Approaches to Intimacy
Throughout the history of the church the desire to come into God’s presence and be in an intimate relationship with God has been strong. The ways people have found to try and achieve this are many and varied, but generally they are determined or conditioned by the culture and the times they live in.
Of course, different people at different times are content with different levels of intimacy with God. We should not use this as an excuse for us not to pursue the best that God intends for us.
Because for the greatest part of church history the predominant culture has been first Orthodox and then Roman Catholic, it is to be expected that approaches to intimacy have been strongly influenced by these forms. In fact, many of the ‘saints’ of the church are those who have found and taught about particular ways of relating to God, and who have subsequently drawn a following of other believers about them.
Contemplative Prayer, Meditation, Silence
The traditional approach to finding intimacy with God involves stilling oneself, pushing away the concerns and troubles of life, finding a quiet place, and trying to tune into one’s inner being. There one hopes to contact the presence of God within.
This approach includes various spiritual disciplines in the achievement of its goal.
The word ‘contemplation‘ comes from the latin root templum (from Greek temnein: to cut or divide), and means to separate something from its environment, and to enclose it in a sector. (Wikipedia) The Greeks called it theoria, from which we get ‘theory’, meaning thinking about something. For Plato contemplation allows the soul to ascend to knowledge of the Form of the Good, the term indicating that goodness itself was considered divine.
In a religious sense it is a type of prayer or meditation, and in the West it is related to mysticism, as popularised by authors such as Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Margery Kempe, Evelyn Underhill and Thomas Merton. It can be a somewhat passive pursuit, whereas in Eastern Christianity the intention of contemplation is to force one’s consciousness onto the cultivation of an understanding of and relationship with God.
Meditation involves more specific, directed mental exercises, such as visualization of a religious scene or consideration of a scriptural passage. It is a state of concentrated attention on some object of thought or awareness, a turning of the attention inward to the mind itself.
Some of the debate about whether contemplation and meditation are appropriate for Christians, given the dangers of passivity, arise from the different understanings of these activities in the West and the East. In the West contemplation is passive and meditation is active and focused. In the East this is reversed.
The Prayer of Quiet, discussed by Teresa of Avila and Francis De Sales, is regarded by mystical theologians as one of the degrees of contemplation. It is a state in which the soul experiences an extraordinary peace and rest, accompanied by delight and pleasure in contemplating God’s presence. The prayer of simplicity and centering prayer are also aspects of, or preparation for, contemplation.
A modern approach to contemplation and meditation and the spiritual exercises can be seen in the Renovar movement, founded by Quaker theologian Richard J. Foster in 1988. Its purpose is to provide training and support to people in their spiritual growth. Renovar have made available a large number of resources to assist in the study and practice of the teachings of a large number of classical Christian writers from many traditions and for use in lectio divina, or what they call “reading with the heart”.
Some of the advantages this approach has are:
- There is a vast amount of literature, ancient and modern, available on these disciplines.
- Their popularity means that it easy to find a group to join and learn from, and retreats in which to participate.
There are also some dangers:
- It can easily reduce to self-effort and even striving, placing too much importance on human effort to maintain the relationship.
- Its similarity to practices from other religions can cause a loss of focus on the true goal – intimacy with Jesus.
- Some forms of meditation involve emptying the mind instead of focussing it on an object. This leaves it vulnerable to occult interference.
Mysticism and Union with God
Closely related to the above is the mystical tradition. It might be considered an extension or deepening of the contemplative tradition, but, in fact, it is something more than that. Mysticism seeks a direct experience of God by means of union between the human spirit and the Spirit of God, such that human desire might ultimately be completely absorbed into God’s desires. Some would even go so far as to seek ultimate annihilation into the Godhead, an idea which we do not believe comes from God. Thus, we might divide mysticism into two streams – a Christian spiritual discipline stream, and a more occult idea which has a tendency to also embrace non-Christian traditions such as spiritualism and Buddhism. To be sure of reaching intimacy with God we must be aware of the dangers of deception. Whenever we ignore the Holy Spirit as our guide we have departed from Christian mysticism.
Christian mysticism is traditionally practiced through the disciplines of prayer, including meditation and contemplation; self-denial, generally in the form of fasting but sometimes involving more rigorous ascetic exercises; and service to others such as almsgiving and charity work.
Christian mystics interpret sacred texts and the life, sermons and parables of Jesus metaphorically: For example, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount describes the way for direct union with God. Where most Christians agree that God dwells in all Christians and that they can experience God directly through belief in Jesus, some mystics aspires to spiritual truths not accessible through intellectual study, often by emulation of Christ himself. William Ralph Inge, in Christian Mysticism, divides this scala perfectionis into three stages: the ‘purgative’ or ascetic stage, the ‘illuminative’ or contemplative stage, and the ‘unitive’ stage, in which God may be beheld “face to face”.
Clearly, human effort in the form of the perceived need to attain esoteric knowledge and the carrying out of exercises and good works, can have a high profile in mysticism.
Many of the writers mentioned under contemplation are also mystical writers, such as Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross and Evelyn Underhill. Jeanne-Marie Bouvier de la Motte-Guyon (1648-1717), better known as Madam Guyon, wrote a number of popular books, such as A Short and Easy Method of Prayer: Praying the Heart of the Father, which have become popular again today. Like Madam Guyon, many of the mystics were persecuted by the church as heretics. Seeking the reality of God’s presence can be costly.
While keeping in mind that, as with contemplation and meditation, not everything about the mystical stream is pure, there is much to be learned from their desire and determination to find the very real presence of God in their lives. I myself am engaged in this pursuit, and you may follow my unfolding journey in one of my blogs – A Reasonable Mystic (www.reasonablemystic.com).
Another exercise, which also leads into our next section, is lectio divina or “divine reading”. It was carried out by monks, often at meals. While they all ate in silence, one (who would not get to eat that day) would read slowly and carefully from Scripture or some other divine or inspirational book. They would ponder the deeper meaning of each verse or phrase as it was read as a form of meditation. As the words struck their hearts they would sometimes find themselves spontaneously praying, a prayer which often lead to a simple, loving focus on God. They called this wordless love for God “contemplation”. The movement from Bible reading, to meditation, to prayer, to loving regard for God, was first outlined in the 12th century by a Carthusian monk, Guigo II, prior of Grande Chartreuse. He called the four steps of this ‘Ladder of Monks‘ method of prayer: lectio, meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio.
Lectio divina, sometimes called “slow reading”, is once again increasing in popularity. If used as originally intended this is wonderful, but it sometimes is thought of as a way of getting deeper into a text – more of a mental exercise than a spiritual encounter.