“Hunger for silence is the sign of spiritual maturity.” This saying is attributed to [Saint] John Paul the Great and reminds me of the program he proposed to the Church after the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000. He called the Church to gaze on the face of Christ. Learning to gaze on the face of Christ takes us into a mystery of great silence – not just the absence of noise, but a peaceful silence of heart that only the Lord himself can produce. The Carmelite mystics explain that it is in Christ’s adoring silence that a Lamp of Fire begins to burn within.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph #2628 identifies adoration as one of the forms of prayer encompassing an attitude primary to all authentic prayer, an attitude that blends humility and hope in our approach to God. Externally, adoration expresses itself when we kneel down, fold our hands, and close our eyes. But more important than these external gestures that dispose us to adore the Lord is the interior movement of heart, a movement that should inform everything we express in prayer.
When we glimpse the incomprehensible transcendence of the Lord, His holiness, over anything and everything else that is, especially over “self”, a certain awe grips our hearts and we fall humbly silent before Him. Those who surrender to this awe more and more through their faithfulness to prayer discover a deep yearning for this adoring silence. That is because this silence is not a mere therapeutic experience of non-activity. For the overworked and exhausted, such silence can be very important but it is not the adoring silence of Christian prayer. Rather the silence of adoration is a humble openness to the Lord’s super activity, an active receptivity to the overwhelming and unimaginable power of God. Those who embrace the mystery of the vigilant silence have a sense of exaltation in their hearts. They understand the words of Mary, “My spirit exalts in God my savior.”
When we are moved like this, it is such a personal experience that we are tempted to think we are the only ones who have ever had it. But then we notice others folding their hands and closing their eyes after a powerful homily or during a beautiful hymn. I have seen some people not move for hours, they are so enveloped in this prayer. Others, like the Carthusians, have accepted vocations in which their whole way of life is centered in this prayer. Very few are willing to share the movement of their hearts at these moments.
Those who begin to pray soon discover that adoring silence characterizes their conversations with the Lord. Elisabeth of the Trinity, a twenty-six-year-old Carmelite nun, just weeks before her death in 1906, identifies this movement of prayer as an “ecstasy of love” and the “beautiful praise” that is “sung eternally in the bosom of the tranquil Trinity.”
Ecstasy is not merely an emotional trip but a spiritual journey. The word actually means “to go out from oneself.” Elisabeth well understood how adoration rescues us from self-preoccupation. It makes God the center of our hearts. At the same time, it involves us in a search for the face of Christ within us, within those painful places – memories, feelings – we would rather avoid. When we discover the face of Christ gazing on us in love in the midst of our own brokenness – the brokenness has no more power over us. Before Christ, human misery can no longer imprison us within ourselves. We discover real freedom when the Lord leads us out through this misery into the abyss of his mercy. For the Christian, true ecstasy in prayer is like the journey revealed in Psalm 23, “Though I walk through the valley of death, I fear not for you are with me.”
In part II of this post, we will look at how adoration is a symphony of love and how silent adoration leads to a life filled with love.
Art: JPII, library; Mirror of Portrait visage d’Elisabeth de la Trinité portant son habit de carmélite (Face portrait of Elisabeth of the Trinity in Carmelite habit), Willuconquer, undated, CCA-SA 3.0 Unported, Wikimedia Commons.
Editor’s Note: For more of Anthony’s insights on prayer, don’t miss his new book, Hidden Mountain Secret Garden, an experience like no other. Anthony has an unusually profound understanding of mystical theology and lives a life of deep prayer. Among his many accomplishments and responsibilities, Dr. Lilles now teaches theology for the Avila Institute.