by Father Thomas Keating
Chapter 7, Part III
In contemplative orders there should be great respect for individual expressions of the contemplative life. At different periods of one's development God calls one to more intense community life and at other times to greater solitude. If you are in a community where only one or the other is available, the situation is not conducive to the full expression of the contemplative vocation. Institutions, even the best ones, have limitations. Sometimes God uses confining situations to bring someone to great perfection, but with the general awakening to individual needs in our time, communities will do well to remember that contemplatives have needs, too, and to provide for them in an atmosphere of support and sympathy.
Some of the greatest sufferings of contemplatives have come not from God, but from other people. When Margaret Mary Alacoque was receiving visions of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, she often entered into bodily ecstasy.2 When the other nuns rose at the signal to leave the choir, she could not get up. Her superiors accused her of disobedience because she was not observing the rule. Some of the sisters thought she must have a devil, and they used to sprinkle her with holy water to protect themselves and the other nuns. You can imagine their faces when they were trying to exorcise the demon out of poor Margaret Mary, who just could not tear herself away from the love of God. Her prayer life was developing in a thoroughly normal way, but her senses could not sustain the strength of the graces that God was giving her. Later, when she became spirituality more mature, her senses did not give way, and then her state of prayer was no longer obvious.
Spiritual consolation that overflows into the senses and into the body is a phase in the growth of contemplative prayer. Some temperaments are more prone to it than others. Some do not experience it at all. If it is especially strong, the body cannot move a muscle and time goes by unnoticed. Centering prayer may give you an inkling of what that might be like. When the period of prayer seems to pass quickly, you can see that if you were just a little deeper, you would have no idea of time at all. If somebody came up and touched you, you would be shaken up. If a community regards such phenomena as dangerous, from the devil, or unlikely to happen to humble religious, then such a community is a poor context for the the Cross with suspicion. John of the Cross is now recognized as one of the greatest exponents of the mystical life that the Roman Catholic Church has ever produced. If even he could not escape the suspicion of the Inquisition, what do you think would happen to ordinary religious who were having experiences that they could not articulate because they were not theologians or spiritual directors?
It is one thing to have the grace of interior prayer; another to be able to communicate it. They do not necessarily go together Sometimes someone who truly has the contemplative experience expresses it in a way that upsets the more conservative element in the environment. Such a person may be labeled a heretic when he is just expressing himself clumsily.
Mystical language is not theological language. It is the language of the bed-chamber, of love, and hence of hyperbole and exaggeration. If a husband says that he adores his wife, it does not mean that he regards her as a goddess. He is just trying to express his feeling of love in language that is powerless to do so--except through hyperbole. But if the people in your environment do not understand that kind of language, they may think you are under the influence of the devil.
How does the Charismatic Movement fit in with this contemplative approach to prayer?
The great contribution that the Charismatic Movement has made is to reawaken among contemporary Christians belief in the dynamic activity of the Spirit, who is strengthening, consoling, and guiding us with his unfailing inspiration. Thanks to the Movement, the spontaneity of the early Christian communities described by Paul and by the Acts of the Apostles is being rediscovered in our time. The first believers gathered in communities around the risen Christ to listen to the word of God in scripture, to celebrate in the liturgy, and to be transformed into Christ by the Eucharist. The presence of the Spirit was palpably manifested in these assemblies by means of the charismatic gifts. The gift of tongues seems to have been given to encourage the individual believer; hence, its use in public worship was restricted. lnterpretation of tongues, prophecy, healing, teaching, administration, and other gifts provided for the spiritual and material needs of the various local communities. The continuing work of the Spirit manifested by the development of the Christian contemplative tradition must now be integrated into this scriptural model revived by the Charismatic Renewal.
I know a man who got into the Charismatic Movement, was having profound spiritual experiences, and didn't know what they were. His parish priest didn't either. This man was in touch with a contemplative nun in a cloistered convent who told him, "Don't worry about it; those are typical." She referred him to the appropriate mystical text and continued to give him instruction.
The Charismatic Movement speaks to the need of Christians today for a supportive community and for a personal experience of prayer. "Baptism in the Spirit" is probably a transient mystical grace induced by the fervor of the group or by other factors that we don't know. The gift of tongues is a rudimentary form of nonconceptual prayer. Since you don't know what you are saying, you can't be thinking about what you are saying. Those in the Movement need what that man was fortunate enough to receive, namely, the help and instruction of someone who knew the Christian contemplative tradition. After you have sung the praises of God, shared prayer together, spoken in tongues, and prophesied for a few years, where do you go from there? There is a place to go. It is time to introduce periods of silence into the group, for the members are now fully prepared to move to a more contemplative expression of prayer If some silence were introduced into the meetings, the Movement would hold more people. Groups differ according to their makeup and theological resources, but they all need help with spiritual teaching. Some Charismatics are opposed to contemplative prayer because they believe that if you are not thinking, the devil will start thinking for you. In actual fact, if you are praying in interior silence, the devil can't get anywhere near you. There is more chance of his suggesting things to your imagination when you are practicing discursive meditation. It is only when you come out of interior silence and reemerge into the world of the senses and reasoning that he can put his finger in the pie and stir things up. The Charismatic Movement has great potential. To fulfill its promise, however, it needs to be open to the Christian contemplative tradition.
2. Poulain, Graces of Interior Prayer, Chapter XIV-57. Return to Text
More information can be obtained by reading the book Open Mind Open Heart by Fr. Thomas Keating. It is offered in our Bookstore.