Three Dimensions of Prayer

Consider this tasty morsel from The Cloud of Unknowing (Carmen Butcher translation):

Just as the meditations of those skilled in contemplation come suddenly and directly, so do their prayers. I mean their personal prayers, not the liturgical prayers used in worship at church. True contemplatives value these community prayers above all others and participate in them as ordained by the Church and its earliest holy fathers. A contemplative’s personal prayers, however, rise unrehearsed to God, with no go-betweens or specific ways of praying.

The Cloud author appears to be saying that both liturgical prayer (i.e., the Eucharist and the Daily Office) and “unrehearsed prayer” (which, the author goes on to say, is for contemplatives generally short — to the point of being only a single word) support the practice of contemplation. I see this in a trinitarian way. The practice of Christian contemplation includes:

  • Offering the words of our heart to God (unrehearsed prayer);
  • Offering the words of our community to God (liturgical prayer);
  • Offering the silence of our heart to God (contemplation).

Now, the Cloud author goes on to say,

Contemplatives seldom use words when they pray, but if they do, they choose only a few, and the fewer the better. They prefer a short one-syllable word over two syllables, because the spirit can best assimilate it. This one word keeps the person engaging in this spiritual exercise fit and at the top of their form, so to speak.

This, of course, is the passage in The Cloud of Unknowing seen as affirming the use of a prayer word, as it is called in the centering prayer community — basically, a Christianised mantra. But not exactly a mantra, for the idea in centering prayer is to repeat the prayer word only until one finds his or her place of contemplative rest, and then the prayer word can be gently laid aside — to be used again, whenever distractions begin to disturb the mind.

Critics of centering prayer dismiss it because of its historical affinity with transcendental meditation, and dismiss the prayer word as a foreign practice imported into Christianity. I think this is a legalistic and insular-minded perspective; if God can use anything to God’s glory, it seems to me that even a Christianised form of T.M. — and a Christian version of a mantra — cannot escape the splendor of his grace. Heaven knows that the Cloud author (and his predecessors, going all the way back to John Cassian among the desert fathers) never heard of mantras, and yet they encourage the use of short prayer as a way to focus the heart and mind on God. So I think such a practice makes all the sense in the world, and is fully acceptable as a dimension of Christian discipleship and spirituality.

However, just as we shouldn’t be legalistic about forbidding the use of a single prayer word, I think contemplatives should also avoid the temptation of requiring such a practice as well. I think it’s clear that the Cloud author is not forbidding longer prayer, even though he clearly thinks that the shorter an unrehearsed prayer is, the better. Liberty in prayer, it seems to me, is a beautiful thing, and would be a natural hallmark of a mature contemplative. Sometimes the heart may be stirred to share more with God than just a single word or phrase. This is not necessarily antithetical to silent prayer, but rather can be a complementary practice to “pure” contemplation. I think what’s beautiful about these three dimensions of prayer — liturgical prayer, silent prayer, and personal discursive prayer — is that, in proper proportions, they function as a sort of “balanced diet” of spiritual practice. Too much silence without the Daily Office and the sharing of one’s thoughts with God would, from the perspective of Christian contemplation, be out of balance — but so would a practice that only emphasized the liturgy, or only emphasized personal conversational prayer. The Christian life thrives best when it includes a healthy equilibrium of all three of these doorways into the presence of God.

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About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Gary

    Perhaps it is not unlike floating on a raft in the ocean. The waves, as in the communal prayers, can give a texture and context to your experience. Your movement, ripples and a wake, can be amplified or subsumed in the actions of the waves. The waves can help carry you along. As they enlarge, you may be startled or exhilarated, and let out monosyllabic responses like ‘wheee’ or ‘whoa’ or similar sounds repeated anywhere kids are on a roller coaster. The silence at the peak of the wave may allow a brief contemplation, and the doldrums could allow a lengthy one.
    This may carry the analogy a bit too far, but consider the waves like the variations in the groove of a record or the imprint in a CD and the Holy Spirit is the needle of the record player or the laser of the CD player picking up our prayers and transmitting them to God. Our silence is the chance to be the speaker membrane, awaiting the energy from God, so we can vibrate and hear The Word from within us.
    The scriptures let us know what it takes for God to hear us, what is necessary for us to be heard by God.
    Thank you, Carl, for again provoking my thoughts.