PRAYER: Prayer Beyond Words, by Richard Valantasis

From Centuries of Holiness

Sometimes it is difficult to imagine prayer without words.  The use of words in individual prayer and corporate worship seems so much a central aspect of converse with the divine that words themselves become the vehicle of communication.  But that is not necessarily always the case.  The history of Christianity and indeed of other religions as well provides evidence for prayer beyond words, a form of prayer that moves beyond the discursive and enters into a direct apprehension and communion with the divine.

When words function as the primary vehicle of communication with the divine at once immanent, dwelling within the seeker, and transcendent, dwelling in others and in the universe and even perhaps outside the universe, the focus of attention revolves around making meaning.  Words are instruments for the construction of meaning and the meaningful communication with others.  Prayer using words, then, becomes a process of establishing a common meaningful relationship mediated by the words.  The divine presence and the human person connect with each other through words that transmit meaningful messages from one to the other and that create a significant relationship between them.  This is the sense in which prayer using words may be described as discursive: it creates a common discourse that connects two people through a common linguistic medium.  And such prayer lays the foundation for all other prayer – words help create and sustain the initial intimate relationship between the seeker and the divine presence both immanent and transcendent.

Once that discursive prayer has taken deep root within the seeker, the seeker may begin to move toward prayer without words.  Here the seeker prays to enter into union with the interior divine presence and to connect affectively and experientially with the divine presence manifest in others, in circumstances, in nature, and in events.  In other words, the seeker begins to commune with the divine presence by simply living in the presence of the divine without words and extending that communion outward to all the other manifestations of the divine surrounding the seeker.  This prayer apprehends the divine presence in the self, in society, and in the cosmos directly and immediately, without the intermediary of words.

This kind of prayer moves from words to wordlessness.  It moves from establishing the category or understanding of the divine to the intentional transcendence of the posited category in order to move into direct communion with the divine beyond it.  An example will help.  The seeker prays using the word “Creator” and focuses on the meaning and significance of the divine characterized as creator by considering the manner and means of the divine energy creating all human beings, all societies and cultures, and all the stars, galaxies, and even the unknown universes.  The “Creator” takes on rich meaning and significance, and the seeker may think and reflect on this richness for a long time, coming to a deep understanding and communion with the divine through the conceptual frame.  The seeker, however, remains fully present to this form of prayer in that it revolves around the contemplation and consideration of the category.  The seeker understands self and others from the perspective of their relationship to the “Creator.”  When moving beyond this category, the seeker moves beyond the discourse about the “Creator” to a direct apprehension of the divine in negating the category “Creator.”  The divine creates, but is much more than simply the “Creator,” because the category “Creator” does not adequately describe the divine.  So the divine is “Creator” and yet “not Creator,” “Sustenance” and simultaneously “Not Sustenance.”  The process continues positing a categorical description of the divine and negating it in order to move beyond the category, beyond the word, to a direct experience of the divine without any mediation.

This prayer beyond words aims to create immediate experience of the divine by moving beyond discourse into union.   The seeker moves beyond the mediating words and concepts into a direct experience of the profundity of the divine presence that seems to baffle every attempt at comprehension and description.  This sense of the union of agency, the union of direction, the union of wills between the seeker and the divine presence, unmediated by any connecting vehicle beyond the relationship of seeker to divine itself, enables the seeker to experience the unity and singularity of the divine presence not only within the seeker’s own self, but also in others and in the physical universe.  The divine presence becomes a naturally functioning part of self, society, and cosmos so that the seeker becomes one with the divine presence everywhere and communes with that universal divine presence in a mystic, sweet communion.  The discourse, that is, gives way to immediate communion, so that the seeker, disengaging the categories the mind creates, clings to the divine in self and others directly and lovingly.

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