The Way of Contemplation
When I was young and learning to pray, I used to imagine a long dark hallway with a door at the far end. The door was closed but light spilled out from under the door and from around the doorframe, as if the room could not contain the light within, which might have been the sun itself. I didn’t dare open the door, or even approach it, for fear I would die.
This image didn’t help me to feel close to God. Jesus, when I was encouraged to direct my prayers to him as the Son of God, and therefore my “brother,” was at least a face I could imagine, though an inscrutable face. I could never tell if he was pleased with me or miffed. So I approached with caution.
When I was introduced to the Holy Spirit, I was told it would “come into me.” When it did, with the laying on of hands by an itinerant preacher, it was like a body invasion. I was speaking in tongues that were not my own and, in the experience of others, shaking like a leaf or braying like a donkey. It was, yet again, a divine force from somewhere outside of me.
What is this great gulf we feel, separating us from God? Why is prayer sometimes like lobbing bottles over a wall, hoping something will "pop" on the other side? Why do we always imagine God as being “far away” or “up there” or anywhere but right here?
Excessive literalism does this to us, for one thing. We forget that imagining God as a person is an accommodation, making the ineffable manageable. We project a human image onto the mystery that is God and then relate to God as if God is just like us. But better. And more powerful. And sometimes a bit cranky.
But behind that conceit—that God is like us—God is, in the words of St. Anselm, “that greater than which nothing can be conceived.” Which makes God both more distant and also more immediate. God transcends everything. God also infuses everything. The Creator who made the vast universe is also within that universe, presumably continuing that work of creation in and through ... us!
All of which makes it hard to know how to pray. No wonder so many of us default to what we call The Lord’s Prayer, even if it’s unlikely that it came from Jesus himself. We recall him saying, “Pray like this,” and so we do. There, problem solved.
But saints and mystics through the ages have spoken of another way, the way of contemplation. Actively, this might entail meditation techniques common to many religions, a process of self-emptying, of stilling the mind, of simply “being.” Passively, it means opening ourselves to God within and developing an awareness of that indwelling divine presence.
With such prayer, we are no longer trying to reach a distant God, or appease a stern saviour, or receive an injection of spirit. We are resting in the God who is already within and, in time, seeing the world as God sees it, but also, loving it as God loves it. It is the form of prayer that most closely approximates becoming who we were created to be.
My guest on this episode of The Mystic Cave is Liz Rees, a contemplative guide, a life skills coach, and an eco-minister. For her, the mystic path of the contemplative does not take us out of the world, to meet a far-off God; rather, it delivers us deep into the heart of the world. Because that’s where God is. Right here.
Click the Play button, below, to hear our conversation.