Everybody who prays seriously and consistently for any length of time will eventually find themselves on the other side of first fervour, at the threshold of the mystic way. This is the moment when the vast majority who come this far in prayer, usually pack it all in – I know I nearly did. All my attempts at prayer were a complete failure. Each time I tried to pray in the way I once could before simply got nowhere. The Scriptures, the devotions, the meditations that moved me before, moved me no more. Two tormentors always accompanied me to prayer. The first was a raking desire for God; the second was a mind full of distractions that drove me crazy, because I couldn’t do anything about them. So my heart was restless inside and outside the prayer that I thought was pointless. I was continually tempted to pack it all in and do something more constructive with my time. I couldn’t even get any pleasure out of the hobbies and the enthusiasms that used to excite me before.
When the same happens to you then don’t be worried for it confirms that you are on the right, not the wrong, path. In this strange new world in which you find yourself, it’s as if you are caught between heaven and earth. Your heart wants to reach out and touch the Love that has already touched you, but endless distractions vie with one another to draw you away from what you desperately desire. What you must now learn to do is to keep your heart’s gaze fixed upon God, come hell or high water – nothing else matters. You can forget all the forms of prayer that helped you so much in the past, because they won’t help you to continue in the future. Now you must learn to travel by contemplation, not by meditation. Remember again the words of St Bonaventure writing specifically for people at this particular point in their spiritual journey in his mystical treatise, The Journey of the Mind into God.
“Push on bravely friend,” he said, “toward mystical union, abandon the workings of the senses and the operations of the reasoning faculty, leave aside all things visible and invisible and cleave as far as possible to the One who transcends all essences and all knowledge. In this immeasurable and absolute elevation of soul forgetting all created things and liberated from them, you shall rise above yourself and above all creation to find yourself within the shaft of light that flashes out from the divine and mysterious darkness.”
I would like to introduce you to another great mystical work, called The Cloud of Unknowing that teaches a person the practical steps to be taken in order to come to experience “the shaft of light that flashes out from the divine and mysterious darkness.”Let me explain very briefly its teaching on how to continue in prayer in the mystic way, because it makes a number of useful practical suggestions that will be of help. Speaking of the predicament in which you now find yourself, it says – “It’s as if there is a ‘cloud of unknowing’ between you and your Maker that you cannot penetrate, at least at first. But no matter how difficult it may seem, you must nevertheless try to keep your heart’s gaze fixed on the One who is hidden behind the cloud. Let your heart gaze upwards, as it were, with a ‘naked intent’, without being clothed with any other desire, or without being distracted with any other thought that can hinder what it calls ‘this work’ that is more important than any other.”
Now in order to keep this naked intent upon God, who is hidden behind the ‘cloud of unknowing’, you must try to place a ‘cloud of forgetfulness’ between you and all and everything that would prevent you from gently trying to concentrate on Him. All thoughts and all desires that would distract you must be covered over by this cloud of forgetfulness. It does not matter what they are – even if they are ‘of God himself’, it says, or ‘his holy angels’ – they will do you no good because they would only draw you away from ‘this holy work’. They would only draw you away from the contemplation of God as he is in Himself. It is not too difficult to put what it calls holy and pious thoughts away, because, as you’ve already found, it’s virtually impossible to pray or meditate as you could before anyway.
However, there are other thoughts and desires that are more difficult to banish from your mind: the continual feeling that you are wasting your time that this strange new form of prayer is pointless; that you’d be better employed doing something more practical. All these thoughts and feelings must not be countenanced, not for a single moment. They must all be put under the cloud of forgetfulness, so that they do not distract the naked intent upon God. No matter how hard you try to keep putting these distractions under the cloud of forgetfulness, they keep reappearing as often as you would banish them. However let me reassure you. As you keep trying to turn your gaze back to God you are continually practising repentance, you are repeatedly making acts of selflessness that will in time become a habit of selflessness that will eventually enable The Selfless One to enter into you.
Because this is such a difficult work, the author of The Cloud gives invaluable advice. It suggests taking a single word and then repeating it over and over again. It’s a device that was used by the Desert Fathers. The words he suggests are not prayers in themselves, they are rather props to help keep the heart’s attention fixed on God. The words he suggests are: God, sin, love and lump. If they don’t appeal to you, no matter – choose others that do. The words are not important in themselves; it’s what they are used for that’s important, and how they are used. What I’m going to suggest to you is a slightly different approach that I’ve found helpful myself. Instead of choosing a single word I started off by choosing a single sentence, one that I felt somehow summed up how I felt at the time, how I related or didn’t relate to the God who seemed to have taken his leave of me. I chose the prayer Jesus himself made upon the Cross, most especially when everything seemed too much, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ – or the prayer he made in Gethsemane, particularly when temptations came thick and fast, ‘Father, that this chalice may be taken away from me’. When I felt really in the pits I turned to the De Profundis – ‘Out of the depths I cried to thee, O Lord; Lord, hear my prayer’ – or the prayer from Cardinal Newman’s famous hymn, ‘Lead, kindly light, amidst the encircling gloom’. The Jesus Prayer, designed especially for this particular moment of the mystic way, is perhaps the best known of all – ‘Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner’.
The important thing is to choose something that genuinely embodies how you feel at the time. It’s no good pretending with God. He knows exactly how you feel anyway – it’s no good trying to soft-soap him. What’s important to remember is that these phrases are only used to keep helping you turn back to God from the distractions that would turn you away from Him. Don’t try to dwell on them or intellectually inspect them. They’re not to help you to meditate, but to contemplate. Next I will show how to journey on in this new approach to prayer in what St John of the Cross calls the Dark Night of the Soul in order to come to know and experience “the shaft of light that flashes out from the divine and mysterious darkness.”