School of Contemplation

sitting alone in Saxon Switzerland

Week Five – Silence & Solitude

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This week we spent time talking about Silence and Solitude as key elements of most contemplative practice, and why these are such powerful words and realities, often holding a deep invitation and resonance for us, even while they can also scare or repel us. As a group, we shared thoughts about this ambivalence, and about why we would bother pushing through any resistance we have to spending time alone and in quiet, concluding that the reason we often resist Silence and Solitude is the very reason we need them. Rachael brought the following poems, passages and quotes from through the ages to help shed some light on the difference between loneliness/isolation and solitude, and how one can be a gateway to the other; and on the deeper realities of self and God that can be found when we intentionally let go of our busyness and noise, and set aside all the words, thoughts and feelings we get attached to about our selves and God.

We ended our time by practicing doing just that with some silent Centering Prayer and then with the Blessing of Solitude by John O’Donohue.

Some readings from today:

“…The first step in spending time alone is to admit how afraid of it we are.

Being alone is a difficult discipline: a beautiful and difficult sense of being solitary is always the ground from which we step into a contemplative intimacy with the unknown, but the first portal of aloneness is often experienced as a gateway to alienation, grief and abandonment. To find our selves alone or to be left alone is an ever present, fearful and abiding human potentiality of which we are often unconsciously, and deeply afraid.

To be alone for any length of time is to shed an outer skin.”

  • from David Whyte’s,  Alone  


May you recognize in your life the presence, power and light of your soul.
May you realise that you are never alone, that your soul in its brightness and belonging connects you intimately with the rhythm of the universe.
May you have respect for your own individuality and difference.
May you realise that the shape of your soul is unique, that you have a special destiny here,
that behind the façade of your life there is something beautiful, good, and eternal happening.
May you learn to see yourself with the same delight, pride and expectation with which God sees you in every moment.

  • A Blessing of Solitude, by John O’Donohue


“Silence is God’s first language.” St. John of the Cross, 16th C

“Silence is the language of God, everything else is a poor translation.” Rumi, 13th C

“God [is] hidden within me. I find Him by hiding in the silence in which He is concealed.” Thomas Merton, 1948

“Silence is the gateway to the soul, and the soul is the gateway to God.” (Fr. Christopher Jamieson, Abbot of Worth Abbey, UK, in The Big Silence, 2010)

Dali painting

Week Four – Visio Divina and more

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This week Rachael introduced visio divina (“divine seeing” – contemplating images or nature to open ourselves to what we receive through them). She brought a folder full of images and we chose one and spent some minutes in silence asking ourselves questions like: Where do I see myself in this image? If you missed it, see an introduction to the practice here.

Walter also introduced why one reason for exploring different “languages” of contemplation is because different senses seem associated with different ways of processing in different people. For some people auditory input touches our heart while images bring out our analytical side; for others kinesthetic (participation/action) touches our heart, etc.

statue of St. Francis in San Damiano

Week Three – A Classical Rhythm of Contemplation

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This week Walter shared four latin words that have been used to describe a rhythm of contemplation for centuries:

Lectio – (lit. “reading”) – Receiving – when you catch a “glimpse,” something of what is heard or seen or read “hits home,” gets your attention as speaking to your spirit. Most typically, lectio divina practices this in relation to a short piece of writing (often Scripture), but the same sense of receiving can refer to any reading or listening or something in nature or any object of attention that speaks a word to the spirit.

Meditatio – (lit. “think or reflect on, meditate”) – Repetition – giving reflective attention to something until it is integrated, moves from the head to the heart – becomes real. Often this is literal repetition – holding a word or phrase through the day. Definitely more repetition than analysis.

Oratio – (lit. “prayer”) – Response – a response of the heart to the ‘word’ received and repeated. Less a response of many words and more a sense of consent, gratitude and love, but may also include a sense of asking for assistance related to the word.

Contemplatio – (lit. “time out,” assoc. with Gk. theoria “to see God”) – Union – a whole-being “yes,” fully entering into what has been received, deep and experienced integration.

(Based largely on Basil Pennington’s Centering Prayer)

We ended by practicing a lectio divina exercise based on Isaiah 30.15-18.

light through a window

Week Two – Kataphatic and Apophatic Approaches

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This week, after we shared different experiences with contemplation that we’ve had, Rachael introduced some of the labels given for different approaches: like the differences between kataphatic and apophatic approaches or between receptive and attentive approaches (see Keating’s diagram below).

Kataphatic refers to the positive or affirming value of thoughts, images and understandings that help us approach the Mystery, while apophatic refers to the negating approach that recognizes that the Presence of God is far beyond all of the words or thoughts that we can find. So apophatic approaches favour silence or “unknowing” that help to make sure that ideas and images and language, and their limitations, don’t get in the way of connecting with God.

We finished by practicing centering prayer again. Remember that in the last post there is a link to an introduction by Thomas Keating. Here is another video with a testimonial about the potential of centering prayer from Phileena Heuertz.

And here is the quote that I referred to stumbling on, right after talking about the same idea the previous week:

Like a wild animal, the soul is tough, resilient, resourceful, savvy, and self-sufficient: it knows how to survive in hard places…. Yet despite its toughness, the soul is also shy. Just like a wild animal, it seeks safety in the dense underbrush, especially when other people are around. If we want to see a wild animal, we know that the last thing we should do is go crashing through the woods yelling for it to come out. But if we will walk quietly into the woods, sit patiently at the base of a tree, breathe with the earth, and fade into our surroundings, the wild creature we seek might put in an appearance. We may see it only briefly and only out of the corner of an eye – but the sight is a gift we will always treasure as an end in itself.

And here is the diagram from Thomas Keating:

Chart of prayers ranging from receptive to attentive

Introducing the Languages of Contemplation

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One of the beautiful things about contemplation is that it is an experience or a state of being that can be approached from many different directions. While some forms of contemplation are best known (silence, contemplative reading), other forms feel more peripheral. Yet, each person will thrive best when practicing the “languages of contemplation” that are the best fit for their personality and interests. This could be through contemplative walks or chant-singing or praying with a rosary or doing yoga. This term we will be exploring the various languages of contemplation and hoping that everyone can connect with those which are most life-giving for them.

We’ll start with “centering prayer” as this is one of the most ancient and classical forms of contemplation using a combination of silence and a “prayer word” to open up space for a person to quiet the distracting voices and stresses in their head and body, and consenting to be present to their inner being and the presence of God.

If you’re not at our first session or if you want to remind yourself of the basic method of centering prayer, check out Thomas Keating’s introduction to centering prayer.

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