So how do I know that the Lord may be calling me to contemplative prayer? The following “signs” are derived from two of the masters of the Christian spiritual life, St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila.
- Increased desire for the Lord, to live the Christian life better, and for prayer. Despite this increased desire, prayer itself tends to be disappointingly dry: when you show up, the Lord seems absent. Great frustration that now that you desire Him more than ever, He seems to have withdrawn.
- Painful fears that His seeming absence is due to some lack or fault on your part, although your conscience is basically clear. Trying to scramble for the “right combo” of prayer practices to regain the sense of sweetness in prayer, but this has a deadening sense – it feels like running away rather than encountering the Lord.
- The dryness isn’t due to a lack of devotion, persistent sinful habits or thought patterns, or slacking off on prayer, Mass, the sacraments, Scripture reading
- Meditative prayer (e.g., reflecting on Christ’s sufferings, or the joys of Heaven, or the 7 Deadly Sins) becomes difficult or impossible
- Activities outside of prayer that used to be fun or exciting become bland. (For example, I used to love amusement parks, and I still enjoy them – but they don’t “do it” for me as they used to. Put simply, only Jesus “hits the spot”.) I can’t enjoy the Lord in prayer, or life outside of prayer. St. John calls this the “Night of the Senses” – the Lord is usually undetectable in prayer, and things that used to stimulate the senses before no longer do.
- However, if asked where I’d rather be when experiencing dryness in prayer, I’d say “nowhere else than here with the Lord”. And when not praying, there’s a persistent tug toward prayer – one wishes one had more prayer time, and wants to get through other things in order to get to prayer.
- The person finds great consolation in reading about contemplative prayer. The sense of floundering is relieved once the person finds God has called him/her to a different mode of prayer.
Why does prayer shift in this way? Scripture tells us that we are body, soul, and spirit. “Body” needs no explanation. The “soul” is what enables us to think, imagine, remember, and feel emotions. But in contemplative prayer (sitting in the Lord’s presence and letting Him work on me, while I’m simply receptive and attentive) the Lord works directly on my spirit, the part of me capable of directly relating to God; and the spirit’s way of knowing is wordless and intuitive.
So in contemplation, God bypasses the soul (emotions, memory, understanding, and imagination) and the body (physical sensations). This type of prayer, by definition, an experience that can’t be put into words (since words deal with effects on the soul and the body), so attempts to describe it necessarily sound vague. Yet for those called to it, the descriptions hit home: the person feels relief: “So THAT’s what’s going on.” It is not “listening prayer”: it’s just being with the Lord. God is very much at work, but I may not feel much emotion, or have beautiful thoughts. I will have a “confused, loving knowledge” (as Diefenbach writes in Common Mystic Prayer) that the Lord is at work, without being to explain how.
In contemplation, God is purifying me by dryness and the painful longing for Him, by the withdrawal of the sense of pleasure in worldly pursuits (“and when I am with You, the earth delights me not” – Ps. 73) and by the direct work of the Holy Spirit on my spirit. St. John of the Cross writes, “This is Purgatory” – i.e., the work of purgation is similarly painful and purifying, and it works toward the same goal: gradually stripping me of everything that is not of God, to “fit us for Heaven to live with Thee there”, as the carol says.
My next post will explain how to “do” contemplative prayer, the marvelous fruits it fosters, and its bases in Scripture and Tradition. Stay tuned…