The ‘unoccupied prayer’ of contemplation

Contemplative prayer is little understood and rarely practised, yet is should form the basis of  all spiritual activity. It was best expressed in Psalm 27:4, ‘One thing I have asked of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may … gaze upon the Lord and … meditate [margin] in his temple.’  Such experience is impossible unless we take time out from the daily clutter of advertising jingles, work schedules, family demands, cramming for exams etc. As the poet asked: ‘What is this life if, full of care, / We have no time to stand and stare?’ The psalmist’s verb ‘gaze’ was surely what he intended, but it didn’t rhyme with ‘care’!

The Carmelite nun Ruth Burrows may have invented the term ‘unoccupied prayer’. In a letter to her, diplomat Mark Allen wrote: ‘I remember a hard but vital piece of advice you once gave me: “The great mistake people make … is to abandon the times for unoccupied prayer.” That’s the heart of it. [But] what is this prayer and why do we find we avoid it?’

‘In private’ – Ruth replied: ‘[There are] two interdependent aspects of our Christian being: solitariness and communion. Each of us is a unique, irreplaceable person, but uniquely, most truly and fully a person only in relationship with other similarly unique persons: in “communion”. A community is something quite different from a group of people sharing common interests. Community, in the Christian sense, doesn’t just happen – it is brought about by the Holy Spirit. The more each individual surrenders to this Holy Spirit, so is community really community. Works of charity, loving service, neighbourliness, all these indeed are vital, but of themselves do not create a Christian community. Our community must be at the deepest level of being. [Therefore we] need “unoccupied prayer”, that is undefended prayer: this “me” is exposed to God, stripped of pretension, naked,  refusing comforting make-believe, offering itself to be … searched out and seen in total reality by the God who, in Jesus, we know to be Absolute Love.’

‘At Jesus’ feet’ – She illustrated it thus: ‘The little story of Martha and Mary expresses the truth graphically. Jesus is saying that, when he enters our house, then it is for him to … serve and feed us, not the other way around. [Then, w]ell nourished, we turn to our neighbours and share our nourishment with them. Freely we have received, and freely we must give. The Martha in us who wants to do things for God must let go and childlike sit down with Mary at the feet of Jesus to receive. In doing so her attitude will gradually change and her whole life, her serving, be purged of self-seeking and become in itself prayer.’ She added: ‘It is not easy to persevere faithfully in this solitary, defenceless prayer. We can be faced with seeming nothingness. We have to realise that the silence, the emptiness is filled with a love too great for human heart and mind to grasp. Faith tells us that Love works and its work is Love. It is this direct encounter of the Christian and her or his Creator and Love that above all else creates personhood. We are not born persons in the true sense. We become persons through encounters with others, but supremely with God in Jesus.’

‘In Jesus’ arms’ – She ends her letter: ‘We are, each one, enfolded in a love so overwhelming, that it [“surpasses all understanding”]. “As a child has rest on its mother’s breast, even so my soul” [Psalm 131:2]. “And he took them in his arms, and blessed them, laying his hands upon them” [Mark 10:16].’

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