May 31, 2002
Contemplation

by Albert Day


One word to those who are ready to begin the prayer of contemplation: do not expect a sudden and cataclysmic change of consciousness. In fact, do not look for any change at all: look at God, as constantly and as uninterruptedly as possible; keep the "loving stirring" within you centered in His direction. Forget yourself. Forget everything and everyone but God.

Contemplation is the highest form of prayer. The word contemplation itself is often used by beginners as a synonym of meditation [talking prayer]. But in the classics of prayer, it means something quite different.

Here is one hint of its meaning from St. John of the Cross:

God leads some souls into the night of the interior senses, in which at times they find it impossible to exercise the rational faculties in meditation... God is beginning to communicate Himself to the soul in an act of simple contemplation.

--The Dark Night of the Soul


In contemplative prayer there is no "long" time or "short" time. Time simply does not exist. It is a foregleam of eternity. Not even prayer exists in consciousness. One is lost in God!


He further defines the beginning of this phase as the condition in which "the soul delights to be alone in loving attention to God."

That delight becomes an absorption in God in which there is a total forgetfulness of things. The old distractions are ended. There is as complete an unconsciousness of time as there is when one is asleep. One no longer watches the clock as Teresa of Avila confessed she did in her earlier efforts at prayer, and as most of us do still, finding thirty minutes an unconscionably long time to devote to prayer. In contemplative prayer there is no "long" time or "short" time. Time simply does not exist. It is a foregleam of eternity. Not even prayer exists in consciousness. One is lost in God!

There is much misunderstanding about contemplative prayer. It is in some people's minds only a euphemism for the fanaticism of quietists, ecstatics, visionaries — but actually it is nothing of the sort. It has nothing of the passivity of the mere quietist, the feeling-quest of the ecstatic, the lawless imagination of the visionary. The great contemplatives have been everything but passive. They have abjured the quest for feeling as idolatry; "The truest test of love is when it survives the loss of all but the loved one himself." They discount "visions" and advise anyone who has them to "forget it." Their one search, and the only answer that is acceptable to them, is for God Himself.

An analogy may help our understanding here. Most of you have at least one deep and satisfying friendship. There is someone whose mind seems to meet yours at every turn, and often anticipates what your mind is going to think or propose; someone with whom interchange of thought is spontaneous, cosy, satisfying; someone who understands you and believes in you and whom you admire and trust; someone whose counsel is highly valued, and whose affection is manna for your soul and whose character is a constant stimulus to do your best, as you likewise seem to be to him.

This is a wholly inadequate analogy, as any analogy between one's experience with each other and one's experience with God must be. When God enters the scene, because God is God and not human, a new element appears—deity, infinity—for which our poor human experience provides no adequate analogy, and our human language offers no adequate description. There is always something ineffable in any authentic experience of God.

Nevertheless, the analogy helps. It is like a photograph which does not give us the real person but tells us, in a measure, enough about him that we can recognize him when we see him and are not so likely to mistake someone else for him.

God's method of lifting us from meditation [talking prayer] to contemplation [silent prayer] is to create within us a distaste or even an inability for meditation. Misunderstanding His purpose, we redouble our efforts to resume meditation, rack our brains with reflections and thus defeat the divine intention.

God has been trying to woo many of us into the intimacies and absorbing relationships of deeper prayer. But we are trying to continue in the only kind of prayer we have known until now. Hence we are working at cross-purposes with God. So our prayer life grows duller and duller, and we are in distress over our inexplicable situation.

Remember, always, when God tries to lead you into an advance and you do not follow, the old experience, once so sweet and so creative, will go stale and unproductive on your hands. He wants to give you wings. If you cling to your outgrown shell, you will choke to death in it, spiritually.


When God tries to lead you into an advance and you do not follow, the old experience will go stale. He wants to give you wings.


One term of the school of prayer is over. Its lessons have been learned. God stands at the door ready to promote you. But you are still clinging to the old desk, the old forms and the old lessons, while more important, more life-making, more competence-creating forms and lessons and comradeships are beckoning you.

St. John of the Cross, again in The Dark Night of the Soul, speaks of the time when there comes to "the soul the inclination and the desire to be alone and in quietness, without being able to think of any particular thing or having desire to do so. If those souls knew how to be quiet at this time, and troubled not about performing any kind of action, whether inward or outward, neither had any anxiety about doing anything, then they would delicately experience this inward refreshment and freedom from care. What they must do is merely to leave the soul free and disencumbered and at rest...troubling not themselves...about what they shall think or meditate, but contenting themselves with no more than a peaceful and loving attentiveness toward God...without the ability and without desire to have experience of Him or to perceive Him."

