A Short Prayer Pierces the Cloud of Unknowing

Last week I talked to you about Contemplative Meditation and the ways that the practice of pondering profound writings and the nature of our condition changes as we progress through the contemplative life. In a very similar fashion personal prayer changes as well. By using the term personal prayer the author of The Cloud wants to make clear that the liturgy and communal worship are still important and should be continued without change.

Personal prayer, on the other hand, changes like meditation does. Just as meditation begins with study and progresses into reflection on your own condition and then progresses again into meditation without thought on a single word; so does prayer move from the written prayers of the liturgy to personal prayer spoken earnestly with God and finally progresses into a single word spoken primarily by the spirit and not by the word itself.

In the form of contemplative meditation mentioned before the point was to learn the meaning of spiritual truths without words. To be able to sense and discern their spiritual essence by means of the heart rather than the mind. In the same way the personal prayer of a contemplative uses single words, or very short phrases. The words are only meant to be keys which unlock the wordless wisdom existing in the hidden recesses of nature.

The Cloud describes this kind of personal private prayer as such:

The skilled contemplative, then, does not depend on discursive reasoning in the same way as beginners and those a little advanced in contemplation must do. His insights arise spontaneously without the help of intellectual processes, as direct intuitions of truth. Something similar may be said about his prayers, too. I am speaking now about the contemplative’s personal private prayers. These, like his meditations, are wholly spontaneous and not dependent on specific methods of preparation. We can understand the efficacy of one little interior word, not merely spoken or thought, but surging up from the depths of a man’s spirit, the expression of his whole being.

Most of my prayers are short simple phrases. The most common (and perhaps the most important) is ‘Thank you’. I also use ‘forgive me’ and ‘take this from me’ (which are essentially the same thing) when my thoughts go astray and into the negative patterns of my false self.

Another short prayer I use is ‘bless them’. When something ways heavy on my heart I will say short blessings. Sometimes I will ask that God take whatever blessings would be mine and give them to another in need. A prayer in which you give up all claim to the blessing is always the strongest.

This kind of prayer, which The Cloud refers to as a ‘short prayer’ is only possible if you have first done the work of the previous two steps. By studying and reflecting on our own condition we are able to dismantle the false self and clean the slate, so to speak. Then, with a clean slate we can begin to discern the spiritual meanings of simple words. Once we can understand the meaning of these words (which is not the words themselves) then we can connect to that meaning in our prayers.

This is very much in line with what Jesus describes in his Sermon on the Mount when he says:

“When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”

Jesus is describing prayer as something which is done in secret and with few words. There are secret folds in reality in which and through which Heaven and Earth are joined. These secret places are where prayer is the most powerful and that is precisely because these secret places conceal truth beyond words.

The short prayer is effective precisely because it is not a prayer of words but a prayer of truth. The words are simply a shadow of the truth, a symbol of their true meaning. When we are able to pray using the meaning rather than the symbol then we are moving in the spiritual world of truth and that is where the real magic happens.

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