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The Cloud of Unknowing, a book written probably during the fourteenth century, provided practical advice for all individuals desiring "to be knit to God in spirit, in unity of love, and accordance of will." The author, a monk, believed that religion allowed for independent inquiry and individual experience. In his book he wrote that man gained direct knowledge of God by losing all awareness of himself. A passive attitude is the way to cover,' or forget, all distractions. "Try to cover these thoughts with a thick cloud of forgetting as though they never existed neither for you nor for any other man. And if they continue to arise, continue to put them down."
He goes on to discuss the element of "dwelling upon" and advises that his readers can develop "special ways, tricks, private techniques, and spiritual devices" in order to achieve contemplation. One means is the use of a single syllable such -as "God" or "love":
Choose whichever one you prefer, or if you like, choose another that suits your tastes, provided that it is of one syllable. And clasp this word tightly in your heart so that it never leaves it no matter what may happen. This word shall be your shield and your spear whether you ride in peace or in war. With this word you shall beat upon the cloud and the darkness, which are above you. With this word you shall strike down thoughts of every kind and drive them beneath the cloud of forgetting.
The essence of mysticism was the belief that the individual could directly commune with God when he was in a state of perfect solitude. Martin Luther drew upon this doctrine of individual transcendence to God. He believed that to prepare for prayers of inward recollections, the true language of the heart, in which one concentrates solely upon God, one must achieve a passive attitude by dwelling upon an object. It is necessary to have "the heart free itself and become joyous" in order to prevent thoughts from intruding. For the object upon which one concentrates, Luther suggests the words of the Lord's Prayer, the Ten Commandments, the Psalms, or a number of the sayings of Christ or Paul.
Fray Francisco de Osuna, a monk writing in the sixteenth century, sets forth spiritual exercises for those wishing to obtain union with God. Osuna proposed recollection as a natural means by which man can rise to the knowledge of God, citing references from the teachings of the Bible. For him, the act of contemplation is the act of love for God. He also advocated for a quiet environment by relating the custom of Christ, who would retreat to the desert. A passive attitude for prayer was recommended describing the soul as mute and deaf to purposeful and spontaneous thoughts. According to him the word dumb forbids the wandering thoughts we purposely encourage, and the word dumb prevents those that would arise from our many occupations and levity.
Two methods of dwelling upon an object are suggested for recollection. One method is gazing, which can be accomplished even in a crowd:
Keep your eyes fixed steadily on the ground, like men who are forgetful and as it were out of themselves, who stand immovable, immersed in thought. Some people find it easy to close their eyes to concentrate. However, if you are in a crowd or in the company of people, keeping your eyes closed may create problems. Keep our gaze fixed on the ground, on some place where there is little to look at so that there may be less to stir our fancy and imagination. The smaller and darker the place, the more limited your view will be and the less will your heart be distracted.
The second exercise is to repeat "no" when distracting thoughts occur.
St. Teresa was very much influenced by Fray Francisco's writings on recollection. To St. Teresa, a passive attitude is the soul's transcendence of earthly things:
" so the soul raises herself to a loftier region; she withdraws her senses from exterior objects . . . those who adopt this method almost always pray with their eyes shut . . . because it is making an effort not to think about earthly things."
Although many people associate contemplation with quiet meditation, some people find that they can concentrate easier if they recite the "mantras" or "passages" vocally. Many people were raised to high contemplation by vocal prayers.
Father Nicolas studied the life in monasteries in Mt. Athos, a peninsula of Greece. The monasteries here have resisted change with time. It is almost like thirteenth century here. In the following passage Father Nicolas discusses the hermit's life and explains how after isolation - oneself from the world - one must also abstract himself from his body and mind:
The difficulty lies just in finding oneself alone, face to face with oneself, alone in control of your body and your mind. Because the mind is a wanderer, you know. Thoughts never stop following each other through your head, buzzing, preventing concentration, while in order to pray you need a great emptiness in your mind. After you've hunted out and punished all your vices, passions, faults - however trivial you have to hunt out all your thoughts. You have to create an immense silence round you before you can reach the deepest silence in the depths of yourself. Continual prayer, repeating the same words of praise to the Lord; that's what allows one to pray. It's not a question of seeing God, but of being in God, and it's not easy to contain in the narrow limits of your body the limitless spirit which is always trying to escape.
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