Contemplative prayer, as it is classically defined and popularly practised, is subject today to considerable scepticism in a number of circles. For example, the method of prayer commonly called centring prayer, popularised by people such as Thomas Keating, Basil Bennington, John Main and Laurence Freeman, is viewed with suspicion by many people who identify it with anything from New Age to Buddhism to “self-seeking” to atheism.
Admittedly, not all of its adherents and practitioners are free from those charges, but certainly its true practitioners are. Understood and practised correctly, this method of prayer, which allows for some variations in its practice, is in fact the form of prayer which the Desert Fathers, John of the Cross, and the author of The Cloud of Unknowing call “contemplation”.
What is contemplation as defined within this classical Christian tradition? With apologies to the tradition of Ignatius of Loyola, who formats things differently but is very much in agreement with this definition, contemplation is prayer without images and imagination – that is, prayer without the attempt to concentrate one’s thoughts and feelings on God and holy things.
It is a prayer so singular in its intention to be present to God alone that it refuses everything – even pious thoughts and holy feelings – so as to simply sit in darkness, in a deliberate unknowing, within which all thoughts, imaginings and feelings about God are not fostered or entertained, as is true for all other thoughts and feelings. In the words of The Cloud of Unknowing, it is a simple reaching out directly towards God.
In contemplative prayer, classically understood, after a brief, initial act of centring oneself in prayer, one simply sits. But one sits inside the intention of reaching out directly towards God in a place beyond feeling and imagination, where one waits to let the unimaginable reality of God break through in a way that subjective feelings, thoughts and imaginings cannot manipulate.
And it is precisely on this point where contemplative prayer is most often misunderstood and criticised. The questions are: why shouldn’t we try to foster and entertain holy thoughts and pious feelings during prayer; isn’t that what we’re trying to do in prayer? How can we be praying when we aren’t doing anything, just sitting? Isn’t this some form of agnosticism? How do we meet a loving, personal God in this? Isn’t this simply some form of transcendental meditation which can be used as a form of self-seeking, a mental yoga? Where is Jesus in this?
How to continue reading…
This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week
The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection