You might have some questions, even concerns, about my last post.
First, you might be wondering, “Is this even prayer?” If you are asking that question, then might I suggest that your view of what qualifies as prayer may be too limited. Walter Burghardt, a twentieth-century Jesuit, referred to prayer as a “long, loving look at the real.” Much could be said about this definition of prayer, but in the least, Burghardt realized that prayer is not primarily about following scripts and discrete methods, but about getting real. In fact, as I have encountered various practices of prayer, I have noticed that the end goal is more prominent than method. An elderly Christian woman who understood the distinction between method and end goal said that in prayer, “I look at God and He looks at me.” She was not pursuing “stuff;” she wanted to lay hold of God Himself. Skye Jethani in his recent book With recounts a story about Mother Teresa. In an interview with Dan Rather, she was asked what she says when she prays.
“I don’t say anything,” she replied. “I just listen.”
“Okay,” said Rather, taking another shot at it. “When God speaks to you, then, what does He say?”
“He doesn’t say anything. He listens.”
Rather didn’t know how to continue. He was baffled.
“And if you don’t understand that,” Mother Teresa added, “I can’t explain it to you.”
But, how can silent prayer be considered prayer at all? Based on what little I know about Mother Teresa, she was a contemplative mystic like her (presumed) namesake, St. Teresa of Avila. The label contemplative mystic may sound exotic, seeming to put Mother Teresa into a select group of Christians who have a gift that few of the rest of us can attain. I would argue the contrary. What Mother Teresa experienced with God is a common experience in human relations. Sometimes, when I embrace my wife, our faces are 6 inches apart. We gaze deeply into each other’s eyes. No words are exchanged, but the intimacy of the moment is beyond description. I expect that all couples who are in love have had a similar experience. Such moments do not comprise the totality of our relationship, but the silent intimacy that we share is essential for us, even if it lasts for only a short time. Even though prayer without words may not seem like prayer because it does not fit the common experience of most people, for Mother Teresa, it was extraordinarily profound and meaningful because… she met God.
During the prayer that I described in the last post, the only words spoken were an invitation to “Come.” I did not ask for anything. I did not confess any sin. I did not offer any praise. In fact, I was silent. God asked me to come, so I came, though I was not so inclined initially. For a moment, just for a moment, I experienced the intimacy that I have always desired in the deepest part of my soul. I understand Mother Teresa’s inability to explain a silent encounter with God. Prayer is not about adhering to a defined method; it is about ultimate purpose: finding God.
Another question that you might have about my prayer is the use of imagination. The concern might be phrased like this: “You just made all that stuff up! It didn’t really happen! Or, in your insanity, are you seeing things and hearing voices? And furthermore, are you actually claiming to have seen God?”
No, I am not seeing things. And I am not hearing voices that I attribute to God. The entire prayer was constructed by me within my imagination. But, importantly, it was a sanctified fantasy. Contemplative prayer, or imaginative prayer, holds a central place in Ignatian spirituality. In this form of prayer, a scripture passage is read, and then the pray-er puts himself into the scene described in the passage. Ignatius called this “composition of place.” What happens during such a prayer is that God speaks through my imagination as I immerse myself in the scene, using all five senses as much as possible. That God speaks through imaginative prayer does not mean that I hear the voice of God inside my head. It also does not mean that any imagined conversation with God is infallible.1
The scene that I imagined during my prayer was intricate and detailed. Where did it come from? God created it in my mind to the same extent that He created the space shuttle Discovery, which is now housed in the National Air & Space Museum. If you understand God’s role in the construction of Discovery, then you will understand His role in my imaginative prayer. While it might be tempting to respond with, “Good luck with that!”, there are some things that I can say about my own prayer. The constructs that I create in my imagination during prayer do not come out of the blue. The flow of any given fantasy is influenced heavily by my life experience from the time I was born up to the current time. What God is doing in my life at present looms large during my prayers, but His activity in my life since the time of my birth plays a more significant role in my imagination than I might appreciate at the time. My imagination is also informed by my knowledge of Scripture in general, and by the particular passage that I am contemplating. Imaginative or contemplative prayer may be mystical, but it is not magic. God did not create the Discovery space shuttle de novo as He did the heavens and the earth, but without His ongoing creative activity, the shuttle would never have existed. Similarly, God does not appear to me in a vision during imaginative prayer; nevertheless, His intimate role in my imagination is critical.
