Thomas Keating calls contemplative prayer the divine therapy. We are all in need of therapy. Our overwhelming feelings, confusing emotions, and need for perspective regularly send us out in search of the latest and greatest podcasts, books, sermons, TED talks, therapists, self-help articles, and “guides” of every kind. The sheer amount of time and money we spend on “therapy” in our world today is staggering. If you know me at all, you know how much I value counseling, life coaching, and spiritual direction. I have all three of these people in my life and I am immeasurably grateful for them.
However, there is a tendency in most of us to externalize our personal growth. We often think if we just find that right thing, then all will be well. We often mistakenly think that if there is not outward, visible progress in our lives then we must not be growing. This is a mistake because some of God’s best work in our lives comes from periods of waiting. When we are waiting, we may feel like maybe God went away. When we are waiting we may not feel God moving at all. When we are waiting, we may wonder if this restlessness will ever end.
Great saints of the past have spoken of purgation, illumination, and union. Purgation (a purging) is that place where we are being stripped of everything that isn’t God. It can be painful, it can feel lonely, and we can wonder if illumination and light will ever come again. In these moments, we are like the caterpillar in its cocoon. We are waiting, and in this waiting – in fact only in this dark space – some wonderful things can be born if we will let them be. There is both a surrender and a fight inside the cocoon. There is a struggle inside that must occur. The wings of a butterfly become strong and colorful because of that struggle, from that time in darkness. If we cut the cocoon open early, freeing the caterpillar from its struggle, we will see a butterfly that is both colorless and powerless to fly. We must surrender on some level and resist the urge that comes to cut the cocoon shell prematurely. Sometimes we cut our own cocoon shell and we leave the present moment by numbing our pain with addiction, busyness, or spiritually bypassing the pain altogether. God patiently and gently invites us back to the present, the only place where His presence resides. The beauty and the power in our lives often come from God’s work in the dark.
Many of us think of prayer as something we need to do. We think of it as a time for us to accomplish something. I’ve prayed today, check, now what is next? Contemplative prayer is more of a relationship than a task. As one mentor of mine recently said, “It is like laying in a hammock with your lover.” Imagine praying as “hammock time” with God! It is more of a passive work. Some of the most important things that happen in our lives may be invisible but they are no less real.
G.K. Chesterton once said, “When trees are waving wildly in the wind, one group of people thinks that it is the wind that moves the trees; the other group thinks that the motion of the trees creates the wind.” In our world, we are trained to trust in the material, trained to think that it must be the tree moving that has created the wind, because the tree is what we can see with our eyes. God’s spirit, who moves freely like the wind, is every bit as real as the trees that sway in His mighty breath.
God is patient, kind, and always near. St. Augustine said, “God is more near to you than you are to yourself.” God abides, always, it is we who are often absent. May you draw near to the One whose love for you knows no limit, and may you lounge in the hammock with the lover of your soul today.