16 June 2014

Followup Questions on the Intimacy of Prayer and the Responsibility to Share the Fruit of One's Contemplative Experience

[[Dear Sister Laurel, are you saying that one must share the most intimate details of one's prayer with others? I think of prayer as very intimate. I don't think I must go into the details with the entire Church.]]

Thanks! Good question. No, I don't mean this. However, I do expect a lot of the details to be shared with one's spiritual director so the entire experience and all its implications can be discussed and submitted to a mutual process of discernment in which the emotional and sensible content (to whatever extent this exists) can be transformed into deeper personal understanding and genuinely ecclesial wisdom.

Even here the director's work is mainly to allow and assist the directee to reflect on the experience, to open her to letting it continue to live in her, and therefore to help her to live from it and draw conclusions about it to the extent it is authentic; it is not the job of the director necessarily to simply pronounce of the authenticity of the experience. Instead she works to enable the kind of patience, openness, and generosity that will allow such experiences to become sources of real wisdom. With you I completely agree that what happens in prayer is one of the most intimate experiences a person may have --- more intimate I would argue than sexual intercourse even (potentially the most intimate experience human beings usually know apart from prayer). I believe that sharing the details with people is something that will happen rarely and carefully. Here is one of the places where casting pearls before swine is a real concern, not because people are swine of course, but because they really may have no true sense just how holy and precious this piece of one's life actually is which can lead to "trampling it underfoot". Besides, there are simply some things we "hold close" and only share with those we know will understand from "inside" the experience.

Still, some degree of sharing is important, not because one wants folks to believe their prayer experiences are "special" or "beyond what others experience" (at best one is naive if one believes this), but because they can become a true source of wisdom when one reflects on them in this way. In my own posts on this blog, and in fact, in a reflection I did for my parish several years ago, I have referred to one really significant prayer experience several times. I have done that for several reasons: 1) because it is a living reality, not a static memory, which I touch back into regularly so that I may hear more profoundly that which I heard less so earlier; 2) so that new dimensions of revelation and understanding may be opened to me since God has not stopped speaking to me via this 30 year old prayer experience; 3) so that I can illustrate for others how it is we fulfill the definition of "experience" which Ruth Burrows rightly insists on --- especially the patience and generosity she refers to, and 4) so that it becomes clear that as private and intimate as an experience is, extraordinary (and those we mistakenly think are not so extraordinary) experiences of prayer are a gift to the whole community.

To open such an experience to others is also to help short circuit any tendency to elitism or mere eccentricity while making sure the real prayer experience is the ecclesial reality it is meant to be. Everyone in the Church should be encouraged to reflect in a general way on the prayer experiences not only of their own lives, but those of others that may differ. This encourages an openness to allowing God to work in one's own life in ways one may never have entertained before, not least because one thought it was only open to "specialists" or religious, for instance. It is also helpful and perhaps natural to any life in which prayer is truly central -- whether that be the life of a mom with children, of a businessman negotiating the complexities of a contemplative approach to his difficult professional environment, a hermit in her hermitage, or the Church as a whole. While the immediate experience I spoke of earlier was my own, beginning with my work with my director, that can --- and, I believe, ought to --- become a source of communal reflection and discernment which eventually leads to real wisdom for the whole Church but certainly for the contemplative's local Church. After all it is a witness to the way the Holy Spirit is working in the midst of the community --- and the way She DESIRES to work in every life therein even if the sensible "furnishings" of the experiences involved differ from person to person.

Let me reiterate a bit and clarify what I am saying here. I do not mean to say that the larger church will ever know of the details of my own prayer experience(s) themselves; those may be known only to my director or to a small and select group of friends. To the degree communicating the ineffable is even possible this could even occur in a group spiritual direction or parish prayer-group setting, for instance. At the same time, as I write this, I am clearer than ever that even these yet-unshared details could eventually be shared more largely to the extent they reveal the ineffable more than they obscure it, and to the extent it is truly reverent and prudent to do so. What remains true is that in any case the more general dynamics of my experience and the way these call me to grow in holiness --- the way this experience shapes an eremitical spirituality, the way I grow in understanding as I continue to tap into it, the wisdom it has for the faith community at large, what it teaches about the nature and place of (contemplative) prayer in every person's life and the life of the Church herself, what it says about the love and mercy of God and the way God truly delights in each of us, how it changed and continues to change me as a person, etc., --- are all matters that should be grist for greater ecclesial sharing and reflection.

For me personally this is another dimension of the silence of solitude being a communal or dialogical reality. It is part of being a representative of a living eremitical tradition. While the hermitage allows me an essentially hidden life geared to meeting God alone, and while my prayer is deeply intimate and private, the hermitage is also a quasi public as well as a formally and essentially ecclesial reality. It exists in the name of the Church and the life within it (in particular the prayer, penance, lectio, and study that so informs it) is a gift to that same Church especially to the extent she is a praying Church!

I suspect that this is another of those reasons we find hermits negotiating the tensions between their hidden lives and their public (ecclesial) roles through writing more often than not. Of course it is also true that contemplative prayer needs the checks and balances of a praying community with a long history of saints and genuine contemplatives and mystics if we are to avoid the problems associated with false and merely narcissistic "mystical" experiences, but generally the reason the contemplative takes part in the Church's own conversation in these matters is because she prays as part of the praying church and contributes to its life and wisdom in doing so. While sharing and reflecting together on experiences may lead to the discernment that some of these are inauthentic and disedifying, the more important reason for doing so is to allow those that are authentic to truly BE edifying to the whole faith community. This, I believe, is part of the responsibility of sharing in God's gift of contemplation.