Emmitsburg Council of Churches

Close Encounters:
of the Divine Kind

Father John J. Lombardi

Q.: What do presidential politics and meditation have in common?
A.: Religion, of course!-and prayer.

Presidential politics: Dr Howard Dean-rabble rouser and favored democratic presidential candidate, has recently claimed to be enlightened by southern Christians-for their faith-candor and practice of Religion in everyday life, and would like, himself, to make his Christianity more pronounced in stump speeches and political life. Ditto (just about) for jettisoning Jewish Senator Joseph Lieberman. And our Commander in Chief, President Bush ? His favorite hero is Jesus Christ. These guys are not afraid to wear religion on their sleeves!

Meditation: Last year, in national magazines (Time, New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, etc), we read reports of how Americans are seeking greater harmony and quality of life thru inner discipline, prayer and meditation. From Buddhist practices to Christian centering prayer these folks don't want religion on their sleeves but in their hearts.

The presidentialists promise and promote Divinity; while meditation movements promote closeness--Can these come together, as in a Close Encounter of the Divine Kind? Sure. Remember St Thomas More, married man and father of five, Chancellor of England, the King's right hand man? Everyday he arose for hours of meditation, Mass and Bible study…St Louis, King of France: He attended daily Eucharist…Pope John Paul II: amidst his busy schedule, he is a Third order Carmelite and meditates frequently. All three were involved in politics and prayer-and deepened their spiritual lives thru meditation and contemplation. Can you?

Religion is what all these phenomena have in common. Religion goes with politics, apple pie and middle America. Most polls show that Americans believe in God, got religion, go to church and believe in the Afterlife. And: they pray frequently.

The word religion, by the way, means, from the Latin, "to bind together". Implication: we are flailing in the winds of impermanence, sin and materialism if we do not have God: "When I applied my mind to wisdom, madness and folly, I learned that this was a chase after the wind" (Eccl. 1:17) Maybe that's what the presidential contenders are finding out, as did St Thomas More and King Louis, along with St Teresa: "Only God Suffices!" . We are called to have a close encounter of the Divine Kind-namely, with God the Blessed Trinity. Jesus said He will show you the way…" (Jn 14:4)-the Way of love. St Thomas the Apostle had a Close Encounter with Him and said "My Lord and My God" (Jn. 20:28)…. St Teresa of Avila, thru her meditative prayer, embraced a Close Encounter with God, and she received a "mystical ring" - ecstasies from Him. You, too, can encounter the Lord St Paul suggests this will happen if we "Think of what is above and not what is on earth; for you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God" (3:2-4). The "thinking" and "hiding" in his statement often meant, for the saints, deep prayer, meditation, union with God thru contemplation.

I recently met with a devotee of the Divine Lord who didn't mentioned presidential politics, but did ask a spiritual question about meditation. She is a Carmelite of the Third Order (a lay person participating in Carmel's Rule while remaining in the world-you can too) and asked, basically: How are memorization, mental prayer and contemplation alike or different? I wonder what President Bush or Dr Dean would say. You see: this seeker is serious about a devout life

of prayer and is willing to take the loving steps to conversion toward Union with the Divine Trinity. How about you?

The answer follows…

Firstly, as Catholics and Christians we are called to at least three conversions. First, Conversion to God: "Seek ye first the Kingdom of God…" (Mt. 6:33). Second Conversion: to an Interior Life: "When you pray, Go into your room and lock the door and pray… (Mt. 6:6). Third Conversion: to deep prayer, contemplation: " Be still and know that I am God" (Ps 46:10). Notice the progression-from external to internal, from action to stillness. So, then, what are practical ways to intensify an Interior Life and Union with God?

