up to the infused contemplation, but the time where I really mark it where I start calling it that in my mind is an experience where I felt a definite “this is the presence of God,” and what happened was I started experiencing intense bliss, and it happened in different ways, but the first time I felt this all-consuming bliss was in the spring of 1990 or 1991. I was working at the time, and the bliss grew over a period of about 4 or 5 days, and it became so intense that I really became a little bit overwhelmed by it, and I prayed to have it reduced a little bit. I really liked it, but it was overwhelming and a little frightening, I think. Not that there was anything in it that felt bad, but it was such an intense experience that it was a little frightening. But after I prayed, it went away entirely, and that made me very sad.
I had a dream a few weeks after that that I think was very important, and of course, the elements of the dream have a lot to do with my own psychology and how that manifested, but I had a dream I was in a hallway, and there were a couple of different congregations, and I couldn’t decide which one to go into, and I just kept hesitating in the hallway. As I was somehow stuck in this hallway, the Lord came to me and talked to me. I can’t say what He looked like. I just knew He was there and was talking to me, and He had this greeting card. I opened the card and the words were written in beautiful colors – pink and yellow and purple – and it was the story of my heart, the story of my life, but it was a story that I had never seen before, or didn’t realize. It was like this was the way God saw me, saw myself, and it was so beautiful. I can’t describe the feeling I had in that dream. In the dream, after I read it the Lord told me we would be united the next fall, and I just begged Him to make it happen right then. It was just such a wonderful dream, and He said I wasn’t ready yet, and that was the end of the dream.
I woke up, and it was such an incredible dream. I knew it was just a dream, but it seemed to be more than that. So that whole summer I remembered the dream, and I kept trying to keep perspective and not to hope too much for something really special to happen the next fall, but I just couldn’t help but hope it would happen. Even now the memory of what that felt like was so wonderful. September came, and I waited day after day, and nothing happened. Then it was early in October that the bliss came back. I felt it day and night, and was going on while I was going to work and relating to people, and going to lunch, doing the normal things that I did, but it kept getting stronger and stronger. I was a little disconcerted again, but remembering what had happened the last time, I made a conscious choice that I wasn’t going to allow myself to close the door to it because of how much I had regretted when it went away the time before. I let it happen, and there came a point where in the course of my job I became aware that the Lord was inside me, looking out of my eyes. It wasn’t like I became the Lord. It wasn’t like that at all. It was like the Lord was at the center of this blissful experience, and was at that moment inside me looking out to the world through my eyes, and the way that I became aware of that was that I was reading a letter (I answered correspondence from consumers in those days), and the name of the person who had written was “Finchpaw” or something like that. Of course, this bliss had been building for days, and I read that name, and for some reason was delighted by that name, but at the same moment became just emphatically aware of how the Lord was utterly delighted with that name. But it was more than just a name. It was like the Lord was delighted in our ability to name, and that we had made up this wonderful name that was so delightful. It was just like the Lord was in love with us for being able to come up with a name.
In that moment what was communicated to me about God, or what I felt or sensed in this experience of God within me was that God was like the beginning of time, before all the generations and utterly brand new and eternally like that, just as much like that now – not a sense of looking back – that that was how God was at the beginning – but that God was always the beginning of the generations, and that that reality was eternal – always the beginning. If I could put it into an image, it would be like a point of waves of generations spreading out from God at the center, or the beginning of the generations, but that was current – not just past – past, present, future. It was very shortly after that that it was my lunch time. I went out into the city and still had this sense of union with God looking out at the world through my eyes, and everything that I saw was different than I had ever seen it. The physical reality looked exactly the same, but things that to me had been ugly before, or incongruent together, were absolutely gorgeous, and the reason that they were gorgeous was because the Lord was absolutely in love with us for being able to make things, and to have ideas, and to put things in places, so whereas before I might have looked at – oh, here’s a Spanish-style building, why did they put that modern atrocity next to it? – but the way the Lord looked at everything was – This is what they have made, and I love them, and I love this because they made it. It was such a sense of the Lord being just absolutely, utterly, emphatically in love with us, and in love with what we make and do. It completely changed the way that I looked at things.
I definitely feel infused contemplation is a gift, a total gift of grace. I think I used to spend more time trying to understand why this gift had come to me, and went through various stages of thinking about it, but I really can’t say that it came from anything that I did – I don’t believe it did. I had a prayer life. It was basically intercessory prayer before that. I had done meditation earlier in my life, but during the years that preceded the onslaught of infused contemplation, more of a practice for me was trying to live my life for Christ and committing everything that I did for Christ, but also know-ing so many people who did that and do that really whole-heartedly, I just don’t believe the small effort on my part really brought about the infused contemplation. And the other thing I wanted to say was when it happened to me, in no way had I reached any form of perfection. That’s not an effort to be modest or humble to say that. It’s just the honest truth. I would say I had worked on a lot of things, and really had a lot of misconceptions about what really were faults and what weren’t, but in the years that followed, a whole lot more imperfections were revealed, and some just in response to having such incredible experiences – struggling with feelings of grandiosity, etc. Those things surfaced that I thought had been long dead. The only thing I kind of wonder about but don’t have a clear sense of this being true or not, but I have heard it said that some very, very deep experiences of prayer may be related to very, very deep experiences of suffering, and not knowing enough people who have these experiences, I know that in my own life – though many people suffer a lot in life, I think – in my own life just from what other people have told me and relating it to my own experience, the level of suffering and the amount and duration, the intensity of that is in a way equal to the intensity of these beautiful experiences. I sometimes speculate that there may be a relationship between the depth of suffering and depth of – and I don’t mean necessarily reward for or compensation for, because I don’t think in those terms – but more in the sense of being torn at such a deep level that such experiences are possible. If you can suffer at such a deep level and maintain the integrity of your consciousness, it may have something to do with experiencing God in that way. But that’s just speculation. It’s not based on a sense of knowing.
Comparing it to centering prayer, I would say I did not do anything to try to quiet my thoughts, or get rid of thoughts. I have probably never done that in any of the different practices I have done just because I haven’t been drawn to that, or find it too frustrating. I think I was disposed to being receptive to God in general from the time I was a little girl. It was something my mother had taught me, to give up my own will to God. So that was a big part of my prayer. Not my will but thine be done. But there wasn’t an effort to quiet my mind. I did do a visualization-type meditation where I would visualize Christ, and I would visualize qualities from Christ streaming into my soul which filled my heart in like a stream of light. I can’t remember all the details of it, but I would name the qualities that I associated with Christ like compassion, kindness, patience – I had a list I memorized, and I’d say that. I was doing that meditation, which was more of an active positive meditation – than a self-emptying kind of meditation.
Contemplation is almost like having another sense. I don’t want to use the word 6th sense because that has connotations I don’t mean here, but it is actually like you had a completely different sense other than seeing and touching and hearing, but just as concrete. Another way to describe it would be like if someone was inside a house and there were no windows, and they couldn’t see outside at all, and they were on the phone. Say you were interviewing me, and I’m having this experience. You are in this house with no windows or door, and I’m outside, and I’m trying to describe to you that the sun is shining, and I feel it. I say it’s warm. What is “warm,” you might say? Well, it’s bright. Well, what’s “bright,” you might say? It’s like that. It’s very much like, “How do you know the sun is shining?” You just know the sun is shining.
As I started to say, this was an experience of being lifted up and the feeling of something from God coming down into me, and this happened to me twice. I periodically long to have it happen again, but it hasn’t happened since. In this experience when the presence of God came down, and I felt myself drawn up, it was like a veil dropping away. It was also tangible. I’m not talking about a vision of a veil, or any kind of a perception of a veil I can see like eyes. It wasn’t like that, but it was still tangible. It’s like you would never know there was a veil there until it came down. That’s a good way to describe it. You can understand from that that there is no way to see the veil, but suddenly when it is taken down, you know it’s not there anymore. Then there was a definite experience of looking at God face-to-face. This is also something I am very hesitant to talk about for obvious reasons. It was not a vision. There was no form. There was no sound. There was no physical representation in any way. It was pure spirit, and it was pure love. No words were spoken. But it was still just a sense of looking at God in spirit face-to-face, and God looking at me in love – both of us looking at each other in love, pure spirit, in me. And then that experience gradually faded, but if I could say it was somewhere, it’s like, look up here, and that happened a couple of times. Sometimes when I have that experience, and I’ll still have that experience a lot of times of like this magnetism of being pulled up, and this sweetness and peace coming down into me, but the veil is there. And sometimes I’ll say, “I know You’re there.” I wish the veil would come down again, but it doesn’t.
It troubled me to think about that, not in the sense of doubting it, but in the context of the Bible verse, “No one can see God.” I can’t explain the experience in the context of that except to understand it, well there really wasn’t a sense of seeing God in a tangible way, but it was still a direct experience that was real to me.
You were asking about external practices, and how that relates to infused contemplation, and if external practices are necessary to infused contemplation. I don’t know if I can really answer those questions, but I can tell you what my own experience is. My own experience is in the Catholic faith, and by the way, my conversion came in conjunction with this onslaught of infused contemplation, but I go to daily Mass and have a definite sense that that enhances the contemplation. I wouldn’t say it is necessary. However, without that there is definitely something missing in me. As far as external forms of prayer, I really love praying from the hours. I pray from the Breviary. I don’t always have time to read all the hours, but always manage to get in morning prayer and evening prayer. I just have the sense of praying with the entire Church, and I especially love praying the Psalms. Praying the Psalms frequently triggers experiences of renewed contemplation for me. Many of the Psalms remind me of the experience of infused contemplation, such as “Look toward Him and be radiant.” The couple of Psalms that deal with the longing for God: “My soul is thirsting for God” so much reminds me of the tangible dry periods. There is a lot in the Psalms that seem to be written by people who have experienced infused contemplation. I think I have a firm belief about that from reading the Psalms over and over again.
As far as for the rest of my external life, I’m married and I have a career, and I have friends, and I very much value and need community, and I am still working on detaching myself from having too much need for community. I can tell when I have too much need because I can still have painful experiences because if the community doesn’t meet my expectations, it hurts. From that I can tell I haven’t reached a state of complete detachment.
