09 September 2016

In God Alone Once Again: On Contemplative Prayer and Distractions

[[Dear Sister, When you pray contemplatively do you ever have trouble with distractions? I would like to do quiet prayer but just can't get quiet. I want to empty my mind of thoughts and worries but I just can't seem to do it. Everyone talks about centering or centering down and getting quiet but I don't have the slightest idea of how that happens. Can you help me? Give me some advice? What do I do?]]

Whew! In some ways a really difficult question --- but in other ways simple. I can't give you "how to" kinds of advice really, but maybe I can give you a way of thinking about the relationship of prayer and distractions that will be helpful. First of all though I think you have to get rid of the idea that in prayer you empty your mind of thoughts. I suppose it is possible after years of practice. Eastern thought seems to have elements of this approach but I don't think this is the same as Christian prayer, even contemplative Christian prayer. In Christian prayer we bring the whole of ourselves, all our concerns, joys, thoughts, feelings, etc., etc., and we turn all of this over to God to love into wholeness. In contemplative prayer we do this in a single (continuing) relatively wordless action. (A word or one line prayer may be used as a refrain occasionally to renew our commitment and focus throughout the prayer period or they may be mainly unnecessary.) Sometimes folks describe contemplative prayer as our wordless gazing on God. Maybe. (I rarely find myself gazing on God.) But for me the definition that works better is "silently resting in the gaze of God." We pray contemplatively when we allow ourselves to rest in the loving gaze of God. It is about allowing God to look on, "touch", and work in us in whatever way God wills.  God is the one doing the work; we "show up" and quietly commit to allowing "God's work" to occur.

Prayer is not OUR Work but God's:

But we have to let go of the notion that prayer is OUR work and that includes working to stop distractions or empty our minds. You asked if I experience distractions and the answer is yes, of course, absolutely, without doubt! I am human and I cannot turn off my mind! However, I can and do focus on the greater reality here and now while those thoughts spin around on another level. Recently I posted the Taize chant "In God Alone" and I spoke about the theme grounding the music while individual players and instruments improvised all around the theme. When I listen to that cut I am reminded of contemplative prayer. I hear and mainly focus on the chant itself, the deep and continuing theme and Presence that relates to, shapes, and causes everything else to cohere. Implicitly I give permission (so to speak) to that chant to fill me and take over my thoughts, feelings, etc so that I am taken more and more deeply into its true meaning. I give this permission, an expression of my deepest yearning, so that I am always listening to or for it, so that, in fact, I rest in it as it lives and sings in me. I desire for its truth to be MY truth as well and I am open to allowing it to be a chant that sounds deep within me at all times, prayer period or not.

At the same time however there are the improvisational lines which spin off from the theme and, for brief periods, seem to take on a life of their own. I follow them with part of my mind while I continue to hold onto the chant "In God Alone" with the rest. I watch as they veer away, come back, and eventually rest once again in the main chant. In contemplative prayer these might be similar to distractions. I hold these distractions lightly with my mind as I focus more completely on allowing God to work within me. In time the improvisational lines cease to be distracting and though our minds do not stop working in this way we will find our prayer is really about being grounded in that larger unceasing chant. We have been listening to that right along so long as we hold the distractions lightly. Even more importantly, whether we heard it or not it has continued to sound right along carrying us with it, speaking or singing (to) us in ways that affect us below the level of consciousness. So it is with God in contemplative prayer. We have to learn to trust that.

Exercise: Becoming Comfortable With Distractions

So, I have a suggestion for you -- a kind of exercise in this dimension of contemplative prayer. Listen to the chant above several times. (If you have or can find a copy of the longer version which you could loop automatically it would definitely be more helpful for several reasons.) Commit to doing this seriously in a quiet environment. Sit quietly, close your eyes and just listen. Focus on the chant itself ("in God Alone") and DON'T worry about the improvisational lines. They are there and there's nothing you can or should do about them. Let the chant take hold of you, bring more and more of yourself to it as it speaks to you more and more deeply. Then, hold onto this main focus (continue listening to the chant per se) and listen to the improvisational lines AS WELL. Let yourself be taken by them even to the extent of detaching attention from the foundational chant if that's what happens but then, quietly and calmly refocus your mind and heart on the chant. Find it and settle into listening to it once again. Try this several times and be flexible --- always listening for and trusting in the Presence of the chant which grounds, structures, and unifies everything else.

Again while this is not a "how to" lesson in praying contemplatively it might give you some greater measure of comfort with distractions which occur despite and in addition to our deeper focus and commitment, our deeper "hearkening," -- this deeper and sustaining act of entrusting ourselves to the loving gaze of God "come what may"! Obviously this example is only analogous but I have listened to this chant in a repetitive way myself and felt it functioning as I described. It reminded me not only of living our lives with God and in light of God no matter how far from God we wander at times, but also the dynamics of contemplative prayer as we allow the the dynamic, singing, Love-in-Act we call God to call to us, to silently shape and empower us even as we return to it again and again because we have wandered away.

Let me know if it is of any help to you or if I have completely confused you here!