Why contemplation is wordless and imageless

We, mankind, are dependent on language to communicate meaning to one another. How else can I express what is in my mind or heart? Language works pretty well when situations are simple: “Do you want one piece of bread or two?” But a word which is man-made is only a kind of image or picture or symbol of a reality which is sometimes far more complex or mysterious than the simple artifact that we choose to represent the reality.

Take the word “love,” for example. How arbitrary these four little letters, l,o,v,e. How can they truly represent what I mean to someone who has had entirely different experiences of love? Or another example, the word “father.” When someone uses “father”, how can he/she, who had a loving, affectionate father in the home from childhood, communicate his full meaning to someone who grew up with a mostly absent father, or a cold one, one who abandoned his child at birth, or worse yet, one who abused his child?

Words and images are fraught with difficulties because they are man-made conveniences providing us with crude communication.

When we come to prayer, we experience the same problems. Words and images just aren’t adequate to carry meaning. Don’t you feel this way when you look at pictures of Jesus? No matter how beautiful, they are never good enough. Never satisfying. When I pray, I’d rather not even use the hopelessly inadequate pictures. If I pray enough, long enough, my words, no matter how devout, reverent, or loving, will fail me also. They will leave me in silence.

Yet Jesus, being truly man, used words. The whole Bible is a collection of words, and now it is the translations that worry us. Which expressions or collections of words best describe for us what God is saying? How can we know? Even the best translation by the best scholars and poets of the language will be inadequate.

But we can catch a glimpse of the meaning, and where the word fails, the Holy Spirit enters between the words to instruct and move us. Notice that St. Paul tells us that the Holy Spirit groans: “In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words…” [Romans 8,26].

Only one Word is adequate to express what God intends to say to us, the incarnate Word. Jesus is literally the Word of God in the flesh. St. John of the Cross speaks in the words of the Father to us, “Fix your eyes on Him alone, for in Him I have revealed all and in Him you will find more than you could ever ask for or desire….In my Word I have already said everything.”

How do you know that you are entering contemplation? When your vocal prayers run dry and the words of your heart fail. [Your heart will not fail. Only the words of your heart.] When the longing persists. The ache. When your dogged will, ever enchanted with pursuit of the Beloved, persists. When you fall into silence and all that you have left are the groanings in your heart. When your look of love looks only into the cloud of unknowing. When you realize that what you know is so much less than what you do not know of God. When you realize that words and images are totally inadequate for communication.

Because this is contemplation: God pours Himself into the heart, mind, and will where once words and images operated. The moments of contemplation may be fleeting, but they are immensely satisfying. Here is a darkness that brings peace, not distress, a sense of love beyond measure. You would be happy to sit forever in such pregnant darkness.


“I thirst…” — Mother Teresa of Calcutta

In his book on the Canticle of Canticles, Father Maloney asks us: “Do you think it is your own burning desire for this union with Christ?” While we are yet pondering this ache, this burning sensation of emptiness of heart which torments us, he answers his own question: “It is the desire of Christ which is burning your heart.”

For this reason Mother Teresa of Calcutta instructs that in every one of her chapels a little sign be posted near the crucifix: “I Thirst.” Four years before her death, she pleads with her sisters to understand the thirst of Christ, for the poor, for “you” –Not only does Jesus love you…”but even more–He longs for you. He misses you when you don’t come close. He thirsts for you. He loves you always, even when you don’t feel worthy.”

If we have an ache in our hearts, imagine the ache in His. We will not truly understand this burning thirst of Christ till we ourselves experience a burning thirst for souls. His groans for souls should resound in our own hearts—then we are one:

One in thirst.

One in love and desire.

One Heart, one Mind, one Will.

