Do you think contemplative prayer is more valuable than prayer for other people’s needs?
Yes. In Chapter 3 The Cloud says, “This form of prayer is more pleasing to God than any other form, and it does more good for the church, for the souls in purgatory, for the missionaries than any other form of prayer.” And then it says, “Although you may not understand why.”
Now see, I understand why, so I tell people why. When you pray, when you reach out with all the capacity that you have for loving God without ulterior motives, you are embracing God then, who is the God of love.
As you embrace God, you are embracing everything God loves. What does God love? God loves everything God has created. Everything. Now this means that God’s love extends to the utmost bounds of an infinite cosmos that we can’t even fathom, and God loves every tiny atom of that because he created it.
You cannot do contemplative prayer and willingly, deliberately hold on to hatred or unforgiveness of one single being. It’s a blatant contradiction. That doesn’t mean you’ve totally forgiven every possible infraction. It does mean, though, that you are in the process of doing it.
You’re willingly acting to do it because you cannot love God without loving every single human being that you’ve ever confronted. You don’t have to pray for anybody during your contemplative prayer because you are already embracing them without limitation.
Is it more valuable to pray for Aunt Susie, or is it more valuable to pray for all that God loves—in other words, creation?
A lot of people probably say, “I could never sit still for that long.”
People use a Buddhist expression, “I have a monkey mind.” I get this from people who have been introduced to centering prayer but not by good teachers, because that is not the problem. I tell people at the beginning of the workshop that I will guarantee that problem will be solved with a few simple instructions.
The point is there’s no such thing as a perfect meditation. I’ve been doing this now for what, 55 years, and am I able to do this without a monkey mind? Absolutely not. I have distracted thoughts all the time. I know how to deal with them. A successful meditation is a meditation that you don’t quit. You don’t have to succeed, because in fact you won’t.
But if I try to love God for the 20-minute period or whatever my time limit is, I’m a total success. You don’t have to succeed according to your notions of success. The Cloud of Unknowing says, “Try to love God.” Then it says, “OK, if that’s too difficult, pretend to try to love God.” Seriously, I teach that.
If your criteria for success is “peace” or “I lose myself in a void”—none of those work. The only criteria for success is, “Did I try it or did I pretend to try?” If I did, I’m a total success.
What’s special about a 20-minute time frame?
When people first start, I suggest they try it for 5 or 10 minutes. There’s nothing sacred about 20 minutes. Less than that, you could be fooling around. More than that could be an undue burden. It seems to be a happy mean. If people are having extraordinary difficulties, are exhausted with their troubles, The Cloud of Unknowing says, “Give up. Lay down before God and cry out.” Change your prayer word to “Help.” Seriously, that’s what you should do when you’re exhausted from trying.
Is there a good place to do contemplative prayer? Can you do it anywhere?
I always say that you can do it anywhere, and I can say that from experience, because I’ve done it in bus depots, on Greyhound buses, on airplanes, at airports. Sometimes people say, “Well, you don’t know my situation. I live right downtown, and the trolleys are going by, and all the noise.” Those places are as good as the quiet of a monastic church. In fact, I’d say the worst place to do it is a Trappist church. The benches are made for you to suffer, not to pray.
The only physical instruction The Cloud of Unknowing gives is, “Sit comfortably.” So, not uncomfortably, and not on your knees either. You can easily be taught how to absorb noises so that they do not interfere. That takes five minutes.
You reach out figuratively to embrace all that noise, and you bring it in as part of your prayer. You’re not fighting it, see? It’s becoming a part of you.
For example, one time in Spencer, there was a young monk who was really having difficulties. I was in charge of the young monks, and I figured, “This guy needs to get out of the walls.”
The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus was in Boston at the time. I went to the abbot, Father Thomas, and I said, “I want to take Brother Luke to the circus.” I told him why, and—a good abbot—he said, “Yes, if you think that’s what you should do.”
Brother Luke and I went. We got there early. We were sitting in the middle of a row, and all the activity was going on. There were bands tuning, and there were elephants elephanting, and there were clowns blowing up balloons and people selling popcorn. We sat in the middle of the row, and we meditated for 45 minutes without any problem.
As long as you’re not physically interrupted, I think any place is appropriate. Although, I must admit, if I’m traveling in a city, a big city, and I want to meditate, I’ll go to the nearest Episcopal church. I won’t go to a Catholic church because there’s too much noise and activity. Go to an Episcopal church. Nobody’s there, and they have soft benches.
What if you fall asleep?
You do what The Cloud of Unknowing says: You thank God. Because you didn’t sit down to fall asleep, but you needed it, and so God gave it to you as a gift. All you do is, when you wake up, if your 20 minutes are not over, you go back to your prayer, and it’s been a perfect prayer.
Some people say that contemplative prayer is only for monks and nuns, and that laypeople will rarely have time to sit and do this.
That’s unfortunate. It is a fact that the monasteries are one place where contemplative prayer has been preserved. In fact, though, it has also been preserved by a countless number of laypeople who didn’t write books on mystical theology.
My mother is one of them. My mother was a contemplative long before she ever heard of me, never mind me teaching contemplative prayer. And she would have died and never said a word about it to anybody. There are countless people who are doing that. It isn’t limited to monasteries.
How did you find out your mother was a contemplative?
The very fact that when she died at 92, she had worn out four pairs of rosary beads. When she was 85 and she was very sick, the abbot permitted me to visit her. I decided I was going to teach my mother contemplative prayer. I sat down by the bed, and I held her hand. I very gently explained what it was all about. She looked up at me and said, “Dear, I’ve been doing that for years.” I didn’t know what to say. But she’s no exception.
Do you think that’s true for a lot of Catholics?
I do indeed.
Do you ever hear God at all?
I wish I could stop. Once I was giving a retreat to a Carmelite community. The nuns were coming in, one by one, to see me. At some point the door opened and in came this old woman, with a cane, bent over—she couldn’t even look up. I found out she was about 95. I just patiently waited. As she was hobbling across the room, I had this sense that this woman was going to prophesy. I’d never had that before. I thought, “This woman is going to speak to me on behalf of God.” I just waited. She painfully sank into the chair.
She sat there for a minute. Then she looked up and said, “Father, everything is a grace. Everything, everything, everything.”
We sat there for 10 minutes just absorbing that. I’ve been unpacking that ever since. That was 15 years ago. That is the key to everything.
If you want to put it this way, the worst thing that ever happened was human beings killing the son of God, and that was the greatest grace of all.
This article appeared in the November 2013 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 78, No. 11, pages 18-22).
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