In John 4, Jesus taught that true worship must be done “in spirit” because God is spirit. Now, granted, this phrase is quite nebulous and open to a wide variety of interpretations. But what did Jesus mean?
A part of the answer lies in a very ancient tradition that turned to silence to solve this riddle. Those who were most serious about worshiping in spirit sought increasingly isolated places to simply be with God without any distractions. Though, as they soon discovered, silence itself could be one of the most challenging distractions of all.
But once overcome, the ancients learned that God often chooses to relate to us using a vocabulary of silence on a path known as the “via negativa” or the “negative way.” In a grossly over-simplistic description, this refers to the notion of approaching God by stripping our prayer and worship of all images, thoughts, and even words–because all of these things limit God. The “via negativa” attempts to let God be God by understanding Him through what He is not. In more practical terms, it refers to finding God in silence and solitude and stillness.
One doesn’t have to observe much to notice that we live in a world where more and more people are living frenetic, 24/7 lives constantly connected to input from the internet, TV, games, cell phones, and the like.
Even the church has become a place so programmed that thirty-second blocks of time are mapped out in a service to insure that there is no wasted “dead air.” Consequently, we have become addicted to noise. Without a constant feed running through our mind during our awake moments, we feel at a loss. So much so, that if we pause just for a moment and reflect upon this obsession, it will become apparent to us that it is unsustainable. At some point we are going to suffer the consequences physically, spiritually and emotionally.
The prescription offered by Christian contemplatives is to bring balance back to our lives. We speak to God in spirit utilizing a more intuitive part of the mind that forces us into the silence.
For example, Augustine described a “lower” part of the mind that utilized reason, and a “higher” portion of the mind that was capable of contemplating God. Even though today it might be a bit unsophisticated to speak of the brain operating in this way, there is some truth in this as modern psychology supports, though using a different vocabulary.
A Desert Father by the name of Evagrius the Solitary called this higher portion the “nous” which can be defined as a type of “intuitive spiritual intelligence.” He writes, “Undistracted prayer is the highest intellection of the intellect. Prayer is the ascent of the intellect to God. If you long for prayer renounce all to gain all”(Philokalia, edited by G.E.H. Palmer, et. al., p. 72).
Fundamental to this definition is the idea that prayer is a journey that begins within. As one ventures forth, one removes distractions, whether external or internal, that then leads to the edge of one’s self. He explains, “Do not pray only with outward forms and gestures, but with reverence and awe try to make your intellect conscious of spiritual prayer” (Ibid.). In other words, as one sits in silence and slowly calms the mind so that the to-do list, the worries, the fears, the yearning to check email, to turn on the TV, to browse the web become more and more distant, the more one becomes aware of the more important presence of God.
And so, as one puts distance to even such distractions as words, one discovers that prayer is not a matter of running through a shopping list of requests, or of constantly chattering about this or that, but that prayer, as Evagrius described it, is a state of being. One doesn’t pray. One enters the state of prayer.
I also like how Simone Weil describes this approach when she wrote that prayer is “absolute attention.”
A while I had the chance to sit down with Phileena Heuertz and ask her some questions about this type of prayer.