July 6, 2022 Wayne Northey

Corporate and Contemplative Prayer

Listen to this article

WN: Taylor was kind enough to grant me permission to reproduce fully the excellent meditation below. He explains the provenance. A PDF version is here.

Corporate and Contemplative Prayer

—By T.S. Wilson

“In order to arrive at what you do not know

You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.”

T.S. Eliot Four Quartets

“He has made darkness his secret place; dark waters and thick

clouds were his covering round about him.”

Psalm 18:11

NOTE: I initially wrote this piece as an assignment for a class at St. Stephen’s University. It is meant to be a balanced perspective on the relationship between common prayer as expressed in the Anglican Prayer Book tradition and the mystical encounter of contemplative prayer: the cataphatic and the apophatic. It was recently published in the inaugural edition of Legatum I edited, produced by the Contemplative Order of the Sons of the Holy Cross

IN The Ladder of the Beatitudes Jim Forest defines prayer rather broadly when he says: “Prayer refers to all we do in order to turn our attention toward God.”[1] I think this is a good starting point because it indicates that prayer is more than just ‘talking with God.’ In this broad sense, we can start to see how the entire Christian life can be thought of as a continuous prayer; as much when we collectively turn our attention to the gift of the Eucharist as when we try to pray the imageless prayer of the contemplative, described by Gregory of Nyssa when he says:

Prayer is intimacy with God and the contemplation of the invisible.[2]

Let me say a little more on the merits of common prayer and of contemplative prayer.

Common Prayer

The Anglican vision for the Book of Common Prayer encompasses the whole life of the Christian community. If prayer refers to all we do in order to turn our attention toward God, then adherence to the Prayer Book means attuning the entirety of our life toward God. The Prayer Book contains the established order for Morning, Midday, Evening, and Compline Prayer. It also provides the order of the Great Litany, Holy Communion, Baptism, and Confirmation. The Prayer Book provides a yearly liturgical cycle which is broken into the Paschal cycle and the Incarnation cycle. The Paschal cycle follows the lunar calendar and identifies Easter as the first Sunday that falls after the first full moon on or after March 21st. The season of Lent precedes Eastertide and the season of Pentecost follows it. The Incarnation cycle follows the solar calendar placing the day of the Lord’s birth on December 25th, with the season of Advent preceding it, and the season of Epiphany following the twelve days of Christmastide. The Church Calendar also sets the Principal Feast Days, Holy Days, Ember Days, Days of Discipline, Denial, Special Prayer, and days of Commemoration (both Anglican and Ecumenical). As a whole, the Prayer Book is a catechism into the Christian life. Adhering to the Daily Office Lectionary will result in our reciting the Psalter every month, and “the whole of Holy Scripture (or the greatest part thereof)” every year.[3]

Prayer refers to all we do in order to turn our attention toward God.–Jim Forest

The first edition of the Book of Common Prayer was put together by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer in 1544 and was a product of the Reformation. In the preface to the first edition of the Prayer Book Archbishop Cranmer justifies its creation on the grounds that it was meant to translate the old Latin Services to the common tongue, while removing those aspects of the services that departed from the “…decent order of the ancient fathers.”[4] The Prayer Book established a common public liturgy for the Church of England that was based primarily on the ancient Roman and Gallic rites dating back at least to the liturgies of the 4th century.[5]

According to Rowan Williams, the tradition of praying at least three times daily in the Christian tradition has its roots in Psalms 55:18 which reads, “In the evening, and morning, and at noonday will I pray and lament, and he shall hear my voice.”[6]

Prayer is intimacy with God and the contemplation of the invisible.Gregory of Nyssa