What he describes here, you see, is a state of loving attentiveness, There is no effort to frame mental pictures of God: no restless craving for blessing or vision or revelation. There is, instead, just quietness; the relaxed willingness to be in God's hands; the assurance that the very desire to be quiet and alone is itself evidence that God is present and at work. When that comes, do not spoil it by trying to force another mood or to start some form of inner activity. Enjoy God!

God may not seem like God to you. You may be such a strenuous person that you cannot associate quietness with God. You find it hard to believe that anything significant is happening unless you are hustling or being hustled by someone. God has His strenuosities. How could He ever get along with any of us if He did not? But God also works in the stillness—and works there best. God is robust but His touch may be as delicate as that of rosy-fingered dawn. Cosmic rays do not announce their presence!

The affective prayer is the prayer of quiet. There is a place for striving, for high, clear thinking, for penitence, for heartache over the world. But there is also a definite, distinctive, and too often overlooked place for quietness. The quietness of affective prayer is God's worktime. God is very versatile. He can use many sorts of experiences in His effort to fit us for comradeship with Himself, here and hereafter. Though it is hard for us to realize it, He can use our failures and frustrations and sufferings and loneliness. He can use even our sins if "we truly and earnestly repent" and "the memory of them is grievous unto us." But He especially needs our quietness.

"A great and strong wind rent the mountains...;.but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice." Yes, but sometimes not even a voice. We are so likely to want wind and earthquake and fire—some spectacular evidence of God. But God is just as truly present and at work when the earth revolves noiselessly on its axis; in the oxygen we breathe; in the electrons and protons that become the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the roof that shelters us.

Most of God's work is done silently. That is especially true of His work in the soul. Ever and anon we encounter people who are looking for visions and voices, for soulshaking cataclysms, for bright lights and purging flames. But the saints warn us again and again not to do that.

Others are seeking what they call "a blessing," or what is known in the classic literature of prayer as "consolations," something that can be pleasurably felt. But the masters of the spiritual life are unanimous in the assurance that it is in absolute quiet that God has His greatest opportunity with us. They declare that He will bring us into such quiet, if we will let Him—not the quiet that we ourselves create when we fold our hands, shut our mouths, relax our nerves, but the divine stillness when He drops the "still dews of quietness till all our strivings cease," takes "from our souls the strain and stress" and makes our whole being witness to the beauty of His peace.

The masters tell us that God will bring us into quiet if we will co-operate with Him. When He does, if we will maintain a "loving attentiveness," He will be able to achieve results which are possible in no other way.



"Loving attentiveness" is not the fierce and strained effort of a mind trying to solve a problem. It is the happy, trustful yearning of a lover's heart toward his beloved.


"Loving attentiveness" is what the words imply. Attentiveness is the antithesis of wandering thoughts. It is the flower, drawn by the sun, responding to the sun, pointing steadily toward the sun. "Loving attentiveness" is not the fierce and strained effort of a mind trying to solve a problem. It is the happy, trustful yearning of a lover's heart toward his beloved. It is the attentiveness of the heart that bids the mind be still. It is the state of consciousness in which what another person is envelops us, enchants us, transforms us.

At such a time, God wants us to cease the struggles of the mind in a kind of effortless receptivity. He wants us to let our whole self be drawn to Him and open to Him in a way that is not limited by any preconceived notion of what He would be doing to us.


God wants us to cease the struggles of the mind in a kind of effortless receptivity — a forgetting of our self and a response of our spirit in a steady outthrust toward God.


He wants a quiet pliability, informed by all that our meditations have brought us; a quiet yearning toward all that our faith tells us God is; a quiet willingness for God to do whatever He will to us and with us; a quiet abandon of our whole self to the refining power of His grace. No "feeling our feelings," no examination of our mental state to see what if anything is happening—for then we are attending to ourselves—but a forgetting of our self and a response of our spirit in a steady outthrust toward God.

When we forget ourselves and respond to God, then it is possible for God to reach below the surface and transform the depths of personality. When we meditate, our analytic powers are dominant, and the synthetic capacities, whence come the great insights, are dormant. When we let go, when we cease meditation — "talking to God" — then our whole personality is exposed to the creative activity of God.

