A reader writes,
Hi Carl. I have a question that I can never find a clear answer to. In Zen meditation, one is to sit silently, and if thoughts come into your head, let them just drift away rather than focus on them, etc. “A flying bird leaves no trace.” I understand all that. Now, how does silent prayer differ from that? Yes, I don’t want to focus on monkey-mind thoughts of work, money, the bad weather, whatever. Let those simply drift away. But what about thoughts of God, Jesus, Mary and Joseph, scripture, whatever? In truly silent prayer, is one to let those thoughts drift away as well? This is the question I can never find a clear answer to!
Thanks for this question. Anyone who engages in the practice of being silent as a way of praying (Psalm 46:10, Habakkuk 2:20, etc.) naturally will see the value of releasing thoughts that seemed distracting — such as anxious thoughts about money or voyeuristic thoughts about entertainment or celebrities. But what about thoughts that, on the surface, seem to be, well, spiritual? Should we set aside thoughts of “God, Jesus, Mary and Joseph, scripture” as my reader described it? What if it seems that an angel appears to us, or simply a consoling sense of God’s forgiveness and mercy?
In the interest of silent prayer, should we set all those kinds of thoughts aside, too?
Interestingly enough, contemplative teachers both from the past and from our own time answer this question “Yes, absolutely.”
First, here’s what The Cloud of Unknowing, written in the fourteenth century, has to say (chapter 7):
You’ll find thoughts seducing you in other ways. For example, a thought may remind you of the many times God has been kind to you and how he is amazingly sweet and loving, full of grace and mercy. It likes nothing better than to grab your attention, and once it knows you’re listening, the thought will start rambling. It will chatter on about Christ’s Passion, drawing you in more and more, and then it will show you God’s miraculous, sacrificial kindness. The thought loves you when you listen to it… and before you know it, your mind is scattered all over the place. How did this happen? You listened to the thought. You answered it, embraced it, and set it free. Obviously these thoughts are good and holy, and they’re required of anyone serious about contemplation. This is something of a paradox. For without countless sweet meditations on these very subjects—our agony, our shame, Christ’s Passion, God’s kindness, God’s unfailing goodness, and God’s worth—the contemplative person won’t advance. But the man or woman experienced in these meditations must quit them. Put them down and hold them far under the cloud of forgetting, if you want to penetrate the cloud of unknowing between you and God.
In our day, the Trappist writer Thomas Keating makes almost exactly the same point Here’s a passage from his book Open Mind, Open Heart: The Contemplative Dimension of the Gospel.
Let go both of sense and spiritual consolation. When you feel the love of God flowing into you, it is a kind of union, but it is a union of which you are aware. Therefore, it is not full union… So long as you are moved by such desires, you are still trying to control God. Even if you see the heavens opening and Jesus sitting at the right hand of the Father, forget it. Return to the sacred word. Spiritual communications accomplish their purpose instantly before you have the chance to reflect on them. You have received the full benefit of the gift even if you never think of it again. Letting go of spiritual gifts is the best way to receive them. The more detached you are from them, the more you can receive or rather, the better you can receive. It takes a lot of courage to let go of the most delightful things that can be experienced.
Later, he adds:
Interior silence is greater than any insight. It also saves you a lot of trouble. Pure faith is the surest and straightest road to God. Human nature wants to recall spiritual experiences of one kind or another in order to be able to explain them to oneself and to others. The remembrance of spiritual experiences is okay up to a point, but such experiences are not as important as interior silence. Don’t reflect on them during centering prayer. If they have genuine value, they will come back to you later. The deeper your interior silence, the more profoundly God will work in you without your knowing it. Pure faith consents and surrenders to the Ultimate Mystery just as He is; not as you think God is or as someone has told you He is, but as God is in Himself.
You find similar advice in the stories of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, the writings of St. John of the Cross, and of Thomas Merton. Again and again, the great spiritual teachers seem to say, almost with a unified voice: “Let go even of spiritual thoughts or experiences. They might just be imaginary flights of fancy, flashy images from your ego. Or they could even come from an unfriendly spirit, trying to distract you away from your commitment to wordless contemplation. And if they really are from God, God will give you the blessing whether or not you linger over these thoughts. So just let them go.”
But why? Isn’t it good to meditate on spiritual themes or truths or experiences? The Cloud author says as much, acknowledging that there is a paradox here: to be a Christian contemplative, we need to be grounded in the wisdom traditions of this path. But when we enter into silence, we need to be prepared to simply let all that flow by.
I think it’s important to keep in mind that no one is saying spiritual thoughts or experiences are “bad.” This is not about good versus evil, silence is good and experience is bad (I’ve been accused of saying as much, but it’s never been my intent to say such a dualistic thing). It’s more about “to everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.” Spiritual thoughts, feelings, experiences, and meditations are very good, and worthy to cultivate in our hearts and minds. But what can be a blessing in one context can be a distraction in another. Learning to set aside religious thoughts in silent prayer is simply a matter of intention: for next 20 or 30 minutes or so, I’m letting my heart, rather than my mind, lead my prayer. I’m asking the Holy Spirit to direct my prayer at a level “too deep for words” — or thoughts. Because that is my intention, I will gently set aside the human mind’s natural strategy for trying to recapture my attention — by any means necessary. I recognize that in this situation, even the most pious thought is likely just my ego trying to reassert control over my prayer — which, as Keating points out, is “trying to control God.”
If God is really trying to reach me with some sort of mystical experience, it will still be available for me to savor after my silent prayer time is finished. But what is far more likely is that, as soon as my ego recognizes that I am not so easily seduced away from silence, it will simply calm down, leaving my heart free to rest in the divine presence, undistracted and free to love.
I hope this is helpful. Thanks for your question!