Friday, August 21, 2020

On the Road to Contemplation

This is what you are to do: 

Lift your heart up to the Lord

with a gentle stirring of love,

desiring him for own sake,

and not for his gifts.


The above words, from the anonymous 14th century English text called The Cloud of Unknowing, are perhaps the best and simplest description of what is often called contemplative prayer. In this one sentence is found the essence of this practice, and if one were to follow its guidance, no further words would be needed.


Few people seem capable of this simplicity. So, reluctantly, more words follow.


Contemplative prayer is as ancient as humanity itself. “To gaze in wonder on inaccessible things,” as St. Isaac of Nineveh puts it, is perhaps the simplest act of an infant, and marks the mature Christian life as well. Be it the wonder evoked by the creation or the utter silence of wordless communion with God, contemplative prayer is the form of love beneath all others, and to share in it is to receive communion with God into the heart, going to the edge of prayer, gazing on those "things unspeakable" to which St. Paul alludes in 2 Corinthians 2:4.


The path to contemplation is a path from complexity to simplicity. This sounds easy enough: discard more and more of one’s activity, and presto! Contemplation happens! 




The path to contemplation, to the free acceptance of what is always offered by God, generally requires a journey from the complexity of a confused life and will to one more in harmony with God’s revealed will for us. 


That journey often proceeds through the classical disciplines of repentance, prayer, study, ascesis, and ultimately, healing—not so that we might be “worthy” or “skilled,” but that we might be open, willing, and interested in the contemplative encounter. 


We are speaking here of the “still, small voice” Elijah heard, as described in 1 Kings 19:11-12, a voice so quiet it will always be passed over until we are able to hear it. The journey Elijah made to Horeb to hear that voice, a journey made in urgency and risk yet marked by God’s abiding care, is a good way to think about our path to contemplation.


The contemplative journey often begins with a searing need to stop the pain or anxiety. The “still, small voice” at this stage is unheard, but our need for it is so profound that our body as well as our mind and spirit calls out for it. The first step may be simply to say: “There has to be more to life and faith than this!” The second step is to flee into the wilderness.

So, let's take that journey together in the coming weeks.

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