Occasional glimpses into what happens when we let go visit all of us. When we are trying hard to recall a name we fail; we cease trying and the name comes. We are "stumped" by a problem; we give up for a time and the solution appears. Helmholtz says that his greatest discovery in electricity came in a period of mental quiet. He let down and let go the intensive, analytic effort with which he tried to compel nature to yield her secret. Then nature gave him what he sought.

When we are seeking God's fuller revelation of Himself, we must not hinder that revelation by holding in our minds a clear-cut, rigid idea of God. Most of us have some picture of God in our minds. It may be of an ocean of light, or of the vitalizing sunshine of a cloudless day, or of faultless and inexhaustible music, or of the all-embracing peace of a rural afternoon as it fades quietly into twilight, or of an All-Father, or a Being like Hoffman's Jesus. But God is more, vastly more, unimaginably more than all these. If that more is to enter our consciousness, these rigid conceptions must be relinquished. The mind must become fluid. There must be a state of diffused attention, which when directed Godward is like a "blind beholding."

"Smit with a solemn and a sweet surprise," we are aware that God confronts us. We have a certainty that we are in God's presence; we now need to be in God's hands, so to speak.


We cannot be "in God's hands" as completely as is necessary if we persist in clinging to the clear-cut, brittle, limiting image we have of God.


We cannot be, as completely as is necessary, if we persist in clinging to the clear-cut, brittle, limiting images which have hitherto determined our thought and expectancy. Those images will prevent God from taking hold in a new way and refashioning us so that we can know Him better, love Him more deeply, serve Him more effectively.

We must now be willing to abandon these long-held conceptions which seem to us to be clear seeing and give ourselves to that pliable, receptive state of consciousness known as "blind beholding." That gives God His chance. If "predictability" is the final test of a scientist's formula, then "blind beholding" in its proper setting is scientific prayer. It can be predicted with certainty that the person who practices it intelligently and faithfully will emerge a "new creature in Christ." Not only his conduct and character, but his very consciousness itself, will be changed.

There are experiences that are untellable. You know that! It may have been when you partook of the sacrament of sunset, on one of those evenings when the whole sky looked like an upturned sea of burnished gold and the very excess of undiluted splendor made you gasp in inexpressible wonder. Or it may have been one of the more modest evenings when the fading blue of the firmament was lighted here and there by a drifting cloud of celestial fire, and you stood and sighed softly and held close to your heart the spell of beauty that lay upon the whole landscape. In either case you were aware that something had happened to you.

It was not merely the inevitable hush of an evening benediction, not the reverberation of aesthetic emotions throughout consciousness, nor simply the renewal of a mood of reverence and faith which the clamors and tensions of the day had destroyed. It was something deeper—something that seemed to lay hold upon the innermost recesses and furthest reaches of the spirit. It sent you home chastened and purified. That you knew! But something else had happened which you could not define nor disclose to others. You did not even want to try. It seemed sacrilegious to think of committing to dull words anything so superlative and unique and incommunicable. You merely hugged it to your heart, thanked God for it, and "journeyed in the strength of it forty days and nights!"

One final word to those who are ready to begin the prayer of contemplation: do not expect a sudden and cataclysmic change of consciousness. In fact, do not look for any change at all: look at God, as constantly and as uninterruptedly as possible; keep the "loving stirring" within you centered in His direction. Forget yourself. Forget what you have been. Forget even what you hope to become. Forget everything and everyone but God. That in itself is an art—but it is an art which you can learn if you will. In the hour of contemplative prayer you hinder God and prolong your poverties and weaknesses when you tolerate any thought but the thought of Him, any affection but the love of Him, any purpose but the will to do His will.

As you faithfully continue in the practice of contemplative prayer, you will begin to see the world in a new way. It will begin almost imperceptibly—in a new tenderness toward people, a new concern for human sin, a new sensitivity to the hints God is forever dropping along the path. You will find yourself putting out a hand to a stranger, offering a prayer for people you meet on the elevator or street, receiving welcome guidance in the common round.

Most important of all you will be conscious of an ever-deepening love for God, an ever-greater readiness to obey Him, and an ever-growing likeness to Him — the One who was the incarnate glory of God and the express image of His person.


Excerpts taken fromChapter 12 -- "Patterns of Prayer" -- of An Autobiography of Prayer, by Albert E. Day (pp 110-123), published by The Upper Room, Nashville, Tennessee. © Copyright 1952 by The Disciplined Order of Christ, Ashland, Ohio, 44805. Used with permission

An Autobiography of Prayer, by Albert E. Day is available from
The Disciplined Order of Christ
P.O. Box 753
Ashland OH 44805-0753