This week I begin a four-part series on contemplative prayer. I call it “Feeling God” because it strikes me as odd when Christians talk of hearing God’s voice when what we really mean is feeling God’s voice or presence.
While hearing is the familiar biblical metaphor, the phenomenon of actually hearing the audible voice of God was probably more common in Old Testament times than it has been since the coming of Christ. This may have been the primary mode, though not the only, by which the prophets received their oracles (a word meaning literally “spoken”). And certainly this still happens; I’ve heard God’s audible voice, and perhaps you have too. In fact I know a woman for whom the normal mode of hearing from God is through His audible voice. She hears Him almost every day. The strange thing is, it hasn’t made her any wiser than you or I. In fact she’s pretty mixed up.
So aspiring to hear God audibly is probably not the route we want to go, nor is it the route that God ultimately wishes for us. For to confine Him to just one of our senses is drastically limiting. Ever since the coming of Jesus, God is no longer merely a voice speaking from heaven, but an incarnate person who walked the earth and who, even after returning to heaven, still feeds us in the eucharist not through hearing alone, but also through taste, touch, sight, and smell. For God’s desire is not to be a voice speaking from the shadows but to engage us in a full-on relationship, apprehensible by our deepest humanity.
What kind of relationship would you have with your spouse if all you could do was hear his or her voice? Some, certainly. But without all the other senses—especially touch—where would your love life be? In the most profound act of human communion, the voice tends to fall silent as we resort to what is arguably both the most primitive and the most sophisticated of our senses: touch. According to Acts 17:27, God created humans “in the hope that they might feel their way toward Him and find Him” (ESV). In the Greek, that verb feel means literally to verify by contact or to touch.
So let’s talk about touch in prayer. About feeling the voice of God. Or let’s just say: Feeling God. This short phrase is my own personal definition of contemplative prayer.
Here’s a slightly longer definition: Contemplative prayer is communion with God without words, images, or ideas.
Before proceeding, let me stress that words, images, and ideas are all very important in prayer. It is necessary to develop a full interior life, one that mirrors completely the outer world so that it is ready to replace that outer world when the latter crumbles away, as it certainly will in death. By developing inner speech, imagination, and intellection we learn to live with confidence in the realm of the spirit. At the same time, while persuing all of this in my own prayer life, I also always feel the invitation to go further—beyond words and images and ideas—to go deeper into a place where I do not know the language, or what anything looks like, or how to think about things.
In a way this doesn’t make sense, but in a way it does. For is not God far beyond any thought or picture one may have of Him, or any words one may use to praise or express Him? Hence, to commune with Him most deeply, we must transcend all these. Where does that leave us, you may ask? What’s left is pure feeling. This is why music is perhaps the highest of the arts—because it reaches this place in us of pure feeling.
At this point we need to distinguish between two kinds or levels of feeling: feelings of the soul and feelings of the spirit. Scripture tells us we have been born again and we are “a new creation” in Christ (2 Cor 5:17). We may properly think of ourselves as having a brand new person inside of this old one, a pure, undefiled child of God who, like the creature of the first birth, comes complete with a full set of senses. What do senses do? They sense, they feel. Naturally, the brain takes these feelings and processes them rationally, but the primary experience is purely sensual. When Jesus said, “Ears have they but they hear not, eyes but they see not,” He was speaking of our old, dead ears and eyes, and inviting us to open the eyes and ears of the spirit. In the same way, this new spirit being has a sense of touch, primarily through feelings or emotions: sadness, joy, fear, awe, and so on. We can experience feelings either in our old moribund flesh or in our new interior creature, that is, in our soul or in our spirit. The feelings of the soul are relatively shallow, fickle, and undependable, not to be heavily relied on as a basis for governing our lives. The feelings of the spirit, on the other hand, we ignore at our peril.
Much of the early business of prayer is learning to distinguish between these two. Perhaps we’re anxious, fearful, or depressed, and so we turn to prayer, and there we discover, underneath these superficial feelings, a peace, even a joy, that overcomes them. This is the peace and the joy of the Holy Spirit, who lives in us and whose presence may be felt in our own spirit. To have peace, one must feel it. There is no peace that is not felt peace. Same with joy. These are some of the fruit of the Spirit. Love is also a fruit of the Spirit, but love is a bit different, in that one can love without feeling love. Love can be pure action. But what motivates it? Isn’t it motivated by the love of God, which at some point has been experienced or felt? And while love can certainly exist without feeling, I question whether love that is never felt is the real thing.
I’ve called these spiritual feelings, and while they do originate in the spirit, we cannot actually feel them unless we feel them in our body. As the two disciples reflected after walking with Jesus along the road to Emmaus, “Were not our hearts burning within us?” (Luke 24:32) We know this feeling, do we not? But what is it, this burning? Is it spiritual or is it physical? Isn’t it both? This burning is exactly what we want to cultivate in prayer. We cannot manufacture it, but we can take off our shoes and approach the fire.
Notice how very odd (and how very Christian) this is: that we learn to pray by paying attention to our bodies, to the physical sensations our body most deeply and authentically experiences. I think many people try to make prayer an entirely mental exercise, and while there is certainly a place for mental devotion, how much more there is to prayer than that! To return to an earlier image: Imagine falling in love without being physically attracted!
Paul exhorts, “Offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God, which is your spiritual act of worship” (Rom 12:1). Notice that the offering of the body, a physical gesture, is a spiritual act. In contemplative prayer I offer my body to the Lord and allow the Holy Spirit to fill me entirely, flowing into all my recesses like the tide returning to a bay. Physically I feel this happening, just as if I were a jar being filled with warm oil. Having practised contemplative prayer for many years, I now enjoy this sensation whenever I deliberately place myself in the Lord’s presence. This is a gift, certainly, but it is also a gift I have learned to receive. I have learned to detect the touch of the Holy Spirit within me and to respond by giving Him free rein over all my faculties. As we surrender to sleep at night, so in the daytime let us relax into the Holy Spirit. To quote Paul again, “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts” (Col 3:15).
[End of Part I of Feeling God. To be continued next week. Sign up here to receive weekly installments in your email box.]