For some reason we think that spiritual progress is marked by lack of struggle in life. [My] purpose… is to emphasise that this is simply not the case. Spiritual progress is learning to confront struggle in a new way so that we don’t struggle with the fact that life is fraught with struggle. But the practice of contemplation will expose us to many things we would rather not see but need to see if we are going to grow. Even something as potentially debilitating as depression or obsessive-compulsive behaviour finds healing salve in the practice of contemplation…
These, too, can be vehicles by which the mystery we call God breaks through and shines in awareness.
Martin Laird, A Sunlit Absence: Silence, Awareness, and Contemplation
Anyone practicing the Jesus Prayer (and I believe this to be equally true of any other discipline such as Centering Prayer, the contemplative use of Holy Rosary, or Christian Meditation) will find sooner or later that they are led into waters whose floor shelves steeply away into the abyss, far out of their depth in pain and the memories of pain. At times like this the Jesus Prayer (or its equivalent) functions more like a bit of floating wreckage that we can cling to than any kind of structured prayer, though that is what it is.
The godly king of ancient Israel, Hezekiah, confronted with the besieging Assyrian army, received a letter from their king and commander-in-chief Sennacherib renewing his threat to sack Jerusalem, and warning him not to trust in God’s protection from his forces. Hezekiah’s reaction was not to surrender, nor to return boast for boast, but to go “up to the house of the Lord and spread [the letter] before the Lord.” (Isaiah 37.14 NRSV)
So too the contemplative who is confronted with the siege ramps and archers of their own brokenness, their shame and the traumas they had thought to forget. There is nothing to be gained by trying to force these armies of the unconscious back to the land of repression, nor in giving way to fantasies, or running from prayer into some comforting pleasure or another. These are not distractions we can dismiss lightly, but very krakens of the mind’s deeps. Like dear King Hezekiah, our trust, even here, is in the Lord. At even the very end, “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him.” (Job 13.15 NIV) In our discipline our trust holds fast – the floating wreckage of our prayer is more than we can imagine. Like Hezekiah, the angel of the Lord will come to our defence by a way we had not suspected, our peace will come from a direction we had not seen, and like Elisha’s servant we shall see “the hills full of horses and chariots of fire” (2 Kings 6.17 NIV).
The fire of love can burn even in the midst of the storm, and we shall hear Jesus’ own voice, gentle and half-asleep, speaking peace and stillness to the waves. (Mark 4.35-41) Benignus O’Rourke’s words remind us,
The psalmist says, ‘You hide those who trust in you in the shelter of your presence.’ For ‘hide’ we might read ‘heal’. To sit with with our buried hurts and pains in the presence of the Lord is to allow ourselves to be healed by him. We no longer become involved in trying to sort them out, nor do we recoil from them. We sit quietly. We are beginning to have the confidence to outstare our ghosts.
Sometimes when people meditate or pray without words they are accused of trying to anaesthetise themselves to deaden their pain. But what we really do in our quiet prayer is to face the pain, engage with it, and transform it into energy for loving.
Benignus O’Rourke, Finding Your Hidden Treasure: The Way of Silent Prayer
Richard Rohr wrote, in one of his Daily Meditations in 2010 – now taken down:
We have put our emphasis on trying to love God, which is probably a good way to start—although we do not have a clue how to do that. What I consistently find in the mystics is an overwhelming experience of how God has loved them. God is the initiator, God is the doer, God is the one who seduces us. All we can do is respond in kind, and exactly as Meister Eckhart said, “The love by which we love God is the very same love with which God has first loved us.”
The mystics’ overwhelming experience is this full body blow of the Divine loving them, the Divine radically accepting them. And the rest of their life is trying to verbalize that, and invariably finding ways to give that love back through forms of service, compassion and non-stop worship. But none of this is to earn God’s love; it’s always and only to return God’s love. Love is repaid by love alone.
Our prayer, as contemplatives, is not something that is for ourselves alone, nor even – as if that were not sufficient – simply our response to our perceiving of the immensity of God’s love. I think this cannot be emphasised strongly enough. We need to understand that our life of prayer, especially if we are called to the contemplative life, is not a solipsistic, “self-actualising” activity, or some kind of relaxation technique aimed at producing a pleasant, stress-free state of mind, still less a quest for any kind of psychedelic experience. The contemplative vocation is as much as anything a call to intercession, and to a life lived in the shadow of the Cross.
Karen Karper Fredette and Paul A. Fredette, in Consider the Ravens: On Contemporary Hermit Life, write:
Anyone taking the eremitic vocation seriously is bound to feel helpless, quite impotent, in fact. Hermits are determined to help, to make a positive difference, but how? What can one person do, hidden and alone? Sometimes, solitaries may feel blameworthy because they live lives which shelter them from much of the suffering that so harshly mars the existence of their brothers and sisters. Love and compassion well up in them… but is it enough? What should one do and how? This is where passionate intercessory prayer and supplication spontaneously arises.
The challenge is to live a life given over to praying for others while accepting that one will seldom, if ever, see any results. No one will be able to ascertain how, or even if, their devoted prayers are efficacious for others. It is a terrible kind of poverty – to live dedicated to helping others, yet never know what good one may be doing. All that hermits can do is hope that they are doing no harm. Believers leave all results to the mercy of their God. Others rely on the interconnectedness of all humanity, trusting that what affects one, affects all. This is a form of intercession expressed less by words than by a way of life.
A Camaldolese monk once wrote: “Prayer is not only speaking to God on behalf of humanity, it is also ‘paying’ for humanity.” Suffering is part of the hermit’s vocation. One of the most acute forms is to never know whether one’s chosen lifestyle is worthwhile or has any value for others. Hermits enter into the darkness, the dusky cloud of unknowing, and walk without any light beyond that which is in their own hearts. Often, unbeknownst even to themselves, they have become beacons for others.
What the Fredettes write applies, of course, to the contemplative life however lived, whether in community or in physical solitude. The contemplative life has always been to a great extent a life lived in hiddenness, and in our own time, when the culture of celebrity and notoriety is continually whipped up by the press and social media, it is deeply counterintuitive to seek to live this way. These days relatively few of us live in true solitude, and still less of us in the more or less enclosed forms of community traditionally inhabited by contemplatives – the Carthusians, for instance, or the Poor Clares – and so we live not so much hidden lives as lives hidden in plain sight, ordinary, unrecognised and quiet. This hiddenness is really more a way of just getting out of the way – of standing still enough to act as a kind of beacon or antenna for the signals of mercy.
This life of inner solitude and hiddenness – for it is hidden from our own selves within as well as outwardly – is in many ways lived for others. We stand out in the wind, and in some mysterious way we relive Moses’ experience on Mount Sinai, when the Israelites said to him, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.”
The ghosts we outstare are not our own merely; somehow in the silence of prayer we find ourselves confronting the ghosts of those we live amongst, touching the shadows that our post-Enlightenment age casts across all our lives, touching, as did the monks of Mount Athos during the years of the Stalin’s purges and Hitler’s atrocities, the dark skirts of chaos and cruelty that brush continually against our civilisation. Yet our prayer does tend always to stillness, to wholeness of mind and spirit, to the peace of God, beyond our understanding. It is that peace we seek for those with whom our prayer and our lives are inextricably caught up, just by being frail, temporary human things.