Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The contemplative path

"It is not in our power to determine
whether we are disturbed by thoughts,
but it is up to us to decide
if they are to linger within us or not."

Evagrius Ponticus (4th-Century monk)


Almost everyone struggles with prayer at one time or another. During our darkest moments, God seems absolutely silent, or even absent altogether. A thousand distractions--exterior and interior--demand our attention: "God's not here, but we are! Pay attention to us!"

We tell ourselves that nearby construction or traffic noise, a chattering acquaintance, or the Def Leppard fan next door are making it impossible for us to concentrate and contemplate. However, if we are honest with ourselves, those frustrations are usually projections of our own "inner noise" in its varied forms. They can arise from a troublesome childhood, a burdensome work situation, a strained relationship, worrisome health, or countless other issues. Whatever the source seems to be, we feel ourselves being stirred by avarice, anger, pride, gluttony, lust, sadness, restlessness, or vainglory (Evagrius, quoted above, says all distracting thoughts originate from these eight). Real or imagined conversations, anxiety, guilt, fear consume us.

How are we supposed to pray? Where is God?

The trouble is that all those things operate on the surface of our existence. They persuade us from going any deeper--where all is silent, where all is God--to the point where we identify completely with all these thoughts and feelings. We think they define who we are. They become our "inner videos," as Martin Laird, O.S.A., calls them, and we replay them over and over in our heads until they seem to us to be the truth. But in reality, these inner videos divert our attention from the Truth that is God. So, we feel alone, isolated, alienated from God--who has, in fact, never left our side.

This entire premise is one that has come up in my own spiritual life, and it is a recurring theme with several of my spiritual directees. It is a universal phenomenon.

Thankfully, we have the wisdom of some of the very first monks and desert hermits, as well as the early Church Fathers to guide us. Laird, an Augustinian priest who teaches theology at Villanova University, has studied and written extensively on this topic. He has written two wonderful books that are by far the best I have read on the subject of contemplative prayer (and I read a lot of them), at least from a contemporary perspective. These are Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation (2006) and A Sunlit Absence: Silence, Awareness, and Contemplation (2011), both by Oxford University Press. (Incidentally, he has also written a title in our Notes from a Monastery series at Abbey Press' Path of Life Publications titled Solitude: Being with God Alone, Together.)

Laird really says nothing new (and neither have I). However, he does a remarkable job of pulling together and placing the ancient wisdom of the early monks and Church Fathers in a contemporary context. He helps us understand that our difficulties in prayer are not obstacles to overcome but opportunities to surrender to what is, thereby piercing the surface of our self-identifying thoughts and emotions, and entering into the awareness of the presence of God who is all in all (cf. 1Corinthians 15:28; Ephesians 1:23). It is really about interior surrender, a Gospel precept presented in a fresh manner.

I heartily recommend both of these books. I am currently reading A Sunlit Absence, which is both delightfully deep and absolutely accessible for anyone interested in prayer and contemplation (which everyone should be!).

Here is an excerpt from the first pages of the book which neatly summarize his overall theme:

Though this grounding union "in which we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28) is unshakable, one of the characteristics of the human condition is that we spend many decades of our lives in sheer ignorance of this. The reason for our ignorance ... is the constant inner noise and chatter that creates and sustains the illusion of being separate from God. ... This sense of alienation or separation is generated by blind and noisy ignorance that insinuates itself in the surface regions of our awareness.

Our culture for the most part trains us to keep our attention riveted to this surface noice, which in turn maintains the illusion of God as a distant object for which we must seek as for something we are convinced we lack. One of the great mysteries of the contemplative path is the discovery that, when the veils of separation drop, we see that the God we have been seeking has already found us, knows us, and sustains us in being from all eternity.

The practice of contemplation quiets the noise that goes on in our heads and allows inner silence to expand. ... [Still,] though we feel drawn to interior silence, what we find when we turn within is a strong headwind of distractions. There is a charactertistic, dominating tendency to identify with these thoughts: we think we are these thoughts and feelings. .... [In contemplation,] gradually we learn that we are not these thoughts and feelings that come and go any more than we are the weather that comes and goes. We may indeed prefer a certain type of weather, but we are not the weather.

The opposite of the contemplative life is not the active life but the reactive life: highly habituated emotional styles and lifestyles that keep us constantly reacting to life like victimizing victims, ever more convinced that the videos that shape our awareness are in fact true. The life of stillness gradually heals this split and leads us into wide open fields where buried treasure lies (Matthew 13:45-46).

1 comment:

  1. Being one of those who often struggle with prayer and finding it hard to get beneath the many distractions, I can heartily recommend both books.

    I found very meaningful help in these books after the initial difficulty of getting "into" them, and I often go back to selected passages.

    Well worth to have on your book shelf.

    Tulle.

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