|#1. The Christian
tradition of prayer and contemplation.
#2. The life of prayer and the depths of the psyche
#3. Interreligious dialogue.
#4. Lifestyle and the life of prayer
#5. One battle-scarred practitioner
#6. Another person writes:
#7. A third respondent, a married lay woman comments:
There is more interest in and enthusiasm for the life of prayer and contemplation today than there has been in the Church since the 17th century, but as this revival begins to mature, deep and difficult questions are beginning to surface, and the answers we give to them will vitally influence the success or failure of this renewal.
We may feel these questions moving around inside of us, but by their very nature they are difficult to articulate. We are accustomed to being silent about them. We have become almost reconciled to the isolation that can accompany a serious interest in the life of prayer. We can be inclined by temperament to reticence, especially when it comes to our interior life, and we often feel surrounded by an almost impenetrable thicket of darkness and perplexities, and have nowhere to turn but to God and to a few special spiritual friends.
We personally share many of these feelings and hesitations, but despite them these questions will continue to surface and challenge us. What we need is a place where we are free to talk about them, a place where we can come together and share our insights and experiences, questions and attempts at answers about the interior life as it is being lived out today, and this is what we hope the Christian Prayer and Contemplation Forum will become.
What kind of questions are we talking about? Let us put down some of the ones that attract us. We will list them under four general categories.1. The Christian tradition of prayer and contemplation.
Centuries and centuries of Christian spiritual practice have amassed a great treasure that can enrich us, but we can't assume that we already know it because we are Christians. We can't even assume that leadership in the Christian community or life in a prayerful or contemplative setting somehow automatically confers living contact with that tradition. In fact, we are emerging from centuries in which interest in these kinds of things was discouraged, not only for lay people but also for priests and religious.
Can we really say that this loss of living contact with our own deep Christian spiritual traditions has no effect on what is happening today? We hear on every side, "So and so is a contemplative, or lives the contemplative life, or is practicing contemplative prayer." Does this mean the problems of the past have been swept away? Unfortunately not. Do we, for example, really understand why the great mystical revival of the 16th and 17th centuries ended in disaster? Do we realize that the language they used then has an eerie resemblance to some of the ways we are talking about contemplation now? Why should we succeed when they failed?
Let's try to be more specific by looking at the great contemplative tradition that comes to us from John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. Do we really understand what they meant by contemplation? Did they know anything about a kind of contemplative prayer that we could do whenever we wanted to. And if not, what do we really mean we say we are practicing contemplative prayer?
Does the fact that I can no longer pray like I did before and can't point to a specific fault that I committed that would account for this disability mean that I am being called to contemplation? We are using the word contemplation today in many ways that are often inconsistent with each other. In the same way, the phrase "the dark night" has acquired a multitude of meanings. It is certainly a dark night when we can't pray like we did before, and we are cut off from the inner satisfaction and gratification we used to receive through our practice of prayer. But because this happens, and indeed, is a very common experience, does that mean we have entered into the dark night that John of the Cross is describing as intimately linked with the beginning of contemplation? Can't there be other possibilities, for example, various psychological dark nights that have to do with our state of psychological integration?
John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila are talking about something they call infused contemplation, which is an actual experience of God being present in contrast to an interior state where we believe that God is present and try to unite ourselves to God in love, but we don't actually experience this presence. Did they know anything about an active or acquired kind of contemplation that we can do whenever we want to? Can it be found in their writings, and if not, where did it come from, and are we creating new kinds of active or acquired contemplation under the guise of being faithful to the great Carmelite mystics?
How many people today actually experience the kind of contemplation they were talking about? What other kinds of paths do we follow? How does this Carmelite path fit in with the other spiritual paths that have developed in the Church? How are we to act when darkness comes In our life of prayer, as it almost inevitably does, and yet we have no reason to believe that we are being called to contemplative experience like John of the Cross is talking about? Then what do we do with ourselves?
