“A person whose mind is caught in thought is distant from Jesus; a person with a silent mind is with him.”
– St. Hesychius of Jerusalem
“We are not God, but God is the center of all, so when we turn to our own center we find, not ourselves, but God.”
– Stratford Caldecott
First of all, this is likely to be my last Catholic Exchange column, at least for a while or possibly permanently. Having published a series of CE articles which runs to the combined length of a short book, I am beginning a hiatus to concentrate on other projects. I may write again here in the future, God willing; but since I do not know where my literary road now leads, I thought it would better to pause and be led by the Spirit.
I am, in fact, unsure as to where God is leading me in general. After spending a total of 11 months in discernment with the community of Holy Resurrection Monastery, where I believed I would live the rest of my life, I realize I must look elsewhere for the fulfillment of my vocation (which I still believe is essentially “monastic”). My commitment to Christ and his Church are not in question; only my personal direction is.
This is a profound and unexpected disappointment, though I trust in the ways of Providence and have great hopes for the future. I am grateful to the monks for their encouragement and hospitality; and while it is hardly an adequate expression of gratitude, I would like to dedicate this final column to them.
After this, I will be silent for a while. But I will take this last opportunity to speak of what is central to my life, and to say certain things I have wanted to say for a long time.
Silence, in fact, is what I want to discuss in this last column. After my discovery of the Christian faith and the Catholic Church, my discovery of silence has made the greatest difference in my life.
When I speak of silence, I am referring not to a mere exterior quiet consisting in the absence of noise. I am talking about something within us: a deep interior stillness, and clarity, and light, which is almost indescribable – because it is the point of contact between the soul and God.
Exterior silence is the result of a privation, an absence of something. That kind of silence is sometimes important, but relatively incidental. Interior silence is what matters most. And it is not an absence, but the result of a presence, the Presence of God.
“Life is meant to be lived from a Center, a divine Center,” the 20th century Quaker author Thomas R. Kelly wrote. “Each one of us can live such a life of amazing power and peace and serenity, of integration and confidence and simplified multiplicity, on one condition – that is, if we really want to. There is a divine Abyss within us all, a holy Infinite Center, a Heart, a Life who speaks in us and through us to the world.”
This Presence is Stillness, because it contains nothing of the exterior world’s restlessness and incompleteness. It is Light and Clarity, because it immediately illuminates the nature of all things without any of the words or concepts or thoughts we ordinarily rely upon. But I might call it, above all, a Silence: because it is beyond anything that can be spoken, encompassing and framing and containing everything that can be known or said.
Our true center is nothing other than Christ, the Eternal and Incarnate Word of God, already present within the soul and working to transform it in His own image. Ultimately, only our inattention and unwillingness prevent us from living fully within and from this transcendent-and-immanent Center – which is paradoxically both Word and Silence, Infinitude and Nothingness (in the sense of being “no-mere-thing,” beyond the limits of any particular finite object or concept).
I came to faith in Christ at age 21, and found the fullness of his Church soon after. But it was only five years later, during a time of crisis, that I encountered God’s presence through this inner stillness and silence. And that changed everything for me.
There is a deep confusion in modern Western culture about what it means to experience the Presence of God, and what this presence is like. It is easy to get caught in the trap of simplistically and naively identifying God’s presence with certain supposedly “spiritual” thoughts , feelings, or movements of the will – as though the absence of these things indicated a failure to live and dwell in that Presence. Both Catholic and Protestant popular piety have, at least inadvertently, contributed to this tendency.
This fixation on experiences in prayer is a tragic mistake. It keeps many people stationed at the threshold of that deeper contemplative prayer which sets aside thoughts, feelings, and even the consciousness of oneself, in favor of a simple concentrated attention and awareness of the Absolute.
There is also a more deeply-entrenched confusion today, about the notion of contemplation and the practice of contemplative prayer. First, there is the mistaken idea that contemplation must involve something spectacular and unusual: a “contemplative” is popularly thought to experience visions, raptures, locutions, and such – when this is neither the essence of contemplation, nor the ordinary experience of the saints. Alternatively, contemplatives are thought – just as wrongly – to “have their heads in the clouds,” disengaging from everything practical and mundane.
Related to these misconceptions, is the belief that contemplative prayer is something restricted to an elite – as when a popular Catholic blogger said last year that “only the most spiritually advanced can ever really find their way into the ‘Cloud of Unknowing’” (a term for the apophatic, or negational, experience of God, taken from the title of a medieval English text).
