The Holy Spirit nourishes the just man. He inebriates him with sweetness, overwhelms him with inestimable riches… Then the soul accepts all afflictions; nothing casts it down, nothing shakes it. It receives great strength and a foretaste of eternal life.
Saint Catherine of Siena
In prayer, different things can happen. We might engage in petition, thanksgiving, worship, adoration, liturgy, ejaculatory prayers – or also mental prayer, meditation and contemplation.
There is this thing called meditation. We might form our own thoughts, starting from a consideration of the world and of nature, starting from reflecting on and absorbing a passage of Scripture, starting from the words of a saint or words from a spiritual book, starting from the mysteries of the Rosary, or starting from any experience that we have had or are having. These thoughts, if they take us to God and let us tease out the details of God’s being or God’s work in salvation history, are called meditation. We do mental work. In that, we pray.
On the other hand, sometimes it happens that we begin with meditative thoughts and prayers, and then, all of a sudden, this disappears. We lose control. We are left in a void as regards our own attempts and control, and another inspiration comes over us, leading us into light or darkness from on high. This is normally called contemplation, and the beginning experiences of it often feel dark, for we are losing control and God is giving us prayer. Instead of our working the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, God is guiding us by his sevenfold Gift of the Holy Spirit. We have to let go. God leads us into the dark. Then it gradually, maybe in days or weeks or years, becomes light.
It is common advice of the saints to let God do his work. If we cannot pray as we want to, but yet we can still pray, we should accept prayer on God’s terms. We should give up; we should give in. Such a response is beneficial for us (and, by extension, for our neighbours). In previous posts, I have detailed this advice in John of the Cross (more than once), Teresa of Ávila, Catherine of Siena, Francis de Sales, René Voillaume (more than once), Edith Stein (more than once), Marcel Văn, and others.
John of Ávila is of the same mind. In his Audi, filia (Listen, O Daughter), he describes the situation as follows:
[I]f you are thinking about one thing in prayer, and your souls feels that it is invited elsewhere and that another door of a good thought has been opened to you, you should then leave what you were thinking about and take up what is given to you…
[I]f you are reading or praying vocally, and the Lord visits you with some profound sentiment, you should stop what you were doing and enjoy the portion that the Lord is sending you. Once it is finished, you will be able to continue what you were doing before. Since exterior devotion serves to awaken the interior, the former must not be taken as a means to hinder the latter.
John also specifies why he thinks it is important for us to follow this counsel of his:
I would not speak in such detail if I had not seen people so attached to their own rules and the fulfillment of their own tasks, that, even if there are reasons to think that the Lord wants them interrupted, they do not wish to be.
In other words, it can be, secretly and stealthily, our pride at work when we deny God his ability to work freely in us. When we pray and God wishes to do most of the praying (contemplation), we ought rather to say yes. To turn down a gift in order to do things the way we prefer is, at best, bad manners. Bad manners might come from lack of understanding of God’s customs, or they might come from our desire to have things our way; in either case, we would do better to learn good manners and apply them. God pays well for our good manners, and he bestows wonderful gifts.
When, in meditating, the opportunity of contemplation comes, we ought to say, Yes; do speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.
Note that detailed signs of the onset of contemplation (that is, an initial transition from meditative prayer to contemplative prayer) are given by Saint John of the Cross and discussed here and here.
It is by the love of suffering that we lose the feeling of suffering.
Saint Catherine of Siena
The picture above is of the beach at Scheveningen (near The Hague, The Netherlands). I took it six or seven years ago when I was still living in England and on a trip to visit some friends. I don’t know a lot of ways to link Scheveningen into the theme of Christian contemplation, but there is one path which I know and which I find very much worth looking at.
Blessed Titus Brandsma spent an important period of his life at Scheveningen. It was where he was taken upon arrest by the Nazis. Due to his defence of the rights of Jewish children and his defence of the rights of the Catholic episcopacy and Catholic press to oppose racialist propaganda and ideology, Titus, as a leading public figure, was taken by the Nazi police in wartime Netherlands and sent to a room in a hotel which had been converted into a prison cell for political prisoners; his cell was without windows, without control of the light switch, and without much at all.
