Thanks for the comments about prayer by silencing the mind. I wanted to know whether anyone was drawing their primary sustenance from such silence before I started writing about it.
I lived in a group that practiced silence increasingly for 10 years. In year 2 I wrote a strongly questioning letter on the subject to our fearless leader. By year 8 I was completely done with it, and wrote an even stronger letter. Silly boy that I was, I thought the group was running afield of his wishes. It turned out I was the black sheep of the family, as his reaction to my letter proved beyond question.
We live and learn.
Over the years I heard many members of our group call out Thomas Merton as the deepest writer they'd ever read (even more so than our leader they'd say - if the doors were shut. :-) So, I cracked his, "Seeds of Contemplation." I almost always finish a book when I start it, but this book was too wrong to spend that much time. I made it two thirds of the way through. So, I will be commenting on a book which I did not finish, and which begins with the admonition not to judge it before reading the whole thing.
Since giving up on the book, I have read a good bit of the negative press about contemplative prayer and agree with a large swath of it, but I reserve the right to question pieces of the argument too. 20+ years ago Madame Jean-Marie Bouvier De La Mothe Guyon (from memory) meant an awful lot to me, and I bet if I picked her up again her work would still appeal. There is and always will be a huge place in my life for silence in the presence of God. The question is one of goal, and Merton's and mine seem to be completely different.
I hope I can say with accuracy that this blog has never been about pointing out error, but sometimes a thing advances to the point of genuine error and makes me nervous. Having done my time in prayer by silence, I think it's worth the risk of criticizing brothers in Christ to save others from traveling down that fruitless road. Merton, and those who teach his vision, does not edify the church.
Allow me to snip from the last chapter of the book.
Then there is a quietud sabrosa, a tranquility full of savor and rest and unction in which, although there is nothing to feed and satisfy either the senses or the imagination or the intellect, the will rests in a deep, luminous and absorbing experience of love.
... you are in the presence of a more definite and more personal Love, Who invades your mind and will in a way you cannot grasp, eluding every attempt on your part to contain and hold Him by any movement of your own soul. You know that this "Presence" is God. But for the rest He is hidden in a cloud, although He is so near as to be inside you and outside you and all around you.
The most important thing that remains to be said about this perfect contemplation in which soul vanishes out of itself by the perfect renunciation of all desires and all things, is that it can have nothing to do with our ideas of greatness and exaltation, and is not therefore something which is subject to the sin of pride.
Some of you will, in those quotes, quickly see why Merton is so popular. They are high-flying promises and they ring well in the ears. The problem is that they are utterly empty. They are clouds that bring no rain.
I'm sorry that my argument will seem so obtuse. It's a function of ten years under such teaching, and ten years of seeing its fruitlesslness in perfect practice. I watched 30 people sit under a man who taught these things as understandably and effectively as Merton writes about them, and I watched five to ten people succeed at everything that was asked of them, and I watched it all amount to nothing.
And I asked why.
Merton's promises are half-truths. If you do everything he says, you will have the experiences he advertises. You will feel you have been cast loose upon the great and beautiful sea of God's love. You will sense light and energy flowing through your being, and feel at one with the Creator of everything. You will feel completely empty of any will that could possibly oppose God's. I never went there, but I trust the people I knew and loved who described their journeys. Merton's method is effective.
There are two problems.
The first is a little dramatic, and I'm sorry. The method is simply and exactly the same as any Zen meditation or Sufi prayer. I learned after reading the book that Merton was striving to be as good a Buddhist as he already was a Christian. The techniques of transcendentalism work as effectively for Christians as for anyone else, much the same as prayers to Ba'al worked as effectively for Jews as for worshippers of Ba'al. God rejected His people when they turned to idols and demons, and He rejects His people when they turn to Buddha, Allah and Gaia today.
The second problem is that none of the things promised by Merton are promised anywhere in scripture. They are not even encouraged. Merton promises that if you empty your soul of all desires, will, and thoughts you will be invaded by a presence whom you know to be God. He promises this is a good and wonderful thing, and that this is the deeper level of spiritual life for which you have been seeking. He even makes this experience the temporal salvation of the whole world,
But in the moment of time, the minute, the little minute in which he was delivered into God (if he truly was so delivered) there is no question that then his life was pure; that then he gave glory to God; that then he did not sin, that in that moment of pure love he could not sin.
They are the strength of the world, because they are the tabernacles of God in the world. They are the ones who keep the universe from being destroyed. They are the little ones. They do not know themselves. They whole earth depends on them. Nobody seems to realize it. These are the ones for whom it was all created in the first place. They shall inherit the land.
It is a plain and sad error to be able to say such things when there is not one word of Christ to support them. They are delightful promises, but they are not the promises of God. If you have been exposed to New Age mysticism, you will recognize them word for word. I listened to Elizabeth Claire Prophet speak almost exactly this same constellation of promises, in almost exactly the same words, but I never heard Christ say anything like them.
There is a glory in silence before God, and I praise the Lord for the opportunity to be silent before Him. There is no place for self-destruction of the will in order to reach silence. There is a place for deep consideration of the holy law of God. There is no place for repetition of a holy word of one syllable to silence the mind. There is a place for embracing the deep, satisfying love of God. There is no place for starving the imagination, senses and intellect in order to declare the profound emptiness that remains, "God."
If this were an isolated experiment by some Christians with vivid imaginations, I might encourage it; there is a lot to be learned by experimenting. That is not what contemplative prayer is, though. Contemplative prayer is the Christian adoption of New Age Transcendental Meditation techniques.
I don't know how much interest this post will generate, and I'm open either way. I would love to talk about how to correctly engage God through silence, why I think the contemplative prayer movement's way is wrong, or to move on to another subject.
What do you think?