The British Province
of Carmelite Friars
The Prayer of Silence
In the Rule of St. Albert can be found the precept that the hermits on Mount Carmel are to build a chapel in the middle of their cells. This chapel was placed under the protection of Mary, the Lady of the Place, and with this act, the hermits placed their whole lives and the future of their movement under her protection. This simple fact is the beginning of Carmelite Marian devotion.
In the course of the following centuries, the Carmelites underlined various aspects of their relationship with Our Lady. She is Patroness, Mother and Sister. Our Carmelite writers emphasised particular Marian feasts like the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption. Carmelite Marian devotion is not simply a way to admire Our Lady but above all to place her before the eyes of Carmelites as a model for our way of life. The most authentic devotion is to imitate the one to whom we are devoted. The Carmelites of the past saw in Mary the human being who had the most intimate experience of God. The goal of the Carmelite life, according to the 14th century Book of the First Monks, was to offer to God a heart free from the stain of actual sin and to taste even in this life that which pertains to the life to come. This intimate relationship with God by its very nature must overflow in works of love.
Mary listened to the Word of God and received it in her womb. If we want to have a real devotion to Our Lady of Mount Carmel, we must also listen to the Word and welcome it into our lives. The Word will change us radically.
The process whereby we are changed and transformed is called contemplation, which is a central concept of Carmelite spirituality. Contemplation is not a series a particular experiences but a process whereby little by little we are transformed in God. Our destiny is to become like God because we live with the same life as God, that is to say, the Holy Spirit.
Mary is the mother of the divine life in us and as our sister, she accompanies us on our journey. She is our model. However, we already know all this. We have heard it often. We know that we must imitate the virtues of Mary but how? How can we become docile to the will of God, patient, humble and so on?
To become like the Mother of God, to leave space in our lives so that God can grow in us, is the work of God. Certainly we can and must co-operate but the result of this process of transformation remains always God's work.
In what consists our co-operation? Of course we must try to live good Christian lives according to the Gospel. However those who have decided to live according to the Gospel know that this is much easier to say than to do. In the Magnificat, Mary praised and thanked God for having accomplished great things in her. God can also do great things in us if we give God the time and space to work in us, and, above all, if we consent to God's presence and action in our lives.
Lectio Divina is the most traditional way to grow in an intimate relationship with God and it is by means of this relationship that we are transformed and rendered capable of living the Gospel in all its fullness. A monk in the 12th century described the fundamental elements of Lectio Divina:- read the Word of God (lectio); reflect on the Word (meditatio), respond to the Word from the heart (oratio); rest in the Word (contemplatio).
The process of contemplation changes the human ways of thinking, loving and acting into divine ways. Our human ways are very limited and so when we read the Word of God, we are limited by our experience of life and by many other factors. It is said that one can find in the Bible reasons to support any position. It is therefore not sufficient just to read the Bible; our way of looking at things must be purified. When we meditate on the Word of God, we try to understand its meaning and what message it may have for our lives but when we do this, we are still limited. Our little world must be enlarged and our minds reformed according to the mind of Christ. When we pray from the heart, we are still using human words. Our words and thoughts, no matter how beautiful, are still human words and thoughts and it is therefore necessary that they too be purified by the Word of God.
St. John of the Cross wrote that God spoke one word and that word was His Son; this Word God repeats in an eternal silence and in silence must it ever be heard by the soul. Lectio Divina moves towards silence. When our words and our beautiful thoughts are no longer sufficient, only silence can give an adequate response to the Word of God.
Mary was blessed not because she was the physical mother of Jesus but because she heard the Word of God and put it into practice. Mary is our model as to how we can listen to this Word and put it into practice in our own lives.
In order to listen seriously to the Word of God, our receptive faculties must be enlarged and purified. We can and must do our best but in the end only God can bring our work to completion. Our capacity for listening is limited by the filter which each of us has within us. Thus filter is formed by our motives, some of which we are not even aware. For example, if I do not believe that I have any need for repentance, I will not hear the appeal of the Gospel to conversion. At least this appeal will not penetrate into my inmost being and therefore no transformation will take place in my life. I am not thinking about a first conversion from a life far from God, but rather I am referring to a second phase of conversion in which we abandon ourselves into the hands of God so that God can accomplish His work in us. St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila both write of a stage on the spiritual journey which is good but at the same time dangerous. John describes the state of beginners who believe themselves to be much better than they in fact are. St. Teresa, in the Interior Castle, places these people in the 3rd mansions describing them as good Christians but whose lives are guided by good sense and who still lack an ardent love and who must be transformed in God.
The process of transformation normally takes place in and through all the events of daily life. The first part of this process of transformation is called by John of the Cross, the night of sense which is only the beginning. The real purification and transformation takes place in the second part of the night, the darkest part but closer to the dawn. The dark night is a blessing because it is an effect of the process of contemplation which is an inflow of God into the soul. God is light but the light is so brilliant that it appears to be darkness to the human being.
