Contemplative prayer has the tendency to become ever simpler and more silent. As we gain experience in this form of prayer we need fewer and fewer thoughts, until finally one single thought may be sufficient to find the way to truth and God. Fewer thoughts demand fewer words. St. Francis used the phrase “My God and my all” as his theme of contemplation for a whole night.
In contemplation our mode of thinking changes. From its usual restlessness it becomes a quiet beholding and a comprehending, a watching and a witnessing. Our voice changes: it becomes softer and lower. Finally, speech dies down and its place is taken by a silent regarding and longing between the soul and God. If we should reach this stage in contemplation, we should not force ourselves back into the diversity of thought. When simplicity contains the essence, there is no need for diversity; when silence is eloquent, it is greater than words.
There are people to whom a profusion of thought and words are alien. With them, the state of quietude, which others take considerable time to establish, is very quickly reached. They require only very few words; anything beyond it would merely confuse them. They may not even need any words or thoughts in order to establish the state of mind in which they experience the presence of God. If that is so, they need not search any farther. They should, however, not take this for granted. It may happen that on another occasion they need a proper subject for contemplation and must have recourse to a proper text.
We cannot do more here than give a general description of the character and practice of contemplative prayer. It must take different forms with different people. Thus what we have said should not be regarded as a general rule but merely as a survey which may give some guidance in individual cases.
Some people find contemplation very much easier than others. Some people are by nature quieter and more introspective than others who are highly strung and permanently keyed up for action. Again, the form of contemplation must vary with individual disposition. The slow, plodding, and methodical person will set about it in a different way from someone who is quick and impressionable, the imaginative person in a different way from the abstract thinker.
There are no general rules. What matters is that we should seek the truth and that through truth we should strive after God. Also, contemplation changes in character with time and circumstances.
Mystical prayer erases barriers between man and God
It may happen in contemplation that we have a strange experience. We may have been reflecting on God in faith alone. Suddenly, God is present. This is not due to any intensity of devotion on our part, nor does it imply that we have an especially vivid idea of God or that our heart is overflowing with love for Him. It is not anything of this kind. It is a sudden feeling that we are faced with an entirely new and different experience: a wall which was there before is there no more.
Usually the idea of God is before us like everything else, including ourselves. It is before us in the space of our consciousness as a concept or thought. This concept of God affects us, moves us to love, or exhorts us to certain actions. In the experience which we are discussing, the barrier of thought disappears and gives place to immediate and direct awareness.
This, at first, may be most confusing. We feel moved in an entirely new way; we feel that we have been transported into a state hitherto unknown. Our intuition tells us that this is God or at any rate connected with Him. This intimation may frighten us. We do not know whether we dare presume that this intuition is true and we are uncertain what to do. However, the intuition becomes a certainty, even an absolute certainty which leaves no room for doubt. The doubts may come afterwards when, for example, we discover that our usual ideas about the inner life have lost their meaning or when we discover that other people have no knowledge of these things.
Another element of confusion is that we lack the words to describe our experience. We know what it is but we also know that it cannot be conveyed in words — not only because it is so great and powerful, but simply because there is no expression for it. We can merely say something like: “It is holy; it is close; it is more important than anything else; it is sufficient in itself; it is quiet, tender, simple; it is almost nothing and yet it is everything — it is He.” We could put it this way, yet know that it would convey nothing to our listener unless he also had experienced it.
Mystical experience deepens and confirms faith
We know also that this holy event is beyond conscious control. No known power can bring the encounter about or direct it. We may have reached a very concentrated state of inner composure and pureness of mind, but whatever the degree of concentration or inner purification, this in itself can never bring about the advent of the Holy One. His coming is pure grace, and we ourselves can do no more than prepare ourselves and watch and pray.
What we have tried to sketch here is what the masters of the spiritual life call the mystical vision. The word mystical has been greatly abused; it has come to stand for everything which is mysterious or odd. In reality it has a precise meaning. It stands for a definite experience of God and of things divine. This experience may be accompanied by different manifestations, auditory or visual. Yet these are only byproducts which may even contain some element of risk; the less dramatic and sensational the experience is, the truer it is likely to be.
As to the significance and effect of such an experience, no general explanation is possible. It can mean, above all, a profound and inward reassurance of the reality of the living God and may become an infinitely precious aid to faith. Anyone who has undergone this experience may be able to say (with St. Paul), “I know to whom I have given my faith.”66 Once we have had this experience, we cannot easily forget that God exists and abides with us.
It also represents a challenge, calling man to a closer intimacy and partnership with God. It summons him to purify his life, to avoid with greater determination the entanglements of the world, and to turn himself wholeheartedly to God. At the same time it assures him of his ability to do so by giving him his own ground on which to stand and a source of power on which to draw.
Such an experience is also of importance to others, for it enables him who has been so blessed to bear witness. “I know that God lives,” he is now able to say. Every doubt and objection he can counter with the weight of the words: “It is so — I have experienced it.” Thus by bearing personal witness to God he may give others greater support.
Mystical experiences bring difficulties, blessings, and responsibilities
To people whose inner life is rich and full of sensibility, who are conscientious and take spiritual matters seriously, such a new element in their lives can be very disturbing. What are they to do?
Above all they should guard and treasure it. The mystical experience of which we spoke awakens the longing to abide with Him who has thus declared Himself. Prayer, which hitherto may have been laborious, has suddenly become easy. Where words had been lacking, they now seem to come of their own accord — perhaps not many, perhaps only one, but always springing new from an inexhaustible source. In the face of this experience there awakens in man a profound, inward quality of which he himself was unaware; or one might say that, awakened by this experience, a lofty and remote side of himself suddenly comes to life.
He should therefore follow the call and pray with great sincerity. Simultaneously, he should observe moderation because his normal condition is changed and there is the danger that he might overstrain himself. Mystical experience may also bring other difficulties in its train, and these may be of a very acute kind. It may happen that things which had hitherto been important lose their significance and that people become strangely remote. It may happen that ordinary life becomes empty and that one feels lost in it, that one feels an urge to do something but without knowing exactly what. It may happen also that one doubts whether the whole experience had not merely been a delusion or temptation.
In the face of these difficulties and doubts one should remain calm and trust in God. One should submit to His will and pray for enlightenment, but until it comes one should endure the trial and proceed as usual. Thus faith is fortified and love becomes pure.
Mystical experience is true only if it stands the test to which apply the words: “By this is the Spirit of God known. Every spirit which confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh, is of God: and every spirit that dissolveth Jesus, is not of God.” Only that which stands the test before Christ is true before God. Thus we must bring such an experience first to Christ. We should say to ourselves, “All this I want only if Christ is there, if it is in His spirit, if it can hold its own before Him. Christ’s name and His Cross is my standard; anything which is incompatible with that I do not want.”
It may be tempting to abandon oneself to the divine in itself or to seek God as He is “beyond all words and ways,” but there is great danger in this. At all times we must put the person of Christ into the center, refer to Him, think of Him, and commit everything into His hands.
Editor’s note: This article is adapted from a chapter in R. Guardini’s The Art of Praying, which is available from Sophia Institute Press.