This widely-held assumption is simply untrue. Granted, many people are sadly uninterested in a life of contemplation: they do not want to exchange their ordinary sense of reality – even religious reality – for the experience of a “silent desert” that strikes them as merely pointless. Still, nothing in Scripture, tradition, or Church teaching binds us to the belief (which is really a mere prejudice) that contemplation is rare, or reserved for a super-spiritual upperclass.
I am wary, in fact, of speaking about a distinct class of “the most spiritually advanced.” But even if such exists, I can assure you I did not belong to it at the time that I discovered the presence of God in silence and stillness, during 2011. I had in fact made a minor mess of my life at that point, through a combination of drinking, depression, heartbreak, and job-related stress.
Nor did God lead me through some sort of clear, hierarchical progression of ascending perfections in prayer, as many Catholics – or Eastern Orthodox readers of monastic literature – might expect. The experience of divine Stillness and Silence, for me, was not found at the top rung of a metaphorical ladder, but at the bottom of a pit.
When I had no words of my own, and felt radically estranged from the prayers passed on by tradition, then I was led to understand that one can pray without words – or thoughts, or feelings, or anything other than pure undivided attention to the ultimate Reality.
I do not claim that this kind of prayer is “higher” than other ways; I cannot even understand such a comparison. I only know there is a fully traditional, unquestionably Christian way of prayer, involving pure silence and total stillness without concepts or images. Knowing this, I can say: Do not be afraid of silence.
Do not be afraid to pray by means of a simple one-pointed awareness that may occasionally call itself back to itself with a single word. Do not be afraid to pray by simply attending to the breath that God continually gives us. Christ is in these ways of prayer; they are “through Him,” and in His Spirit.
And I would go further:
Do not even think you must pray with words. For it is the whole person who prays – not merely that conscious discursive mind that says “I” and forms thoughts. That part of the mind may say “I,” but it is certainly not synonymous with “I”; it is not even the mind’s highest part.
Moreover, that whole person – the one who enters into the mystery of prayer – does not even really know himself: he is a mystery, comprehended only by the Lord in Whom and to Whom he prays. The part of me that says “I,” does not comprehend the mystery that I myself am. My concept of me is not me, but a concept. “Each of us is the result of a thought of God,” as Benedict XVI taught – but this means that God alone truly knows who and what we are, just as God alone truly knows God.
So you can pray without thinking of yourself, or anyone or anything else. You can pray without “thinking of God,” without any concept of Him; you will still be praying in God, through God, to God. You can forget and leave behind everything that is merely a “thing” – including all concepts and ideas – and focus solely on That which is not an object or concept or a thing: the “Trinity beyond all being”; God beyond any conception of God; the Father as the Son knows Him in us.
And if you do this, you can rest assured – as the author of The Cloud of Unknowing says – that “your fellow men are marvelously enriched by this work of yours, even if you may not fully understand how.”
One need not be thinking about Christ, or even consciously relating to him, to be praying “in Christ.” The meaning of “praying in Jesus’ name,” or making one’s prayer “through Christ Our Lord,” extends far – infinitely, immeasurably far – beyond the tacked-on formulas that mark our meal blessings and intercessions. The meaning of these phrases is staggering, unfathomable: It extends to one’s personal acquisition of the very same relationship Christ has with his Father. It extends to one’s personal partaking in his singular hypostatic Being. It means that one prays as Christ.
Let me stress those words: the very same relationship Christ has with his Father. Of course, we have this relationship by grace and in time, while Jesus has it by his nature eternally; but this fact does not change or reduce the identity of what is “had” in both cases. That is a relationship of undivided oneness with God, a relationship in which we ourselves are made – mysteriously, inexplicably, but really – to become “light from light.”
“Let us rejoice, then, and give thanks that we are made not only Christians, but Christ. Do ye understand, brethren, and apprehend the grace of God upon us? Marvel, be glad, we are made Christ. For if He is the head, we are the members: the whole man is He and we.” (St. Augustine, Tractate 21 on John)
“In a flash, at a trumpet crash, / I am all at once what Christ is / Since he was what I am.” (Gerard Manley Hopkins)
Perhaps it is all as simple as this: that when one is truly, finally “nothing before God,” then one is Christ himself, Christ as he lives in me when I am dead to myself (Gal. 2:20).
Do not be afraid of this transcendent identity. For it is not the destruction of your natural self, but its only true fulfillment.
Do not be afraid of silence. It is the door to the Ultimate Reality – in which, by His grace, we become one with God, and with one another.
WHERE WE OWN NOTHING,
HOLD TO NOTHING,
AND THERE IS ONLY
THAT HOLDS US.
(Shouting Through The Water, Ch. 12)