|Prayer Questionnaire A Surprise Hit
Particular Interests of Forum Members
Darkness and the Life of Prayer
#1. The rise of extremely simplified forms of prayer.
#2. Turning to the East.
#3. The contemplative dark night and the psychological dark night.
#4. What are we going to call contemplation?
Welcome to the first issue of the Christian Prayer and Contemplation Forum Newsletter. For those of you for whom this is the first contact with the Forum, let us briefly explain what it is and how it functions.
What is the Christian Prayer and Contemplation Forum? It is a network of people seriously interested in the life of prayer and contemplation who share their insights and experiences in order to help each other and to build up the foundations for today's renewal of Christian spirituality.
Your written contributions to the Forum are used anonymously and with discretion. If you want to write the Forum, and don't want there to be even the possibility of your comments appearing in the Newsletter, mark them "strictly private."PRAYER QUESTIONNAIRE A SURPRISE HIT
The initial announcement of the Forum included a questionnaire formulated by Philip St. Romain. We put it in because we had the room, and we were surprised that so many of you answered it either briefly or in considerable detail. In this issue and subsequent ones we will look at some of the responses. This will allow all of us a glimpse into what other people are doing, and eventually give us a sense of the actual state of Christian prayer and contemplation today.PARTICULAR INTERESTS OF FORUM MEMBERS
Particular interests mentioned by Forum members beyond the major ones of the Christian contemplative tradition and the dialogues with psychology and Eastern religions include: practical issues on contemplation; the prayer of quiet; balancing the active and the contemplative sides of life; technology and spiritual growth; stages on the journey; lay contemplative lifestyles; harmonizing the community will with the experience of your own true self; the life of prayer as expressed in Eastern Christian traditions; bringing spirituality into our churches; contemplation and social justice, and more.
Members come from many backgrounds married, priestly and religious life, secular members of religious orders like the Carmelites and Cistercians, practitioners of centering prayer and John Main's mantra prayer, Eastern Orthodox, and Buddhists, and Christian practitioners of Buddhist forms of meditation. We welcome this rich diversity and the wealth of experience it represents.NEWSLETTER PUBLICATION
There is no set time-table for the appearance of the Forum Newsletter. How often it comes out will depend, on large part, on the responses received from the Forum members. So send in your own insights, questions, stories and experiences. Each issue will feature some of these stories, as well as a particular aspect of the spiritual life seen from the perspective of the practitioner, that is, the person actually trying to go on the inner journey to union with God.DARKNESS AND THE LIFE OF PRAYER
It is no secret that the Christian mystical or contemplative tradition has fared poorly over the last 300 years. It is not that there were no contemplatives, but they often felt isolated. Even today people seriously interested in the life of prayer and contemplation experience a similar sense of isolation.
On the brighter side, this long winter of neglect of the Christian contemplative tradition is giving way to a new springtime of interest in and enthusiasm for the life of prayer. But interest and enthusiasm are not the same as the knowledge and fire-tried experience that are necessary if we are to make an enduring new beginning. Let's look at just one issue that needs to be clarified.
The writings of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross have strongly colored our Western Christian understanding of the,life of prayer ever since the end of the 16th century. From reading them, and the immense literature that has grown up around them, we have gotten a certain picture of how the spiritual life unfolds. In one way or another we become converted to a serious dedication to the life of prayer, which is accompanied by a time in which our efforts at prayer and spiritual exercises are rewarded by a sense of consolation and interior pleasure. This consolation has the good effect of drawing us away from the world and closer to the things of God. But this state is destined not to last. This almost tangible sense of God's presence disappears and we are plunged into darkness. This darkness is intimately connected with the beginning of infused contemplation, which is the actual experience of the presence of God in us in a deeper and higher way, and which gradually begins to make itself felt.
But how many people actually go on this kind of interior journey, as described by the Carmelite saints? It seems to us that there are other paths, as well. One, for example, is where people from the beginning receive infused contemplative graces which effect their conversion and put them on the road to union with God. But there is another kind of journey that we feet is much more common than these first two possibilities. It starts off the same with a process of conversion, and some kind of period of consolation and fervor, which varies greatly from individual to individual. Then, after no great length of time, much as John of the Cross describes, darkness descends. But this darkness is not a relatively short darkness that heralds the dawning of contemplative experience, but goes on and on, even for many years, and becomes a central feature of the interior landscape.
Our question to the Forum is this: Is this kind of darkness as widespread as we imagine? And does it give rise to many of the characteristics that describe the Christian life of prayer as we know it today?
Let us describe four of these characteristics that seem to flow from this central fact of darkness.1. The rise of extremely simplified forms of prayer.
A central element of this darkness is our inability to pray like we did before. We no longer get the satisfaction and find the interior savor we once did from our devotional practices. Therefore we begin to change the way we pray, searching for a method that will be, fruitful. We drop, for example, elaborate forms of imaginative representation, or discursive meditation made of many thoughts, or devotional practices composed of many feelings, and we cling to what is at the heart of prayer, which is a lifting of the heart to God in love, a God whom we believe is present to us by faith. As the darkness increases, this kind of simplification can be taken to great lengths until it can seem like a blind stirring of love in a sea of darkness.2. Turning to the East.