To me there is a real difference between saying you want contemplation, than there is saying, “I long for God.” I think the latter is something that whenever anybody ever expresses that as a heart-felt longing, and generally I think people who experience that, it’s a painful longing – that I consider to be always part of genuine contemplation. That may be the dark contemplation that St. John of the Cross talks about. If there never is a feeling of consummation and union, but to have that longing which I believe would be implanted by God, that is a form of contemplation because it is something that you can’t get away from when it’s there. So in that sense of longing, your attention is focused always on God. I would consider that to be definitely contemplation. But saying I “want” contemplation seems to be to be a different thing because that’s more looking for an experience, but wanting God is wanting God.
A Decade (More or Less) Later
I am blessed to know that God loves me, and I am blessed to know that I can return this gracious love. I know through direct experience that I have nothing to give except the love that God has given me, but this is enough. I have also received a deep faith in the providence of God, a profound belief that God will uphold me and provide for me in this life and in the life to come. I expect I will have to suffer again in the future, as we all do, but I am confident that God will be with me in whatever I experience.
I continue to be a committed, practicing Roman Catholic. The primary focus of my striving is to help build up the Kingdom of God for the Beloved, Our Lord. My thoughts, prayers, and activities are directed towards this end.
It is difficult to describe how I experience infused contemplation now. The graces I received have filled me to the point that they overflow into apostolic work. I do not know whether different phases of infused contemplation await me in the future. The extraordinary “touches” are rare now. They seem to come only when I need strengthening, and they leave me with the sense that I have been touched directly by the Holy Spirit. They also generally leave me with a specific insight that strengthens my faith and increases my understanding of the love of God.
In the course of my daily life, God continues to provide opportunities for my growth. These opportunities help me recognize my weaknesses and overcome them. I have not reached a state of perfection. However, I no longer suffer over my failings as I once did, since God has given me a deep sense of peace and security in his love. I know that God loves me as I am, as I was in the past, and as I will be in the future.
If anyone reads this and longs to have a deeper, closer relationship with God, I have only a few words of advice. Love as often and as well as you can and open yourself to the unfathomable mystery of God. I am adamantly convinced that God is always waiting to shower us with graces if only we trust him to provide for our deepest needs, which lie beyond the realm of our understanding.
A Wayfarer’s Spiritual Journey as a Contemplative in the World
It is not without great trepidation that I have the temerity to write on this journey of mine since it has been effected in secrecy by virtue of its very nature. For this reason, it is written in anonymity so as not to draw attention to, nor to credit me, with anything other than that I am nothing but a miserable sinner. I consider myself to have been blessed beyond anything for which I could ever have hoped. I believe it is fitting to share the Lord’s glorious and loving ways rather than leave this world (I am 70) without revealing it. It may serve the purpose of encouraging others to contemplation in that it serves to prove that contemplation in a world full of activity is possible, provided one disposes oneself for it and allows the Lord to accomplish it in them, since we are all called to this state.
At age six, having great reverence for the priesthood and feeling drawn to it, I remember asking my mother if all priests go to heaven. Of course, she assured me that they do. I spent part of my childhood in Ireland, and I remember a poignant experience while walking through Ardfert demesne that encompassed the ruins of a Franciscan Abbey. I became absorbed in what I now know as natural contemplation which was accompanied by an awareness of God’s presence that caught me up to gaze on Him in His beauty and magnificence. I subsequently became attracted to the devout life and the awareness of God’s presence.
My spirituality at this time continued to be predominantly sacramental and devotional. I prayed vocally. Expressing a strong desire to eventually attend a seminary, my father attempted to enroll me in order to confront my apparent vocation. While going through the registration process with the priest in charge, I retreated from it, not because I did not desire it, but because I did not want to pay the price of giving up all the worldly things which the vocation demands. I still had strong worldly attachments. To my great shame and sadness, like the rich man in the Gospel, wretched person that I am, I did not have the generosity and fortitude to give up these attachments.
Later, during high school I was given a book by my brother entitled The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton which ushered me into a moral conversion, later understood to be to the Purgative Way. As a consequence, I also read The Ascent to Truth by the same author. I began to read and meditate upon The Imitation of Christ by Thomas á Kempis and to experience affective prayer or prayer from the heart.
While living in Richmond Hill, New York, I studied engineering in the evenings while working. During that time, I began to experience pronounced aridity in prayer. The harder and more intensely I tried to pray, the more aridity I experienced. I reached the point that I had to desist from continuing in formal prayer. Then my brother brought home two books from a curate’s library which were being disposed of. It seems that these books came to me fortuitously at a time when I was in need of them. They were the works of St. John of the Cross (Dark Night, Ascent, etc.) and St. Teresa of Jesus of Avila (The Mansions or The Interior Castle). I learned from these books, to my great relief, that my aridity had been experienced by these authors and many others who dedicate themselves to a prayer life and to attaining spiritual perfection. I found myself praying in a simple way without words, just lifting up my heart and mind to God, as if gazing upon Him and becoming more consciously aware of His presence in all that I was about throughout the day. I became aware that I was entering a personal relationship with God, something that I had not known was possible.
I took these books with me into the U.S. Army which turned out to be what is traditionally known as my ‘desert experience’ on my spiritual journey. I used them mainly for spiritual guidance, and for ‘lectio divina’. I practiced asceticism and all night prayer vigils (guard duty was a good opportunity). I tried to remain aware of the presence of God while going about my duties and even when in recreation.
In the Illuminative Stage or Way, I found myself especially submerged in an indescribably pervading radiance (a normal phenomenon in mystical prayer) visible only to the eye of the soul it seemed, an almost habitual ecstatic mystical experience. It was a directly infused (not through the natural senses) experience of God in an intimate union with Him arising from God’s love.
Because God is everywhere, in this pervading light, my soul found Him in everything in His creation. This became more pronounced and profound the deeper I entered the dark night, from that of the senses to the more excruciating night of the spirit. In times of consolations, however, I felt as though I was living with one foot in heaven and one foot here. It was a bit of paradise on earth alternating with sufferings, sufferings that felt like purifying silver or gold in a crucible to eliminate the dross.
None of the contemplative experiences conflicted, then or thereafter, with my ordinary life in the world. They were in some way miraculously integrated with it, even in activity, with no one knowing of them or suspecting anything unusual or occurring in me out of the ordinary. It is interesting to note that my basic natural personality did not change throughout my spiritual journey. On my part, I could only dispose myself through ascetic efforts (mortifications, kenosis, persistence and patience) with God’s grace. I sought to strengthen the acquired theological and moral virtues (later gratuitously received as infused virtues); most particularly, humility, obedience to my calling and station in life with all its duties and obligations, and filial fear (reverence) of the Lord. In this regard, I feel that when invitingly confronted by the urgings of the Holy Spirit, I was only capable of giving a fiat born of a weak will, strengthened only by the grace of God. I feel that all I had to do was to say yes to Him who accomplished everything in me. All was grace as St. Paul says.
After my discharge from the U.S. Army I completed the final engineering curricular requirements and earned the Bachelor of Civil Engineering Degree. I married. While working in my profession for the next 45 years, my wife and I had six children. All the while I felt drawn to the ordained and religious life which was no longer open to me. However, I became a member of the Secular Order of Discalced Carmelites.
After the diaconate was opened to married men I applied as a candidate and was ordained six years later. All the while, I was working at my profession, developing ministries and ministering in them regularly.
While still continuing my various pastoral ministries (hospital, nursing homes, college campus, parish, and diocese), I retired. Due to ill health I have had to curtail my pastoral ministry, including my spirituality presentations which were close to my heart. My ministry in individual spiritual guidance, however, now continues with a few persons.
Since our marriage, and after resuming my employment as an engineer, I remained in the prayer of simplicity. Then followed a long period while living the ordinary life (bringing up the children and supporting the family) during which I was caught up in the prayer of recollection; a suspension of the faculty of the intellect in regard to knowledge of the supernatural. In this mode of prayer, I became rapt into ecstatically joyful experiences and the consciousness of God’s beauty and goodness. These were delightfully unique mystical experiences alternating with significant sufferings. Towards the end of the Illuminative Stage or Way, for short periods, my whole being experienced the Prayer of Quiet; a suspension of the faculty of the will. These experiences in the Prayer of Quiet were exquisitely sublime and enthralling while being taken up in a rapture of an indescribably immense love.
As the years progressed, I felt the absence of God, as it were (He is never absent) in which I experienced the wounds of love deeply in my soul. These evoked loving utterances from a heart lifted to God. St. Teresa explains these experiences better than my attempt to do so here.
The suffering in this loss was very keen, particularly since I thought it was the result of my temerity in attempting to become a candidate for the diaconate. Much later, I saw that this period was a natural sequence on the spiritual journey, not a deprivation occasioned by any act of mine. Many of my mystical experiences preceded my retrospective understanding of them. St. John of the Cross characterizes Simple Union as mystical deification, which I see to be an awesome gift. Here, the intellect and the will are both suspended while the memory and the imagination are free, yet troublesome.
Following this period, the Dark Night moved from Dawn towards Noon, the purification of the senses, faculties and spirit having been more or less completed. This complete purification is necessary to effect the integration required of the Spiritual Marriage that mutual love be on an equal basis (one object of deification or theosis). After this period, a pronounced love of all mankind seemed to overwhelm me, experienced on one occasion while simply walking past my office, and on another occasion while in a parking garage.
While walking to my car one evening at dusk to return home from work, I felt confronted with a sudden invitation of the Lord to give my life totally. I somehow innately understood my response to be an act of the will in giving my fiat to becoming espoused to Him. Having given my assent, I felt it was given at the greatest cost to me imaginable like throwing or tossing my life away in a consummate white martyrdom. I am so grateful to the Lord for preparing me, and for the grace, to give that fiat; given that my will is capable of giving only a weak yes. This is reminiscent of my failure to give up all when I had been confronted at the minor seminary in my youth. I experienced ecstatic transports (normal to contemplation, although not necessary thereto), one of which was a mystical view of the beauty of a rose on someone’s desk in a strikingly real way. It seemed to reflect the beauty of God in His creation.
