by Simone Crockett
“That you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.” Ephesians 3:17
At various stages in our journey, we hear differently. Two years ago when I was at the Holy Cross Monastery for a contemplative prayer retreat, Martin Laird’s Into Silent Land was being read at lunch and jumping out at me was “The heart communes with God in a silent and direct way that the conceptual level of our mind does not.” I had read before that the mind cannot know God; only the heart can. But never before had the concept really impacted me.
Since my visit to Holy Cross, I’ve been exploring theologically and experientially the heart, the ego self-image, the true self and contemplative awareness. To further this pursuit, last June I attended an 8-day silent kenosis retreat, with our days filled with contemplative prayer, the retreat leader teaching us about Meister Eckhart, study, journal writing, group spiritual direction and for me kayaking and bicycling. During the week I received an extraordinary number of messages:
On Sunday upon arriving – “Hang ego on coat hook at entrance and leave it there; the House of Prayer is a safe place and you don’t need it.”
We have a “false self’ which I used to think was my identity. It’s our self-established, conditioned sense of self. It restricts reality to what the mind can rationally conceive and control and is necessary on the functional level of our lives, but problematic when it fully defines and controls our sense of who we really are. This ego self-image is just part of our larger identity in God, our true self.
The message I was receiving was telling me to put aside my egoic self. It wouldn’t be needed at the retreat. Not only would it not be needed; this was a time to explore my true self.
Martin Laird’s ‘heart’ is a symbol of the silent, vast, open depth in each of us which is beyond thinking and perceiving but spiritually intuitive with a nonconceptual form of knowing where we are already found by God and where we commune with God. Thomas Merton wrote: “At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives…” This is our “true self”, our deepest, ultimate, essential identity, where we are already one with God.
Monday’s message was – “Fall into stillness and stay there.”
During the stillness of contemplative prayer – silent resting in God without thoughts, words, and emotions – we suspend our possessive self-image with its attachment to conditioned concepts and images making us more available to the movements of the Holy Spirit. We are cultivating an open awareness and being present before our thoughts rise to interpret our experience.
God was telling me to fall into the stillness of contemplative prayer and stay there.
Tuesday – “Fall into stillness and I will take care of the rest.”
Contemplative prayer is the human effort, but it is divine grace that brings the mind down into the heart. As Tilden Edwards, founder of the Shalem Institute, says, “to accept God as intimate subject of our lives takes a revolution of grace, radically altering our sense of identity.”
Contemplative prayer facilitates realizing contemplative awareness, to see with our mind in our heart rather than at the level of the thinking mind. By retaining a background awareness of God in our hearts while our ego self-image is expediently aware, we align our ordinary awareness with and in service to our spiritual awareness freeing spontaneous compassion and a more discerning mind. With contemplative awareness, a whole new ethic appears, not one based upon self-interest, nor imposed from without, but through an inner transformation in which one acts from love, compassion, mercy and kindness – morality from the depths of our being.
For me contemplative awareness is a life-time pursuit; I’m still following the instructions I received at the retreat.