Contemplative prayer has the tendency to become ever simpler and more silent. As we gain experience in this form of prayer we need fewer and fewer thoughts, until finally one single thought may be sufficient to find the way to truth and God. Fewer thoughts demand fewer words. St. Francis used the phrase “My God and my all” as his theme of contemplation for a whole night.
In contemplation our mode of thinking changes. From its usual restlessness it becomes a quiet beholding and a comprehending, a watching and a witnessing. Our voice changes: it becomes softer and lower. Finally, speech dies down and its place is taken by a silent regarding and longing between the soul and God. If we should reach this stage in contemplation, we should not force ourselves back into the diversity of thought. When simplicity contains the essence, there is no need for diversity; when silence is eloquent, it is greater than words.
There are people to whom a profusion of thought and words are alien. With them, the state of quietude, which others take considerable time to establish, is very quickly reached. They require only very few words; anything beyond it would merely confuse them. They may not even need any words or thoughts in order to establish the state of mind in which they experience the presence of God. If that is so, they need not search any farther. They should, however, not take this for granted. It may happen that on another occasion they need a proper subject for contemplation and must have recourse to a proper text.
We cannot do more here than give a general description of the character and practice of contemplative prayer. It must take different forms with different people. Thus what we have said should not be regarded as a general rule but merely as a survey which may give some guidance in individual cases.
Some people find contemplation very much easier than others. Some people are by nature quieter and more introspective than others who are highly strung and permanently keyed up for action. Again, the form of contemplation must vary with individual disposition. The slow, plodding, and methodical person will set about it in a different way from someone who is quick and impressionable, the imaginative person in a different way from the abstract thinker.
There are no general rules. What matters is that we should seek the truth and that through truth we should strive after God. Also, contemplation changes in character with time and circumstances.
Mystical prayer erases barriers between man and God
It may happen in contemplation that we have a strange experience. We may have been reflecting on God in faith alone. Suddenly, God is present. This is not due to any intensity of devotion on our part, nor does it imply that we have an especially vivid idea of God or that our heart is overflowing with love for Him. It is not anything of this kind. It is a sudden feeling that we are faced with an entirely new and different experience: a wall which was there before is there no more.
Usually the idea of God is before us like everything else, including ourselves. It is before us in the space of our consciousness as a concept or thought. This concept of God affects us, moves us to love, or exhorts us to certain actions. In the experience which we are discussing, the barrier of thought disappears and gives place to immediate and direct awareness.
This, at first, may be most confusing. We feel moved in an entirely new way; we feel that we have been transported into a state hitherto unknown. Our intuition tells us that this is God or at any rate connected with Him. This intimation may frighten us. We do not know whether we dare presume that this intuition is true and we are uncertain what to do. However, the intuition becomes a certainty, even an absolute certainty which leaves no room for doubt. The doubts may come afterwards when, for example, we discover that our usual ideas about the inner life have lost their meaning or when we discover that other people have no knowledge of these things.
Another element of confusion is that we lack the words to describe our experience. We know what it is but we also know that it cannot be conveyed in words — not only because it is so great and powerful, but simply because there is no expression for it. We can merely say something like: “It is holy; it is close; it is more important than anything else; it is sufficient in itself; it is quiet, tender, simple; it is almost nothing and yet it is everything — it is He.” We could put it this way, yet know that it would convey nothing to our listener unless he also had experienced it.