A Contemplation that Hears Heaven
Beyond every psychological experience in prayer, however enlightened it might be, there is a contemplation of the Gospel of Christ rooted in a whole new outpouring of truth. This ceaseless outpouring of love on broken humanity is always new because the Word of the Father, though unchanging, is never old. His voice echoes with unique and unrepeatable harmony – the harmony that causes all things to be, that saves them from every danger and that orders them all to their great purpose. Though hidden in weakness and vulnerable to every kind of evil, the Word constantly puts the eternal plan of the Father into motion.
This is a river of primordial, salvific and heavenly truth flowing in darkness: a true unfolding miracle saving, restoring, rebuilding, raising up, providing, protecting, perfecting all manner of new life. The miracle of hope is born in these waters even as this tired old world is doomed under the weight of lifeless systems and frantic ideologies. Christian contemplation stands in this river and in the flow of its currents, it hears heaven.
The most radical of all forms of contemplation of any religious tradition, prayer that welcomes the Word claims the total transformation, not only of created intelligence, but of human nature itself. This is a transformation by glory and for glory into pure and ceaseless praise. Predestined in Christ, in the world but not of it, this humble prayer is unto the praise of God’s glory.
The new and saving truth such prayer contemplates renews every aspect of one’s life. It does so without harming our nature in any way but instead restores it to integrity and raises it to unimaginable perfection. It is thus a real transformation in which one’s unique individuality is not absorbed by some abstract absolute. Instead of surmounting sacred humanity, by the grace of this kind of prayer, one finally begins to live. Here, in all of one own glorious unrepeatability and frail contingency, he discovers the joy of a divine friendship the limits of our present existence cannot contain.
Although one’s natural capacity for love and knowledge cannot even begin to exhaust the limitlessness of the saving truth revealed by Christ, one’s intellect, one’s will and one’s self-awareness are all raised up into a whole new work by grace. Christian contemplation avails the mind to supernatural operations and makes the very substance of the soul vulnerable to the sanctifying presence of the Eternal Word in the power of the Holy Spirit. Within the limits of time and moments subject to duration, this mental prayer brings to birth eternal thoughts until one’s whole memory burns with hope. It feels the movement of holy desires caused by an Uncreated Love mysteriously at work in depths of heart, depths so deep that one does not know of their existence. Indeed, one’s ultimate end is far beyond the power of natural consciousness to grasp.
Sharing in the jubilation of God to which ears closed by the disobedience of sin are deaf, this truth-based contemplation is cruciform: stretching out on the misery and mercy that collide in one’s own heart, drowning all that is false, rash and callous in the abyss of love’s agony while raising up all that is tender, beautiful and noble in pure divine fire. It is a baptism. It is a burning bush. Man’s own psychic energy falls silent before this hidden mountain. It is holy ground on which one may stand only with bare feet.
How do we find this secret mountain and how do we enter this hidden garden? The substance of such hope cannot be clung to as long as the mind lusts for religious experience and seeks its rest in its own spiritual achievement. At war with heaven, hubris is a noise that does not avail the heart to suffer the subtle movements of divine power in human nature. The deaf ears of the heart must be rendered vulnerable to the breath of God. Unless it is healed and opened by a truth beyond itself, the mind is unable to catch those triumphant canticles forever singing, thundering, showering, delicately exploring anew all the human mirth and sacred sorrow the Risen Lord pours out on the world and offers to the Father.
Contemplation requires sacred doctrine. It is nourished by this real food. It is rooted in this heavenly secret. It drinks from this wisdom of the saints. It stands on what the Spirit and the Bride propose to the world. The teaching of the Church, especially as proposed inerrant and inspired in the Holy Bible, makes possible and safeguards such prayer. Familiarity with the treasure entrusted to us by faith protects prayer from the threat of self-deception and the manipulation of charlatans. Rooted in saving truth, Spirit-imbued modes of cognition are free to reach beyond limited horizons of cleverness and enchantment, opening the heart to a divine inflow, a fullness no falsehood can bear.
It is the humbled and contrite alone who are both refreshed and made homesick by the kindly warmth of those eternal hymns resounding in the sacred silence of God’s own heart. Raised by grace beyond the futility that clouds intellects still subject to death, such prayer accesses a saving mystery to taste heaven itself and drink from life giving waters. [Saint] Elisabeth of the Trinity speaks of a Divine Object that evokes adoration, an ecstasy of love. Pope Francis describes this as seeing through the resurrected eyes of Christ. Saint Paul explains that this living sacrifice, this spiritual worship, results in knowing God’s will, and all that is good, pleasing and perfect in His eyes (Romans 12:2).
For more of Anthony’s insights on prayer, don’t miss his 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.
Art for this post on a contemplation that hears Heaven: Detail of Mulher do chale verde (Woman with green shawl), Cyprien Eugène Boulet, before 1927, PD-US term of life of author plus 80 years; mirror detail of Sense of Sight, Annie Swynnerton, 1898, PD-US author’s life plus 70 years or less; Beet mit Tulpen und Stiefmütterchen (fotografiert aus der Vogelperspektive), 3268Zauber, own work undated, CCA-SA 3.0 Unported; all Wikimedia Commons.