O my divine Master, teach me this mute language which says so many things. (Jean-Nicholas Grou)
Contemplative prayer immerses us into the silence of God. How desperately we in the modern world need this wordless baptism! We have become, as the early church father Clement of Alexandria says, like old shoes – all worn out except for the tongue. We live in a wordy world with our sophisticated high-tech telecommunication systems. We now have the dubious distinction of being able to communicate more and say less than any civilization in history.
Isaac of Nineveh, a Syrian monk, once observed, “Those who delight in a multitude of words, even though they say admirable things, are empty within.” We today stand under the rebuke of this observation.
Contemplative prayer is the one discipline that can free us from our addiction to words. Progress in intimacy with God means progress toward silence. “For God alone my soul waits in silence,” declares the Psalmist, (Psalm 62:1). The desert father Ammonas, a disciple of Saint Anthony, writes, “I have shown you the power of silence, how thoroughly it heals and how fully pleasing it is to God. Know that it is by silence that the saints grew, that it was because of silence that the power of God dwelt in them, because of silence that the mysteries of God were know to them.” It is this recreating silence to which we are called in contemplative prayer.
A warning and a precaution
At the outset I need to give a word of warning, a little like the warning labels on medicine bottles. Contemplative prayer is not for the novice. I do not say this about any other form of prayer. All are welcome, regardless of proficiency or expertise, to enter freely into adoration and meditation and intercession and a host of other approaches to prayer. But contemplation is different. While we are all equally precious in the eyes of God, we are not all equally ready to listen to God’s speech in his wondrous, terrible, gentle, loving, all-embracing silence.
A baby is given milk rather than steak because steak will do the baby no good. An apprentice electrician is not allowed to do the tasks of a journeyman because he is not ready for those tasks, and for him to undertake them could, in fact, be dangerous.
So it is in the spiritual life. We must learn our multiplication tables before we attempt calculus, so to speak. This is simply a fact of the spiritual realm, and it would be wrong of me not to tell you about it.
C. S. Lewis tells his friend Malcolm how early in his Christian experience he attempted wordless prayer with little success. He writes, “I still think the prayer without words is the best – if one can really achieve it. But I now see that in trying to make it my daily bread I was counting on a greater mental and spiritual strength than I really have. To pray successfully without words one needs to be “at the top of one’s form.”
Lewis is correct. Contemplative prayer is for those who have exercised their spiritual muscles a bit and know something about the landscape of the spirit. In fact, those who work in the area of spiritual direction always look for signs of a maturing faith before encouraging individuals into contemplative prayer. Some of the more common indicators are a continuing hunger for intimacy with God, an ability to forgive others at great personal cost, a living sense that God alone can satisfy the longings of the human heart, a deep satisfaction in prayer, a realistic assessment of personal abilities and shortcomings, a freedom from boasting about spiritual accomplishments, and a demonstrated ability to live out the demands of life patiently and wisely.
It is not that we must be accomplished in these areas. It is that clear progress must be occurring. You may want to ask yourself several questions of examination to help evaluate your own readiness: “Am I becoming less afraid of being known and owned by God?” “Is prayer developing in me as a welcome discipline?” “Is it becoming easier for me to receive constructive criticism?” “Am I learning to move beyond personal offense and freely forgive those who have wronged me?” If, after this small experience of examen, you sense that you are not yet ready for unmediated communion with God, then feel perfectly free to pass over this material. Do not worry; a time will come when there will well up within you both a yearning and a readiness to “read the text of the universe in the original.”
I also want to give a word of precaution. In the silent contemplation of God we are entering deeply into the spiritual realm, and there is such a thing as supernatural guidance that is not divine guidance. While the Bible does not give us a lot of information on the nature of the spiritual world, we do know enough to recognize that there are various orders of spiritual beings, and some of them are definitely not in cooperation with God and his way!
I say these things not to make you fearful but to make you knowledgeable. You need to know that “like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour,” (1 Peter 5:8). You also need to know that “the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world,” (1 John 4:4).
With respect to spiritual warfare, I want to encourage you to learn and practice prayers of protection. Here is the prayer that Luther used: “Shield us, Lord, with thy right arm. Save us from sin’s dreadful harm.” My own approach is to preface a time of contemplation by speaking this simple prayer: “By the authority of almighty God I surround myself with the light of Christ, I cover myself with the blood of Christ, and I seal myself with the cross of Christ. All dark and evil spirits must now leave. No influence is allowed to come near to me but that it is first filtered through the light of Jesus Christ, in whose name I pray. Amen.” These, of course, are only suggestions – you are free to pray in whatever way is most comfortable to you.