On another occasion during a Christmas party held in a restaurant, I felt that I was taken out of my body and that my soul was taken up in rapture. My whole being became so ravished in God’s love, that it was all I could do not to cry out and declare my love of God and of all humankind. The ravishing was so overwhelming, and of such delectation, that it defies expression or anything one can say of it. In this experience, I received an intellectual vision of all creation as being incarnate in God through Jesus Christ, of how precious it is to Him; and, a revelation of a stark realism of our incarnation as humans.
On other occasions, I twice experienced the pains of Hell, one lasting about two days, the other lasting about four days. These experiences were exquisitely keenly painful sensations of the utter loss of God, without any diversions (such as we have here on earth) to attenuate them. It was a state of torment where, as I remember noting, one’s only consolation is despair. Indeed, I would have given myself over to despair if the Lord had not delivered me from it. At another time, I had the excruciating experience of a complete loss of faith for a few moments when I was about to sit down to a holiday dinner with my family. I have since reflected how terrible it must have been for St. Therese of the Child Jesus to have had to suffer this for so long a period. Again, I had a strange infusion of knowledge while praying in the pew of my church one day. In the course of my personal prayers, I was making an act of love, as usual, when suddenly it came to me that I did not of myself have any love for God. It was a disappointing thought, but it taught me that any love I have of God is from Him. This reminded me of the saying in 1John 4:10: “Love, then, consists in this: not that we have loved God, but that He has loved us.”
Somewhere along the spiritual journey, I, at times, became a ‘fool for Christ,’ and was favored with the gift of tears, specifically for the Passion of Jesus; I was gratuitously given the specialness of feeling that I was a darling of God (a beautiful intimacy) notwithstanding my sinful nature and secretly experienced the internal stigmata in my body for a short interim. I remember expressing joy that our Blessed Mother Mary has uniquely received all her magnificent gifts, graces and honors from the Lord, and I experienced, then and now, delightful feelings of lightness in my extremities which St. John of the Cross says redound from the soul sometimes after having received infused spiritual favors.
I experienced partial levitation while walking toward our local high school to attend a play. I heard my brother, who was walking some distance behind, remark to a companion that he thought that I was lightly tripping across the field. For my part, I felt that I could almost fly off the ground. It might be noted that most all the mystical experiences received were not pronounced enough to be visible to others, or to call attention to them. Fortunately, I have been spared the attention and importance others might likely place upon them, thereby, sparing me the embarrassment and the need to respond to natural inquisitiveness.
The next and last degree of prayer entered into, along the Unitive Way, was that of Transforming Union or Spiritual Marriage. Here a person becomes one with God by participation through transforming love, known as deification.
My experience of the Spiritual Marriage or Transforming Union was initially pronounced, clear, and wrought in an intellectual vision. I was viewing television one evening, not totally absorbed in it, when I became aware, deeply in my soul, of a state of spiritual inebriation approaching spiritual drunkenness. I was overcome. Immediately, I moved to another room where I reclined to reflect upon this rapturously entrancing experience I was in. Only later did I come to really understand it. I was reminded about the passage that this resembled in the Spiritual Canticle, verse 26, by St. John of the Cross:
inner wine cellar
Slowly dying to the world and self, I felt in the recesses of my soul Jesus’ white martyrdom, as expressed in the Gospel, ‘I have no place whereon to lay My head’; His heartfelt compassion for the widow of Naim; as if I had become a corpse (dead to the world); that I was walking along the ‘via crucis’ on Christ’s dripped blood; a purification in the Blood of the Lamb by being bathed in it for long periods, especially during my ongoing pastoral ministry at a nursing home; the scourging, rebukes, spitting, buffeting, ‘ecce Homo,’ the utter humiliation of Christ, the nailing of the Crucifixion, the dying on the Cross, the experience of Jesus feeling abandonment by the Father - all parts of the Passion of Christ; the death of Christ in my dying to my own self; the anointing of Jesus with the seeming sense experience of scenting the fragrances of aloes and myrrh; the entombment and a mouldering of the corpse; and finally, resurrection experiences (dawn to noon of the Dark Night) with its concomitant liberality of spirit. These latter mystical experiences were not accompanied by sufferings that were retributive.
At times, I would feel the sufferings and groanings of humankind in my soul; and also, the groanings of the Holy Spirit, reminiscent of St. Paul. I also felt unidentifiable internal sufferings in my soul, seeming with no apparent cause, so keen that I could do naught but sit and just endure them.
My passions became so attenuated that I no longer feel them. Moses, according to Josephus, had arrived at this toward the end of his life (he died at age 120). He wrote that Moses no longer knew his passions except by their names. As I live life, I no longer live my own life; but that Christ lives in me as my real self, since I died to my old self.
I was born and raised and still practice Roman Catholicism but grew up with an ecumenical outlook since my Dad was a convert from the southern Baptist tradition and I just knew, had strong beliefs, that my Dad’s Baptist parents and their 13 Baptist offspring were going to be there with me in heaven one day, along with my Roman Catholic parents and my 6 siblings.
My most influential formative spiritual experiences were as a teenager in the charismatic renewal of the Catholic Church. Also, I was heavily involved in youth and music ministries and the Church’s retreat movements on manifold fronts.
Most of my adult life has been a trial of faith much akin to what Therese of Lisieux described in her autobiography; her trial of faith or crisis of belief has been a source of great consolation to me.
I almost self-diagnosed a Dark Night but conclude that that could be the proverbial cop-out, that, however consonant the description of this fog on Mt. Carmel was to my malaise, it still just amounts to a brilliant rationalization. At the same time, following Ignatius, I hope this desolation and aridity don’t find their genesis in a very conventional and mundane episode of back-sliding.
Despite all this I still love passionately and live the moral life; I still go through the motions of my Catholic faith and believe that it most perfectly articulates the manner in which our God would condescend to humankind. However, for about three years, on dozens of occasions, I enjoyed profoundly ecstatic numinous experiences which came and left of their own accord and have at least mitigated some of my angst by raising my outlook to that of what I can only describe as an existentialist, agnostic with sneaking suspicions and I am, like Simone (Weil), waiting on God for that gift of certitude that is Hers alone to give.
I saw nothing, heard nothing, touched nothing. I would usually be dreaming and would encounter manifold and varied situations which would move me to a loving awe, an unspeakable yes to a deep okayness, and then in an instant I would awaken and lying still in my bed all cognitive content would disappear and all would be silent and black and then my only sensations were an intense but vague somatic awareness that sensed intensely pleasurable goosebumps over the whole surface of my body from head to toe and moving as if in waves of electricity from head to toe or vice versa and growing in intensity and as they grew in intensity they permeated beneath my skin and they would further grow in pleasure/intensity and permeate my musculature and then organs and my very marrow and my body felt like it was convulsing as if being shocked although I have the clear notion I was in fact quite still and on occasion there was an extreme vertigo as if I were violently spinning in a vortex of all-consuming okayness and love and pleasure and any experience of orgasm could not speak to these experiences and the only cognition I recall was my nonverbal communication: “Don’t leave me. Please don’t leave me.” And always it was if an unseen but definitely present spectre would slowly disappear and the process would fade in a precise reverse fashion, that is, the waves would then ebb and I would merely lay in bed and say Jesus over and over until I fell back asleep and I recorded (on a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit desk calendar mind you) only the inscriptions NE1, NE2, NE3 with the alphanumeric indicating “numinous experiences of varying intensities” and they lasted for about three years and I found no exact context within which to place the experiences in my faith or science perspectives until I came upon a quote from Isaac of Nineveh: “It happens at certain moments that delight and enjoyment invade the whole body. And the fleshly tongue can say no more; to such degrees now have earthly objects become but dust and ashes. The initial delights, those of the heart, fill us while we are awake. The spirit burns at the hour of prayer, at the moment of reading, in the course of frequent meditations or long contemplations. But the final delights come to us differently, often during the night, in the following way: when we are between sleep and wakefulness, when we are asleep without being asleep and awake without being really awake. These delights invade a person and the whole body throbs. It is clear then that this is nothing other than the kingdom of heaven.”
And if one could will these events one would, but alas I knew not then and know not now whither and why they would come or would go and neither could one will to stop them for one was so very intense I knew that I would die right then and did not want to for manifold reasons and yet it did not stop and I had an element of fear even within the pleasure of it all, but it all passed that is to say: these consolations ceased.
I did nothing to bring them on. I did nothing to stop them. I was a sinner before, during and after them and remain so. I feel like I am more compassionate, long-suffering and forbearing in the years since these experiences. It took me years to tell anyone anything. These experiences had no sexual overtones but were so much more intensely pleasurable than any orgasm one could possibly have. I tried to rationalize the experiences away, in retrospect, as some oxygen depletion-endorphin release-near death experience, etc., but my reasoning ability and need to explain are truly frustrated.
I never practiced formal meditation or contemplative prayer technique knowingly but know that retrospectively a Brother Lawrence or Way of the Pilgrim-type practice of constant and continual turning to God throughout the day in glossolalia was de facto contemplative. I also prayed and sang, aloud and mentally, very often (still do) O’ Come, O’ Come Emmanuel for two decades before these experiences. The experiences increased my confident assurance in things hoped for, but unlike others, I don’t KNOW with a certainty any matters of faith and I can still suffer bouts of existential doubt and angst (sorry). I love much and am passionately in touch with human suffering.
In closing, a word from Thomas Merton: “And so, many contemplatives never become great saints, never enter into close friendship with God, never find a deep participation in His immense joys, because they cling to the miserable little consolations that are given to beginners in the contemplative way.”
Gulp! oh well. Therese of Lisieux and Simone Weil, pray for me.
Think of God as one who relentlessly pursues you. I have often thought of God as follows: She is a cute little girl on the playground Who is chasing me, much to my chagrin. I run from Her. She never quite catches up with me. When I am very young, I really want nothing to do with Her. She remains a nuisance. She remains in pursuit of me whenever I set foot on the playground, even as I am getting older. In my pre-adolescence, I glance over my shoulder at times and I feel confused; I sometimes think of maybe letting Her catch me, but I am unsure for it seems best to stick with that strategy which has served me so well from childhood. After all, what would the boys think of me, letting Her catch me? The days and years go by and the playground pursuit is the only constant in my life and I am glancing over my shoulder longer and my confusion is giving way to new feelings.
I notice Her Beauty and I imagine what it would be like to be close to Her and, for the first time, I feel strangely and strongly attracted to Her. I resolve to get caught. I wonder: “What in the world was I thinking all these years, running from this gorgeous Creature?”
