Mystical Word | A Weekly Reflection

Mystical Word is a weekly reflection based on the Sunday Gospel reading, written by L.J. Milone, Director of Faith Formation at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle.

Never Stop Praying

Never Stop Praying

Gospel reading for July 21, 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time

“Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.” Jesus issues a deep invitation in this Gospel passage, one that we should not lightly pass over. This is such an intense invitation from Jesus because it was his experience that prayer needs a great deal of silence and solitude. He would frequently retire to deserted places to pray. Now, the prayer of Jesus taking place in the desert, deserted places, and solitary places, suggests that Jesus immersed himself in the holy mystery of God beyond all things. It suggests that Jesus experienced God as incomprehensibly close yet infinitely transcendent. It also suggests that we are to immerse ourselves in the mystery of God, and to do so without thinking. For, Jesus is beckoning us into his own experience of God by the prayer of inner silence.

Jesus prays constantly, and often enough this prayer takes place in the desert or a deserted place. The desert is practically another character in the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark. Right after Jesus was baptized, “At once the Spirit drove him out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him” (Mk. 1:12-13). Then, as Jesus is preaching and healing in Capernaum, he rises “very early before dawn, he left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed” (Mk. 1:35). The desert is a biblical place of direct encounter with God, with the infinite mystery of God in particular. Even more, the desert is a metaphorical place of detachment, spiritual barrenness, and emptiness.  There is nothing in the desert, hence, serves as a primary metaphor to communicate Jesus; experience of God as the divine nothing.

Frances Kelly Nemeck, a contemplative guide and author, says it is likely that the prayer of Jesus is best understood as prayer beyond words and thoughts: “Most of the prayer of Jesus transpired in solitude: ‘He would always go off to some place where he could be alone and pray’ (Lk. 5:16). What do you suppose Jesus did during his solitary prayer? What do you suppose he said or thought while praying? He did nada during his solitary prayer. Jesus said nothing and thought nothing while praying. What could he do that he was not already doing? What word (audible or mental) could he say or think that would not be superfluous—he is the Word of the Father, incarnate” (33-34). In prayer, one could say, Jesus experienced the divine nothing. 

We find this invitation from Jesus reflected in the mystics, too. The medieval German mystic Meister Eckhart says, “The very best thing you can do is to remain still as long as possible…Remain still and do not waiver from this nothingness.” We are to abide in this inner nothingness. The anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing teaches us to “us abandon everything within the scope of our thoughts and determine to love what is beyond comprehension.” It will feel unfamiliar and like nothing is happening at all. It may not feel good or like we are even praying. But John Chapman, an English monk, wisely quips, “the longer one prays, the better it goes.”

To retreat into the desert is to surrender to the divine nothing in prayer. In terms of prayer this means, according to Francisco de Osuna (who taught St. Teresa of Avila how to pray), the soul becomes “blind, deaf, and mute…absorbed in God with fervent desire.” The experience of the divine nothing is to be blind, deaf, and mute within. Osuna tells us to be “blind…in the spirit.” He also says, “we must renounce imagination and its distractions so that we remain alone, our soul undisturbed by the deafening noise of voices.” And then he tells us, “We should also be dumb within, speaking no words…[God] wishes us to pray silently in spirit and truth rather than in words.”

In the prayer of interior nothingness, we do not look at our thoughts, listen to our thoughts, or talk to our thoughts. We simply remain quietly, in faith and desiring God, in the nothingness. Osuna concludes, “Understanding shall be blind…by not employing knowledge that could distract the soul from the state of recollection, and the will is to be deaf to the love of creatures who beckon it. Saint Bonaventure refers to these two when he says: ‘First you must abandon love for the sensible world and reflection on all that is intelligible so that pure desire may well up in you.’ Memory is to be mute, not considering or turning over in the mind anything that can be uttered aloud.” To be blind, deaf, and mute within is to retreat to the desert and rest in God.