The journey into contemplative prayer is both deep and winding. It is both a path into ourselves and into God. Along the way we are asked to let drop pieces of who we imagine we are along the wayside, only to find them handed back to us, reshaped and refined, later along our travels. Our ideas about who we are and who our maker is are constantly challenged and questioned, in dialogue with the Holy Three-in-One.
We might begin to think, after many years of this practice, that we have learnt a lot. But the truth is more likely that we have unlearnt a lot. The Cloud of Unknowing is a classic of mystical Christianity for a reason, as it tells us to begin to know God by unknowing “him.”
Many things we assume about God are shaped by our own experiences. We may call Him Father, but this name will be nuanced by all the dealings we have had both with and as earthly fathers. The very pronouns we use, most often and traditionally male, are inadequate. Many have tried to undo them by using G-d or them/their, or by trying to balance them with female pronouns and images.
Often these changes can be helpful in our relating to the Almighty, but they can also reveal more about our own inability to grasp the enormity of God than they do about God. God is of course both beyond and wholly inclusive of gender. More importantly, God is both personhood and mystery. Falling further and further into knowing him is a precious and delicious endeavour. It is also mind-blowing and fraught with the heartache that only the greatest love and suffering can bring.
As we become more familiar, God widens out even further. It is like catching glimpses of a painting or photograph and just as we think we have worked out what it is depicting, realising that we are only seeing the tiniest detail of a much larger whole. Or like being Moses, standing in the cleft of the rock, catching a fraction of God’s goodness as he passes by. And this happens over and over again, until it no longer surprises us.
After many years of practising contemplative prayer, the only thing I know now, for sure, the one certainty that brooks no doubt in me, is this: God is good. I might add, and God is love, but this is to say the same thing a different way.
About everything else, people of faith may have different viewpoints, may struggle to speak the same theological and doctrinal language, but that one truth remains unassailable. God’s character, God’s good name, if you like, is the one constant. And that, by itself, contains enough wonder and treasure for contemplation till the end of time.
Keren Dibbens-Wyatt is a chronically ill writer and artist with a passion for poetry, mysticism, story and colour. Her writing features regularly on spiritual blogs and in literary journals. Her new book, Recital of Love, comes out with Paraclete Press in September 2020. Keren lives in South East England and is mainly housebound by her illness.
Exactly my experience with contemplative prayer