And She catches me and we collapse laughing and giggling into the flowered clovers and we embrace and the universe explodes with meaning and all of the eros and limerance and infatuation and chemistry of that universe are focused here, in time, in me, in Her, in us and I am left there, at once mystified and even somewhat stupefied!
Then, of a sudden, She is gone. I look around and see Her standing there and our eyes meet and we smile and She takes off running, laughing and giggling, taunting and teasing, now with me in pursuit! How the tables have turned!
And now I am filled with longing, yearning, pining for She has run clean over the horizon and out of sight! But, at times, I think I hear Her giggle and swear I can glimpse Her face in a crowd.
At all times, I think of Her and my heart aches, sweetly.
Stories of People Today Trying to Live the Christian Contemplative Life
Story 1. I am a married woman with a small child and a job that consists of running a social service agency for the poor. Rather abruptly abut two years ago, after being an agnostic for 20 years, I was plunged into an intense personal/contemplative (for lack of a better way to describe it) spirituality centered on Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. Today my spirituality centers around daily mass, daily Eucharistic adoration and about two hours of prayer, plus spiritual reading when I can fit it in. In the course of reading to try to learn what was happening to me, I’ve felt the closest kinship in the writings of cloistered female mystics from the Middle Ages to the early part of this century. However, as deep and illuminating as these works are, they have nothing to say, or at best, very confusing things to say about whole areas of my life, such as: sex; the complete loss of interest in “worldly” matters (with the exception of the works of mercy) and how that affects ability to have a relationship with my small child and spouse; mystical and contemplative experience within a marriage relationship in which my spouse has no spiritual life; feminism and trying to raise a daughter in the Catholic faith; teaching children to love God; being a “closet Catholic contemplative” in the midst of friends and associates, all of whom despise Catholicism.
I truly hope that the dialogue that you wish to start helps people like me to discern the workings and will of God in our lives. Priests I have tried to talk with seem clueless, as I certainly would be if asked to advise a celibate male priest about his spiritual life!
Story 2. I am 47 years old, married with four children, and I’ve been praying contemplatively since 1977 with the spiritual guidance of Fr. Thomas Keating, the founder of the Centering Prayer Movement in the U.S. Back then you didn’t hear much about Christian contemplation. My teachers were St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila and also, to a large extent, Sri Ramakrisna through a book I picked up in a library. When I began sitting in 1977 almost immediately, and over a period of several months, I began experiencing a recurrent, overwhelming sweetness in my soul which was always absorbing and energy draining, and which always deprived me of my appetite for food or drink. Sometimes I’d be flooded with an indescribable joy and often there was within me what I used to call an ongoing party. I wouldn’t know how else to describe it. This party was all spiritual and it would appear spontaneously and independently, as if in the background of my consciousness. Sometimes it would be hours before I would stop and acknowledge its presence! Then there were the all-consuming, burning longings for God the Father which caused me to long for death with all my strength. On several occasions I, too, experienced a burning furnace within my heart, but this was a very sacred experience, not a mere physical one. The Fire within me was a Living Fire, no doubt about that! It was always felt in my heart or soul, and once it opened what felt like a wound on one side of the lower part of my heart. By themselves these experiences would have been just that: experiences. The main thing about them is that they always brought me a sense of God’s Presence and of His utter, loving desirability. In short, I fell in love with God.
I also experienced pressure in my head later on. I even went to get a cat-scan, but the doctor could find nothing wrong. This only lasted a few months and it didn’t bother me much, perhaps because I don’t pay much attention to the body. What I couldn’t help noticing, though, is what follows.
It began a few months after the onset of the experiences I have described and I would call them the other side, or their negative side. Delight was experienced as oppressing anguish of soul, the sweetness and the party turned to tears in my heart so that the impression was that of being wrung out like a wet cloth. I moved about as if the weight of the whole world was upon my shoulders, drained of energy, relentlessly pursued by this awful pain in my soul which took from me the ability to concentrate while dimming my consciousness of the external world. When in that state I only wanted to retreat into solitude and cry because the interior pain demanded tears, but I often couldn’t even do that due to my four small children who needed my constant attention. I have had those experiences many times over a period of several years. They would always come gradually and leave abruptly, as if a curtain were suddenly being lifted.
One particular experience that leaves me baffled to this day has to do with a strange light flashing before me while in prayer. I saw it once a month with my eyes opened or closed, and each time it appeared to come nearer until once it seemed to explode on my face as it entered my head. This startled me so much that I opened my eyes immediately. I felt somewhat violated and puzzled, but there was nothing I could do. One month later I saw the light exit my head, and it then looked much dimmer and transparent. I believe this is the first time I have ever mentioned this experience to anybody. I just naturally assumed no one would be able to interpret it for me.
Jim Arraj: The fact that you saw the strange light flashing, whether your eyes were open or closed, might point to the origin of the light being connected with the activation of the visual part of the brain. Things like this can happen during kundalini-type experiences. The activation of this energy, i.e., the pressure in the head and various feelings of electrical currents, and so forth, can also have optical side-effects. Philip St. Romain’s book Kundalini Energy and Christian Spirituality discusses some of these experiences.
Story 3. Contemplative: For the past 10 years I’ve been wandering through desert and dark lands and my feelings of love for the Father have become more interiorized to where I am often not aware of them. Now I am able to think of things other than God, whereas for many years I could think of nothing else. Prayer is an almost constant wasteland and I am faltering. I don’t think I can hang on anymore. Sometimes, however, I surprise myself when I find I can still cry for God and tell Him how much I miss Him. Then I realize that I am not at all over it. I still love Him just the same as I did back then, perhaps even more, because by now I’ve built a relationship based on selfless and unconditional love. But prayer is often experienced as unbearably tedious and empty. Frustration for being unable to discipline my mind always accompanies my prayer. But then to me prayer is only a means to the end. I don’t really care what it takes, whether it’s contemplation, Zen, yoga and what not, as long as it gives me God the Father.
There is another thing I have noticed. I am a Jesus person, yet every time I experience the Presence of God it’s always the Father I experience. I don’t say this with the least regret, because the Father is wonderful, utterly desirable, and powerful. He impressed His power upon me in a way that was always overwhelming. Why is it that Jesus Himself eludes me? I have confessed Him in front of unbelievers, and I love Him. I don’t know why it is the loving Father Who comes to me rather than Jesus. I love the Father, but I feel I have lost touch with Him. If I didn’t find some way to distract myself and go on living I don’t think I would want to live anymore, because He is my life, and He is gone. However, even though I am counting the days, I still can’t bring myself to pray for death because I see that I am still needed here.
Jim Arraj: One possibility about Jesus “eluding” you: the whole purpose of Jesus in His Incarnation was to draw us to the Father. Could it be possible that the closer you get to Jesus, the more you share in His being, which is to lift everything up to the Father? If that were the case, then you would tend not to be looking at Jesus the closer you drew to Him.
You should certainly consider writing a spiritual journal or autobiography if you do not already do so. This, of course, is not to become overly self-absorbed, but simply as an aid in exploring what is happening. There are vast interior universes that we travel through on the spiritual journey, and they comprise psychological as well as metaphysical and spiritual dimensions, and it is often very difficult to sort out what is going on. The same energy that can be devastating to the soul if it takes on a negative face, or tremendously elating if it takes on a positive one, perhaps is calling us to avoid both the negative and positive faces which are often ways of us reducing it to the small dimensions that the ego can comprehend. It is almost as if we become schooled in making the ego transparent to these energies that are much greater than itself. In the final analysis it is faith which, as St. John of the Cross says, is the proximate means of our union with God, and we have to hold to that faith through all the highs and lows.
Contemplative: This morning I have been attempting to analyze my present attitude towards God, and I saw that He is now asking for a “personal” direct response from me. My first reaction was one of denial. I didn’t want to have to deal with it. Too much pain. I began to cry, and as I wept I understood I had been hiding from God all these years. True, I have been doing everything by the book as far as love is concerned, but I had withdrawn my heart from Him to protect myself from further pain. I understood the Lord wants to heal me at that level now, by deepening my trust in Him. In my mind’s eye I saw a swirling concentric spiral signifying the ongoing process of healing, growth and deepening of one’s personal commitment to God.
Consciously I am making attempts to be open to God, to say YES to Him, but I can see that at a deeper level there is a lot of resistance to the degree of pain, disappointment and rejection I suffered all those years. And there is also this nagging voice within me telling me none of this is happening, God is not asking for a direct relationship, I am making it all up, it’s just my imagination. It wants me to ignore the whole thing and go on with life as always. So Faith is also being exercised to a great extent.
I would like to know the truth. It seems to be that now He wants a more “personal” involvement from me and this mere notion makes me want to run away in fear. I need help. I am afraid to give Him my heart again. I could cut myself into pieces for Him and it wouldn’t hurt as much! He is asking me to come out of hiding, to lay my heart bare once again, and all I want to say to Him is just let me be! I don’t want to leave the ordinary path. Love in action can exist independently of experienced Love. It is possible to love God indirectly, like most people do. Why does He have to mess with me? I don’t want to be “played” again, to lose control of what I feel and what I think. At the same time I want to say YES, because I do love and trust Him. I just don’t know how.
Another person comments: You say you are repelled by emptiness. The true emptiness is a total void of “things/thingness.” Only in such an emptiness of all “things” can God who is Nothing (NO THING) be encountered as He is. So be patient with and grateful for emptiness. In the middle of it begin developing the frequent flexing of your Faith/as Christ. Since this Faith is Christ, you are not alone in the emptiness. Christ will lead you to eventually know the emptiness as the fullest of all fullness -- all which is or can be emerges from it -- through Christ, who is your constant companion, Whom you can “call up” whenever you wish through this simply internal motion/reflex of Faith.
While nailed to the barn door (for years) baking in the sun and being internally scraped clean with a wire brush I learned what faith really is, and what it is for. This is not the faith of, “I believe in...” This is Faith as a tremendously powerful inner muscle which can be “flexed” whenever we choose. With each flexing the muscle becomes stronger. What is the muscle? The deepest reality of this internal, spiritual muscle, with which (and only with which) we can cling to Reality and continue to move forward and grow spiritually in the dark night of the spirit is that it is, in the fullest truth, CHRIST HIMSELF.