The fullest vision of Christian prayer is communal and encompasses all aspects of our life, from birth to death. In a culture where we are taught that the consumption of commodities is indicative of the good life and that productivity is virtue, days and seasons set aside for fasting and almsgiving, reflection and celebration, birth, death, and resurrection, teach us to restrain our appetites and to let go, to care for others and for ourselves, to die to aspects of ourselves that are like shadow and to be regenerated in the light of love. Like everything else in the natural world we are always becoming and what we become depends in many ways on where our thoughts, affections, will and desires are oriented. Setting time aside for prayer several times daily attunes us to God; it helps to make all of life a prayer. Still, I would be remiss to not point out that our present day circumstances do not allow for us to live the fullest vision of a communal life of prayer. In the article Loyalty to the Prayer Book, Percy Dearmer explains that the Prayer Book was meant for the daily use of the Divine Services in the church. That is, the church was to be opened for morning and evening prayer and praise on a daily basis.[7] It actually is possible to imagine a time before cars when many in the community gathered together at the local parish in the morning for matins and in the evening for evensong (whether they knew how to read or not). It was a world where the community lived a life of prayer in the seasons of the Church calendar together. Nevertheless, it is a heritage that Anglicans can participate in, albeit more privately than was initially intended. In Everyman’s History of the Prayer Book Dearmer puts the vision of the Prayer Book into better words than I myself can articulate:

There is some loss in the use of printed words; but there is a greater gain. We have in them the accumulated wisdom and beauty of the Christian Church, the garnered excellence of the saints. We are by them released from the accidents of time and place. Above all we are preserved against the worst dangers of selfishness: in the common prayer we join together in a great fellowship that is as wide as the world; and we are guided, not by the limited notions of our own priest, nor by the narrow impulses of our own desires, but by the mighty voice that rises from the general heart of Christendom.[8]

If prayer refers to all we do in order to turn our attention toward God, then adherence to the Prayer Book means attuning the entirety of our life toward God.

Loyalty to The Book of Common Prayer leads us into a life of prayer that is bound together with the community of saints and the wider church community as together we participate in the great procession through the mystery of the Eucharistic gate. Any emphasis on the role of contemplative prayer ought not lose sight of the fuller vision of Christian prayer grounded in the life of the community. Yet even Dearmer, who argues so persuasively for the need for Anglicans to remain loyal to the Prayer Book, says in the opening section of Everyman’s History,

We will try to avoid the danger, so common still among us, of being only able to pray by the book; remembering that there is a place and a real use for extemporary prayer, and a still greater use for the silent prayer which is above words altogether.[9]

It is towards the silent prayer of the contemplatives that I now turn.

Contemplative Prayer

In a culture where we are taught that the consumption of commodities is indicative of the good life and that productivity is virtue, days and seasons set aside for fasting and almsgiving, reflection and celebration, birth, death, and resurrection, teach us to restrain our appetites and to let go, to care for others and for ourselves, to die to aspects of ourselves that are like shadow and to be regenerated in the light of love.

To write about contemplative prayer without turning it into an intellectual exercise unbefitting the act of prayer itself is not easy. To make matters worse, I am a novice at best when it comes to praying contemplatively, so I hesitate to even put pen to paper. However, I think the subject is of such importance that I will attempt to write a little about it. I only ask for forgiveness if I speak wrongly, or with confidence on matters I know only a little about.

Conceptually, the aim of the contemplative is simple: To join heart and mind in the divinity of God through prayer.[10] This is made possible because of the Incarnation wherein God became human so that we might become divine. Contemplative prayer is one way of interpreting and answering the call to “pray without ceasing.”[11] Of course, the reality of contemplative prayer is far from the equivalent of an abstract proposition. Rather, it should be thought existentially: the contemplative life must be lived to be sincerely meaningful.

Conceptually, the aim of the contemplative is simple: To join heart and mind in the divinity of God through prayer.