Paralleling these kinds of practical questions are similar ones that we would have to ask if we were going to prepare the philosophical and theological foundations for a renewed theology of prayer and mysticism. Just what, for example, is the role that the Trinity plays in the interior life? In what way was Jesus in his human consciousness a model for us of contemplation? Where does contemplation actually take place? We have unconsciously assimilated a schema that looks at the soul as identical with what we would call ego consciousness today, and above it is God and below it is the devil, so whatever we don't consciously know or will gets attributed to God or the devil. But implicit in our own spiritual traditions and their talk about the center of the soul is a view that is quite different. There are spiritual depths in our souls beyond the realm of ego consciousness, and they play a vital role in the life of prayer. This brings us to our second category of questions.2. The life of prayer and the depths of the psyche.
Christian spirituality is in dire need of a viable empirical psychology that embraces the whole psyche, both conscious and unconscious. It has to become psychologically aware, for it is in the psyche that the life of prayer is lived out.
Can we really take Charismatic experiences or visions and revelations as direct communications from God which somehow bypass the human psyche? In what way are they colored and conditioned by the unconscious? Even if we could determine that someone had genuine contemplative graces, does that mean that the visions and revelations and other palpable phenomena that sometimes accompany these graces are not the product both of the contemplative experience and the psyche with its images and affects through which this experience reverberates?
Can we imagine that the conscious attitudes that we take up in prayer have no repercussions in the rest of our psyches? For example, suppose as a result of practicing centering prayer or some kind of simplified affective prayer, or even under the influence of some dark night, we deliberately set out to reduce conscious discursive activity. What happens to the energy that was bound up in that discursive activity? Will it be annihilated or will it fall into the unconscious where it will activate various contents there, which contents, swollen with new energy, will try to get our conscious attention? John of the Cross knew the phenomena that can result from this kind of transfer of energy: scrupulosity, temptations to blasphemy, and sexual obsession, to which we can add today kundalini-like symptoms. Can we write these things off simply as temptations of the devil, or do we need to ask if and how they are connected to our conscious attitude? Why, for example, can an increased attempt to rid ourselves of these things seem to make them stronger? What do these kinds of things have to say about our psychological integration? An even more delicate question is, what do they have to say about our conscious attempts to banish discursive activity? Can we imagine that these kinds of movements of psychic energy will somehow resolve themselves In our favor because of our good intentions of trying to live out the spiritual life?
How do these depths of the psyche relate to the depths of the soul known by the mystics? Can we simply identify them, or do we need to go through a process of metaphysical elaboration in which we develop a parallel concept of a spiritual unconscious? In the process that leads to canonization, what kind of study is made of the psychological dimension in the lives of people proposed for sainthood? Can we really understand their lives in the concrete with no attempt to fathom what is going on in their psyches?
If lack of psychological knowledge can be dangerous In the spiritual life, what happens when we embrace a psychology like Jung's without any reservations whatsoever? Is the Christian spiritual journey identical to the night sea voyage that leads to psychological individuation and integration? If so, then what happens to the Christian life of prayer? Can it be replaced by dream work and other psychological work? Can we call God the Self and let it go at that? Is there a context to Jungian psychology as Jung lived it out that is simply incompatible in some of its aspects with Christianity? In short, is holiness really the same as wholeness?
Just as Christian spirituality can profit immensely from psychological awareness, so, too, it can be greatly enriched by dialogue with other spiritual traditions. Buddhists and Hindus, for example, have been exploring for centuries realms that Christian spirituality barely knows about. Just what have the Tibetan Buddhists in their monasteries and caves been doing? And can we try to express it in terms of our own metaphysics and theology?
