Darkness and the Life of Prayer


It is no secret that the Christian mystical or contemplative tradition has fared poorly over the last 300 years. It is not that there were no contemplatives, but they often felt isolated. Even today people seriously interested in the life of prayer and contemplation experience a similar sense of isolation.

On the brighter side, this long winter of neglect of the Christian contemplative tradition is giving way to a new springtime of interest in and enthusiasm for the life of prayer. But interest and enthusiasm are not the same as the knowledge and fire-tried experience that are necessary if we are to make an enduring new beginning. Let's look at just one issue that needs to be clarified.

The writings of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross have strongly colored our Western Christian understanding of the,life of prayer ever since the end of the 16th century. From reading them, and the immense literature that has grown up around them, we have gotten a certain picture of how the spiritual life unfolds. In one way or another we become converted to a serious dedication to the life of prayer, which is accompanied by a time in which our efforts at prayer and spiritual exercises are rewarded by a sense of consolation and interior pleasure. This consolation has the good effect of drawing us away from the world and closer to the things of God. But this state is destined not to last. This almost tangible sense of God's presence disappears and we are plunged into darkness. This darkness is intimately connected with the beginning of infused contemplation, which is the actual experience of the presence of God in us in a deeper and higher way, and which gradually begins to make itself felt.

But how many people actually go on this kind of interior journey, as described by the Carmelite saints? It seems to us that there are other paths, as well. One, for example, is where people from the beginning receive infused contemplative graces which effect their conversion and put them on the road to union with God. But there is another kind of journey that we feet is much more common than these first two possibilities. It starts off the same with a process of conversion, and some kind of period of consolation and fervor, which varies greatly from individual to individual. Then, after no great length of time, much as John of the Cross describes, darkness descends. But this darkness is not a relatively short darkness that heralds the dawning of contemplative experience, but goes on and on, even for many years, and becomes a central feature of the interior landscape.

Our question to the Forum is this: Is this kind of darkness as widespread as we imagine? And does it give rise to many of the characteristics that describe the Christian life of prayer as we know it today?

Let us describe four of these characteristics that seem to flow from this central fact of darkness.

1. The rise of extremely simplified forms of prayer.

A central element of this darkness is our inability to pray like we did before. We no longer get the satisfaction and find the interior savor we once did from our devotional practices. Therefore we begin to change the way we pray, searching for a method that will be, fruitful. We drop, for example, elaborate forms of imaginative representation, or discursive meditation made of many thoughts, or devotional practices composed of many feelings, and we cling to what is at the heart of prayer, which is a lifting of the heart to God in love, a God whom we believe is present to us by faith. As the darkness increases, this kind of simplification can be taken to great lengths until it can seem like a blind stirring of love in a sea of darkness.

2. Turning to the East.

It is during this time of extended darkness when we are not receiving the graces of infused contemplation and our prayer life appears very humble and simple and we are wondering where it could possibly lead us that we can turn to the East and the great meditative traditions of Buddhism and Hinduism for help. These ways of meditation are nondiscursive so they fit the loss of discursive facility we find in ourselves, and yet they allow us to actively do something. They seem an almost natural continuation of the Christian path we have been following that appears to have petered out.

But as more and more people take up practice in two traditions, it is inevitable that certain fundamental questions will begin to appear. If I am sitting with the intention of attaining enlightenment, and praying with the intention of attaining union with God, am I doing two things or one? Are Eastern forms of meditation an answer to the darkness that we once imagined was meant to lead us to infused contemplation? In short, can we identify enlightenment with infused contemplation? These are issues we hope that the Forum will examine in detail.

3. The contemplative dark night and the psychological dark night.

An attentive reading of John of the Cross on the dark night of sense reveals that not every dark night is a prelude to infused contemplation. If that were so, he would not have had to give his famous three signs for the passage from meditation to contemplation. He even explicitly says that melancholy can bring on a state similar to the contemplative dark night.

We need to develop the psychological implications of his insights. From a psychological point of view we can explain the darkness as a draining of psychological or psychic energy from the faculties like thinking and feeling that we were using in the life of prayer and through which we were feeling satisfaction. But is this disappearance of energy because we are now being called to contemplative graces, or is it a much wider and more common phenomenon by which we are being called to develop another part of our personalities and become more psychologically integrated? In short, we can't ignore the possibility that we have fallen into a psychological dark night, or a dark night that combines both spiritual and psychological dimensions. This, too, is a topic we hope the Forum will focus on.

4. What are we going to call contemplation?

It is certainly possible to use the word contemplation in many ways, and that is what is happening today. But it is important that we realize that this is happening. Contemplation can mean a loving gaze at the truth, or a reaching out to God by faith. If we use the word in this way, then the simplified kinds of prayer that arise out of the experience of darkness can be called contemplative.

We can certainly call some of the states that are achieved by Eastern forms of meditation contemplative, as well. And then we have the use of the word contemplation in Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross where it means infused contemplation, the actual experience of God present within us. But we are still faced with the question of how to relate these simplified prayer practices with Eastern forms of meditation and with infused contemplation.

We hope that these remarks will call forth comments by the Forum members, both as to the frequency of the experience of darkness, and the implications that you see in it.


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