Situated within the larger Christian Tradition, contemplative prayer is rooted in the apophatic approach to God or the via negativa. The word apophatic is derived from the Greek word apophainei which is a combination of the word “apo” which means something like “away from” or “separation from,” and phainei which is related to speech, making known, revealing, a lamp, torch, or lantern.[12] In John 1:5, for example, the word phainei is commonly translated as “shines.” As in, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” In the introduction to The Cloud of Unknowing, Carmen Butcher says “an apophatic approach to God literally means to ‘to not say’ or ‘to un-say God.’ ”[13] It is to move away from the light of language that says something about God in the abstract.

The apophatic approach to God is not opposed to a linguistically positive approach to God. We can know something about the nature of God through revelation, the witness of the saints, the sacramental life of the church, the mysteries surrounding the incarnation, and the good, true, and beautiful appearances in the natural world which point to their source and final cause. However, language cannot describe God as he is in-itself because the Christian God is thought to be incorporeal and beyond the ever-changing world of becoming. God is transcendent, and so language that is itself a part of the always-changing natural world cannot correspond with God as he is in-itself except perhaps in a figurative sense known through analogy. The transcendence of God leaves him hidden in the darkness beyond the light of language.

The transcendence of God leaves him hidden in the darkness beyond the light of language.

In the English mystical tradition, the author of The Cloud of Unknowing helps illuminate the relationship between the negative and positive approach to God when he says:

Through God’s grace, our minds can explore, understand, and reflect on creation and even on God’s own works, but we can’t think our way to God. That’s why I’m willing to abandon everything I know, to love the one I cannot think. He can be loved, but not thought.[14]

The author of The Cloud approaches contemplative prayer in the apophatic or negative way. Oftentimes negative theology is associated with making propositions about what God is not in order to bring us closer to knowledge of what God is. But the apophatic approach to God embraced by the author of The Cloud is one where God is known through the superior wisdom of the heart that hungers and thirsts for a being that is ultimately beyond the grasp of human thought.[15]

Contemplative prayer helps us let go of the death grip that pride holds on us in many and multifarious ways, as we learn to rest in the ineffable darkness that lightens the soul and enlivens the mind . . .

In the unknowing tradition our limited notions, stubborn certainties, and the inconstancy of a busy mind are more of a hindrance than they are a help in our coming to know a God who is shrouded in darkness and mystery. Contemplative prayer helps us let go of the death grip that pride holds on us in many and multifarious ways, as we learn to rest in the ineffable darkness that lightens the soul and enlivens the mind; healing the sorrow and suffering of existence with the grace of endless humility, mercy, and charity. In a time and place where the vita activa [active life] reigns and we are constantly bombarded by information, “distracted by distraction from distraction,”[16] as T.S. Eliot puts it, taking the time to sit in stillness, and to let go of knowing and action for a time is as important as it ever has been and always will be.

Virtue is better lived than thought, and the knowledge of what virtue is does not in itself make a person virtuous.

Echoing St. Thomas Aquinas, the author of The Cloud affirms that the perfection of virtue has God alone as its source. But the perfection of virtue is endless, it cannot be fully known through the language of natural theology, natural philosophy, or even Christian revelation. Supernatural virtue is known through the heart that is rooted in God and the heart is rooted in God through prayer. The distinction I am making between thought and act can be seen clearly when comparing the difference between virtue in the abstract and virtue as it is when it is made concrete in actual people. In the abstract, the virtues are unreal and half-imagined concepts, worthy of our discussion, but lacking substance. It is only as they are actualized in living people that we get a glimpse of their reality. Virtue is better lived than thought, and the knowledge of what virtue is does not in itself make a person virtuous.

