I’ve been reading Robert Llewelyn’s perfectly wonderful book With Pity, Not with Blame: The Spirituality of Julian of Norwich and The Cloud of Unknowing for Today in preparation for my upcoming class on Julian at Central UCC in Atlanta. Yesterday I read Llewelyn’s comment that, when Julian used the word “contemplation” in chapter 46 of her long text, she doesn’t mean it in the sense we use it (as “contemplative prayer”) but rather as referring to “levels of awareness.” Of course, this brought to mind Ken Wilber’s spectrum of consciousness theory, as well as the ideas of an old meditation teacher of mine, Carl Clarke, who used to define meditation as “the art of managing consciousness.” Here’s the insight I received: perhaps we who practice contemplative prayer ought to see it as a form of sacrifice — not a painful, “giving something up” kind of sacrifice, but rather a joyful, “giving a gift to someone you love” kind of sacrifice. So, then, what is it we sacrifice — that is to say, give to God — in the act of contemplative prayer?
Why — our consciousness, of course. The entirety of our levels of awareness.
Seeing contemplation this can be revolutionary. We (post)moderns tend to be addicted to experience, and we are harshly judgmental of our experiences. If, when we pray or meditate or contemplate, we have a “bad” experience — i.e., lots of distracting thoughts, restless emotions, persistent daydreaming, etc. — we are quick to judge the contemplative experience, if not ourselves, as somehow defective or unworthy. That’s not how God sees it, though. In contemplation, when we offer the gift of our consciousness to God, God accepts us just as we are. If we’re having a “bad prayer day” and our minds are restless, fidgety, distracted, un-centered; well, wouldn’t God want to receive us just as we are, so that God may offer us love and healing in return?
I seem to recall reading somewhere that Thomas Keating remarked that the only “wrong” way to do centering prayer is to get up and leave before you time is done. In other words, suspend the judgment, allow the experience to be whatever it is, and gently offer yourself — mind, body, feelings, consciousness — wholly to God. If your consciousness is soaring with a sense of Divine ecstasy and intimate communion with the Beloved, great! If not, then still great! God wants us, not our expertise or our mastery (remember, experience and expertise are related words). Contemplative prayer is simply a space of time in which we offer our full selves to God: warts and all.