The Path of Life

The Path of Life

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Stillness in prayer

Pray always without becoming weary.
Luke 18:1

From the film "Into Great Silence."

In today's Gospel (Luke 18:1-8), Jesus speaks of the necessity to persevere in prayer. We are called, to borrow a phrase from today's first reading at Mass (Wisdom 18:14-16; 19:6-9), to enter into the peaceful stillness that compasses everything.

Easy enough, right?

The truth of the matter is that prayer can be difficult and tiresome--for the first disciples of Christ and for monks as well as any Christian today. But stillness IS possible. God doesn't call to us to the impossible. And if anything, the monastic charism (from the early Desert Fathers to our modern age with the influence of such monks as Thomas Merton) is designed to be a reminder of this for all Christians--which includes all those consecrated to the monastic way of life. Monks have difficulty with inner stillness as well.

There is a striking scene of serenity in Philip Gröning’s 2005 documentary Into Great Silence in which a Carthusian monk of Grande Chartreuse repairs a shoe in his cell. Silently, slowly, attentively, and deliberately, the monk repeatedly applies adhesive to the shoe, waits for it to set, gives it several firm taps, and examines his progress. Occasionally, he pauses and peers out the window of his cell. He doesn’t appear rushed or distracted. He seems to be completely absorbed in his work and fully present to the moment at hand. Yet, by fully entering that moment, he seems somehow to have transcended time. He is not simply completing a task. He is at prayer. He is at peace with God Eternal.

I was captivated by this scene, and have often recalled it. Why has this monk’s simple, mundane task of repairing a shoe made such an impression on me—so much so that it still comes to mind years after having seen the film? Perhaps the reason is that it exemplifies inner stillness—an essential aspect of the monastic charism to which I strive in my own vocation. Indeed, this is also a call for all Christians.

As a monk, I long to continually seek God, to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17), to work with holy recollection, to live a cenobitic life without distraction or divided heart. I desire to grow in virtue and love, fully confident in our Incarnate God’s presence, providence, and protection, and to remain fixed on the One Thing Necessary (cf. Lk 10:42). I want to “fix a shoe” like the monk in the film, and be at peace with God Eternal.

However, more often than not, I fail. There is little or no inner stillness. While working on one task, my mind may be on five others yet to be started, or five more still to be finished. While praying, my heart finds a way to head off in several different directions rather than remaining united with my voice and in harmony with that of my brothers. A thousand cares, anxieties, and concerns assault me. Real or imagined conversations or circumstances stir up emotions. Yesterday or tomorrow are always present, so today never happens. The rest that Christ promises (cf. Mt 11:28-30) seems beyond reach.

More tortuous than all else is the human heart.’
Jeremiah  17:9

Is inner stillness obtainable? Is it an illusion? If so, why does God so adamantly and consistently promise it (cf. Ex 14:14; Isaiah 30:15; Mk 4:39-40)? If I believe in God, which I do, then the only conclusion to be reached is that my perception of inner stillness is lacking. After all, I could not read the mind of the monk repairing the shoe. He exuded calm, focus, and peace, but his mind could have been at war.

This is precisely the point, it seems, as attested by a review of how key monastic figures at both ends of the chronological spectrum have described the value of inner stillness, its objectives, and its obstacles. Both the Desert Fathers of antiquity, on one end, and Thomas Merton, on the other, make it clear that inner stillness does not mean avoiding assaults on this essential aspect of the monastic charism, but rather overcoming them. Inner stillness is the weapon, not merely the victory.

Stillness, says Stelios Ramfos in his book Like a Pelican, “is both an exterior condition and an interior state.” It goes beyond physical withdrawal and silence, which are merely initial steps in focusing the mind and drawing it away from sensible objects and distractions. “As an interior state, stillness is the confining of the mind within the cell of the body—the cell of the self,” he says.

