by Father Thomas Keating
Chapter 7, Part II
Centering prayer is an exercise in letting go. That is all it is. It lays aside every thought. One touch of divine love enables you to take all the pleasures of the world and throw them in the wastebasket. Reflecting on spiritual communications diminishes them. The Diamond Sutra says it all: "Try to develop a mind that does not cling to anything."1 That includes visions, ecstasies, locutions, spiritual communications, psychic gifts. These are not as valuable as pure consciousness.
It is extremely hard not to reflect on spiritual consolations, especially if you haven't had much experience of them. However, as you approach interior silence and are thrown out enough times, you begin to accept the fact that the grasping method won't work. Don't be discouraged or indulge in guilt feelings. Failure is the path to boundless confidence in God. Always remember that you have a billion chances. This God of ours is not crossing off anything on our list of opportunities. He keeps approaching us from every possible angle. He lures, draws, nudges, or pushes us, as the case may demand, into the place where He wants us to be.
Eventually you may get used to a certain degree of interior silence. The delightful peace that you may have enjoyed in the early stages of contemplative prayer becomes a normal state. Like anything in life, you can get used to contemplative prayer and not notice the great gifts you are receiving. Habitually you settle down at the beginning of prayer and move into a quiet space, and that's all there is. But that does not mean that you are no longer receiving the prayer of quiet, in which your will is in union with God. If thoughts are going by and you feel no attraction for them, you can be confident that you are in the prayer of quiet. When all the faculties are grasped by God, there is full union. That, however, is not the end of the journey.
What is the relationship of contemplative prayer to the rest of life?
The union established during prayer has to be integrated with the rest of reality. The presence of God should become a kind of fourth dimension to all of life. Our three dimensional world is not the real world because the most important dimension is missing; namely, that from which everything that exists is emerging and returning in each micro-cosmic moment of time. It is like adding a sound track to a silent movie. The picture is the same, but the sound track makes it more alive. The contemplative state is established when contemplative prayer moves from being an experience or series of experiences to an abiding state of consciousness. The contemplative state enables one to rest and act at the same time because one is rooted in the source of both rest and action.
Some people experience a preview of divine union, lose it for a period of time, then have to climb back to it. God can start you off at any point in the spiritual life. If you get a headstart, you have to go back and fill in the gaps. Don't think that some people are lucky because they have visions when they are five or six years old. These people still have to go through the struggle to dismantle the emotional programs of early childhood. These programs are only temporarily put to sleep by the divine action. One great advantage for such persons, however, is that they know by experience what is missing in their lives and that nothing less than God can ever satisfy them. It is a mistake, however, to envy or admire someone else's path. You must be convinced that you have everything you need to reach divine union. The reason any expectation is a hindrance is that it is a form of clinging, hence a desire to control.
Let go of sensible and spiritual consolation. When you feel the love of God flowing into you, it is a kind of union, but it is a union of which you are aware. Therefore, it is not pure union, not full union. Spiritual consolation is so marvelous that human nature eagerly reaches out for it. We are not about to sit still and pretend it isn't there. We reach out for it with all our being and cry, "If I can only remember how I got here!"
So long as you are moved by such desires, you are still trying to control God. Even if you see the heavens opening and Jesus sitting at the right hand of the Father, forget it. Return to the sacred word. You have nothing to lose. Spiritual communications accomplish their purpose instantly before you have the chance to reflect on them. You have received the full benefit of the gift even if you never think of it again. Letting go of spiritual gifts is the best way to receive them. The more detached you are from them, the more you can receive or rather, the better you can receive. It takes a lot of courage to let go of the most delightful things that can be experienced.
Why is there such an alternation in prayer between consolation and desolation, interior silence and the bombardment of thoughts, the presence of God and the absence of God?
The alternations in our relationship with God are not unlike the presence or absence of someone we greatly love. In the Song of Solomon, God is depicted as pursuing the soul as His beloved. The fathers of the Church had a fondness for this particular verse: "O that his left hand were under my head and that his right hand embraced me." (Song of Solomon 2:6) According to their interpretation, God embraces us with both arms. With the left He humbles and corrects us; with the right He lifts us up and consoles us with the assurance of being loved by Him. If you want to be fully embraced by the Lord, you have to accept both arms: the one that allows suffering for the sake of purification and the one that brings the joy of union. When you feel physical pain or when psychological struggles are persecuting you, you should think that God is hugging you extra tightly Trials are an expression of His love, not of rejection.
In contemplative prayer, the distress caused by the absence of God is often compensated for by experiences of divine Union. The greater your longing for union with Christ, the more painful it is when he seems to go away. Suffering is part of the warp and woof of living. It is not an end in itself, but part of the price one has to pay for being greatly loved. Love, whether human or divine, makes you vulnerable. The alternation of joy and sorrow in the spiritual journey helps us to be detached from our psychological experiences. True lovers are more interested in being loved for themselves than for their embraces. So it is with God. He wants to be loved for His own sake, for who He is, beyond what we may experience. The tendency to seek the reward of love, which is to be loved in return, is natural. The Spirit teaches us through these alternations to love God as He is in Himself, whatever the psychological content of our experience. That kind of freedom stabilizes the spiritual journey From then on, the vicissitudes of the journey, while painful at times on the surface, do not disturb the heart that is rooted in divine love.
There is a level in which pain is joy and joy is pain. Then it doesn't matter any more which it is because one is rooted in a place where what matters is divine love. From the point of view of divine love, pain can be joy. It is a way of sacrificing ourselves completely for the sake of the Beloved. It does not cease to be pain, but it has a different quality from ordinary pain. Divine love is the source of that quality. It finds in pain a way of expressing its love with a totality that would not be otherwise possible. Jesus crucified is God's way of expressing the immensity of His love for each of us, proof that He loves us infinitely and unconditionally.
Can the interior attraction for recollection overtake you during the day in your ordinary occupations?
Yes. I only recommend that when driving a car, you keep your eyes open! Apart from such situations, if one has the leisure, one could give way to it. You also can over do it. The pleasurable part of prayer is not the goal; it is rather the introduction to it. If you can be united to God without the intermediary of feelings and thoughts, there is no more sense of separation. Spiritual consolation is a means of softening up the faculties and healing them of their various wounds. It gives you a completely different view of God than when you are dealing with Him solely on the basis of good and evil, right and wrong, reward and punishment. As the relationship of intimacy with God begins to deepen, you should not unduly prolong your time of prayer. When there is some duty to be performed, you have to sacrifice for the moment your attraction to interior silence. But if you have nothing urgent going on, I don't see why you can't give in to the attraction for five or ten minutes, or longer, if you have the time.
1. Luk, Ch'an and Zen Teaching, Series One, p. 173. Return to text
Continued Next Week . . .
More information can be obtained by reading the book Open Mind Open Heart by Fr. Thomas Keating. It is offered in our Bookstore.