We cannot speak of contemplative prayer without addressing the notorious problem of controlling or silencing one’s thoughts. You may ask: In order to practice this prayer of quiet, of focussing on deep feeling, how can I completely still my mind? When I try to become quiet, my thoughts race more than ever. Well, the brain was made for thinking, and you can’t stop your thoughts any more than you can stop grass from growing. Besides, you want to remain open to thoughts that may come to you from the Lord. So don’t even try to suppress your thoughts.
However, as you learn to give yourself to the tide of the Holy Spirit within, distracting thoughts will naturally begin to take second place. At times they’ll fade away completely, at other times they’ll be raucous, but more and more it doesn’t matter. For feelings are more powerful than thoughts, and just as you’ve learned in your natural life to be carried along by the feelings of your soul, you can learn in your prayer life to give precedence to the feelings of your spirit. As Paul wrote, “The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace” (Rom 8:6).
Let’s consider again our definition of contemplative prayer: Being with God beyond words, images, or ideas. Pure feeling. Pure burning. How much oil is in your lamp?
To be sure, there is a kind (or stage) of contemplative prayer—and it may be the highest kind—that is beyond feeling. We see it in the prayer lives of some of the greatest saints and mystics: for example, John of the Cross, Thérèse of Lisieux, Mother Teresa. You may recall a few years ago, some time after Mother Teresa died, it came out that her personal prayer life had been completely desolate. For fifty years she prayed faithfully but experienced nothing, no interior feelings at all, no felt sense of God’s love or His presence, and for her this was a source of great anguish. Similarly, St Thérèse of Lisieux, who died at 24 of tuberculosis, at Easter of her final year suddenly lost the sense of God’s presence that she had enjoyed all her life. Unlike Mother Teresa, she obscurely grasped this as a deep blessing, viewing it as a supreme grace that God should permit her to be overwhelmed by impenetrable darkness. As a blind person observed, “If in God’s light we see light, then in God’s darkness we see darkness.”
So yes, there is a prayer without feeling. In Guidelines to Mystical Prayer, Ruth Burrows speaks of two kinds of contemplative prayer which she calls light on and light off. The light off experience—that is, no feeling—may be what some of us are called to, but it’s rather rare. For most of us, if we’re not feeling something in prayer, it’s because we’ve buried our innermost feelings, repressed them; there’s a wound there, giving rise to a certain mistrust of who God is and what He’s like. To progress, we need to address this wound or obstacle, work through it, and journey toward our deep feelings. How do we do this? Counseling, spiritual direction, various programs of personal growth—these can all help. Seek and you will find. In my own case, I wrote a whole book called Champagne for the Soul about the recovery of joy and learning to live in joy. Here’s just the first paragraph:
On October 27, 1999, I began a ninety-day experiment in joy. I made up my mind that for the next ninety days I would be joyful in the Lord. Because this was an experiment, there was room for failure. If there were times when I wasn’t joyful, I wouldn’t despair or beat myself up. Rather I would gently, persistently return as best I could to my focus on joy. So began (and continues to this day) the happiest time of my life.
Doing this experiment, and writing the book, really did change my life. Among the many things I learned about joy along the way, I developed the practice of looking back, at the end of my day, over times when joy had come to me, at places where the telltale light of joy was shining. Even if a day had been hard or miserable, it was a surprise to discover that I could always find moments of joy. And these I learned to gather like a bouquet of flowers from a vacant lot.
[End of Part 2. To be continued next week. Sign up here to receive weekly installments in your email box.]