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.

Contemplative silence amidst the storm

We practice mystical unknowing by contemplative silence, which Jesus proclaims amidst the storm on the Sea of Galilee.

Gospel reading for June 23, 2024, 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Silence and faith

Jesus and his disciples find themselves in a violent storm on the Sea of Galilee. In fact, Jesus is sleeping! Of course, the disciples are terrified. The storm was so great, it appeared to be filling the boat with water. So, naturally, they woke Jesus and told him of their dire state. Jesus’ reply? He calls for silence and faith. The storm subsides.

Isn’t it like this in our lives? The storms of life are always raging. But it seems Jesus is asleep. We’re going through some upsetting experiences but God feels absent. But more than difficult circumstances, the story of the storm describes our inner life. When Jesus calls for quiet, stillness, and faith in the middle of the storm, he is teaching us the practice of interior silence while our mental storms – swirling thoughts and emotions – are raging.

Living in quiet and stillness

For the past few weeks, we have discussed the key mystic term, “unknowing.” For the sixth-century monk Dionysius the Areopagite, Unknowing means one “knows beyond the mind by knowing nothing.” It is a way of transcending the mind. It is also an act of deep faith in God’s mysterious presence. But how do we practice unknowing in daily life? How do we live the quiet and stillness Jesus proclaims amidst the storm?

Many mystics teach a version of unknowing. Francisco de Osuna and John Chapman teach unknowing with some interesting clarity. Francisco de Osuna was a Spanish Franciscan friar who lived in the 1500s. He wrote a book called The Third Spiritual Alphabet, which greatly influenced the prayer life of St. Teresa of Avila. Osuna was part of a contemplative prayer movement in sixteenth-century Spain called the “recollects.” He taught a contemplative prayer practice called “recollection.” For him, this is a practice of interior silence, that is, of not thinking and remaining quietly in the presence of God. He describes the practice of being “blind, deaf, and mute” within. And being blind, deaf, and mute within we are “absorbed in God.” He says that to pray means

“being silent from within, engaging in no reflection whatsoever, we must…forbid thought to enter…not considering or turning over in the mind anything that can be uttered aloud.” He does not want us looking at, listening to, or talking to our thoughts. In other words, he invites us to stop actively thinking so as to be absorbed in God’s Mystery within.

There is another mystic, closer to our age, who discusses the issue of not thinking in prayer. He is Abbot John Chapman, an English Benedictine monk who died a few years before World War II. Chapman writes, “But you can’t make silence. You can make a noise. But you can only make silence by stopping the noise, or stopping your ears. Hence, the way to get to that “recollection,” which is simply interior peace, is not by any positive effort, but only by negative effort;—that is, the cessation of acting or thinking. Consequently, it ought always to be a relaxation, not an effort. Consequently, it ought never to cause fatigue, or overstrain, or a headache.”

Contemplative silence is easy to practice because it is the simple cessation of active thinking to rest in God. We may still have thoughts, but they are not problems in the silence because our will wants God and does not want to think about our thoughts. Chapman says, “It is absolutely easy, if only you realize that it is a prayer of the will, not of the intellect, or the imagination, or of the emotions. For it follows that thinking about all sorts of other things doesn’t matter, provided it is quite involuntary; and feeling nothing at all doesn’t matter either.” He also says, “thinking is directed by our will; and if we use our will to think of certain subjects rather than others, our will is occupied in keeping our mind to the subject; and therefore less occupied in loving God. The harder we try to keep our mind on a subject, the more intensely our will has to keep us to it, so that it cannot turn simply to God…We want to use our Will to “want God,” and not to keep our thoughts in order.” To think deliberately is what stops the prayer of contemplative silence. We do not need a perfectly calm, undistracted, or thought-free mind.

Meditation groups at St. Matthew's

Contemplative silence is the state in which there is an absence of mind, which mainly means no active thinking and no conscious involvement with emotions. Centering Prayer, Christian Meditation, the Jesus Prayer, and Lectio Divina are some practice methods of contemplative prayer, that is, concrete approaches to contemplative silence.

Here at the cathedral, we practice Centering prayer in our meditation groups. I invite you to join us. See our times on the website. Or practice on your own and begin to enjoy the sinking into the calm center of God amidst the storms of your own life.