The field of East-West dialogue is polarized along similar lines to that of the Jungian-Christian dialogue. On the one hand, we have Christians who fear eastern religions as New Age aberrations that will denature Christian revelation. But such fear seems often emotionally driven rather than coming from a careful reflective consideration of the issues. But this does not mean there aren't real issues to contend with? Does our attraction for Eastern forms of meditation have something to do with the lack of living contact with our Christian tradition of prayer and contemplation? Is It really possible to be a Christian practicing Zen, for example, and never ask oneself how they relate to each other? Does the fact that we now have Catholic priests and religious who are accredited Zen masters mean that the basic issues of the East-West dialogue have been resolved? Not at all. How can we be sure they know as much about Christian traditions of spirituality as they do about the East? Must we imagine that they actually agree with one another when faced.; with the question of whether Zen and Christian practice are the same or not?
It is not unknown for people intensely practicing the Christian life of prayer to spontaneously experience kundalini-like symptoms or kundalini phenomena that tend to lead towards enlightenment. Does this mean that these movements of energy ought to be attributed to the action of the Holy Spirit? Is this kind of enlightenment identical to the goal that the journey towards union with God is meant to lead to? On the practical order, what should we do if we receive these kundalini-type experiences which can manifest themselves in the appearance of bright colors, sounds, spontaneous gestures and grimaces, and so forth?4. Lifestyle and the life of prayer.
Just how do our practical choices in the way we live effect our interior lives? What kind of outer circumstances do we need to lead a genuine life of prayer and contemplation? How much time does It take? How is It effected by being married or celibate? How can good nutrition, physical posture and exercise help it? How can we arrange our lives so that we have the time and circumstances for our interior journey? How can we balance the active and contemplative sides of our lives? How can we deal with the almost Inevitable guilt of trying to lead an interior life in a very extraverted world?
These and many other questions like them need to be addressed. For example, what about Marian apparitions, Christian cult-like groups, using spiritual categories to try to deal with areas where they are inappropriate tools, Charismatic prayer, Centering Prayer, John Main's mantra prayer, spiritual authoritarianism in the guise of Christian obedience, irrationality masquerading as faith, the Enneagram, creation spirituality, and many more?
Certainly it would be more than presumptuous for us to propose to answer all these kinds of questions. In fact, we hesitated before proposing this kind of Forum because we realized how difficult these Issues are and how limited our own experience is. But there really ought to be such a Forum if an adult and mature Christian spirituality is going to emerge. We have many books, retreats and workshops on how to begin the spiritual life, but we have too few on what to do once we have made a beginning. To assuage our hesitations about opening up such a Forum we asked some of the( people who can be met in the pages of the catalog If they would be willing to lend a hand: Don Bisson, with his deep knowledge of Jungian psychology, Jungian-Christian dialogue, and the rapidly reviving field of spiritual direction; Philip St. Romain, who already deals with many questions of kundalini and Eastern spirituality through his ministry of writing and retreats; Jim Grob, who has a keen eye for the intricacies of Buddhist-Christian dialogue; Wayne Teasdale, with his extensive view of East-West dialogue and his special knowledge of the work of Bede Griffiths; and other talented people who we can turn to for valued opinions.
We have also asked various people to formulate questions they would like to see addressed. Let us share with you some of their comments. To simplify things we have kept their contributions anonymous in order to try to overcome what one person called the notorious shyness of contemplatives.
5. One battle-scarred practitioner asked himself what points he would have liked to see covered when he was first starting out. He writes:
If in 1975 you had the 'Ideal Book of Answers For People Interested in Spiritual Development,' what things would you have looked up and studied closely to find the help you needed?
Have some "real" people in the modern world actually experienced direct contact with the transcendent/God? Show me what they experienced.
What are a few highly specific "start-up" scenarios: sit in the full lotus/go to Tibet/find a Teacher/buy certain books/meditate while standing on my head/quit my job, divorce my wife and become a Carthusian -- no kidding, what does it take to get well and truly started (with the nonsense highlighted and eliminated and with sensitive but firm directions.)
What stages (at least more or less) can I expect to travel through on this journey to no where, what do the stages mean, and how do I react/respond to the likely changes/experiences experienced In each stage?
Hey -- what the heck does Zen have to to with any/all of this, and, yeah, all those Hindus and Sufis, as well.