John of the Cross referred to the Night of Spirit as the “Night of Faith.” This is what he meant. In this night we are of necessity stripped of all that is other than God. But, the great secret is that God remains (in total darkness for the most part) as the spiritual reflex and muscle which we can use whenever we wish in the middle of the desert. Simply to grasp, to cling, to reach out with our fullest strength from our center is to “activate” the Spirit of Christ within us. The act by which we do this IS THE VERY PRESENCE OF CHRIST!
Jim Arraj: The story of this journey embodies a familiar pattern in Christian contemplative experience: an initial period in which the graces of God flow abundantly like sweet water given whenever and wherever it is desired, then followed by a long period of night so difficult and perplexing it can feel like there is no spiritual life left.
But our contemplative clearly brings out the psychological dimension of such a journey, and this is what I would like to focus on. On one level this encounter with God is like falling in love. At the beginning we can be overwhelmed with a wonderful sense of wholeness and completion, which can often be followed by disillusionment and pain. Things are not like we thought they were. We feel betrayed and abandoned. So at one level it is easy enough to understand that we can feel this way about God, as well. But there is a vital difference which introduces us to a deeper level of things that is rooted not in the failings and fickleness of the one we love, for we would be loathe to attribute these attributes to God, but which are connected to the very nature of contemplation.
When we begin the spiritual life, how else can we relate to God than through our normal channels of thinking and feeling, sensing and intuiting? In short, we use the natural faculties of the soul, and they can feel flooded with God’s presence. But the infused contemplation that John of the Cross is talking about by its very nature cannot come through these faculties. They are simply too limited to receive it. It has to be given in the very center of the soul, or we could say, in the depths of the spiritual unconscious. But if it is given in those depths, that does not mean it will always be perceptible to the ego. Therefore, the loss of our former way of relating to God through our faculties can feel like the loss of God without qualification, and this is true even if contemplative graces might be present in the depths of the soul.
The way that contemplation comes into the soul has important psychological ramifications. It is only reasonable that if an event like God’s presence in a new way in the depths of the soul takes place, then it will have a profound effect on the natural psychic or psychological energies of the soul. Is it not possible that the soul will now have a new center even from the point of view of psychic energy which will now appear to be flowing out of the ego, leaving it listless and even feeling dead? Then it can seem like all the spiritual life that the soul possessed has evaporated. The ego then feels hurt and resentful, for it doesn’t understand why it should die. It takes all this personally! Then it is faced with two possibilities. It can cling to its resentment about being abandoned, or it can try to understand that the nature of contemplation itself can demand the soul being turned inside out, as it were, and with that understanding, let the old sense of hurt go and try to relate to this new center. As Response #1 so carefully points out, this relating takes place by faith, which is often a very stripped and naked faith, but very real and fruitful nonetheless.
One final qualification. I don’t mean to imply that every loss of the initial sense of consolation and presence of God can be attributed to the beginning of infused contemplation. If that were so, John of the Cross would not have needed his three signs to begin with, and the other possible reasons for this darkness represent another area well worth exploring.
Story 4. What is your manner of prayer/ meditation?
I have many different ways to pray and/or meditate. Mainly, I try to keep God in mind constantly throughout the day. I talk to God, ask questions, maintain a casual friendliness - both to remind myself that God is always with me and also to show my sincerity, my openness in wanting to be closer to my Creator and his will for me. At times, I sit on our back porch and appreciate all that is growing in the yard, all that is alive, and try to feel my connection to it. I notice the sky, the clouds, the breeze and remember that God was in the silence, not in the blowing wind. Often I read books to expand my knowledge of theology, contemplation and mysticism - really many subjects I consider spiritual. I have learned a great deal from Zen, particularly Tibetan, and am grateful to Thomas Merton for leading me in that direction.
What consequences do you experience if you miss prayer/meditation?
I find that I am tenser, angrier, have drifted back into the “ways of the world” that are, for me, so negative.
Have you experienced what you would consider extraordinary graces in prayer/meditation?
I consider the calming of my agitated heart a grace that I have experienced. Also, I have received insights that I also consider extraordinary (for me, at least). I have felt emotional healing. I have heard music. Not seen, but felt a compassionate presence. Once, I felt a stroking of my hair. It was in the Intensive Care Unit where my father was, very ill. It happened three times, although I stood up and looked around between each event to see what could be causing it.
Have you experienced communications with God or spiritual beings through visions or locutions?
I have experienced one vision - a gift, I believe, from God and my grandmother. She had always said she would come back to visit me (and I asked her not to) after she had died. She had always prayed a great deal for the poor souls and encouraged me to also. About three years after she died I awoke in the middle of the night (I don’t know what woke me) and, lying on my side facing the open closet, I saw a glow in the back of the closet. This jarred me completely awake because at first I thought it was a fire. Propped up on my elbow, I stared at the nearly human sized, oval-shaped glow. It was bright, gold and silvery rays. It didn’t move toward me, but as I continued to stare, dumbfounded, I had a mental flash that this was Grandma. Another mental message told me not to be afraid and I wasn’t. I’m not certain how long the radiant spectacle lasted, a minute, two minutes, but for the rest of the time the only message, and it was strong, definite, was love. Everything was all right, had always been so and would always be so. When the vision finally faded, I cried myself to sleep, but the tears were of joy. Whenever I feel doubt, feel alone, I remember that glowing visit. I cling to it as the proof I had hoped for and was blessed to receive.
Are you part of a particular religious tradition?
I was born and raised Roman Catholic in an old-fashioned traditional and somewhat strict household. My surrogate grandfather (actually my great-uncle) was a very devout diocesan priest. Two of my first cousins entered the convent and a third cousin became a priest. Other relatives were in a contemplative order. Religion was always important to my family. But it was also pre-Vatican II. The emphasis was on sin and penance, our unworthiness and guilt (especially as a female). My Catholic heritage actually hinders me in some respects, while of enormous help in others. The Church does not seem to want any of its members to personally experience God, although it acknowledges that saints of the misty past did so. The Church treats all its members as small children, but women as very treacherous small children. With Merton’s permission to read about Buddhism and become more ecumenical in attitude, I discovered possibilities unknown to me. He gave me permission to explore and I have. I will remain a Catholic, although not a by-the-book one. I trust my inner voice more now than ever in my life. Heck, I used to ignore it or think it was the devil!
I do not like rote prayers or the rosary, but the Mass is almost always a moving experience. The parishes I have been a member of over the years did little or nothing to inform my faith or provide opportunities for growth. It was nearly impossible to acquire information on meditation, mysticism, Merton, or anything. I’ve had to hunt it out on my own, and often without the approval of our parish religious. (Do they doubt my ability to comprehend it?)
Do you have a spiritual director or teacher with whom you share your experiences in prayer/ meditation?
Yes, I have a spiritual director whom I am very fond of. He is a Jesuit, very learned and gentle, with great patience to put up with me. But, he is a mixture of very traditional (he is in his 70s) and up-to-date. He does not like me reading Merton or (especially) Zen, so I no longer tell him about it. He encourages me in some ways, but discourages in others (you’re not ready for John of the Cross - or even the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius). Yet, he likes some of my insights and tells me he uses them in sermons.
Story 5. As a child I was blessed with two gifts in particular, a burning compassion for the poor and a natural contemplative bent. I used to go into our neighborhood Catholic church after school just to sit in the presence of the Eucharist, bathed in the love of God and loving Him in return. Walking home after receiving communion, my senses would be hyper-charged and I would experience every flower as a bouquet placed in my path by my Beloved. Once I must have appeared so disoriented, pausing to gaze with delirious delight at all the shrubbery, that I was stopped by the police, who said that I was behaving in a suspicious fashion! I tried to explain to them that I was just a little girl on my way home from church.
However, when I was in college the modern feminist movement arrived and I became scandalized by my Catholic Church’s refusal to acknowledge the equality of women or to grant us control over our fertility. I also could not accept the Church’s condemnation of homosexuals. I felt that if the Church could be so tragically and destructively wrong about women and human sexuality, then it must be wrong about everything else, too, including the existence of God. As a result, I lost my faith. I developed a hatred for the Church as an oppressor of women, particularly poor women. I didn’t hate God, but a terrible despairing grief set in over the loss of my great Beloved. Even apart from the errors of the Church, I could not believe that the God of love could exist in the face of the appalling suffering I saw in the world. I didn’t blame God for this suffering, I just could no longer believe in Him.
I became a lawyer and began to live among the homeless and poor immigrants from Central America and to serve them out of compassion and a thirst for justice, though not out of faith. My work met with success, though the death of my spiritual life produced a terrible, mostly hidden depression which grew for about 15 years and which I believe would have cost me my life eventually. During this time I had some affairs and tragically, an abortion as well. I then got married and when in my thirties found a talented therapist who enabled me to begin to heal from some of the wounds of my life. I believe that this psychological healing was a prerequisite for the spiritual healing which then followed.
It was after I became pregnant for the second time that I had the first experience of the presence of God in my adult life. One day during a hypnotherapy session, and without any suggestion of this on the part of my therapist, I spontaneously experienced myself as a tiny infant resting on the breast of God, who was a most tender father. It was an ecstatic sensation, like those I had experienced in childhood. After that, from time to time I would be overtaken by this Presence at various times throughout the day. I rejoiced greatly at His return but I did not go back to church.
During my years of darkness I was struck by the spirituality of the people that I served from Central America. Some, particularly the young mothers, had unimaginably harsh lives. They lived in nightmarish slums where rats attacked their children. Yet they seemed to be sustained by an unwavering faith in Mary in her manifestation as “Our Lady of Guadalupe,” who they believe appeared to a Mexican peasant with a motherly message of loving care. Also, their relationship with Jesus was intimate and familiar, as mine had been. I remember seeing them walk right up to the tabernacle and kiss it, something that no one ever would have dared to do in the Anglo churches of my childhood. All in all, these women seemed to have a superhuman strength in adversity. I marveled at this but could not understand it since I no longer could accept the reality and power of faith.
Then something happened which in retrospect makes me think of Augustine who said, “Were it not for the miracles, I could not have believed.” My parents had a “childlike” faith and used to amuse me no end with their naïve and wild tales of miraculous shrouds, cloaks and apparitions. I had an educated intellectual’s contempt for all these things.