The cell of the self—the human heart—is where the battle for true stillness is waged. And it is a battle, one that can only be won, paradoxically, by surrendering—not to the assailants, but to the saving grace of God who sustains all things. The Desert Fathers were insistent on this:

Antony said, ‘He who sits alone and is quiet has escaped from three wars: hearing, speaking, seeing. But there is one thing against which he must continually fight: that is, his own heart.’
Abba Agathon said, ‘There is no greater labor greater than that of prayer to God. For every time a man wants to pray, his enemies, the demons, want to prevent him, for they know that it is only by turning him from prayer that they can hinder the journey … Prayer is warfare to the last breath.’

Fifteen centuries later, Merton speaks in more ethereal terms, but the point is the same. The monk’s vocation, he says, is a battle to be still and in the dark, to experience within himself humanity’s “existential dread” so that God’s mercy becomes known to all:

The monk confronts his own humanity and that of his world at the deepest and most central point where the void seems to open out into black despair. … The monk faces the worst, and discovers in it the hope of the best. From the darkness comes light. From death, life. From the abyss there comes, unaccountably, the mysterious gift of the Spirit sent by God to make all things new, to transform the created and redeemed world, and to re-establish all things in Christ. This is the creative and healing work of the monk, accomplished in silence, in nakedness of spirit, in emptiness, in humility. It is a participation in the saving death and resurrection of Christ (Contemplative Prayer).
We should let ourselves be brought naked and defenseless into the center of that dread where we stand alone before God in our nothingness, without explanation, without theories, completely dependent upon his providential care, in dire need of the gift of this grace, his mercy, and the light of faith.

Go to your inner room, close the door,
 and pray to your Father in secret.
Matthew 6:6

In light of the above passages, it becomes clear that the inner stillness championed by both the Desert Fathers and Thomas Merton is a special vocation, a particular Christian witness in which the monk (or any Christian) alone with God embraces all of God’s creation. “The monastic life above all is a life of prayer,” Merton says (Contemplative Prayer). “We cannot live for others until we have entered this solitude. If we try to live for them without first living entirely for God, we risk plunging with them all into the abyss” (No Man Is an Island).

The ‘inner room’ of solitude to which Christ beckons us is not one that ignores or shuts out the distractions and contradictions of life. Rather, it is a room full of grace that prevents our desires and attachments to those very things from entering and diverting our attention from the splendor of the Holy Trinity. The monk (or Christian) is called to become the “eye of the storm” so that the world may see the light and hope emerging from within to rebuke the winds of destruction with, “Quiet! Be still!” (Mk 4:39)

Sayings attributed to Evagrius Ponticus confirm this objective. Distractions are not the issue; desires are. The one who is tempted by distraction can remain still and fix his gaze on the God of Love. The one who desires to follow the distraction gives up stillness to becomes restless, agitated, unfocused, disordered, and disconnected from the Love of God:

The state of prayer can be aptly described as a habitual state of imperturbable calm. It snatches to the heights of intelligible reality the spirit which loves wisdom and which is truly spiritualized by the most intense love. (Chapters on Prayer, emphasis added)
Evagrius said, ‘Cut the desire for many things out of your heart and so prevent your mind from being dispersed and your stillness lost’ (The Desert Fathers, emphasis added).

Similarly, Merton writes that “recollection does not deny sensible things; it sets them in order.” It is a state of sacred and interior mindfulness fixed on God first, and then everything else in its place. The monk from Into Great Silence had a shoe that needed to be repaired. Certainly, such a thing can be one distraction among many. However, instead of leading him away from interior stillness, the shoe became one instrument among many, keeping him at peace within his inner room. As Merton says:

Recollection should not be seen as an absence, but as a presence. It makes us, first of all, present to ourselves. It makes us present to whatever reality is most significant in the moment of time in which we are living. And it makes us present to God, present to ourselves in him, present to everything else in him. Above all, it brings his presence to us. … The cares and preoccupations of life draw us away from ourselves. As long as we give ourselves to these things, our minds are not at home. They are drawn out of their own reality into the illusion to which they tend. … The present is our right place, and we can lay hands on whatever it offers us. Recollection is the only thing that can give us the power to do so (No Man Is an Island).

