St. John of the Cross defines contemplation as “nothing but a hidden, peaceful, loving inflow of God.”1 John’s insight that prayer is so often a hidden or secret process is something we are reticent to accept or believe. That our prayer is kept secret, even from us, seems almost illogical. Wouldn’t it be beneficial for our growth towards God to know how God is flowing into us, relating and communicating with us?
I am far from the only person who has ever been frustrated by prayer in which “nothing happens.” In fact, I hear this quite regularly from people sharing their spiritual lives. We want to experience our prayer as we do almost everything else: productively. We wish to finish a time in prayer feeling that we have accomplished something, learned something, moved forward, or used our time well.
These desires are left unsatisfied when the fruits of prayer are hidden from us. It is very easy, however, to invent them or derive accomplishments, lessons, or feelings of productivity in order to distract ourselves from the chilling conclusion that God has been silent with us.
It is important to clarify that John provides this definition of contemplation in his book Night, in which he is describing the painful experience of God’s absence. This complete hiddenness and secret nature of prayer is especially felt within this specific season of the spiritual life. There are of course times when God, through our opening of ourselves to God’s activity, inflames our hearts with Faith, Hope, and Love and we are aware of this. This is what St. Ignatius refers to as consolation.
However, it still stands that much more of our contemplation than we would perhaps like is an inflow of God that is hidden from us. And this is why we can fall so easily into thinking of prayer or discernment as functional rather than relational, results-based rather than love-based.
One other reason our prayer is so often kept hidden from us is that the fruit we are expecting to see is rarely the fruit we are looking for. Frequently we are hoping for answers, for sounds, signs, images, words or feelings that will help us make sense of this or that. We turn to prayer as we would a compass, to show us the way.
We also turn to prayer for assurance or affirmation. We want to feel God’s presence in order to know we are on the right path. And this, though it is a very natural and human longing, is not necessarily the fruit that prayer will provide.
In a letter to a friend, Sister Wendy Beckett wrote of this very natural tendency and common approach to prayer. Her words strike to the root of where our longings for productivity, learning, or drama in our prayer come from. She writes,
“[God] comes in ‘life’, just as it is. The as-it-isness is precisely how God comes. If we look for God in certain patterns or forms, we only receive a fraction. Now for you, the natural tendency is to romanticize the way of God’s coming. Your self wants that, at least: at least that glory, the glory of holiness. And God says, No, I can’t give myself, not fully, in any way that gives self a foothold. Nothing romantic or beautiful or in any way dramatic; nothing to get hold of, in one sense, because it must be God that does the getting hold.”
Sister Wendy’s guidance compliments John of the Cross’s definition of contemplation. She speaks to our anxieties for drama, extravagance or simply something concrete to point to in our prayer.
But, according to Sister Wendy, this desire cannot be fulfilled by our prayer. Rather, we must learn to accept the “as-it-isness” which is where God has chosen to hide himself. The invitation is to surrender to this “as-it-isness,” to be content with the boring, hidden silence which makes up the great majority of prayer.
“A true gift will feel like no gift at all,” as Fr. Iain Matthew writes in his book, The Impact of God.
My spiritual director once told me, boring prayer is good prayer. It is hard for our egos to find a foothold in boring prayer and this, as Sister Wendy explains, is exactly why we are invited to be content with it.
God’s silence and prayer in which “nothing happens” can indeed feel painful and confusing. There is, however, great peace that can come from giving up on looking for results or going to prayer with expectations of productivity.
As you let God, slowly but surely God will take hold of you.
- Night, Book One ↩