But one day my mother sent me yet another book about a Marian apparition site. This time I opened it and read just one paragraph, which allegedly was a message from Jesus. The words were exceedingly tender and I felt as if a burning lance had been thrust through my heart. My being erupted into flames of longing. I cried for days and had an overwhelming thirst for the Eucharist. I felt that if I could not get back to it I would die. I sought out a priest, who fortunately didn’t tell me to go through the long drawn out folderol of the modern RICA routine for returning Catholics. He simply heard my confession and welcomed me back. I returned to the Eucharist and now experience it as the authentic source of my real life – a life that transcends mere physical existence – His life itself shared with me.
After this conversion experience I had to endure a prolonged period of contempt and derision, bordering on hatred, from my husband, who was shocked by this sudden change in me. But over time he has reconciled himself to it, as he has observed me “coming to life” in a way that neither of us could have imagined before.
My life is extremely busy with work, family, and a new enterprise that God seems to be asking of me – the formation of a group of interfaith professionals to serve the poor. So there is little time for contemplation, thought it still overtakes me, mostly when I am in nature. But my days are animated by a joyful experience of His companionship and by the feeling, quite simply, of being madly in love. I go to daily mass and have learned to play the piano again so that I can provide music for the service. I love to play Him love songs in his church home, though this has gotten me in trouble with the more sedate parishioners who prefer more traditionally austere liturgical music!
But most of all I love Him because of how I now can see Him present with the poor. In Jesus’ telling of the Last Judgment, He says, in essence, “When you saw the poor, you saw Me.” That complete and unreserved identification with the poor, lice-ridden, drug-addled, homeless man lying in the gutter, is what makes me so helplessly in love with Him. He has not abandoned the “least” among us, but has completely identified Himself with them to the extent of saying, “When you look into the face of a homeless man, you look into My Face.” This is the God man who has fused his identity with that of the poor, who has captured my heart in its entirety.
I can feel His Presence among the poor in a tangible way that I don’t feel among other groups of people. Sometimes when I am with folks who aren’t poor I find myself looking around, feeling like something is wrong or missing. Then I realize that it’s Him – that I don’t feel the immediacy of His Presence the way that I do when I am with the poor. Now I understand that even though we, and the poor in particular, suffer terribly, He is intimately with us and all is in His hands and that this can be trusted.
I still believe that the Catholic Church is wrong and unjust in its positions regarding women and gays, though I have come to realize the tragic mistake that I made regarding abortion. But I will never again let the Church’s human decision-makers separate me from my God in the Eucharist.
My faith now has a childlike quality similar to that which I used to despise in my parents. After my return to the Eucharist I went to a site of a purported apparition of Mary to thank her for her role in bringing me back to her Son. While I was there with my four-year-old child, we asked Mary to bless our rosary and as we did so, its chain turned to gold in our hands. These days I am particularly drawn to her image as Our Lady of Guadalupe. I never tire of looking at it. It has a beauty that touches me deeply and evokes for me all of her tender motherly compassion for the poor. Similarly, the image of Jesus’ face that has been reconstructed from his purported burial shroud has captivated my heart and I could contemplate it endlessly. For me it is the face of my dearest Beloved, the source and end of all desire.
Story 6. I stumbled on your site as I was researching a paper on contemplative prayer for my graduate studies in Theology. Contemplative prayer and mysticism have become the center of my whole life since I am convinced that all people are called to union with God. For Christians this union occurs through Christ.
My own journey over the past 6 years has brought me to this conclusion. My journey seriously began in June, 1993 when I had an experience of God’s presence that can best be described as ‘every cell in my body vibrated with the knowledge of God’. This experience lasted for 2½ years and changed over time becoming quieter (‘low hum’, ‘remnant of heat’) until it finally left the day after Easter, 1996.
I went through a dark night that has no comparison in my life. I had fallen in love with God in those 2.5 years and I was devastated when God’s presence disappeared. They were a glorious 2.5 years that I shall never forget! I felt abandoned, alone, and heart broken when He left. Once God’s presence left I got sick for 8 months with chronic fatigue syndrome.
The fatigue began to lift when I accepted my illness and gave my health to God. About this same time I had the insight that God was with me as a nothingness. I could only describe God as ‘negative zero’. God was less than nothing and was the ‘less than hole’ I felt inside myself. Yet I suddenly knew it was God. Imagine my elation to know that I had not turned away or gone down the wrong path!
The dark night experience continued for about 2 years. It was not just the feeling of losing God, but the knowledge of my own weak and sinful humanity. That was devastating and only became bearable when I accepted my humanity and my nothingness before God.
About this same time I had an experience of what I believe was kundalini energy. I was very distraught one night to the point that a friend wanted to spend the night with me. I awoke at midnight lying on my stomach. Suddenly I felt something like static electricity running from my thighs up my body. It felt as if my body became cross-wise, vibrating static electricity. No longer did I have a sense of my body or skin and the bed. As the energy moved towards my head I simply became this vibration with no sense of my physical self. As this was occurring I also had noise in my head like water rushing down a waterfall. I literally could not hear and yet I distinctly remember hearing three knocks, like on a door. I thought I was dying and simply prayed Jesus’ name over and over again as this was happening. I don’t know if this lasted 5 seconds or 5 minutes. It just began to subside and then ended. My extreme anxiety was gone and was replaced by extreme fatigue. The next morning when I got out of bed I felt like a truck had run over me. Every muscle in my body ached.
After this occurred, each evening before bed or at prayer time (centering prayer or Liturgy of the Hours) I would get so wound up that I couldn’t sleep or sit still in prayer. It was as if my nervous system was on high speed while my body was exhausted. I felt just like screaming or running. I called my spiritual director who figured it was kundalini and she gave me some body movement exercises based on Taoist movements. Amazingly this worked. After several weeks everything was back to normal in my life.
There has been much more but the bottom line of all this has been the journey to God. Truly I have died and risen with Christ. The dark night ended about 1.5 years ago and life is fine. I think that I may be in the unitive state but I have finally learned not to worry about the stages. The only important thing is to let God be in charge and to always say “Yes”. The strange phenomenon or special little gifts from God are apparently given by God because a person needs them. It may be that people who don’t experience any of this phenomenon have the faith or maturity to simply say yes to God without them. I may have needed more help because I have a strong ego and a scientific analytical mind. God didn’t get me through my head though, He touched my heart and nothing has been the same since then.
I felt rather uncomfortable writing up my short story. One, it is so personal that it is hard to put it out on the airwaves and trust that other people will hold it as tenderly as I do. Two, I am a bit leery of Web sites and people who might log on just for a vicarious experience or something spiritually easy. There are no easy answers in the journey, but simply the trust in God that grows as we mature in our relationship with God. Much of my spiritual journey the past 6 years has involved unusual phenomenon but I am uneasy writing about this since it is not the essence of my journey, but simply the way the journey manifested itself in my life. My experience has been primarily “lights on” (see Ruth Burrows, Guidelines for Mystical Prayer) but that may only be because that’s what God needed to get through my strong intellect. Who knows? I agreed with your warning about wanting spiritual or paranormal experiences. Experiences can lead to pride (I know) which is anathema to the journey. So I just printed an abbreviated version of the most important and compelling parts of my journey. It may help some people without them wanting these experiences.
Story 7. I practice both vocal prayer and silent meditation on a daily basis. Usually I start in the morning by saying a few prayers and just vocally say what is in my heart to God, giving thanks and praying for petitions, etc. I try to sit and meditate in the morning about 1/2 hour, sometimes longer if I feel moved to do so. I usually pray in my bedroom, but occasionally if there is a lot on my mind I’ll go to my church and meditate before the Blessed Sacrament.
The effects of my prayer life have been tremendous. It brings into focus the direction I’m moving in. Things become more clear to me. At times it has stirred up emotions of past hurt and pain that was essentially locked away. A great deal of emotional healing has taken place since I have begun to pray.
I didn’t start meditating and praying until I was 35 years old, about 2 years ago. I decided to enroll my daughter in CCD classes at the age of 6 and thought I should attend Church with her on Sundays. I thought I could just “go through the motions” so to speak. I had been away from the Church for almost 15 years. I grew up Catholic and went to Mass each week as a child. I left when I was 20 after my 21 year old brother was murdered. I could not find any comfort or solace in God or the Church. I was in fact quite angry and directed that anger toward God, believing he could have prevented this from happening to my family. For years I asked the question “Why?”
Spiritually I was dead, but I always believed in God/Jesus even though I didn’t practice any religion or prayer during this time.
When I began taking my daughter back to Mass, slowly I began to sense that this was a piece of my life that was missing. I had everything that I planned, a career, wonderful husband, two beautiful daughters, nice home, material things; but was still feeling that something was missing.
My attending Mass each week was beginning to fill that void. I went to see one of the Parish priests in confession at around Easter last year. At first I did not go into detail about my brother’s death and why I left the Church in the first place. On some level I did not want to be there, yet felt the urge or need to be. I still find this experience hard to put into words. I was definitely not looking or wanting to come back into the Church, but I was having all these feelings of needing God. The Catholic Church was my only experience of knowing Him, so it was there that I turned.
At any rate, the pain of my brother’s death and the feelings associated with my leaving the Church came back like a flood soon after. I began praying vocally every day, was drawn to the Blessed Sacrament, and sat in the Church crying my eyes out.
I went back to see the same priest when the words would not come in prayer. This time I explained why I left in the first place. He introduced me to “the prayer of the Heart,” as he coined it, explaining that words are not necessary for prayer.
Almost immediately the pain was lifted and I became insatiable for info about contemplative prayer. I read everything I could get my hands on and began praying every day, sometimes throughout the day, having long chats with God, developing a deep personal relationship. This was never taught to me as a child, so it was all so new and exciting. I began keeping a spiritual journal and was always searching for more info to try and understand where this was all taking me. At this time I had trouble finding the time I wanted to put into my prayer life. I was living your typical middle-class mom life, working, taking care of a family and large home. I wanted to read, pray and write, but could not fit it all in. I began using my lunch hour to read and meditate, and the time spent in my car going to and from work to pray. Often I find myself in prayer throughout the day when engaged in otherwise mindless tasks.
