God does not offer himself to our finite beings as a thing all complete and ready to be embraced. For us he is eternal discovery and eternal growth. The more we think we understand him, the more he reveals himself as otherwise. The more we think we hold him, the further he withdraws, drawing us into the depths of himself.
Has it ever occurred to you that Jesus, the master in the art of prayer, would take the trouble to walk up a hill in order to pray? Like all great contemplatives he was aware that the place in which we pray has an influence on the quality of our prayer.
Notice how sharp is the hearing and the sense of touch of a blind man. He has lost his faculty of seeing and this has forced him to develop his other faculties of perception. Something similar happens in the mystical world. If we could go mentally blind, so to speak, if we could put a bandage over our mind while we are communicating with God, we would be forced to develop some other faculty for communicating with him—that faculty which, according to a number of mystics, is already straining to move out to him anyway if it were given a chance to develop: the Heart.
Take the biblical phrase: “God is love” (1 John 4:18). Repeat it again and again in your heart. As you do so, savor it, relish it and you will find that it is sweet as honey in your mouth. “God is love … God is love … God is love.” Repeat it at your own pace and rhythm. After some time you may wish to stop repeating it and be silent, without words and without thought. This is a rich silence, a sacred silence, a precious silence, a mystical silence. This is indeed the threshold of mystical prayer. So treasure that silence lovingly until after some time (perhaps after one minute or perhaps after ten minutes) you get all distracted, and then you return to your biblical words: “God is love … God is love … God is love.”
The Coptic monks of the desert knew only a single word and a single struggle for designating both the mind and the heart. We tend to separate the mind from the heart. We like to fill the mind; yet, we forget the heart. Or else, we fill the heart with information that should fill the mind. Nevertheless, the two work differently: the mind learns; the heart knows. The mind is educated; the heart believes. The mind is intellectual, speculative; it reads and speaks. The heart is intuitive, mystical; it grows in silence. The two should be held together; and they should be brought together in the presence of God.
Before I can say “God Himself is mine,” I have to let go of everything but God himself. The familiar picture I may have of God is not God himself, and I will have to leave that image behind in the desert. God as he is in himself is wholly Other than I can imagine him, is transcendent Mystery. Likewise, my experience of God, whether in prayer or in my brothers and sisters, is not God himself. And so I will have to let go of my familiar forms of praying and experiencing God as I journey through the desert. I can learn to trust him whom I do not name or experience, trust him because I love him.
The spiritual life is not a set of exercises appended to our ordinary routine. It is a complete reordering of our values and our prioirities and our lives. Spirituality is not just a matter of joining the closest religious community or parish committee or faith-sharing group. Spirituality is that depth of soul that changes our lives and focuses our efforts and leads us to see the world differently than we ever did before.
Religion, or conscious, intimate contact with God, must not only dominate, but must penetrate and permeate all your living. That means you are not only to worship while at work, but your work itself must be worship; you are not to go from play to prayer or from prayer to play, but your play itself must be a form of prayer; you are to sleep, and sleep soundly, but all the while your heart is to be watching; and when you are awake, you are to be wide awake to the God you are adoring with your entire being.
Your spiritual life need not be limited to times of prayer, meditation, or worship. It is portable and exists with you every moment of the day. You cannot leave it behind any more than you can leave God behind; you can only choose to remain unconscious of the presence of what is holy.
Living Faith Day By Day: How the Sacred Rules of Monastic Traditions Can Help You Live Spiritually in the Modern World (Lincoln, NE: Authors Choice Press, 2006), p. 53.
As for you, however, if you do not trust the prophets, and if you suppose both the fire and the men who saw it to be a legend, the Lord Himself shall speak to you, He “who being in the form of God did not count equality with God as an opportunity for gain, but emptied Himself,” the God of compassion who is eager to save man. And the Word Himself now speaks to you plainly, putting to shame your unbelief, yes, I say, the Word of God speaks, having become man, in order such as you may learn from man how it is even possible for man to become a god.
In the Christian tradition, everyone is called to be a mystic — that is, to enjoy that direct relationship with God for which every human soul is created. Cor ad cor loquitur: heart must speak to heart in the final most intimate encounter that is nearer to the self than breathing, for the perception, however feeble, by the soul of its Creator must eventually be direct.
Do not, then, stir yourself up to useless interior activities. Avoid everything that will bring unnecessary complications into your life. Live in as much peace and quiet and retirement as you can, and do not go out of your way to get involved in labors and duties, no matter how much glory they may seem to give to God. Do the tasks appointed to you as perfectly as you can with disinterested love and great peace in order to show your desire of pleasing God. Love and serve Him peacefully and in all your works preserve recollection. Do what you do quietly and without fuss. Seek solitude as much as you can; dwell in the silence of your own soul and rest there in the simple and simplifying light which God is infusing into you. Do not make the mistake of aspiring to the spectacular “experiences” that you read about in the lives of great mystics. None of those graces (called gratis datae) can sanctify you nearly so well as this obscure and purifying light and love of God which is given you to no other end than to make you perfect in His love.
The core of my being, the most treasured part of my existence, is a contemplative life— a life lived in awareness of the divine. The challenge of maintaining this awareness is to sit openhanded to receive all that comes. It is not possible to hold on to one thought, memory, or idea and continue the contemplative journey. It requires a willingness to live this moment as keenly as possible, always aware of the many dimensions of now. Staying openhanded, treasuring but not grasping, is critical to the contemplative stance.
A Nun on the Bus: How All of Us Can Create Hope, Change, and Community (New York: HarperCollins, 2014), p. xiii.
From the Romantic movement onward, … the mystical impulse was cut loose from ascetical discipline, ecclesial life and supervision or direction, and now focused on precisely the most distracting and “paranormal” phenomena rather than on the union with God or theosis or that perfect reign of justice and peace that had been the tradition’s terminal images for the journey. The culture came down with a good case of Zen sickness — loving enlightenment rather than the light, or, in Christian terms, desiring religious experience rather than God — from which it has not yet recovered. There are some hopeful countervailing trends at present… but this is the culture we have inhabited for nearly two hundred years.
Beloved Dust: Tides of the Spirit in the Christian Life (New York: Continuum, 2008), p. 27.
To be here with the silence of Sonship in my heart is to be a center in which all things converge upon you. That is surely enough for the time being.
Therefore, Father, I beg you to keep me in this silence so that I may learn from it the word of your peace and the word of your mercy and the word of your gentleness to the world: and that through me perhaps your word of peace may make itself heard where it has not been possible for anyone to hear it for a long time.