By Robert Trabold
Originally printed in the NOVEMBER-DECEMBER 2008 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Trabold, Robert. "Contemplative Prayer: The Discipline of Silence." Quest 96.6 (NOVEMBER-DECEMBER 2008):230-231.
I sleep but my heart is awake; I am waiting for my Beloved to knock at the door.
—Song of Solomon 5:2
DURING THE 1960s, Western Christians had the opportunity to rediscover the tradition of mystical and contemplative prayer that had been lost during the preceding centuries. At this time many Christians traveled to the East to experience and learn contemplative prayer and often joined Eastern religions, leaving their Christian churches because they could not find this dimension in them. Other religious thinkers, such as Thomas Merton, Thomas Keating, and the late Benedictine monk John Main, also traveled to the East, where they rediscovered the contemplative dimension of the Christian faith.
Today Christians in the West are enjoying the fruits of this renaissance and have many movements that help them once again practice this type of mystical prayer. These include the Centering Prayer Movement, the John Main Meditation Movement, the Zen-Christian Movement in Germany, and the eremitical movement. They are enabling Christians to practice contemplative and mystical prayer so that they can participate in this close and intimate relationship with God in daily life.
Contemplative prayer begins with the advent of a divine presence in our lives. In quiet moments, in times of closeness to nature, in periods when our lifestyle slows down with retirement or semiretirement, or in times of crisis, we may notice a presence at our center or still point within. It is immanent within us and is in an sense more present to us than we ourselves are. With time, we also recognize that this presence is beyond us. It is transcendent, and as a result we can never completely grasp it. It will always retain a dimension of mystery. The sixteenth-century Spanish mystic John of the Cross stresses this ambiguous nature with the opening of his famous poem "The Dark Night": "In a dark night, burning with fires of love." Our relationship with the divine will always have this element of darkness and the unknown.
John Main, in his book Moment of Christ, mentions that life is a journey to know and accept ourselves. In order to be successful in our pilgrimage, we need to contact God within us and so discover that we are essentially spiritual beings rooted in God. In this inward journey, stillness of body and mind is necessary because contemplative prayer is not thinking about God, but being in the presence of the divine. John Main states that with time, we realize that the presence of the divine within us is one of love that is wooing us to love in return. When we learn to be still and let God touch us, we will grow in this loving relationship.
As we become more aware of this divine presence at the center of our being, John of the Cross states that we will, at some point, enter into the dark night of the soul. We begin to lose interest in activities and things that have held a great sway over us or we thought were meaningful. Slowly we come to look forward to sitting quietly in the presence of God. In one sense, the divine is weaning us away from certain aspects of life in order to make space for his or her Presence. We have time to enter into and rest in the Absolute. This can be quite a shock, because most of us live in modern industrial society with busy lifestyles. Now we are drawn to sit in quiet, do nothing, and rest in the presence of God. In contemplative prayer, something is gained while something else is lost.
As we grow during this inward journey, we develop a discipline of silence in order to deepen this intimate relationship with the divine. This discipline has several elements. Many spiritual writers stress the necessity of meditating for about twenty minutes twice a day. Faithfulness to this routine is very important for our growth in the contemplative path. God is wooing us to love him/her and we are to be there to meet our Beloved. There is also the challenge of how to do this in practical terms, as most of us are extremely busy with our families, work, and communities. It is necessary to look at our work load and determine when and where we can spend time in meditation and contemplation. In the home, we might want to set up a hermitage, a place to meditate in silence, decorated with statues, candles, or flowers. In the practice itself, we become more aware of the body and discipline it so that we can focus on silence, deciding which posture is best—sitting in a chair, for example, or the lotus position—and determining where to focus the eyes or rest the hands. There are certain key phrases or mantras that help to focus on Godâ€™s presence. Different spiritual traditions recommend different mantras, and one celebrated mantra is the Jesus Prayer from the Eastern Orthodox tradition, as described in the classic The Way of a Pilgrim. (The most common version is "Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner," although there are several others, the simplest consisting merely of the name "Jesus.") When repeating mantras, we become aware of our breathing, and the quiet regularity of our breath helps us feel and touch Godâ€™s presence. God speaks in silence, and contemplatives develop the discipline of silence in order to grow in the awareness of the divine presence within.
As we grow in this discipline of silence and deepen our ability to rest in the presence of God, we notice movement in certain aspects of life. In the quiet of contemplation, we remember our past faults, weaknesses, and missed opportunities to love. John of the Cross mentions that during the dark night of the soul, God is operative within us, showing us our faults and selfish tendencies. This is an occasion to ask Godâ€™s forgiveness for these actions and to look for divine assistance in overcoming these habits and behaviors in the future.
In the growing silence of contemplation, the hurts and emotional wounds that all of us have are also recalled. Perhaps things in life did not go as we wanted; others have hurt us and inflicted emotional wounds; lifeâ€™s many injustices have left their mark. We have to deal with these memories and wounds and ask God to heal them so that we can go on with our lives. They need not burden us for the rest of our years.
In order to deepen this discipline of silence and advance in our inward journey, it is helpful to use nature. John of the Cross observed that some of the best prayer occurs when one is in the beauty and silence of nature. John used to take his students on walks in the fields and mountains around Segovia, Spain, telling each one to go off alone and have a day with God and silence in the lovely countryside. Although I live in New York City, my house has a garden, and in the warmer seasons, I use its quiet and beauty to help me touch Godâ€™s presence. Living close to the Atlantic Ocean allows me to walk along the sea-shore year-round so that I can encounter the divine in the silence and beauty of the sea.
John Main, in his book Word Made Flesh, stresses the importance of silence and encourages us to be quiet and persevere in this inward journey. We are to be still and recite the mantra. When we are still, we do not have to justify ourselves, apologize, or impress people. Rather, in stillness we will find the Reality in which we have our being. As we define ourselves and find our place in the human community, we discover in contemplation a Being of love. In the eternal silence of God, the divine will call our name and we will know who we truly are.
For you alone, my soul waits in silence!
Robert Trabold has a Ph.D. in sociology with specialties in urban issues and the religious expressions of people in transition, especially immigrants. Presently he is active in many prayer movements. His reflective poetry and articles on contemplative prayer have been published in Quest and other journals.