This thirst we should desire if we don’t have it. We should pray, “Give me the divine thirst You had on the Cross and now perpetuate in the Eucharist, in the Tabernacle. Burn me with Your thirst, till it is no longer a question of “He and I” but of the whole world burning in the heart of the Trinity. “

“We are not the weather on the holy mountain…”

Five years ago I entered a post on my original website,  LIVING CHRIST:


I’ve discovered a most wonderful little book on contemplation in our parish library: INTO THE SILENT LAND by Martin Laird, OSA. Chapter One, “Parting the Veil” struck me this evening.

p. 16, “When the mind is brought to stillness, and all our strategies of acquisition have dropped, a deeper truth presents itself: we are and have always been one with God and we are all one in God (Jn 17:21). The marvelous world of thoughts, sensation, emotions, and inspiration, the spectacular world of creation around us, are all patterns of stunning weather on the holy mountain of God. But we are not the weather. We are the mountain. Weather is happening–delightful sunshine, dull sky, or destructive storm–this is undeniable. But if we think we are the weather happening on Mount Zion (and most of us do precisely this with our attention riveted to the video), then the fundamental truth of our union with God remains obscured and our sense of painful alienation heightened …

For a lifetime we have taken this weather–our thoughts and feelings–to be ourselves….Stillness reveals that we are the silent, vast awareness in which the video [of the weather] is playing.”

In prayer, don’t let the distractions lead you away from the truth: we are in Him and He is in us. Our deepest self is the “hidden self” that St. Paul speaks of, as we are hidden in the “self-emptying of God in Christ.”

On p. 14: “One need not have journeyed too far into this silent land to realize that the so-called psychological self, our personality…is a cognitive construct pasted up out of thoughts and feelings. ...But our deepest identity, in which thoughts and feelings appear like patterns of weather on Mout Zion (Ps 125), remains forever immersed in the silence of God.”…in Him we live and move and have our being,” in whom our very self is immersed.”

p. 15: “Because God is the ground of our being, the relationship between creature and Creator is such that, by sheer grace, separation is not possible. God does not know how to be absent…. This illusion of separation is generated by the mind and is sustained by the riveting of our attention to the interior soap opera, the constant chatter of the cocktail party going on in our heads.”

We do not, therefore, “acquire” Union with the God we love; we discover it, enter into it in the silence of our hidden selves. He is always there, waiting in love and desire.

What a comfort in prayer–as the rain, the mist, streaks of lightning cover the mountain and shroud its solid reality, so do the distractions, the wild ravings of our imaginations and wandering mind lead us to believe that our prayer is insubstantial, that we are fools for God.  Not so.  We are not the weather on the holy mountain.  We are the mountain.

The Obscurity of Faith

How do we pray when we are dry and shriveled? —at least we feel that way. The problem is in that word feel. We live our ordinary, daily lives on that level: I feel good today, I feel hopeful, I feel satisfied, or I feel bored, etc. When we leave the level of feelings, we really don’t know how to act. Neither is faith only an act of the intellect, an assent to ideas. On one level it is. In his wonderful article on the theological virtues, Peter Kreeft explains: “Belief is an intellectual matter. I believe the sun will shine tomorrow: I believe I am in good health, I believe my textbooks. This is mere opinion. Faith is not mere opinion.”

Then what? Peter Kreeft explains St. Paul: “the object of faith is not a proposition but a person. In other words, God himself is the object of faith; the propositions in the creed express its content. We believe not just ideas about God but God. It is essential to know things about God, but it is more essential to know God.“

Another way of understanding faith: rising through our body and the intellectual consent of our intellect united with our will, it is our spirit which assents to the Spirit of God. Peter Kreeft explains it this way also: Faith is a fundamental Yes to God with the center of our being, and sin… is the fundamental No to God with the center of our being. Faith is the opposite of sin. Faith is to sin what light is to darkness.”

Our catechism and St. Thomas Aquinas would say: “Faith is the act of the intellect, prompted by the will, by which we believe the truth of all that God has revealed on the basis of the authority of the one who has revealed it.” Even this is hard for me to wrap my mind around. How do I know that my will is involved? Is it that we want to believe? Peter Kreeft made it clearer to me when he finally says: “Faith is more active than reason. Reason passively reports data, like a camera. Faith takes a stand, like an army. Faith leaps into God’s arms, answering his proposal of spiritual marriage.

To pray in obscure faith is to be stubborn before God and for God. Wrapped in fog, peering into darkness, [into the cloud of unknowing], numb in heart and spirit, “faith takes a stand, like an army.” As the old hymn says, “I will not be moved—like a tree standing by the water, I will not be moved.” We don’t have to enjoy it, savor it, or be moved to delight or even to be aware of His Presence, but to be still and to insist that whatever we may feel, we will not move from God. I sometimes say, “I don’t care what I feel or don’t feel, I am not moving, God. I’m still here, and I’m not going anywhere.” Mark Mallett wrote a song in which he prays, “Fix my eyes on You.” That’s what faith does—even in the dark.”