Cast all your worries upon him because he cares for you.’
1 Peter 5:7

Of course, recollection can often dissipate, and desire creeps under the door of the monk’s inner room to lead him out, and it can all begin quite subtly. One instant I may be concentrating on psalmody in choir. The next, I’m connecting a phrase in a Psalm to a project I’m working on, thinking perhaps I can apply it somehow. Then, other projects and their various difficulties and deadlines come to mind. … Oh, there’s someone I need to remember to email tomorrow. … The monk next to me is fidgeting. … He can be rude sometimes. … I remember when he said this or that. … He had absolutely no right …  Suddenly I am a long way from my inner room. I’m not even in the same neighborhood.

A passage from John Cassian’s Ninth Conference on Prayer aptly illustrates how even seemingly good desires can dissipate the monk’s inward stillness. Quoting Abba Isaac, he tells the story of a desert elder who notices a brother “restlessly constructing and repairing unnecessary things and exerting himself in mundane distractions” The elder sees a demon standing by him and, their hands joined together, striking a rock with a sledgehammer. Disturbed by the demon’s cruel mockery, he addresses the brother, saying:

‘ … you were not alone when you were striking the rock, but there was another with you whom you did not see. He stood by you during this work, not so much to help you as to press you on with all his force.’ Therefore, we must reject with unwavering strictness of mind those things which cater to our power and which have the appearance of a kind of goodness … [and] long for God, upon whom are attention should ever be fixed. When the mind has been established in tranquility and has been freed from these bonds, and the heart’s attention is unwaveringly fastened upon the one and highest good, it will fulfill the apostolic words: ‘Pray without ceasing.’ … When the thoughts of the mind have been seized by this purity and have been refashioned from earthly dullness to the likeness of the spiritual and the angelic, whatever they take in, whatever they reflect upon, and whatever they do, will be most pure and sincere prayer.

Such a danger still exists for the monk today. As Merton notes (incidentally, the last address he gave to novices at the Abbey of Gethsemani as master of novices in 1965):

We are devoured by care—care about our job, care about our life of prayer, care about how we are getting on, care about what other people are doing, care about this, care about that—we’re devoured with it. And then the thoughts, fears, reflections, regrets, and anxieties, this constant business. These are things we are caring about, and what we are here for is to get rid of that. And of course you get rid of it by going through it… This is what the solitary life means. It is a life in which you no longer care about anything, because God is taking care of everything … This is what love is. Let us face the fact for once that what we are here for is love. And what is love? When you love another person, you forget yourself and think about the other person. You are not concerned with yourself (A Life Free from Care).

These cares not only dissipate stillness but also erode the purity of heart for which a monk strives. The impure heart, Merton notes, is filled with “fears, anxieties, conflicts, doubts, ambivalences, hesitations, self-contradictions, hatreds, jealousies, compulsive needs and passionate attachments.” However, the primary defilement is man’s illusion that “he is a god and the universe is centered on him” (The Silent Life).

Be still and confess that I am God.
Psalm 46:11

While there will be defeats in the battle for inner stillness, the victory is Christ’s, who conquers all to unite all (cf. Romans 8:35-39). The best and most simple way to share in this victory is to pray for the inner stillness that leads to purity of heart, inner unity, and universal harmony. God the Father of all will not refuse to give us what we need.

Let the battle rage on. Surrender only to Christ, and pay no attention to the rest. Remain focused on the One Thing Necessary. The battle plan is deceptively simple and absolutely fool-proof. It was true for the ancient Israelites, the disciples of Christ, the early Church, the monks in the desert, and remains true for the modern contemplative:

“Be still and confess that I AM God!” (Psalm 46:11)

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