Memorization and meditation, two helpful spiritual practices of the spiritual life-as in remembering or thinking over a Bible verse--are helpful and essential disciplines of the spiritual life. "Let the word dwell in your hearts" (Col 3: 16). They help the mind and soul grow in maturing, step-by-step, and are like tying a boat around a pier in a storm. In this analogy the boat symbolizes the mind: unless our chaotic minds are fixed and focused around something solid in a storm (which represents the distractions of the mind), then we will be tossed around interminably within. We need the stability which the "pier" (object of meditation/memorization) will bring us. The Virgin Mary "treasured things in her heart (Lk 2:51). To treasure means to grasp, seize, spiritually hold within. Question: How are you practicing this like the saints? The prophet Hosea says: "But you must return to your God; maintain love and justice, and wait for your God always" (12: 6). Our minds and intellects, since they are fallen and untrained, if we do not have that concreteness we will be tossed about and thrown into constant disarray.

The psalmist says: "In the night I meditate in my heart; I ponder and my spirit broods" (Ps 77:6). The "night" in the Psalm represents the stilling of the outside world and meditation means brooding and pondering upon the Lord's truths. Meditation, the beginning stage of more serious prayer, should eventually lead to contemplation, just as the boat (mind) attaching to a pier (object of meditation) waits out the storm (distractions) and can be freed to openness (contemplation)-"Be still and know that I am God" (Ps 46:10). Memorization of prayers and meditation upon a word, image or thought helps the mind, intellect and thinking process become lovingly attentive and single-minded. This is arduous because we have been harmed or hindered over the years by excessive daydreaming, attachments to wrong things and thoughts ("evil desires"-Col. 3:5), undisciplined thinking-all maim the inner spiritual processes of the mind as God has designed it to be . If we are not "roped around" the "stabilizing pier of meditation"-- imagistic and concrete thoughts within, we will be whisked away by the storms of distractions continuously . "Whatever is true, noble, righteous, think on these things…" (Phil 4:8). The word meditate comes from the Latin word, to chew over. We must first dwell upon certain holy thoughts (the Passion of Jesus, say, or a Bible verse) to fasten the intellect and mind upon a single focus or thought, to discover within the holy object of meditation, all the treasures God has in it for us.

Interiorization is what we Catholics and Christians need today. Like the saints before us, and presently, we are called to an interior life-a Close Encounter of the Divine Kind. Jesus Himself says: "The Kingdom of God is within you" (Lk. 17:21). Angela of Foligno cultivated an interior life, protected it and realized that "God presents Himself in the inmost depths of my soul. This mode of presence has almost become habitual. Moreover it illuminates my soul with great truth." How can you nurture the Indwelling Lord and safeguard it from constant busybodyism? The Divine Master counsels: "Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest awhile" (Mk. 6:31)

We are called to be free: hopefully, by God's grace we will not always stay roped to the pier (in meditation) unnecessarily. Metaphorically put: Who wants to cling to a fishing pier when they can go into the deep blue sea (contemplation)? Meditation brings us the Name, and in contemplation God gives us Himself: "Behold I stand and knock at the door ( this can symbolize meditation) and if anyone opens I will come and sup with him (this can mean contemplation: God Himself present-Rev 3:20). Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection said: : "When I apply myself to prayer, I feel all my spirit and all my soul lift itself up without any care or effort of mine, and it continues as it were suspended and firmly fixed in God, as in its center and place of rest."

In the preliminary processes of memorization and meditation, we are focusing, contracting, tightening all our mental, intellective processes within: we are constellating them (forming a union of many parts, just as many stars in the sky make up one constellation), and thereby are able to interiorly concentrate.