Soon after I began to reassess my life and decided to quit my job as a special education teacher at the end of the school year. I felt I was being led in this direction by God. This would be the first of many decisions I would make in the same way. I have tried especially to remain open to where and what I’m being led to through my prayer.
Most recently, I have felt compelled to forgive those responsible for my brother’s death. This has taken much prayer and the gift of grace in order to get to this point, but I cannot describe the overwhelming feeling of peace that has come with this forgiveness.
As far as religious tradition, I am Catholic mainly because it is my religion from birth. I believe that there are many paths to God and it is important to follow one. For me, religion is nothing without spirituality. Yet I also have trouble remaining spiritual without the support of my organized religion. I find them to be dependent upon each other. I also believe to truly be spiritual one must pray often, although I admit there is no one “right” way to pray. That is as individual as the person despite their tradition. I have not had any formal spiritual direction, although from time to time I have spoken to my parish priest who has urged me to look at things more differently, or to ask certain questions of myself. I have done some spiritual reading: Thomas Merton, Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, although I can’t say I always understand everything I’m reading! I have no real spiritual friends, as I find my prayer life difficult to share with others. It’s not a part of myself I find easy to discuss with others. The exception to this would be my priest who is the only one who knows what I have been going through.
As far as extra-ordinary experiences, many years ago I had the experience of my dead brother standing at the side of my bed calling to me. Initially I thought it may have been a dream, but more and more I believe it was truly him. I also have had the sense that my dead father was present in my home. The feeling was so strong at times that I could also smell him. This began right after my return to Church and lasted several months on and off until about the spring. I have not had the sense since then.
I have also had the experience of being led to a person or place in an answer to my prayer. Also answers would come in the form of images, and then later I would receive confirmation of the answer another way; through reading or by another person.
It’s not very clear, but to me it is significant given the number of times it has happened. I can only say in the last two years I have grown tremendously. My prayer life seems to have an ebb and flow about it. Sometimes I pray very little and am satisfied, and other times can pray throughout the day and sit to meditate and am still insatiable. I just wish I understood more.
A Journey into God
“Secretuum meum mihi” [my secret is my own], so wrote Cardinal John Henry Newman in the introduction to his Apologia Pro Vita Sua. Although my secret too is my own, and is almost inexpressible, such a secret, the secret life of the Blessed Trinity as lived in the life of the human soul, is so fundamental to man’s existence, for it constitutes our Christian inheritance, that I would like to share with you a little of how this secret has gradually revealed Itself in my life over the last 24 years.
I begin my story in 1977, it was a memorable year, it was the year I married. I married a cradle Catholic and, being raised a Protestant, I was required to undergo a period of instruction in Catholic belief and practice. I already understood a little about Catholicism from an Irish friend who was at college with me. Often I would go with her to evening mass to keep her company. From the outset I was intrigued with the mass. I sensed in its drama and symbolism the presence of a secret to which I was not yet initiated. With instruction came the opportunity to read Scripture for the first time, and to discuss it with the parish priest. I found myself even more intrigued. I pondered why it was that Jesus had freely submitted Himself to the most cruel death when, it seemed obvious to me, He could have fled. What was the conviction He possessed which kept Him there, and submissive, even to the point of renouncing His own will?
On reflection, I think, perhaps, that my journey into God had begun some considerable time before this, but I was not consciously aware of it at that time. As a child, I had been taught by my father to wonder, to “keep my eyes and my ears open.” Being raised in the country, as we were also, he loved nature. He could name animals, birds, trees and flowers, and was very much at home with the rhythm of the seasons. As a young man he had taught himself to play the fiddle, and could sing, and taught us to sing the ballads, and to recite the poetry which spoke so intimately of country life and culture. He was not overtly religious, but I believe that I learned from him an attitude of mind, which I now believe to be crucial to the development of faith, an attitude which holds itself ever open to a myriad of possibilities. From him and from my mother also, I learned the value of doing one’s duty even in the most unpromising circumstances.
I was disappointed then, when the parish priest whom I was attending for instruction, cautioned me to wait until after my marriage to become a Catholic. He knew my parents-in-law well and wanted me to be sure that my becoming a Catholic was not motivated solely by my desire to please my new husband or his parents, but because it was what I believed God wanted of me. And so it was, that I did not become a Catholic at that time. As such, I was considered to be an “impediment” to the marriage, and a special dispensation had to be sought so that we could marry in the church - there was no mass.
I still attended mass from time to time, but could not, of course, receive the sacraments. My attention was drawn in a completely different direction with the birth of our first child in the latter part of 1978. Our second child was born in 1981, and a third in 1983. During these years I neither believed nor disbelieved in God, I simply never thought of Him. My life was difficult. My parents and sisters lived hundreds of miles away, and my young husband was unable to give me the emotional support which I craved. He was a general practitioner, and in those days wives were expected to answer the telephone from patients outside surgery hours. As well as answering the phone overnight and all day Saturday and Sunday, it was expected that we would be able to dispense general advice to them also. As well as trying to raise three young children, I had my newly widowed father-in-law to care for also who was deeply depressed. By the end of 1983, I was mentally and physically exhausted. It seemed that I existed in a state of deep psychological isolation in which I gave myself to everyone but received nothing in return. This to me was a source of profound suffering. I felt myself to be perpetually humiliated as I struggled each day to do what duty seemed to demand of me. It was during this maelstrom that I made a choice which would change my life forever.
Towards the beginning of 1984 it seemed plain to me that there were two possibilities open to me - to stay where I was, doing what was expected of me, or to leave altogether. It seemed to me that I could not leave my children, and since I had nowhere else to take them to, I would have to stay. But if I stayed, something would need to change. Since I could not change those that I lived with, I had tried that unsuccessfully, I reasoned that it was my perception that needed to change. Since it was the receiving nothing in return for my efforts - nothing emotionally, financially, physically or intellectually that caused me humiliation and therefore suffering, I thought that if I could continue to serve, but without constantly looking for reciprocated affection, I could free myself from the cycle of humiliation/suffering. And so it was that I gave my consent to what seemed at the time like the ultimate act of “psychological suicide,” the dispossession of myself with no hope of reward. There was nothing overtly religious about this decision, I simply wanted to free myself. For those readers familiar with the works of Jacques Maritain, they will find in his essay, “The Immanent Dialect of the First Act of Freedom,” an exposition of the nature of such a radical act. From this act, this giving freely of my Fiat, I found that humiliation became ever sweeter to me. The more humiliation I suffered, the greater was my consolation. It seemed to me that I possessed within me an unending source of Love from which I could give unreservedly of myself and receive one hundred fold. Again, there was nothing overtly religious in this giving and receiving, [I had not yet learned of faith or the possibility of an interior life], I felt only a joyful sense of relief that at last I was free from suffering the bitter resentment that I had found in humiliation. There was a sense of having been liberated from a fearful oppression. I felt in this liberation that I had gained a reward somehow for my past suffering. I do not say that I no longer suffered, only that detachment from it had become a source of joy.
It was not until the beginning of 1986 that my thoughts turned once more to the possibility of becoming a Catholic. During that year our eldest daughter was being prepared for first communion and I felt it was time for me to decide one way or another. Consequently, at the beginning of 1987, I began again a course of instruction. Once again the sense of intrigue returned, but this time with even more vigor. Not only was I attracted to Catholic belief and practice, the person of Jesus, and Scripture, but this time I felt that the secret which lay hidden in them was revealing Itself to me. For some inexplicable reason I was able to understand intuitively, and without recourse to study, all that I was being taught. The mysteries of faith which lay hidden in Church dogma and doctrine, in the liturgy, in Scripture, were suffused with such a clear light that their inner content was made absolutely transparent to me. At this time my father-in-law gave me a copy of Thomas Merton’s autobiography, and I found that this intuitive knowing and understanding extended to his text also. The effect of this intuitive knowing was irresistible. I was being moved by some interior principle which was urging me to knock, to search, to ask.
In June 1987 I made my first communion and confirmation on the same day. During the months leading up to this I had lived constantly with an ever deepening awareness of being enveloped by a delectable secret life which was hidden from human eye, but which my heart “saw” very clearly. On the day of my confirmation, when I turned from being anointed with the oil of chrism to face the congregation, I “saw,” though my eyes saw nothing, the Kingdom of Heaven stretched out before me. The Church seemed to be filled with a single Golden Thread of grace which passed through each person and connected us all intimately together into one indivisible whole. As Merton says of his intellectual vision on the corner of 4th and Walnut, in The Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, and is a comparable awareness to my own, “I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all of these people, that they were mine and I was theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. They were all shining like the sun. Then it was as if I saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depth of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes.” The gaze of my heart was held captive in that vision, transfixed by Love, as Love revealed Himself as He existed in each of us. I was inebriated with joy. In my naivety I believed that this was what happened to people when they became Catholic!!
Although my home life remained as difficult as ever, I found that by reading Scripture and spiritual books, most often Merton, and attending the sacraments, that I was being drawn evermore irresistibly inwards into a source of Love which upheld me. I lived in a state of introverted extroversion. By surrendering to this secret attraction which held me prisoner in its Charm, I found that I became more and more available to others. I could be with them in very practical ways, for it seemed that we were all so intimately connected to each other and Christ, that whatever I did for them, I did to myself and also to Christ. I began to actively seek solitude, physically and emotionally, the more introverted I was, the more extroverted I could be.
In the middle of 1988 I had our fourth child. Sometime around then, I don’t remember exactly when, I began the practice of recollecting myself interiorly. This practice, at the time, was given to me intuitively, I knew nothing of the various stages of prayer. Spiritual reading and solitude were always the “stepping stones” to entering this state of recollection. Thereafter I would put myself in the place of the woman with the hemorrhage. I too struggled through the crowd, coming from behind Him, wanting to touch the hem of His garment, believing that I, too, could be healed. I do not now remember how long I persevered in this practice, very gradually I grew closer and closer to Him until the possibility of “touching” Him was a reality. Like the bride in the song of songs our interior conversations and declarations of love for each other became more and more intimate until, quite unexpectedly, the One I had been reaching out to touch from behind, turned and, as lovers do, embraced me, and kissed me with the kisses of His mouth. This state of recollection gradually became habitual in me. I no longer needed the aid of my own efforts to be recollected, a “glance” inwards, a sound such as a bell ringing, the sound of the breeze in the trees, a song, all brought me into that secret place where He waited for me. Everywhere I looked, everything I saw or heard was filled with the presence of Christ. He was my dearest Love, my intimate companion, my ever present friend, my guide. All things were suffused with meaning, and their meaning and purpose was revealed to me by His habitual presence in me. In this delectable state of knowing I could “see” the unity of all things.