The perennial question remains, how does one become virtuous?[17]

So first my mind must become detached from anything subject to flux and change and in tranquilly rest in motionless spiritual repose, so as to be rendered akin to Him who is perfectly unchangeable; and then it may address Him by this most familiar name and say: Father.Gregory of Nyssa

The Self in Fellowship

For early Christian’s, virtue was about more than just acting ethically, it was about who we are in fellowship with at the deepest level of the self. For example, in his Homilies On the Lord’s Prayer, Gregory of Nyssa warns us that when we say “Our Father” in the Lord’s Prayer, we are addressing that which is the rule of our life, whether good or evil.[18] For Gregory everyone is made in the image of God in the sense that each person has an innermost chamber (adyton) to their being that is impenetrable to evil and vile thoughts:[19] like a diamond that can never be destroyed no matter how much it is made dirty and unrecognizable. Drawing on the Garden of Eden story, and the symbol of the serpent, he compares the scales of the serpent to the many “passion-provoking incidents”[20] which, in a metaphorical sense, increasingly speckles, scale by scale, the innermost chamber of our heart until the adyton becomes so spoiled that it is almost unrecognizable. At this point, it is said by Gregory, that we are in “society with beasts.” Beasts, used in this sense, is referring to the various manifestations of vice or sin, which when let loose on the soul inevitably wreaks havoc, on ourselves, and our local community. As in Dante’s Inferno when the leopard of deceit, the lion of violence, and the she-wolf of lust, leave Dante in the wasteland of a spiritual hell, the symbolic serpent becomes “our father,” which is to say, the rule and cause of our thoughts and actions.

The converse of being in “society with beasts” is fellowship with the whole company of heaven, expressed so wonderfully in the ancient Latin hymn, Te Deum Laudamus, that Anglicans pray daily in their Morning Prayers. Or in a literary sense in the Divine Comedy when Dante travels through the nine spheres of Hell in the Inferno, climbs the mountain of purgatory in Purgatoria, and reaches the nine spheres of heaven in Paradiso. In Paradiso the heavenly choir is beautifully described by Beatrice as spheres revolving around the still point of “His brightest shining heaven” emanating the perfect light of love and truth in greater and lesser degrees of perfection as all the orders of heaven gaze upward to the order above, and downward to the order below, so that all are united in praise of the Primal Love. It is a contemplative gazing upward (in a spiritual sense) that helps unite our hearts and minds to the order above. As the order above gazes down on us and brings us in closer communion with the eternal order, so the way we lovingly and mercifully steward the natural world can help draw all of reality into fellowship with the eternal order. The heavenly choir of Dante, Thomas Aquinas, and Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, is treated more thoroughly by Joel Reinhardt in his essay “Michaelmas and Time” in this same volume.[21]

Theory and Practice

When speaking of his experience of praying the Lord’s Prayer Gregory writes:

So first my mind must become detached from anything subject to flux and change and in tranquilly rest in motionless spiritual repose, so as to be rendered akin to Him who is perfectly unchangeable; and then it may address Him by this most familiar name and say: Father.[22]

In the above passage we see the convergence of theory and practice, or the way that theory is existentially lived out in the life of prayer. The traditional Christian view that God is transcendent, eternal and unchanging, is affirmed in theory and is put into practice in the deep stillness of the act of contemplative prayer. As Gregory indicates, through the grace of the contemplative life we can come to know the immanence of God in a way that goes beyond the intellectual or the letter of tradition.

Meditation on scripture, fasts, vigils, common prayer, or any other aspect of the religious life are important tools that are necessary for us to reach the goal but are in themselves secondary. Pursued for their own sake we become as Martha, toiling in her work with devout concern, but missing the better path chosen by Mary.

For Gregory this ascent of the mind and heart can only take place within the sacramental life of the church because it is only the church that imitates the stability of God on earth and allows for proper teaching on virtue.[23] For example, the adyton, which Gregory describes as the innermost chamber of our heart, was in ancient Greek and Roman temple’s the Holy of Holies, which in its ritual purity was inaccessible to all except for the high priest.[24] In this sense, the church and its liturgical acts can be thought of as a symbol of the heavenly reality, which we participate in as the church community approaches the living Word present in the sacrament of the Eucharist. A symbol which is also reflected in the incorruptible image of God imprinted on our own hearts. Meditation on scripture, fasts, vigils, common prayer, or any other aspect of the religious life are important tools that are necessary for us to reach the goal but are in themselves secondary. Pursued for their own sake we become as Martha, toiling in her work with devout concern, but missing the better path chosen by Mary.[25]

Conclusion

. . . contemplative prayer needs to be grounded in virtue, the sacramental life of the church, common prayer, spiritual direction, sacred reading, spiritual friendship, and the commitment to pursuing peace and justice in an imperfect world.

