Recollection and the Prayer of Quiet

In her classic work Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness, Evelyn Underhill devotes two chapters to the subject of “introversion,” in which she explores three essential mystical practices: recollection, the prayer of quiet, and contemplation. Recollection, she points out, is a technical mystical term, not to be confused with ordinary remembrance; rather she defines mystical recollection as “the deliberate consideration of and dwelling upon some one aspect of Reality — an aspect most usually chosen from amongst the religious beliefs of self” (p. 314). In other words, recollection is a technique for focusing and perhaps stilling the mind. By this way of thinking, the method of centering prayer is a form of recollection. So also would be meditating on a single attribute of God, such as love, or forgiveness, or joy. The point behind recollection is to bring our awareness into a place of rest and repose where we can prepare for the prayer of quiet.

Such quiet Underhill describes as a profound experience which emerges out of recollection. “Out of the deep, slow brooding and pondering on some mystery, some incomprehensible link between himself and the Real, or the deliberate practice of loving attention to God, the contemplative … glides, almost insensibly, on to a plane of perception … characterized by an immense increase in the receptivity of the self, and by an almost complete suspension of the reflective powers. The strange silence which is the outstanding quality of this state — almost the only note in regard to it which the surface-intelligence can secure — is not describable” (p. 317). If recollection corresponds to centering prayer’s use of a single word to silence the discursive mind, than the prayer of quiet represents those moments in the centering experience where the repeated word gently falls away, leaving the person in prayer resting in the deep silence of the Divine presence.

If Underhill’s language (from a century ago) leaves you a bit cold, then compare her descriptions to a much more recent (2006) discussion of these topics, from John Crowder’s Miracle Workers, Reformers and the New Mystics. For Crowder, recollection is that moment of prayer “in which the Holy Spirit ministers healing and cleansing to the soul. It is here where we release the hurts, guilt, and wounds of the past … We release our burdens tot he presence of God. We are also cleansed from the expectations, fears or longings for the future … we begin to see God in the present … This first stage is a place of purification. It is where we lay our cares at the cross” (p. 235). He goes on describe the prayer of quiet as “a place where we recognize our inability to calm our own thoughts with our own strength. We become utterly dependent on God to lead us in prayer … It is a place of pure listening and quietness. Divine love pours over us and our spiritual senses are awakened” (p. 237).

It’s interesting to compare these two perspectives. Crowder’s definitions seem at first blush quite different from Underhill’s, but I think this may be driven largely by the fact that she was a British Anglo-Catholic, he an American charismatic evangelical. They are basically, it seems to me, describing two different paths up the same mountain. No doubt because of my own bias, I rather prefer Underhill’s descriptions, but I do find Crowder’s perspective both refreshing and insightful, if only for their ability to make me look at these foundational elements of contemplative experience in new ways.

  • Jeff

    I tried contemplative prayer repeatedly over the years and bombed, at best in the silence or during the Jesus Prayer of Orthodoxy I would enter a hypnagogic state – quite pleasant to be sure, but a nap by any other name is as sweet. It wasn’t fruitful for me. So I’ve ended up going the Charismatic model which is based on receiving the Holy Spirit to empower you to pray (typically tongues) instead of the model detailed by Underhill in your quotation. My Christian fellowship takes place in the subculture that John Crowder is active in. Below is an anthropological field report from that subculture.
    I wake up and go through my prayer list ( “in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait in expectation”, Psalm 5:3), and cap it off by saying the Lord’s Prayer and reading a chapter of the Bible. Sometime later in the day I do what I call Throne Time, around 30 minutes, based on my understanding of Paul’s “I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my mind” and how worship is described in Revelation. I stand, going on my face occasionally and then returning to standing. I usually begin by putting my mind on the Lord Jesus, as it is my experience that stirs up the Holy Spirit in me and brings me into the Father’s presence, I usually then begin praying tongues quietly, knowing I am before the Father or before Jesus, it goes back and forth between the two, .I spontaneously intersperse English phrases Oh God, Thank you Lord and the like, I can shake, my muscles can tighten, as I pray, sway, I may raise my hands, clap, speak louder, speak quieter, may jump in excitement, in a way my body at times can feel full to bursting. The Holy Spirt is a very embodied expereince at times. I confess any sins that may come to mind, intercede for people and situations as they come up, sometimes quite intensely with everything in my body and soul participating though that isn’t a focus as I covered intercession in the morning, Everything ebbs and flows, waxes and wanes, I never know at the beginning of prayer time what direction things will take or what it’s going to be like. But it’s a cooperative surrendering type of venture, I can always stop if I choose, it’s a mutuality, not a possession, my separate individuality as a human never disappears, I continue to go back and forth between tongues and English
    Often (not always) I settle down, the presence fills the air and I’m just with God, eyes open, at this point I usually sit down to enjoy looking around and being with God, my usual phrase is then yes, Lord or something similar, tongues is stilled, occasionally the presence gets so thick the cloud of the Holy Spirit seems to be just below the threshold of vision. I term this being in the Holy of Holies – the secret place of the Most High, Psalm 91:1. Eventually the Spirit of worship lifts, and I return to my regular life. I see it as a foretaste of our being before the Throne in eternity. All this can happen individually or in group prayer, I especially like it when the Spirit falls on a group and we are all in the peaceful Holy of Holies together, it is so sudden and so definite when it happens, when it lifts, as it must in this fallen world, we are at peace and thankful for a foretaste of eternity .

  • noel

    yeah jeff
    i struggle
    i have used zen and zen retreats to lead me there
    but i also have a need for formal prayer so i try to use divine office as regular as i can
    however i think the problem for lay people and i think a modern problem is that we see our prayer life as separate from our everyday life
    we are not progressing in our spiritual lives until we BECOME the prayer until we ourselves are the prayer, the offering ,the suffering and the joy.
    in short we must become jesus, really be jesus, and then we can turn and call”abba,father,daddy”
    and this will not change anything
    i want some feedback on this………….our journey has to be journeyed
    we do not wish to have a relationship with god to make life easier……..that s balony
    thats what i think is the stink of christianity
    all good things come from the lord.
    if it be your will
    thy will be done

    the royal way is radical forgiveness………………every other virtue will happen

  • Jeff

    Hi, Noel

    I guess I’m a spiritual hedonist. It says to seek first the kingdom of God and Jesus said “fear not little flock the Father is pleased to give you the kingdom” Based on Romans 14:17 I think the kingdom is “righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit” so I admit it, I want God to make my life easier, at least in the interior soul sense, rivers of living water from my innermost being and the like in daily life. how I approach and hope from God perhaps isn’t congruent with some of the high and holy austerities of contemplative spirituality

  • zoecarnate

    Great conversation happening here! I most recently visited these themes on my own blog here (exploring the similarities & differences between Crowder & Ken Wilber protegee Stuart Davis on the usage of ‘Godka’!), and just this morning it came to my attention that the British tabloid The Sun did a story on Crowder & Co, The Ravers Who Get High On God.

    Continuing one of your earlier blog themes, Carl, about (ahem) the varieties of mystical experience, the strong difference of opinion that exists between inner stillness or ecstasy being the principle fruit of mystical spirituality, and ‘excitement’ versus ‘boringness’ – it’s interesting to ponder under what circumstances a ‘stillness’ contemplative prayer group would make tabloid news!

  • Jeff

    I’m on the conservative side of the Charismatic subculture, however I’m more amused than offended by John Crowder. He is based only a few hours from me, I may go visit him sometime. Another feature of the charismatic as compared to the contemplative is that you don’t to have to pay the dues of being purged, dark nighted, and illuminated to really have God experientially and on a regular basis at that, instead of just occasional touches to keep your spirits up as you trudge through contemplative processing ala St John of the Cross. (though I realize in this world you will have tribulation – one of the Lord’s promises along with peace in it). I am not a health and wealth type.

    Paul said in Galatians 3 all you need for the Spirit and miracles is to believe what you have heard – the message of Jesus as Son of God and Savior. Paul tells the Corinthians politely in an edifying way they are a mostly low class bunch (I Cor 1:26-28 I think), and it’s obvious from the two epistles there’s all sorts of problems in Corinth – divisions, false teachers, sins of the flesh and so on. Yet Paul says they lack no spiritual gift and assumes all sorts of Holy Spirit manifestations as the norm, just telling them to be better organized with them. He doesn’t see their weaknesses and problems as being any sort of invalidation of the Holy Spirit’s reality at Corinth. It seems to me that God doesn’t mind being Abba, Father to very imperfect people, Jesus is continuing today his same bad habit of hanging out with lowlifes that he had back in Galilee, and it’s obvious from Acts, I Corinthians and his present day behavior in my life and those of others the Holy Spirit has picked up the same bad habit. Which is a relief to me, at best I am just a redneck autodidact coming from a midwest farm background! I have found my proper niche in the Christian ecosystem. Hallelujah!


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