You may be wondering, “The prayer in the last post doesn’t sound like anything in Scripture. A stadium? God on a stage? Seriously?” Answering this query requires ferreting out exactly what I was after during this prayer. Remember, prayer is about the end goal, not the method. Here are the passages that formed the immediate basis for my contemplation.2
I looked again. I saw a huge crowd, too huge to count. Everyone was there—all nations and tribes, all races and languages. And they were standing, dressed in white robes and waving palm branches, standing before the Throne and the Lamb
I was caught up at once in deep worship and, oh!—a Throne set in Heaven with One Seated on the Throne, suffused in gem hues of amber and flame with a nimbus of emerald.
Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
With these verses as (unacknowledged) background, the immediate question that I wanted to answer was, “What would it be like to be part of this crowd, and to walk up to such a throne?” Would I confidently present myself before the throne of God? Would I be afraid? Would I not even go? Would I lose myself in the crowd, either out of fear or with the objective of simply wanting to be an observer? How would I feel about my sinfulness? Would I even have a sense of my own sin, my depravity even? How would I deal with that? Most importantly, and most concerning, how would God Almighty respond to me?
Most of us could probably answer these questions from an intellectual standpoint, based on the doctrine of “the work of Christ”. We might quote Ephesians, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.” Whether I invoke this passage or any of a host of others, I could confidently say, “Approach the throne of God? No problem!” because the Bible tells me so. Decades of personal experience have convinced me that intellectual assent to a doctrine is often disconnected from the way I live my life. The problem is, how does a person get beyond the intellect to investigate what lies deep down inside?
Contemplative prayer does not turn off the intellect and it does not dismiss doctrine as being useless, but it does force the pray-er to take a “long, loving look at the real.” What is really going on inside? What are the real issues in my life? Where is the disconnect between what I say I believe and what I really believe? God uses my imagination in powerful ways to get at the real. I hardly ever cry, but it is not uncommon for me to weep during prayer. Clearly, God is touching nerves deep down inside, where things matter.
By way of practicing contemplative prayer, I have discovered that such prayer has a profound influence on me. A 12th century monk warned, “Be careful what you put into your mind, because it is very, very, very, very difficult to get it out.” No doubt, he was concerned about bad things that we let into our minds. Our imaginations and our memories are extraordinarily powerful tools that do far more than influence us in the moment. Having sex with a person not your spouse, though a physical act conducted at a specific time and place, yet becomes implanted in memory, to be revisited without restriction, voluntarily or not. Such an act cannot simply be forgotten… ever. Even if the illicit sex were a one-night stand, never to be repeated, it will continue to influence behaviors and relationships of those involved in profound ways until death. All this happens via the imagination and memory.
But, the principle highlighted by the monk works the other way ’round. There are some things that I want to get into my mind, knowing that they will be there forever and that they will influence my life, not for evil, but for good. That is one of the benefits of contemplative prayer: it is changing my life from the inside out.
At the end of the last post, I commented on the whole experience:
Had I attempted this contemplation prior to doing the Spiritual Exercises, the outcome would have been entirely different. The judgment that I anticipated while walking across the stadium field would not have dissipated. The dread would have deepened. I would not have been able to stand up after having fallen to my knees. I would not have heard Him say, “Yes, come here. Come on.” But, this time, I did hear it. I felt loved during this prayer. I was loved during this prayer. I wept.
These words fail to convey the enormity of the change in my relationship with God that has occurred over the course of taking the Spiritual Exercises. What is represented here is not a shift in doctrine, what I believe about God. In fact, the doctrine to which I subscribe has probably not changed much at all. Rather than being about my doctrinal views of God, my prayers have been about my relationship with Him and how He views me. I did not just hear God say, “I love you;” I experienced His love. And as I live my life today and tomorrow and the next day, that experience will stay with me as I live life with Him. That is what having a relationship with God means. And that is what prayer, whatever the method, is all about: a long, loving look at the real.
1 Is communication ever infallible? Even between spouses who are both present physically during a conversation, infallible communication is difficult and sometimes impossible. Why should we expect anything different in our communication with God? God may be a perfect speaker, but I am an imperfect listener. Just as in my human relationships, I hear what I want to hear when God speaks. Part of what it means to have a growing relationship with my wife is an improving ability to hear what she is really saying, not what I think she is saying. As I grow in my relationship with God, I expect to be able to hear more clearly what He is really trying to tell me.
2 You may be wondering why I imagined everyone in black robes during my prayer, rather than white robes, as indicated by the scripture passage. I did not notice this discrepancy until I wrote this post. I do not know how this is significant, but therein lies some of the value of imaginative prayer: there are things going on inside me that I would not notice otherwise.