God speaks to us in the silence of the night. In concrete terms what actually happens when we experience silence? Often we feel rather uncomfortable because we are not used to silence. Our world is filled with noise - radio, television, constant chatting about this and that - words, words, words. When we pray, we do not change our human nature and so for this reason we may find silence difficult even at times of prayer. There exists the temptation even to fill the entire experience of Lectio Divina with words. Of course it is necessary to take time to read the Word of God, to meditate on it and to pray it with words and thoughts which arise spontaneously from our hearts but it is equally important to leave space for silence where God speaks to us in the sound of a gentle breeze.
The voice of God is so gentle that we run the risk of suffocating it with the noise within ourselves. Consciously we enter into silence and leaving aside our beautiful words and holy thoughts for a moment, we reserve a space which we hope God will fill. I have often been surprised by the number of people who do not seem to understand the value of silence and who cannot appreciate its place in Christian prayer.
The silence to which I am referring is not merely an empty space, a lack of words; it is a desire to which God alone can respond. There is a type of silence which is not Christian. Everything depends on one's intention. If we want to use the time of silence to sleep or daydream or for relaxation, that is not Christian prayer. It is, however, possible to enter into silence with the best of intentions and after a few minutes to fall asleep or become distracted but if our intention is to communicate with God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, it remains prayer. To appreciate the value of silence, we must be convinced that God lives and works in us whether we are awake or asleep. God does not need our beautiful words and holy thoughts but our desire. What do we really desire? If we really desire that God transform us, He will do it. However it is possible to use words and thoughts in order to stay just as we are but to feel that we are really making headway on the spiritual journey.
I would like to propose a method of prayer which can make silence very fruitful. It is a method of Christian prayer based on the very rich Christian contemplative tradition and especially on a classic book from this tradition, "The Cloud of Unknowing", written by an unknown author in the 15th century. If one is praying at all, one is using some method of prayer, whether from a traditional source or from one's own ingenuity. The method which I am proposing is not intended to replace whatever method one is using but it can make other ways of prayer more fruitful. This method has helped me greatly and I simply want to share it. The most important thing for this method of prayer is to be convinced that God is not far away but in fact is very near. God has set up home in our hearts.
This method of prayer can be called the prayer of silence or the prayer of desire but it is most often called centering prayer. In the silence we tend towards God with our desire. First of all try to find a place where interruptions will be reduced to a minimum, then get yourself into a comfortable position which you can maintain for the whole period of prayer. A minimum of twenty minutes is recommended. To set the mood, one could begin by reading a small portion of Scripture. We do not want to think of the meaning of these words; meditation is for another time. We desire only to be in the presence of God and to consent to God's action. This is not a prayer of attention but intention.
After having settled down and set the mood, the next step of this simple way of prayer is to close one's eyes and silently introduce a sacred word into one' consciousness. A sacred word is a word which has great significance for you in your relationship with God but it need not be a traditionally "holy" word. Take the example of the little word "yes". It can mean very little or a great deal depending on the circumstances and the intention of the person speaking. Also in a very close relationship, a couple may have pet names for each other, These names may be very meaningful within the relationship they could sound very silly to a third party. The word which you choose should be sacred for you. According to the teaching of the 'Cloud of Unknowing", it is better if the word you choose be brief, one syllable if possible. I can suggest some possible words:- "God, Lord, Abba, Father, Spirit, Jesus, Mary, Yes, Peace, Love, Joy".
When I say, introduce the sacred word into one's consciousness, I do not mean to pronounce the word aloud or even silently in one's mind but to welcome the word within oneself without pondering on its meaning. It is not necessary to use great mental force with this word; it is introduced very, very gently. The sacred word is not a mantra; it is not repeated continually during the prayer but is used only when necessary, when we find that we are thinking of something instead of simply being in the presence of God and consenting to God's action. The sacred word focuses our desire and we use the word always in the same way to return our heart to the Lord when we become aware that we are thinking of something. Our intention is simply to be in the presence of God and consent to God's action in our lives. Our sacred word expresses our intention and so when we become aware that we are thinking of something, we can decide either to continue thinking about whatever we became aware of or to return to our original intention of simply being in God's presence and consenting to God's action. This we do by re-introducing ever so gently the sacred word which we have chosen.
During the period of this prayer, it is not the time to speak to God in words or have holy thoughts. We can do all this at another time. Our silence and our desire are worth much more than many words.
By means of the sacred word which we have chosen, we express our desire and our intention to remain in the presence of God and to consent to God's purifying and transforming action. We return to the sacred word, which is the symbol of our intention and desire, only when we are aware that we are thinking about something. There is no point in getting upset at our distractions but we return very gently to our sacred word as the symbol of our intention to remain in God's presence and to submit to and co-operate with God's action in our lives. The prayer itself consists simply in being in the presence of God without thinking of anything in particular. It is a prayer of relationship with God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. If we understand how to be with another person in silence without thinking of anything or doing anything, then we can understand this prayer. This method of prayer can be helpful to those who feel within themselves a call to silence.
Practical guidelines for Centering Prayer
There are four simple guidelines to the method of Centering Prayer. These are:-
1. Choose a Sacred Word as the symbol of your intention to consent to the presence and action of God within.
2. Sitting comfortably and with eyes closed, settle briefly and silently introduce the Sacred Word as the symbol of your intention to consent to God's presence and action.
3. When you become aware of thoughts return ever so gently to the Sacred Word
4. At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence for a few minutes with eyes closed.