Then the word of the Lord came to (Ezekiel), saying “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.
-1 Kings 19:9b, 11b-13
Ezekiel experienced the presence of God in the silence. Contemplative prayer enables us to enter into silence and experience the presence of God.
In the Christian community there are two commonly used methods for contemplative prayer. They are Christian Meditation and Centering Prayer. Each uses a prayer word to enable us to let go of our thoughts so that we can be quiet in our hearts and minds and enter into silence. The practice is simple. In Christian Meditation it involves saying a prayer word or a short phrase and repeating it, silently, interiorly, throughout the meditation period. In Centering Prayer, the prayer word is used to let go of thoughts and is said again when the thoughts return.
It is simple, but not easy, because our minds are continuously busy. The thoughts will be there, but saying the prayer word helps us not to pay attention to them, so we can enter into silence.
Jesus’ teaching about prayer is instructive. In Matthew 6:6-7 we read “But whenever you pray, go into your room, and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.”
In meditation, we keep the prayer simple – a word or a phrase. We go into our inner room and enter into a quietness of heart and mind, leaving space for God to be present to us and within us.
Meditative prayer has a long history in the Christian tradition. It was almost unknown for many centuries and was re-introduced to the western Church in the 1970’s and 80’s. Fr. John Main reintroduced the practice of Christian Meditation and Fr. Thomas Keating founded the practice of Centering Prayer.
We can trace the practice of repeating a word or phrase back to the fourth century where we find it recommended by the Desert Fathers and Mothers. John Cassian, in particular, wrote about this way of prayer in his IXth and Xth Conferences.
Cassian wrote that he and his friend Germanus had travelled to the desert of Egypt where they met Abba Isaac, a respected teacher, who talked to them about ceaseless prayer. He told them to pray by repeating a single verse. The one he recommended was, “God come to my assistance.”
Cassian noted that by praying in this way, repeating a prayer word or phrase, “The mind thus casts out and represses the rich and ample matter of all thoughts and restricts itself to the poverty of a single verse.”
In meditation, then, we try to let go of all thoughts, so that we can focus on simply being in the presence of God. When we have an inner silence, it gives us the chance to listen to God in a very intentional way. Our minds are usually so cluttered with thoughts about our busy lives that we don’t leave much room for the Spirit to communicate with us. It is in the stillness and the silence of meditation that we become centred in the presence of God and become more open to the work of the Holy Spirit who dwells within us.
Approximately 10 centuries after John Cassian, we find an anonymous English mystic of the 14th century who wrote a book titled The Cloud of Unknowing. The author writes: “So take a little word of just one syllable to help you focus your attention. The shorter the word the better, because it is more like this particular activity of the Holy Spirit. Choose a word like ‘God’ or ‘love’ or any other word of one syllable that appeals to you and impress it indelibly on your heart so that it is always there, whatever happens… Fix this word fast to your heart so that it is always there come what may. With this word you will suppress all thoughts.”
Another example of prayer by repeating a word or a phrase is the Jesus Prayer. The most common form of the prayer is: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” It, too, goes all the way back to the Desert Fathers and Mothers. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition it has been maintained throughout the centuries and is still very much a part of their practice of prayer. When I was at an international conference some years ago a young man from Poland said that meditation was nothing new to him because he had been saying this prayer since he was a child.
We have seen, then, that meditation is deeply rooted in our Christian tradition. When we engage in this way of prayer we are connected to numerous spiritual teachers from different parts of the world and from different centuries. And most importantly, we know that we are walking in the footsteps of Jesus himself.
This quote from John Main’s writing summarizes key aspects of this way of prayer:
“Meditation is not the time for words, however beautifully and sincerely phrased. All our words are wholly ineffective when we come to enter into this deep and mysterious communion with God.”
In order to come into this holy and mysterious communion with the word of God indwelling within us, we must first have the courage to become more and more silent. In a deep, creative silence, we meet God in a way which transcends all our powers of intellect and language.
We have to listen, to concentrate, to attend rather than to think. As John Main says:
Silence is absolutely necessary for the human spirit if it really is to thrive, and not only just to thrive, but to be creative, to have a creative response to life, to our environment, to our friends. Because the silence gives our spirit room to breathe, room to be. In silence, you don’t have to be justifying yourself, apologizing for yourself, trying to impress anyone. You just have to be, and it’s a most marvellous experience when you come to it. And the wonder of it is in that experience, you are completely free. You are not trying to play any role, you are not trying to fulfil anyone’s expectation.