Lisa Nicholas, a member of the Anglicanorum Coetibus Society based in Texas, is going through the Cloud of Unknowing on her blog Learning God. Recently, she wrote this post on Chapter 2 of this classical work on contemplative prayer in the pre-Reformation English Catholic mystical tradition. This is part of the patrimony we in the Ordinariates for Catholics of Anglican tradition can unpack and rediscover as treasure to be shared. I also believe that this kind of prayer, coupled with lay participation in the daily offices of Morning and Evening Prayer are key to evangelization on the part of ordinariate communities.
God is a jealous lover,” our anonymous author reminds us. He does not want to share our time together with anyone or anything else, not now. As we near our destination, we should be eager to move forward, shouldn’t we? Nothing competing for our attention, no distractions — and no checking our Facebook updates, planning dinner, reading spiritual books, or even writing informative and inspiring blog posts during our daily alone-time with God.
Okay, I’ll admit, this part is hard for me, perhaps even harder than it has ever been in the past. O irony! Just when I want to “be still and know that He is God,” I find every kind of distraction clamoring for my attention. I have been trying to carve out a time of day that belongs to God and none other — and so far with little success. I’ve surrounded myself with sacred icons to help me focus, I’ve set all sorts of prayer alarms and reminders and yet I manage to tune them all out in my ever-varied busyness. Why is it that I can focus so intently on doing many other things that I want to do, yet can’t focus on sitting quietly, intently with God? Yet I have far fewer distractions than most people, who must report to bosses, look after kids, and do a thousand other things that I don’t need to worry about.
These distractions should not surprise me, though. As our author says, now that we are God’s, His enemies are our enemies. And His enemies want nothing more than to distract us from the contemplative way, to make us wander, if even for a moment, back into the broad thoroughfare where “real life” is happening, in all its fascinating busyness.
So how do we do it, we ordinary folk with ordinary lives, who don’t have the silence and calm routine of the monastery to help us remain recollected? Because, you see, I am convinced that we are all called to the same, deeply transformative prayer as any cloistered contemplative is. You and I and every other soul is called by God into this intimate union with Him, so that we may be refashioned, refined, reformed into His likeness by His love. Every intimate relationship requires “quality time” in which we can be alone with the Beloved, even if nothing happens during that time except us gazing with love and longing up on the One we love and feeling His returning gaze. How much more, then, must we take pains to spend time regularly alone with God?
“Be still and know that I am God.” Who knew that such a simple command could be so hard to accomplish?
It’s really hard to sit still and do nothing, to stop making efforts to save oneself. Lisa writes about the efforts of God’s enemies to distract us from taking time to sit with God in His silence. These can come from telemarketer phone calls or loud music coming from next door, or even mysterious knocking noises as pipes contract. Someone stops on the street outside playing loud music in their car . . . I am sure you could add some examples.
The other temptations, however, come from within us, because our fleshly nature resists the self-mortification involved in deliberately coming into the Presence of God.
We have a fleshly nature, our “old man” and, at the same time, we have a new nature, a new identity in Christ. One of them is crucified with Christ (or should be!). Voluntarily sitting still in the Presence of God, resisting the temptation of distractions, including one’s own imagination and thought-stream, is agonizing to the “old man.” It feels like dying, and because we are so accustomed to feeling what the “old man” feels, it feels as if we are dying.
It’s also a sure way to experiencing humility and the truth that of ourselves we can do nothing, that any good in us is entirely from God’s mercy. All we can do is hunger for Him, yearn for Him and experience the humiliating ache of our dependence, our need.
That need is in itself a prayer, a deep prayer of the heart.
Lisa writes: “You and I and every other soul is called by God into this intimate union with Him, so that we may be refashioned, refined, reformed into His likeness by His love.”
Everything in our fleshly nature, especially our pride, will resist that refashioning and refinement. It is a key however to evangelization and deeper conversion and to carrying out our mission as disciples of Christ.
I am reminded of these lines from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets
The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre-
To be redeemed from fire by fire.
Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.”