Set me straight on all this dark night stuff -- I guess each time I get bored or can't meditate I must be dark nighting, right?
What about this business of, "When you are ready a teacher will come." I'm ready and nobody I'd trust with yesterday's newspaper has come to my door yet. Doesn't the Holy Spirit have something to do with this?
I sure want silence and some raw chunks of solitude but how is it possible? Is it really important?
How on earth do spiritual development/contemplation/mysticism relate to sex? Is a sexy contemplative Inconceivable? Isn't there at least one Catholic psychologist who Is living beyond the 12th century who has deep experience of all types of human experiences who can spell this all out without ambiguity or stupidity?
How about the rest of my life. You know, when I'm not meditating, reading Psalms, walking in the woods -- am I supposed to be leading two lives, 1) the spiritual life, 2) the "life" life when I do everything else? Are there ways to merge/blend the two lives?
Do I forget about my mind, my aesthetic sense, my physical well-being? No kidding, where do Intellectual pursuits fit In, does Involvement in the experience/enjoyment of art, music help or hinder the contemplative goal, and in what ways? How about exercise?
6. Another person writes:
I am 43 years old, married and the mother of two very active boys. There are times that I do not want to be called a Christian, and definitely not a Catholic! We are all so self-righteous and so sure of ourselves in what we believe to be TRUE. I have felt safer speaking to people who practice Zen than a priest in regard to my union with God. The person who practiced Zen does seem to have a "beginner's mind," so there are many possibilities for openness where sometimes the priest's "expert mind" leads nowhere. I'm not at peace with my Christian faith. What should I do with these "feelings" and attitudes?
From the book"Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind by Shunryu Suzuki I read the following quote: "A roshi is a person who has actualized that perfect freedom which is the potentiality for all human beings. He/she exists freely in the fullness of his whole being." Immediately after I read this I said out loud to myself - Jesus was a "Roshi" and He wants us to practice/live Zen! Did I just fall off the turnip truck or is there any truth to my statement?
At times I'm lonesome for God and all the love from my family and all the activities that my parish can hand me does not take the longing to see God's face away. How can I be at peace and know that the desire for God comes from God and is not a dissociative technique used to hide "Something"?
I have been blessed with infused contemplation and other mystical graces. However, I also suffer from dissociative experiences, which my doctor says are frequently associated with genuine mysticism. These experiences manifest as unpleasant psychic-like events. (The dissociative experiences occur because parts of the personality are blocked off from the main consciousness, and the energy of the separated parts impinges upon the main personality.) I am wondering if spiritual practices that encourage a denial of feelings (e.g. sexual feelings or emotions such as anger) can intensify this problem?
I am greatly drawn to the contemplative life. However, to my joy, many opportunities for active, spiritual service have recently come my way. I am wondering how to find the right balance of activity and prayer. Will too many activities diminish my contemplative life?
Recently I went through a difficult period of emotional distress. While I was experiencing this, my main activities were my work and my spiritual life of reading, attending Mass, and prayer. As my mood became darker, my counselor insisted that I spend some time in recreational reading, and I noticed an immediate improvement In my emotional state. I am wondering if the dark night experience can be caused, in part, by an overindulgence in spiritual activities.
What responsibilities, if any, are engendered by genuine supernatural graces? Is silence always a true indication of humility? How can genuine spiritual graces be communicated to those who do not experience them in a way that engenders faith, hope, and expectation, rather than envy, suspicion and feelings of deprivation?
Regarding your questions on meditation methods and contemplation, I see a clear difference between infused, tangible contemplation and the natural state of quiet engendered by practices such as centering prayer. My answers to your questions would be different depending on what type of contemplation you are talking about. This whole issue of acquired v. infused contemplation is tricky. I think they both have different merits that may not be related to each other in any way. Speaking for myself, I can say with certainty that I did not develop acquired contemplation as a precursor to the state of infused contemplation. But perhaps this does occur in other people.