FAITH:  http://www.catholiceducation.org/en/religion-and-philosophy/apologetics/faith.html

How Jesus Prayed

“And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed”  Mk. 1,35.

jesus praying

How often throughout the Gospels we read about Jesus praying.  He often ministered all day and prayed afterward, or rose before dawn.  He didn’t just pray for a few minutes.  He spent hours in prayer.  It was always in seclusion, in solitary or deserted places.   If His actions in the Garden of Gethsemane present any picture of how he prayed, we can see that it was always with intensity, sometimes a great struggle for Him.  We know this too, it was always to His Father.

Venerable Archbishop Luis Martinez exclaims in his book, Under the Father’s Gaze, “How would Jesus’ very noble, delicate, great Heart, made for divine love, cast itself into the bosom of the Father with uncontainable strength, with superhuman ardor? How would Jesus consecrate Himself to the Father with total, irrevocable, eternal consecration from the first instant of His life?” [p. 174]

I have always thought about the three days that the child Jesus was lost, then found by Mary and Joseph in the temple. I believe it was the unbearable thirst and longing for His Father that drove Him there, to stay as long as He could, “Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?” I have always wondered if as Jesus “grew in wisdom and grace” He did not grow in increasing understanding of His relationship to His Father—an understanding which could only drive Him to his knees.

On another occasion,  “Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples” Lk. 11,1.  How did Jesus respond?  the Lord’s prayer.  How does it begin?  “Our Father.”  Remarkable, if you haven’t noticed.  He didn’t say, “When you pray, you should say,  “My heavenly Father,” but ” Our Father.”  It is only, always in union with Jesus that we can even say, “Father.”

Yet Jesus certainly prayed the psalms, and Psalm 103,13 tells us,  “As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him.”  However, the psalm does not go so far as to call YHWH “Father,”  but only compares Him to a father.  Psalm 68,5 goes farther, “He is a father to the fatherless, a defender of widows….”

Yet nowhere in the psalms or elsewhere in the Old Testament can the godly call the Lord of Hosts by the name of “Abba.”  Abba is the Aramaic for “Daddy.”  Only in the New Testament does Jesus teach us to pray “Abba.”  In the garden of Gethsemane,   “Abba, Father,” he said, “Take this cup from me”   Mk. 14, 36.  In Romans 8, 15, St. Paul tells us why we can and should call God our Abba,  “The Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship, and by Him we cry “Abba, Father.”

Have you ever realized that the Holy Mass is, for the most part, a prayer of praise, thanksgiving, and sacrifice to the Father?  It is to the Father that we offer everything in union with Jesus, including ourselves, our lives, and most of all, the sacrifice of His only Son, Jesus.  At the apex of the Mass, with the separate consecration of the  bread and wine, the Sacrifice of the Cross is celebrated and the death of Christ is memorialized, made present by the action of the Holy Spirit.  In this immortal moment,  we kneel at Calvary itself in order that we be cleansed, and eat His very flesh that we might live.


This is what Jesus taught us, to pray to the Father, in union with Him, in the power of the Holy Spirit!

“For love of God…willingly bear exile of heart.” Thomas a Kempis

The first time I read this phrase “exile of heart” I said to myself, “That’s it! How well this describes the terrible ache in the heart. The title of this chapter in The Imitation of Christ [Book 2, Ch. 9], “Of the Lack of All Comfort,” refers to two things: the ties of affection and pleasure of the soul with the world, and the loss of consolation in prayer. I have always found the phrase so meaningful. First, as we progress in purification, leaving ties to the world behind—and truly we no longer find any comfort there—we experience the loss as an exile of the heart. Our heart was comfortable in its place in the world. We enjoyed our friends and family, accomplishments and work gave us moderate thrills, our human loves were so satisfying in many ways. Yet one with so many enjoyments and comforts could not thirst for God in any great way.