Yet Titus finds a home. By the help of faith and hope, he turns the morbid opportunity into joy. In one of his first letters from his prison cell, Titus writes:
He has lost his freedom. He cannot move more than a couple of metres. He has no natural light and no control of his artificial light. He is fed little and communicates little with the world… And yet he makes his cell his home. In fact, he reflects that, what he could not get of Carmelite solitude in the world, busy as he was with the affairs of a troubled and war-bound European culture, he was able to find in his confinement at Scheveningen.
In fact, this was a constant theme of Blessed Titus; it did not spontaneously appear when he was arrested. He often said, “Cella continuata dulcescit, a cell becomes sweeter the more continually and faithfully it is lived in.” In addition, he had always written and spoken of a reality of a cell within one’s heart. I’m not sure if he knew of Saint Catherine of Siena’s cell within her heart, by which she carried a holy silence and solitude around with her through the world, but Titus Brandsma had the same idea: He made a place within himself, hidden away from the world and its pulls and pushes and confusions and distractions, into which he could withdraw, no matter where he was, to converse silently with God; it was an interior space where he could be alone with the Alone, despite not being physically alone.
Of course, Titus knew that he needed actual time and space alone with God, too. That is what he found in that morbid converted hotel room at Scheveningen. His sense of an interior cell gave way to a sense of an exterior cell, which he could find comfort in despite providence’s radically challenging circumstances. Likewise, he could never have survived, with Christian joy, either providence or the exterior cell, if he had not developed his interior cell.
Silence and solitude: These are necessary. We must make time and space for them. And yet more importantly, we must build them into our heart, so that wherever we are, we can be alone with God and pull the strength of our action from that contemplative silence. The very silent regard in our heart will cry out, as one deep calls on another, for greater space and time in silence with God (so long as our duties and our acts of charity do not require otherwise). The involution of causes results. More interior silence calls for, as much as duties and communion allow, more exterior silence. More exterior silence calls for more interior silence.
Titus Brandsma, an active Carmelite living a contemplative life in the world, knew this well.
I’ve been asked a few times whether I have any plan for being a contemplative layperson, that is, a layperson with a primarily contemplative vocation.
The short answer is no.
The long answer is, in fact, long. It would begin by me saying that I don’t have a plan, because, ultimately, God throws all our plans away. Passing through the dark night of the spirit means letting go of all our plans, all asserting of our own “personality,” and the like. God will purify all the deepest roots in us, including our attachment to particular forms of prayer or apostolate — so how could anyone have a definite plan? The lack of any plan gets even worse when we think of the multitude of duties, various and numerous, that press on each individual layperson. So the long answer is that, no, I don’t have a plan.
But what I have always wanted to do with this blog is to highlight the main themes of a contemplative life lived in the world, as far as I can understand them. Some of those themes are contemplation, silence and time for prayer, life with our neighbours, seeing Jesus in our neighbours, being a standing delegate to pray for those who need prayer, the Eucharist as sacrifice and as bond of unity, the necessity and central place of love, living with the Church of Heaven and the Church of Purgatory even though we yet are on this earth, learning detachment and living through a seemingly endless “dark night,” learning to rely on the seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit which blow where we cannot calculate, embracing our weakness through which God manifests his strength, accepting with confidence the divine Providence which manifests his divine Will for us – and so on.
Those are some themes. And if one looks at the tag cloud on the right-hand side of the blog’s main page – those themes are there, with varying emphasis. Also there are the contemplative souls who, it seems to me, have a lot to say to laypeople in particular: Charles de Foucauld, Charles Journet, Jacques Maritain, Francis de Sales, John of the Cross, Elizabeth of the Trinity, Brother Marcel, Catherine of Siena, John of Avila, Edith Stein, René Voillaume, and many others.
So – I dare not have a plan. Many people have asked, but no matter how many times I am asked for a plan, or an idea for a kind of “lay contemplative” novitiate, or the like – I do not think I could ever come up with an adequate answer. What I do hope, instead, is that the original plan for this blog can be useful. I hope God’s providence can use the array of posts, tagged and not very well ordered, for anyone wishing to explore contemplative Christian themes. Read and be informed. Be determined. Don’t give up. Trust where the Spirit leads in life, in reading, in reflection, and in prayer. I propose no other plan than this. =)