I want to know Christ
Do you long for something more in your spiritual life? Do you have a deep desire to know Christ, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of sharing in his suffering, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection of the dead?
Perhaps you love God deeply—but perhaps you wish you loved God more. Perhaps you are aware that you don’t love God with your whole heart, and soul, and mind, and strength. What can you do? It doesn’t work just to say “I am now going to love God with my whole heart and soul and mind and strength.” You can say it, but an hour later you will be in your same routines, physical and mental and emotional. What you truly desire and live for remains unchanged. What can you do?
The science of healing the heart is called spiritual formation. Or perhaps it should be called spiritual transformation. To a large extent, spiritual formation happens to us, without planning or effort on our part, through everyday life, through the sufferings and joys and fears and hopes that we experience. It is God who saves, not we ourselves. And yet, we can cooperate. We can consent or turn away. We can make ourselves more available to God instead of running or hiding.
Richard Rohr says that transformation happens primarily through suffering and through prayer. His tradition divides prayer into two types: “vocal” and “mental.” Vocal prayer is reading a Psalm, joining in the liturgy, singing a song, reciting the Lord’s prayer. It is joining in the prayers of the people. Mental prayer is personal prayer, the yearnings and desires of your heart examined and presented in and to God’s light.
Mental prayer also has different types. In youth it may involve a lot of thinking: reflecting on the life of Jesus, pondering the law and the gospel, delving into your own heart to see if you live and love the way Jesus did. As you age, thinking decreases and loving grows. Initially prayer was in your head, trying to break into your heart; later, it may be experienced primarily as a deep love of Christ without much verbalizing or thought—or any thought at all.
Oh, when shall it be given to me, to the full, to be still and to see how sweet the Lord is? When shall I gather myself at the full, so that, for your love, I no longer feel myself, but only you, above all feeling and all human modes, and in a way that is hardly known to everyone? (Imitation of Christ, Bk. 3, Ch. 21)
The traditional term for the former type of mental prayer, where pondering tries to break through to the heart, is meditation. I’ll call it “affective meditation” in order to differentiate from modern uses of the term “meditation” to refer practices such as mindfulness or attention meditation. These may have their place in spiritual formation, but they are different from affective meditation.
The traditional term for the latter type of mental prayer, the loving attention to and awareness of God, is contemplation. Once again, contemplative prayer has different types. Most of what you may hear about contemplative prayer consists of practices for quieting the mind and the heart, learning to be still and know God. Here practices such as mindfulness or attention meditation can be helpful. This is called acquired contemplation. But contemplative prayer in the strict sense of the word is infused. It can only come from God. Thomas Merton defines it as
A supernatural love and knowledge of God, simple and obscure, infused by Him into the summit of the soul, giving it a direct and experimental contact with Him.
Mystical contemplation is an intuition of God born of pure love. It is a gift of God that absolutely transcends all the natural capacities of the soul and which no [one] can acquire by any effort of [their] own. But God gives it to the soul in proportion as it is clean of all affections for things outside of Himself. In other words, it is God manifesting Himself, according to the promise of Christ, to those who love Him. (What is Contemplation, Templegate Publishers, 1981, p. 36.)
Those who desire God seek time in quiet solitude, where he may be found. They spend time in prayer. They go on long walks. If they have the time and freedom from daily duties, they may occasionally go on a retreat. But what about those who can’t leave home for a number of days—what can they do?
When you go on a retreat, you leave behind the people you interact with on a daily basis. You leave behind your to-do list, your everyday concerns, the things you do for recreation or distraction. You come with an intention of being in solitude and prayer. You come without particular expectations or plans. You may arrive at the retreat, spend some time in prayer, and then…what? You don’t have your normal duties or activities or distractions. You are forced to read, pray, ponder, because there is nothing else there for you.
Is it possible to experience some of this on an “unretreat,” at home, in your normal setting, with your normal duties and activities surrounding you? Only if you are very intentional about it. Hugh of Balma says that prayer should be “in a very secret and quiet place, in the deep silence of the night, with face upturned toward heaven.”
You will need to allocate some time each day. Ignatius has retreatants doing five hour-long meditations each day for 40 days. For an unretreat, an hour a day might be a good figure. For some people, it may take that much time to work through all the things on their minds and finally pay attention to Christ. But if another duration works better for you, use it. Make the time regular and make sure no one has expectations of you in that time. For me, the only workable approach seems to be to set my alarm an hour earlier.
You will need a place that is free of distractions. If possible, go into your room and close the door. Leave your computer, phone, or other distractions outside. Consider yourself stuck there for the allotted time, like a person stuck at a retreat center. If this is a place you use only for prayer, so much the better—you will have less distraction.
Then, turn your face upward toward heaven, at least metaphorically. Any worries or fears, thoughts of things you need to do that day, of people you are concerned about, should be considered temptations and religiously avoided for this hour. When you become aware that you are thinking such a thought, turn back to your exercise.
In this “unretreat” I will suggest a number of exercises. If they are helpful to you, give them a try; if not, do whatever is most helpful for you, if possible in consultation with a spiritual director. The primary exercise, which will continue throughout the eight fortnights, is affective meditation. Think of it as reading 1-2 pages a day, but with a difference: read as slowly as possible. Try to let the reading sink into your heart. Consider: what is the author trying to say in this sentence? Is it true? Is it beautiful? Is that how I live? How I ought to live? When you no longer get any benefit from one part, go on to the next.
In this class we will be reading Richard Rohr’s book, Everything Belongs. It’s an interesting book. It has many good things to say, but it’s very hard to pin down what each chapter is about. It claims to be about contemplation, but it doesn’t really talk about contemplation very much. It’s written by a Franciscan Christian, but it quotes Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, and others. Some find it controversial.
It’s actually not a bad thing if the book makes you uncomfortable at times. That can be a source of growth. Consider why you feel uncomfortable. Do you find it disturbing to read a quote from a Buddhist author in a book on Christian prayer? Consider that this “us vs. them” mentality doesn’t line up with God’s love for all people, God’s image in all people. It’s not the case that Christians have all truth and no one else has any. And in any case, the goal is not to learn correct doctrine but to grow in love of God.
Lord Jesus Christ, blessed holy one, teach me to know myself and to know you. Teach me to love you and all things beautiful. In this time of prayer that I will set aside each day, help me to turn away from distractions, and duties, and concerns, away from myself entirely, toward love, toward beauty, toward you. Fill me with your love.