I mentioned in the last post in this series that “doing nothing” and “just being” in the dark night of the senses becomes a form of spiritual discipline in this season, and today I’d like to talk about what that means.
Here’s how St. John of the Cross describes the intended activity of this portion of the dark night:
“The soul must content herself with a loving attentiveness toward God, without agitation, without effort, without the desire to taste or feel him. These urges only disquiet and distract the soul from the peaceful quietude and sweet ease inherent in the gift of contemplation being offered.”
A loving attentiveness toward God. I just love that description, don’t you? This is the soul’s only necessary activity during this time.
John of the Cross calls this practice of applying simple, unencumbered, loving attentiveness toward God contemplation. That’s a mouthful of a concept, and it is one that has carried a couple different connotations throughout the centuries for different spiritual writers.
For some spiritual writers, such as St. Ignatius of Loyola, contemplation referred to the use of imagination in prayer — a kind of contemplation that sat with scenes from the Scriptures or scenes given to the soul by God and noticed the details of those scenes. This kind of “praying with the imagination” became, for St. Ignatius, one way for the soul to reflect upon its posture and relation to God, which then became a gateway to conversation with God.
For another group of spiritual writers, contemplation has referred to a kind of intense, singular study of an object in order to notice — really notice — it. A common example here would be the contemplation of a single flower, staring at it for a long period of time to notice all of its intricacies and, through such intense noticing, be led into spiritual experience. The perspective regarding this type of contemplation is that by studying a single object with such continuity and faithfulness, we deepen our ability to truly see.
John of the Cross meant something quite different by the word contemplation. For him, contemplation meant being present to God without thought, study, activity, or imagination. Simply being before God.
Have you ever experienced this kind of contemplative prayer before?