For the last post I made a few suggestions from my own experience about how to pray in the Dark Night when the prayer once used can no longer help. I chose the prayer Jesus himself made upon the Cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me’? When I felt in the pits I turned to the De Profundis – ‘Out of the depths I cried to thee, O Lord; Lord, hear my prayer’. However what I found, and what you’ll find, is that in time the full sentence will be too long, and you’ll feel the need to reduce it to, say, just ‘My God, my God’ or ‘Out of the depths’. Then the time will come when a single word will be all you need, like ‘God’, or ‘Jesus’, or ‘mercy’. I can’t give you rules when to change down from many to few, you’ll know for yourself. It’s like changing gears in a car, once you get used to using them you know automatically when to change down. These suggestions are not prayer but aids to prayer, the prayer of the heart where repentance is learnt better than anywhere else. This repentance of heart that is practised in the darkness is worth ten times what is practised in the light. It’s easy to pray when the well is full and brimming over, but it’s far more difficult to pray when the well runs dry.
This is why it is of paramount importance to give exactly the same time to prayer that you gave when prayer was full of feeling and fervour, so that you can show by the very consistency of your daily presence that you are prepared to go on giving even when you seem to receive nothing in return. Anyone can give when they are receiving in return, but only a mature adult can go on giving in pure selfless love when their love seems to be received with indifference, if it seems to be received at all. This is what my parents had to learn when their well ran dry in their married life and what everyone must learn if they are to get anywhere in the spiritual life.
Now you can see the real meaning of the strange spiritual desert in which you find yourself in the mystic way. It is the place where you offer yourself to God through a process of daily repentance as you endeavour to raise your mind and heart to him through selfless loving. It is a loving that will always be returned in kind whether it is the kind of love that purifies in turmoil and strife or in peace and tranquility. God will do his part if we do ours. Our part is to keep on gently turning to him again and again, keep on raising our hearts whether they feel empty or whether they feel full.
If you persevere, the time will come when the action of God’s love will begin to draw you into what St Teresa of Avila calls the Prayer of Recollection, the Prayer of Quiet or even the Prayer of Full Union. Then you will find less and less need for any of the forms of prayer that supported you along the way. All you’ll want to do is to remain still and gaze in awe-filled silence upon the One whom you feel drawing you onward into what St Paul calls the ‘peace that surpasses the understanding’.
Now, these suggestions that I’ve made are like the oars on a boat that you use to guide it downriver towards the sea. At first you have to row hard to get the boat moving towards its destination, but when the momentum has been built up you can sit back and rest for a while as it moves silently forward. Then the moment the boat starts to slow down and drifts towards the bank or gets caught in a cross current, all you have to do is start rowing again to keep it moving in the right direction. And so, you keep journeying on, at one moment rowing to keep the boat on course, at another resting, enjoying the surrounding countryside. As you approach the sea you need to row less and less, as you begin to experience the pull of the tide drawing you onwards. Once you have left the river you can put the oars aside and set up the sails. Now you can travel with ease and with speed, with the tide on your side and the wind in your sails; another power takes over to do for you what you could never do for yourself.
The prayer that I have been trying to describe was experienced by my parents without them ever being aware that they were called to the mystic way, and they had been travelling in it for years. You see I believe far more lay people and far more married people than you would ever imagine, journey on to the heights of mystical prayer though they don’t even know it. Take my mother as a case in point. She never studied theology and the Bible was literally a closed book to her and her generation for reasons we well know, but that does not mean she was deprived of the Gospel. Nor did anyone instruct her in mystical theology, but I’ll wager she knew as much about the mystic way as most religious in the only way that really matters.
After years of studying theology I came home to find that she had known before I left, all that was necessary for the journey I still hadn’t begun. While I’d spent years searching for the point of departure, she’d been travelling relentlessly on and on ahead of me, with such simplicity and humility that contrasted so unfavorably with the arrogance of her son. It was only when I paid a short visit home after about ten years that I found out how she’d been praying over the years and what had led her onwards to the higher reaches of the mystic way.
It was simply a pair of Rosary Beads that have led countless generations of people to the heights of mystical prayer without them ever realising it. It is a magnificent method of prayer, because it contains within it every method of prayer that is necessary to lead a person on to the heights of contemplation. To begin with, a person may just say the individual prayers as best they can; then they may move on to meditation on the mysteries of Christ’s life that will lead them eventually to the high point of ‘Adolescent Prayer’. And when they are led beyond they will learn, as my mother did, how to use the rosary to sustain them through the dark nights ahead of them, how to help keep their hearts and minds fixed upon God with naked intent, when he seems to have hidden himself in the cloud of unknowing.
I had once come home to visit my mother because she was ill and confined to bed. She always had these beads in her hand. When I asked her about the rosary, she said that she could no longer say it as she once could – she found it quite impossible. All she did was to take a word from the ‘Our Father’, the ‘Hail Mary’ or the ‘Glory Be’ and say it slowly and prayerfully. It might be just the phrase ‘Glory be to God’, or ‘Thy will be done’, or simply the word ‘Jesus’. Then, she said, she sometimes didn’t say anything at all for hours on end. She just wanted to be there with God. She wasn’t very forthcoming when I asked her to describe what happened in those moments. I realised I’d gone too far, asking her to talk about something that was obviously too personal and too profound. When I left her I thanked God for the mother he’d given me, and for the example of someone who was far more advanced than me. I’d travelled all over the globe searching for wisdom that I could have found in my own home and from my own mother, had I but a fraction of the humility I’d found in her.