St Augustine counseled more spiritualized prayer: "Transparent truth is seen without any bodily likeness". After mastering this focusing process, we are called, however, to expand and loosen the mind's actions-and this is called contemplation. Therefore, the spiritual process is like this: first, in meditation we focus, and then in contemplation we expand: Julian of Norwich says- "God likewise expands the soul and gives it gifts and consolations which the soul has never experienced." As maturing Christians we start with images, then progress to imagelessness: St John of the Cross suggests a kind of intellectual stripping -"In order to come to union with God the soul has to proceed by unknowing. ". We progress, hopefully from thinking to loving: "Though the Three Persons in the Trinity be all even in Itself, the soul took most understanding in Love; …we have our beholding and our enjoying in Love; He is All-Love." (Julian). We eventually enjoy letting God be God in restful passivity: "A fervent lover of God who possesses God in blissful rest….will, by hidden revelation of God, enter the contemplative life" (Jan van Ruusbrock). The Virgin Mary is described contemplatively: "Be it done unto me…" (Lk. 1:38 ) She is receiving. In deeper prayer after meditation stabilizes us, we need to simply be in God's Presence and accept Him, receive. "There is a time to seek and a time to lose; a time to rend and a time to sew; a time to speak and a time to be silent" (Eccl 3: 6-7). Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa says: "For while the soul is in time it apprehends with mental pictures…and when it is elevated above time it…is free and independent of pictures."

Thus, in deeper prayer we need to be "Delivered from the world of sense and the world of thought, the soul enters into the mysterious darkness to a holy ignorance…it loses itself in Him" (Pseudo-Dionysius)… By negating and purifying false, images and concepts of God we come to God Himself--"From negation to negation the soul rises above the most excellent creations and unites itself to God in what measure it can" (St Thomas Aquinas). St John of the Cross says we must cleanse the material of meditation we provide and rely on God's immaculate Light Itself: "Spiritual light: the purer and more radiant it is, the less it is perceived; if on the other hand it be charged with intelligible forms, it is more easily discerned and the soul thinks itself better enlightened". Upshot: in the deepest levels of prayer, God speaks thru pure light, without forms, images and concepts. "If anyone cleanses himself of these things he will be a vessel worthy for lofty use" (II Tim 2:21).

The less we need in contemplation (versus using images in meditation) the less there will be a perceiver to perceive, the less self and selfishness, and thus "reason" for a subject and self to operate in opposition to God: St John the Baptist said: "I must decrease; He (Jesus) must increase" (Jn 3:30). We must, therefore progress from formal prayer (oratio- memorized, audible prayers); to meditatio (mental prayer - focusing and thinking within; getting stability to get still-er!), to contemplatio-the "sleep of the faculties" (St Teresa's definition), and rest all our inward and outward labors to a serene surrender. St John of the Cross describes it as "simple loving attention" of receiving God. In meditation we offer the material for thought and devotion; in contemplation God is the material and gives us Himself .

This is infused contemplation: a pouring into-us-process by God according to our inward receptivity. St Catherine of Siena hears God describe advanced souls "as enflamed and on fire in charity, their own will is consumed." This most radical form of prayer is not the most impractical of spiritualities-it is discipleship: Why? Because it requires the most amount of death of self: Jesus says: "Deny yourself and follow me" (Lk. 9:24), and can't He mean this in prayer, too? In contemplation practice we are called to perfect imperfections which we see so readily because of inward stillness: " Become perfect as your Heavenly Father is Perfect" (Mt. 5: 48 ). And we gradually realize inward, silent, invisible realties are the most difficult to attain and train…Mystical prayer requires the most amount of surrender: "Unless you renounce all possessions you cannot be my disciple" (Lk. 14:33 ). Sometimes the worst, most tenacious and perilous possessions are inward and invisible ones.

Like that devout Carmelite seeker, and other saintly people, are you wiling to surrender more, to take the steps of more silence, stillness and meditative, contemplative prayer? How will you engender Close Encounters with the Divine God? In order to get stronger and more mature in the interior life we progressively commit to the interior life, for instance, by:

Eucharistic worship: Go into a Church or prayer room to adore Him…Meditation each morning and night…Practice the presence of God: Think of Him often, continually…Be silent before and after Mass-Pray and sit in stillness. Above all: Embrace, cultivate and protect the Close Encounters of the Divine Kind: Jesus says "abide in Me and I in you" (Jn. 6:56).

Read other reflections by Father John J. Lombardi