It is during this time of extended darkness when we are not receiving the graces of infused contemplation and our prayer life appears very humble and simple and we are wondering where it could possibly lead us that we can turn to the East and the great meditative traditions of Buddhism and Hinduism for help. These ways of meditation are nondiscursive so they fit the loss of discursive facility we find in ourselves, and yet they allow us to actively do something. They seem an almost natural continuation of the Christian path we have been following that appears to have petered out.
But as more and more people take up practice in two traditions, it is inevitable that certain fundamental questions will begin to appear. If I am sitting with the intention of attaining enlightenment, and praying with the intention of attaining union with God, am I doing two things or one? Are Eastern forms of meditation an answer to the darkness that we once imagined was meant to lead us to infused contemplation? In short, can we identify enlightenment with infused contemplation? These are issues we hope that the Forum will examine in detail.3. The contemplative dark night and the psychological dark night.
An attentive reading of John of the Cross on the dark night of sense reveals that not every dark night is a prelude to infused contemplation. If that were so, he would not have had to give his famous three signs for the passage from meditation to contemplation. He even explicitly says that melancholy can bring on a state similar to the contemplative dark night.
We need to develop the psychological implications of his insights. From a psychological point of view we can explain the darkness as a draining of psychological or psychic energy from the faculties like thinking and feeling that we were using in the life of prayer and through which we were feeling satisfaction. But is this disappearance of energy because we are now being called to contemplative graces, or is it a much wider and more common phenomenon by which we are being called to develop another part of our personalities and become more psychologically integrated? In short, we can't ignore the possibility that we have fallen into a psychological dark night, or a dark night that combines both spiritual and psychological dimensions. This, too, is a topic we hope the Forum will focus on.4. What are we going to call contemplation?
It is certainly possible to use the word contemplation in many ways, and that is what is happening today. But it is important that we realize that this is happening. Contemplation can mean a loving gaze at the truth, or a reaching out to God by faith. If we use the word in this way, then the simplified kinds of prayer that arise out of the experience of darkness can be called contemplative.
We can certainly call some of the states that are achieved by Eastern forms of meditation contemplative, as well. And then we have the use of the word contemplation in Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross where it means infused contemplation, the actual experience of God present within us. But we are still faced with the question of how to relate these simplified prayer practices with Eastern forms of meditation and with infused contemplation.
We hope that these remarks will call forth comments by the Forum members, both as to the frequency of the experience of darkness, and the implications that you see in it.JOURNEYS
Sharing our own journeys towards union with God is not easy to do. We may be shy by temperament, or grown accustomed, if not reconciled, to not speaking about these kinds of things, or have heard one too many times the admonition, "You should not talk about these matters."
Despite the hesitations that most of us feel, we believe that this kind of sharing is healthy. It allows us to help each other and strengthen the renewal of the interior life that is currently going on.
In our initial announcement of the Forum we heard from three people:
1. A practitioner who presented many questions he would have liked to see answered when he was first starting out.
2. A woman who follows both the Christian and Buddhist ways and asks about the beginner's mind.
3. A woman contemplative addressing vital issues about contemplation and psychological growth, the active life, and so forth.
It is appropriate for the Forum members to gently comment on these sharings, and help discussions develop about points of common interest.
Let's meet some other members of the Forum.
4. 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 mate priest about his spiritual life!
5. On first blush, I'd have to describe myself as more of a spectator and fan of contemplative experience and mysticism than as an actual participant. My own "prayer life" is generally short, simple, and on-schedule: a recitation of the Lord's Prayer and a review of the day each evening, a thank you for the new day each morning. I have read "how-to" books regarding the more meditative and contemplative styles of prayer, but I have not been able to adopt any particular technique, mantra, Jesus Prayer, etc.
And yet, at odd times and places, I have felt a significant presence. If nothing else, I am trying to be open and responsive to such "moments of presence." I have found it best not to expect or anticipate these moments, nor to try to draw them, nor to be discouraged when long periods pass between them.
These "moments" are invariably positive, reassuring and supportive. But, there is sometimes also an accompanying inner revelation, a sort of X-ray of the soul, showing the dark spots of fear and protectiveness. This is not a light that is threatening or harsh, but is purely revelatory. I have been aided in self-improvement and self-growth by these moments. They convey an inner strength that helps me to share more of myself with others.
I seek to achieve a more integrated life in which silence, meditation, and contemplation all make sense. I work for an urban development organization, quite intentionally. I try to keep my life relatively simple, eat a mostly vegetarian diet, exercise regularly and sleep at regular hours. I am divorced, but hope yet to find someone who is walking down a path similar to my own. I am clearly an introverted and intuitive person, although almost evenly balanced between thinking and feeling tendencies in behavior. I wish to think that my lifestyle and prayer life are interactive, hopefully approaching the ideal discussed by Nouwen of life as prayer and prayer as life.
I welcome the opportunity to participate in your Forum. The search for meaningful prayer and a meaningful life can sometimes be a lonely one, and an opportunity to connect with fellow travelers is most welcome.