However, as we sever one by one these earthly entanglements, our hearts feel deserted in a way. No longer able to enjoy the pleasures of the world, even the good one, the wholesome ones, and not yet able to enjoy the deeper joys and comforts of union with God, our hearts truly feel in a kind of limbo–caught between two worlds. We do not regret leaving so much behind, but our hearts ache with the emptiness of our exile from God. Full union we cannot enjoy till after death. Even consolations in prayer are temporary, fleeting and unreliable. Here is where Thomas a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ teaches us well: “For love of God…willingly bear exile of heart.”

Here we pay the price of progressive purification. Even Ven. Luis Martinez tells us of three sorrows which lead to joy: “In the first stage, love snatches the soul from all things, even from itself, and places it in ineffable and magnificent solitude…To encounter Him, the heart had to withdraw from all things and to give up all things….Such deep and perfect solitude cannot be achieved without sorrow, without a continual and piercing sorrow” [Worshiping a Hidden God, pp. 71-73] .

Ven. Archbishop Martinez describes this purification so beautifully: “Love itself is the priest that offers us: keen and penetrating as a two-edged sword, it pierces to where we would never be able to penetrate; it sinks its burning and painful darts into the deepest recesses of the soul, into regions that we did not even suspect existed in our being. And there it burns, and there it cuts, and there it plucks out and leaves on all sides the sharpest traces of an unknown sorrow. And it establishes every where the immense and ineffable solitude of love”[p. 74].

What do we do with this ache? Willingly bear it. The ache becomes the intolerable thirst. Eventually, the soul thirsts so deeply for union that she suffers a veritable martyrdom of desire. A desire which ultimately translates into desire to share with the Beloved His Cross. Finally, only suffering with Christ satiates the soul.

Jesus is the Outpouring of the Father’s Heart

Several months ago I was reading one of Father George A. Maloney’s books, Abiding in the Indwelling Trinity, and was struck to my core by a section reflecting on the kenosis of Christ.  Kenosis is the Greek word that describes the emptying out of Jesus–emptying out of glory, emptying out of His heart:  “Periodically during his public life the flaming love in his heart to accomplish what his Father had sent him to do would flare out in words of ardent longing:  ‘I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!  I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!‘ ” [Luke 12,49]

Father Maloney continues,  “His baptism would be of water and blood poured out from his loving heart, the heart of the suffering God imaged in Jesus   [p. 86].  What we have here suddenly is an image of the Sacred Heart of the Father“For the contemplative Christian, poor in spirit and pure of heart, the complete self-emptying (kenosis) even to the last drop of blood and water has fullest meaning only in being an exact image of the heart of God the Father in his infinite, tender, self-sacrificing love for all of us.”  [p. 87]  The Father is not incarnate; only Jesus has a human heart which undergoes the baptism of fire–but the Heart of Jesus is the Incarnation of the Will of the Father, the Heart of the Father, if you will.  Just as Jesus told Philip,  “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” [John 14:9], to know the Sacred Heart of Jesus is to know the Sacred Heart of the Father.

Without this kenosis of Christ, even with the entirety of the Old Testament and all of the prophets, we could never have known the nature of God, the nature of His love for us.   The outpouring of the last drop of blood and water from the heart of Jesus is the very image of the kenosis of the heart of the Father. Maloney tells us,  “Not even the omnipotent God can speak another word beyond his Word spoken in utter emptying-unto-death in Jesus.”  [p. 87]

As I reflected on these words in prayer and meditation, as I entered into its truth, I can’t tell you how intensely grew my love and tenderness for the Father.  How much more deeply I entered into that Trinitarian mystery of the relationship between the Father and His outpouring Word of Love.

Jesus Himself knew–knows–this Heart.  In His longing to do His Father’s Will, He plunges the totality of His Divine and human being into that Heart of Hearts.   As we are filled and live in the Holy Spirit, in union with Christ, so do we.  To paraphrase another line from Father Maloney:  In utter emptiness of heart we wait for the wind, the fire, the living waters to rush upon us and reveal the Heart of the Trinity, where we live and move and have our being. [p. 42]

[Prayer:  “O my God, in utter emptiness of heart, I wait for Your Wind, Your Fire, Your Living Waters to rush upon me and reveal the Heart of the Trinity, where I live, and move, and have my being.”]

— See part 3, WRITING YOUR OWN PRAYERS, from Soul Food #2, The Jesus Prayer