Mini-Course on Prayer
Section 2 Christian Meditation
Part 16 -Mental and Emotional Paralysis
Editor’s Note: In part 15, David Torkington introduced the wisdom of a hermit regarding meditation. Today, he continues with the hermit’s words on the immense fruits of meditation which come after dry beginnings.
It is rare that we have the privilege of speaking to a bona fide hermit about our prayer life. I was therefore fortunate to have met a novice who shared with me such a privilege and gave me permission to share what he had learned. This time the novice asks the Hermit about something that was at the time a major stumbling block to his growth in prayer.
“My big problem is,” said the novice, “that although I may try and meditate on some of the most profound truths of the faith, they just leave me cold, when I know they ought to be dynamite. Somehow they do not get through to me. It is as if I have built a barrier around myself.”
The State of Mental Paralysis
The hermit explained that to start with the truths of the faith are too big, too enormous, almost too incredible for us to take in effectively. Some years ago, I listened to an astronomer talking on the radio about the more distant stars in the heavens. He said that some were over ten billion light years away. To be quite honest, he could have said a million miles away for all the practical difference it would have made to me. The distances he was talking about, the statistics he was quoting were so vast, so tremendous that I could not take them in. It is exactly the same with the truths of the Faith. Take the central truth, that God is love and that he loves us personally and individually. It is just too much for anyone to take in. I can say it, I can repeat the words, but alone I cannot penetrate or comprehend their meaning. It is the same with our emotions. They can only respond to a stimulus of a certain degree of intensity.
When I first heard of my mother’s death I did not react. It was all too much for my emotions to cope with. It is the same with the truths of the faith, at least to begin with. However, with good will and with genuine and continuous effort, come what may, things will gradually begin to change for the better. This state of mental paralysis gradually begins to lift. The slow meditation on the sacred texts suddenly begins to bear fruit, the spiritual understanding begins to stir and the emotions are touched and begin to react. What began as rather dry academic knowledge begins to strike us with an ever-deepening impact. Knowledge begins to turn into love as the love that God has for us begins to register with effect, as we see it embodied in all Jesus said and did. None of us can remain the same when we realize that another loves us. We respond automatically and the emotions are released and we begin to express our love and thanks in return. This is the beginning of real prayer that will grow with depth and intensity as the truth of God’s love, alive and active in Jesus is brought home time and time again.
As the impact of the Gospel message explodes with maximum effect, we find that even the most extravagant words that we can call upon do not sufficiently voice the depth of feeling that we experience welling up from within. In the end, the words of thanks, praise, adoration and even the language of love gives way to silence as I have shown, a silence that says more than the most potent man-made means of expression. The slow, meditative penetration of the texts now opens out and envelops the whole being as the believer is ever more deeply absorbed into a silent contemplative gaze upon God. The most powerful and poignant expressions of love are emptied of their meaning in the face of the reality. To quote D.H. Lawrence yet again. “Words join together those who are separate from one another, but in perfect union there is a perfect silence of bliss.”
The Scriptures continually use the symbol of human love as the best possible analogy with which to describe how the love between man and God begins and grows to perfection. That is why the Fathers of the Church and other great spiritual writers use that beautiful love poem from the Old Testament, ‘The Song of Solomon’ to describe how our love of God grows and how it finally reaches perfection.
Towards the Transforming Union
In the beginning of human love words are usually fairly hard to come by; there is an initial embarrassment coping with a first-time love affair. There is usually a certain strain even an artificiality in the way in which we first express ourselves. In subsequent meetings the conversation tends to revolve around getting to know about each other in more detail, finding out about one another’s background, discovering common likes and dislikes.
The spark of love that was there from the beginning is fanned into a flame, and words of explanation give way to the language of love. The closer love draws the two into one, the less there is a need for words. It is enough to be together, to be alone, to be at one with each other in a profound pregnant silence. However, always remember that we are human beings. One day we find praying easy, the next we do not. One day it is Tabor and the next it is Calvary. Nevertheless, if you persevere no matter what, the time will come when you begin prayer and suddenly find that the reality of God’s love is so close and so present to you that all you will want to do is gaze on the glory of God’s love forever.
I cannot overemphasize enough that this spiritual journey through prayer, as I have been describing it, was practiced from the very beginning by the first generation of Christians who, like us, had not met Christ in person. The first spiritual guides taught from the start that in addition to the prayers said at the third, the sixth and the ninth hour, Christians were taught how to meditate on events in the life of Jesus. In addition to this, they were encouraged to rise at midnight to meditate on the death and Resurrection of Jesus that was traditionally believed to have taken place at midnight. Today this might be seen as expecting too much, but in those days when most decent people went to bed shortly after sunset and arose at sunrise it was not such a terrible imposition, and for many, it became the favorite time for prayer when all was still and quiet.
The deep and prayerful longing that was strengthened by their daily meditation would lead them on to desire the personal intimacy and eventually the deep union that love ultimately desires. But, this union was now no longer to be found in and with the Jesus who once lived on earth, but in and with Jesus as he is now, risen and glorified. But further to this their meditation led them on and so must ours, not just into the person of the Risen Lord, but into his acting. By that, I mean into communion with him as he is engrossed in his mystical contemplation of our Father. When experienced in this life this mystical contemplation leads to a union called Divinisation or Theosis by the early Eastern Greek Fathers, and the Transforming Union or the Mystical Marriage by the later Western Mystical writers. I will have more to say about this in the last part of this course when I concentrate on mystical contemplation.
These ideas are developed further in my two major works on prayer – Wisdom from the Western Isles and Wisdom from the Christian Mystics, and Wisdom from Franciscan Italy that shows how deep contemplative prayer grows to perfection in the Life of St Francis of Assisi.
Art for this post: Homme En Prìere by Pierre-Louis Delaval (public domain), via Wikimedia Commons.