My Writing

CONTEMPLATIVE PRAYER: Unity vs. Wholeness Julia Marks

I took the following definition of centering prayer off the website Centering Prayer, ostensibly the website dedicated to the teachings of Father Thomas Keating, one of the priests who began the teaching of contemplative prayer in the modern age.  The definition goes:

Centering prayer is a method of silent prayer that prepares us to receive the gift of contemplative prayer, prayer in which we experience God’s presence within us, closer than breathing, closer than thinking, closer than consciousness itself.  This method of prayer is both a relationship with God and a discipline to foster that relationship.

I find within this definition a perfect expression of our relationship with God: through this kind of prayer we experience God’s presence within us.  For me, the whole definition of contemplative prayer could be just that statement.

But not that many months ago, a very dear priest who teaches contemplative prayer through the church where he serves, made the comment that to him, contemplative prayer is the ultimate way to bring unity to the world.  At the time, I noticed that my body reacted slightly to this statement.  It seems that my whole being, my soul, did not like the concept of unity being imposed on the concept of contemplative prayer.

Here is why: to my mind, the heart of the concept of unity is separateness.  To unite things is to bring them together to form a single unit.  The things being united had to begin their relationship with each other in the state of being apart, separate.

And my experience through contemplative prayer is that we are not, nor ever have been, separate from God.  Instead of being the means of bringing us together with God, this form of prayer is our way of experiencing our oneness with God, the wholeness that is the reality  of our relationship with him.

I did notice that on Father Keating’s website there was the phrase, unification of human capabilities, but this is part of his definition of simplicity.  And simplicity, in his view, is the path that leads to prayer.  So how closely he knits the concepts of prayer and unity (as opposed to wholeness, or in his site’s definition, experiencing God’s presence within us) is vague at best.

However, if you typed the phrase, contemplative prayer union with God, into a search engine up will pop a whole long list of writings on that subject.  Looking into some, I noticed that they referred to Teresa of Avila and her supposed reference to contemplative prayer as a mystical union with God.  Studying further, I found that the “guilty” quote that was to refer to this supposed union with God was the following:

We need no wings to go in search of him, but have only to find a place where we can be alone and look upon him present within us.

To me, this describes wholeness, the same words on Father Keating’s website.

It is interesting, however, that in her writings Teresa of Avila describes a “prayer of union,” and in her explanations of her visions on the seven mansions, she does address the concept of unity with God.  However, John of the Cross, Teresa’s spiritual mentor, states:

In every soul, even that of the greatest sinner in the world, God dwells and is substantially present.

For me, predictably, this is an assertion of wholeness in our relationship with God, not a healed separateness brought together through a uniting effort.  John even goes on to equate the concept of unity with the experience of God’s presence in oneself.  So I am suggesting that for Teresa and John, perhaps, the concept of unity is the concept of oneness, which is the concept of wholeness.

It’s a theory.Save

4 Comments on CONTEMPLATIVE PRAYER: Unity vs. Wholeness

  1. Julia, I read this too hastily the first time, but on returning to it I am delighted to recognize a kindred way of thought.

    I think your idea of no-separation from God is very close to my view which sees this relationship as analogous to a marriage-for-life type of union rather than a singular intense ‘conjugal’ union or ecstatic unity.

    This union has its ‘good days’ and ‘bad days’ – like any relationship. But it is, from God’s side, ‘for better and for worse, in sickness in health.’

    God doesn’t walk away, even when we are ‘away.’ And once we understand his faithfulness, we begin to be more often ‘at home’ and in his presence.

    Does this make sense to you? I’m using the marriage metaphor very differently than say Jan Ruysbroeck – and many others (who seem to make it more ultimate, more conditional and more ‘ecstatic.’

    On the contrary, I think we become eligible for this life-union with God very early in life – even on the first day in which we prove by action that we are able to chose a good higher than our own desire – making room for God by that act. But that is only the beginning of what should be a life of prayer, of course.


  2. Thank you for taking the time and care to read my writing. I find it interesting that you naturally compare our relationship with God with our relationship with our beloved. I’m just beginning to make a study of “marital” love. I think it’s one of the only times that we, as humans, get to experience something that is absolute — that when we find it, it becomes something that exists for all time. In addition, what I have been struck with recently is how Jesus calls marriage, a sacrament. Something holy. Something that brings to us divine grace. What do you think?


  3. My interest is only to utilize a truth I have glimpsed about marriage to help illuminate the nature of our day-to-day union with the indwelling God – to assert that it is a real partnership that is permanent and growing regardless of our state of holiness (the idea of John of the Cross – that it must be available to sinners as well as to saints).

    My aim is to distinguish the contemplative life from what I think is a myth of mystic search for ecstatic ‘unity’ or substantial oneness with God. You pointed out that this idea of unity cannot suffice if it implies initial separation. Although I imagine the logical necessity of an original ‘beginning’ (the first moment of selflessness in childhood), I still affirm your idea that at keast from our earliest days of consciousness we live our life largely within this partnership with God which cannot be ‘put asunder.’

    But I’m not sure I would go the other way and attempt to import truths about the divine soul-mate into an idealized concept of human marriage. In my current thinking it is too much to expect of another human being that they could be our soul-mate (in fact, I believe my own marriage was saved by my realization that my soul-mate is not my earthly beloved but only the spirit presence that dwells within me).

    Human marriage can indeed be sacramental just because it is so full of mutual self-giving, mutual self-revelation, and all that intentional good-faith and love which can and does bring us a measure of divine grace.

    But to me we cannot speak of ‘unity’ with the indwelling spirit except when we see and do the divine will in the present moment. It’s a unity of will rather than a unity of substance. The indwelling spirit does not ever over-power the relationship or overwhelm my personality (even when I get emotional about God’s love). Instead this spirit is always like a lamb in its quiet innocence and divine patience. Almost every day I slay and crucify this lamb by my self-will, yet it shows its divinity by every day rising again in me, to wait in the garden outside the tomb in which I thought it must lay. Maybe the garden is a symbol of contemplative prayer. I get nowhere if I am content to bring the spices of concepts and practices with which to embalm and honor the lamb. Instead I must recognize that he is newly risen, and calls my name.


    • One thing that fascinates me — really fascinates me — is that marriage IS a sacrament. It is specifically listed in the Bible. Which means, technically, that anyone married is just as holy as, say, the pope, himself. This, I think, is one of those concepts that can be meditated on infinitely. The sacrament of marriage. I wonder, though, right off the bat, does this apply to all marriages? Surely not. Or, perhaps, that is just my limited prejudice coming into play.

      As to the concept of a soul-mate, I can tell you that for most of my life, which has been quite long at this point, I equated the idea of a soul-mate with the reality of a unicorn. That is, it’s a nice idea, but really. And I can honestly say that in all my study of the structure of souls, I have never encountered the characteristic of romantic outreach. That said, it just “dawned” on me (just the other day, in fact) that there is such a concept. That in some cases, souls do align themselves. I realized that it actually happened to me, without me being aware of what was happening. I don’t know how the “other,” my beloved, feels about this all, I have no contact with him. I actually began a post on this. I think I can write. I’m just not sure that I can post it.

      Merry Christmas to you and yours.


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