It is impossible to give a clear description of this state of contemplation. As St. John of the Cross says, no matter what is said of it, all the more is left unsaid. I was inebriated with Love and spiritual joy. I was in love with Love, and I knew with certitude that Love was in love with me. My psyche bristled with the most delectable intuitions of Divine Life. There were more intellectual visions and locutions, each of them bringing a deeper penetration into the mysteries of faith. Eventually through the years of 1993, ‘94 and ‘95, there were ecstasies and raptures in which I was rapt from my senses into God. I knew that I stood on holy ground, that I AM had revealed Himself in the centre of my soul, that I was being consumed by His Living Flame of Love. In rapture, one is taught principally about the virtue of Charity. Being consumed by the Flame of Charity, one is transformed into that same Charity.
This then, was the secret life which continued to unfold in me. At the beginning of 1994, I thought perhaps it was time to pluck up courage to speak to someone about it. I wanted guidance, I knew that I was the recipient of a very precious gift, I wanted to be reassured that I was using the gift wisely, and indeed that I would continue to use it wisely. I wrote to the Abbot of a nearby Benedictine Monastery asking if I could meet with him. There, I thought, I would find someone who not only understood my experience but lived the same experience. I met with him fairly regularly over the course of the next four years. I thought that he understood, he always gave me the impression that he did. Gradually I began to suspect that although we were using the same language to speak of prayer, what was understood by each of us in relation to that language was not the same thing. In 1995, I purchased the collected works of St. John of the Cross and found in them the most perfect exposition of what had been wrought so secretly and delectably in me. I tried to speak to the Abbot with reference to St. John of the Cross, fearing that the language I used to describe to him my prayer was inadequate, and that it was this which caused the misunderstanding between us. For a time this seemed to work, and I was reassured that I had found a reliable guide.
In January 1996 I returned to my profession as a nurse, working part-time in my husband’s medical practice. I had had a break for 18 years. I found myself overwhelmed with the love I felt for my patients. Each of them was literally Christ to me and I received intense delight in serving them. I found it difficult not to embrace each of them as they stepped into my room. I felt overjoyed and privileged to share in the most intimate details of their lives. Then, suddenly, in April of that year, I was unexpectedly and inexplicably plunged into darkness. All the intuitions, visions, locutions and raptures ceased. I could no longer be recollected in the same manner as before no matter how hard I tried to bring this about. He had withdrawn Himself from my conscious awareness. He who had been my constant companion, lover, friend and guide was gone. I felt, as St. John of the Cross says so succinctly, that I was being undone by a cruel spiritual death. I was grief stricken. I was overcome with a profound sense of meaninglessness. I faced a huge black hole which at times would descend on me with such voracity that I imagined myself to have descended into Hell. I was abandoned, alone in the whole of the universe. What had I done wrong? Had I displeased Him in some way? Was it because I had stepped out a little from the solitude in which I had lived for 18 years to return to my profession? More than ever I needed someone to speak to, to reassure me that this stage of growth was usual and to encourage me to work through it.
The pressure of suffering such a grief and keeping up a normal exterior life was crushing. I turned to the Abbot for reassurance. When I tried to discuss my predicament with him he told me that, “He was saddened and concerned at my state of mind.” That I “relied too much on experience,” I was “insane and unsaintly,” that I “read too many books,” and that I should “read nothing but the Bible and go regularly to him for confession.” His lack of understanding and his rejection increased my suffering immeasurably. I was set apart in the deepest solitude imaginable. Whereas other people could speak openly of the grief they felt at the loss of a loved one, I could speak to no-one. What could I say of that loss that would not seem to others to be verging on insanity? I had nursed patients with religious delusions, I knew only too well the treatment that was available to them. I didn’t want anyone to know that I was insane, if in fact that’s what I was, I kept quiet and bore it. There were times however when I longed to share the burden with someone, and often I would promise myself that I would consult a psychiatrist. But when I ran over in my mind what I would say about my predicament, I knew that there was no way in which I could express such an experience without it sounding insane. My husband had never been aware, and is not even now aware, of my interior state. I felt that I could not discuss it with him without causing him grave concern. On previous occasions, when I had alluded to the possibility of my state, he had been so abashed in the face of it that I resolved not to mention it to him again. I found some consolation in St. John of the Cross and his Dark Night of the Soul, Book 2. But nothing, in reality, could console me. I had been placed in a state which I was helpless to do anything about. I felt often that I was hanging over the abyss of atheism. I no longer felt that I was capable of loving God. The vision of Eternal Life which I had enjoyed for nearly 10 years was gone, and in its place was a very clear vision of eternal damnation.
My grief continued unabated for the next four years. During that time I made a number of retreats, hoping always that I would find someone who understood my experience and could offer me guidance. I consulted, at various times, a Benedictine Abbess, the directors of two separate Jesuit retreat houses, and finally two Carmelite Sisters, one of whom was Ruth Burrows. I recounted to each of them the same story which I am recounting now. All were very pleasant, but it was evident from their reactions to me that not one of them had any idea what I was talking about. None of them, unlike the Abbot, suggested to me outright that I was insane, but their benign smiles and their pats on the head revealed more than words could say of what they believed in their hearts.
In June 1999, out of sheer desperation, I decided to consult our Bishop. I had known him for a number of years, he had often in the past invited me to take part in Pro-Life talks with him. Surely, I thought, he would not dismiss me. He knew me to be sane, had indeed complimented me on a number of these occasions for my, as he put it, “savvy.” He embraced me when we met and kissed me on the cheek. We enjoyed together a tray of tea and biscuits. I recounted my story as simply as I could, he listened intently. When I had finished he told me that he knew someone who could help me, he believed that she and I shared the same experience. He wrote me a letter of introduction, and advised me to take it to a consecrated hermit whom knew. I was relieved, I felt that he had understood. I cannot adequately describe the sense of futility that I felt when I visited this woman. It was apparent to me from the outset that she had suffered, and was still suffering, from a pathological mental disorder. I felt angry for her sake that her darkness had been named “contemplative” and that she had therefore been deprived of the professional psychiatric help which she desperately needed. There are, it seems to me, many dark nights, but not all of them are contemplative.
I felt then, that I lived in a desert. My experience was obviously incomprehensible to others, I felt that I had been set apart from them somehow. Added to this was an acute awareness that I had lost from my psyche that faculty which deals with affect. I was no longer able to feel joy or sorrow. Everything was colored a deep shade of grey. My memory was indeed empty, not in the sense that I could remember nothing, but in the sense that, whilst I could recall past events, I had lost the ability to recall the feelings which these events had engendered in me. My will too, was empty. Social occasions left me limp with the feeling that I could no longer “be” with people, in the sense that I could no longer feel anything about the things which they amused themselves with. My intellect too, was empty, not in the sense that I was unable to understand everyday events, but in the sense that they were all shrouded in meaninglessness to me. For me there was no past, no future, only the ever present now which was filled with the annihilating Gaze of God. Trying to encapsulate in words this profound sense of solitude in which I found myself, I wrote in my journal, in an entry marked October ‘99, “I live in a vast unbounded desert in which no-one and nothing appear. By day my eyes are blinded by the brightness of the sun, and my mouth parched with its heat. At night when I lie down to sleep, my body and soul are frozen to death in a wide-eyed awareness of my own absurdity.” Like dear old Job, I too had lost everything that had given life meaning, everything that had offered consolation and an idea of my own worth in God’s eyes. I too sat upon the proverbial dung heap covered in suppurating sores. I too had heard from my comforters the explanation of my state. But those explanations I could not accept, to do so would have been to deny Reality Himself. Only a thought of Merton’s reassured me. He describes this state of solitude thus, “The essence of a solitary vocation is that it is a vocation to fear, helplessness, to isolation in the invisible God.” It seems to me that the fear he mentions is filial fear, a fear which is experienced as a deep sense of dread. Self-knowledge is acute in the Night of the Spirit. In this Night a person sees clearly that he no longer possess anything of himself, nor can he derive anything from others with which he might uphold himself. There is nothing left to depend upon except God, and Him seemingly not there.
It was not until June 2000 that I began, gradually, to be aware that in this nakedness of faith, this desert in which I lived, I had entered unknowingly into the very “place” where God waited for me. The desert is a trysting place. I was reminded of a tract from Hosea, 2:14,16-17,19, “Therefore, behold, I will allure her, will bring her into the wilderness, and speak comfort to her. And it shall be, in that day, says the Lord, that you will call Me My Husband, and no longer call Me My Master, for I will take from her mouth the name of Baals, and they shall be remembered by their names no more. I will betroth you to Me forever; yes, I will betroth you to Me in righteousness and justice, in loving kindness and mercy; I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness, and you shall know the Lord.” It was during that month that I wrote the following little poem in my journal in an attempt to catch this new awareness.
THE ADOPTION OF A CHILD
strange it should be
It is knowing in unknowing, in which, by the poverty of one’s own spirit, one is moved by God’s Holy Spirit. One experiences that Reality in the depths of one’s being, of which St Paul spoke, “I have been crucified with Christ, it is no longer I who live, but Christ in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” Gal 2:20. It is the same awareness as that of Job who says, “I KNOW that my Redeemer lives, and He shall stand at last upon the earth; after my skin is destroyed, this I KNOW, that in my flesh I SHALL see God.” Job 19: 25-26. This living faith, stripped naked of all that is still too human, as indeed Our Lord was at the moment of His crucifixion, is the beginning of the Resurrection of the flesh even as we live this mortal life. This living faith confers upon us the very being of God Himself, who has become the very principle of our new supernatural existence. In this existence, Christ is made present upon the earth in an incomparable way in us. It is the “little” resurrection of which Evagrius speaks which shall be completed in Heaven. Then, there shall be no more Hope, no more Faith, but only Charity in which we shall know, no longer darkly, but even as we are known.
Part III (Continued)
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