The greatest risk of contemplative prayer is in mistaking the experience of ourselves for participation in God. In this type of corruptio optimi pessima[26] we become gods unto ourselves and are ruled by the far extreme of pride rather than by humility. For this reason, contemplative prayer needs to be grounded in virtue, the sacramental life of the church, common prayer, spiritual direction, sacred reading, spiritual friendship, and the commitment to pursuing peace and justice in an imperfect world. At the same time, it is through the grace of contemplative prayer that the heart rooted in God is established in true virtue, sacred reading is made possible, authentic spiritual friendship can occur, and peace and justice are mediated into the world. Loyalty to the Prayer Book frees us from the narrow impulses of our own desire and joins us in the mighty voice that rises from the general heart of Christendom, but a religion that does not have its end in actual participation in God cannot be said to be true (in the metaphysical sense of true religion) and amounts to little more than a civil religion that promotes a particular type of the self. The common religious life is the vine (corpus Christi [body of Christ]) on which the contemplative life must take root; but the common religious life is not an end in itself. The proper end of the Christian life consists in our participation in the kingdom of heaven (unio mystica [mystical union]).


Footnotes

[1] Jim Forest. The Ladder of the Beatitudes, New York: Orbis Books, 1999. 96

[2] Gregory of Nyssa, The Lord’s Prayer, trans. Hilda Graef. New York: Paulist Press. 24.

[3] Book of Common Prayer, California: Anglican Liturgy Press. 2019, 736.

[4] Thomas Cranmer. “Preface to 1549 Prayer Book.”

[5] Percy Dearmer, Everyman’s History of the Prayer Book, Milwaukee: Young Churchman Co. 1915. Loc. 1292.

[6] Rowan Williams, Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans’s Publishing. 2014. p. 66.

[7] Percy Dearmer, Loyalty to the Prayer Book, Oxford: A.R. Mowbray and Co. 1904.

[8] Percy Dearmer, Everyman’s History of the Prayer Book. Milwaukee: Young Churchman Co. 1915. Loc. 120.

[9] Ibid.

[10] This is made possible because of the Incarnation wherein God became human so that we might become divine.

[11] 1 Thes. 5:17-19.

[12] Arndt & Gingrich, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1957.

[13] Butcher, Carmen. The Cloud of Unknowing, Shambala Publications. 2009.

[14] The Cloud of Unknowing. trans. Carmen Butcher. 23.

[15] In more traditional philosophical language the heart can be understood as the will.

[16] T.S. Eliot Four Quartets: Burnt Norton, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, p. 17.

[17] A question that penetrates most of Plato’s works. In Phaedrus Plato concluded that true virtue can only be taught if we come into physical contact with a virtuous teacher. Virtue, in this sense, is something different from a set of abstract ethical principles, it is a living tradition of participation in the world of being passed on in a world of becoming. I think this points to the vital importance of spiritual direction.

[18] Gregory of Nyssa. Homilies on the Lord’s Prayer, p.38

[19] Ibid, 46.

[20] Ibid, 65.

[21] See Legatum, pp. 81ff.

[22] Ibid, 38.

[23] John Litteral, Introduction to Homilies on Ecclesiastes by St. Gregory of Nyssa, Litteral’s Christian Library Publications: Kentucky.

[24] Luke 10:38-42.

[25] Often interpreted with Mary representing the contemplative life and Martha representing the active life.

[26] The corruption of the best is the worst of all.

Hits: 11

Always appreciate constructive feedback! Thanks.

%d bloggers like this: