xbn .
Photography courtesy of Richard Irvine
Catholic Re-Visions

Contemplative Prayer, Desire, and the Problem of Other People

In its embrace of solitude, contemplative prayer opens up a space of tension around the social and embodied qualities of desire.

This is about silence and desire, and about silence around desire. It is part an attempt to trace the institutional importance of contemplative prayer in English Benedictine life. In particular, I want to examine the way that prayer opens up a space of tension around the social and embodied nature of desire.

During one of my early visits to Downside Abbey, a monastery in Somerset, I was gifted a copy of the Spiritual Letters of John Chapman, who had been Abbot there from 1929 until his death in 1933. Throughout my visits I had been directed to readings and archival material that introduced me to key figures that had shaped the institution. With my sense that contemplative prayer was an “identifying mark” of the English Benedictines, this book and the influence of Chapman’s teaching on the monks was a good place to start. Also, the gift represented the giver’s curiosity about whether I myself was drawn to this way of prayer.

I was immediately attracted to Chapman’s Letters (and still am) and read the book cover to cover on the Eurolines coach from Bristol to Cork, where I was working that summer. I liked the practical nature of the advice: “Pray as you can, and do not try to pray as you can’t” (109). Also appealing was his recognition that ‘mysticism’ was not the domain of only a select few specialists, but an ordinary path all people may find themselves on.

But above all, I was drawn to the encouragement Chapman offered to those experiencing failure, for whom prayer has become “a dry land where no water is” (46). Indeed, a recurrent theme in Chapman’s letters is guidance for those who come to experience this dryness. Whereas at one stage it was possible to pass the time with thoughts on a religious subject, the individual in the act of prayer now finds himself unable to think, and the language of prayer seems to have no meaning. Where one might once have summoned emotions through meditative reflection, now “affections, instead of coming easily, won’t come at all” (283). The value of this dryness is that it leads us to change our way of prayer. “All those who find it impossible to meditate… and find they cannot fix their thoughts on a subject, or understand the meaning of the words, unless they cease to feel they are praying, are meant to cease all thinking, and only make acts of the will” (119).

During my fieldwork in the monastery, similar advice was given to me by the community’s librarian, Daniel Rees, as part of a ‘road map’ of prayer. He told me that such ‘rough patches’, which might cause us to give up altogether, should be seen to have a purpose: “To change our means of praying, to develop our spiritual faculties… to focus us on God the unknown, rather than the ways we picture him.” And this, I was subsequently told by the monk who had gifted me the copy of Spiritual Letters, was the heart of Chapman’s message: to recognise that moment in which the desire for God can only be met by “emptying out.”

The trouble is that this can feel like you’re not doing much: “The soul itself often feels rather idiotic, and wonders whether it is not wasting time, knowing that, if it described its state to any sensible person, it would be told to go and do something useful, and not moon.” In fact, in this state of emptying oneself out to be with God, our imagination may wander, finding itself unoccupied. For this reason it is useful to repeat a phrase of prayer as a way of “throwing a bone to the dog” (73) so as not to end up worried or to allow our will to be distracted by our emotions or thought processes. Ultimately they are incidental to our prayer, so much so that they can simply be disowned: “The real ‘I’ is the will which gives itself to God.” Chapman continues, parenthetically, “The emotions and imaginations are not me, they are in me, but they are not under my control” (175).

What is being described is a kind of desire that meets with silence: to sit and want God, but not to be able to summon up ways of thinking about God that respond to this desire, nor to be capable of an emotional expression of this desire. What is being taught is that this silence is to be accepted and even welcomed. God is beyond any finite concepts and images at our disposal, and what we desire is God, not those concepts. As “emotions refuse to arise”, this aridity is to be welcomed, however unpleasant we might find it at the time, because it is the stripping of the self. One monk explained the significance of this stripping of the self to me by way of scripture: “He must increase, I must decrease” (John 3:30). While you are focused on your own mental and emotional processes, you are focused on the self. The failure of these forms of attention to the self is therefore key to reaching a state of attentiveness to God.

This accords with the more widely known account of contemplation provided by St John of the Cross, to whom Chapman makes frequent reference. St John of the Cross speaks of the “night of the senses”, a process of purgation such that desire is no longer met with its sensual response – Chapman’s distinctive emphasis is on this passage to contemplative prayer which lies after the night of the senses as “the ordinary prayer of pious people”, and on the practical recognition of how the mind wanders even as the will is focused on God. Yet as I read around Chapman’s letters, exploring the texts to which he was referring, particularly the Dark Night of the Soul, I was immediately struck by the contrast in tone and mood. John of the Cross communicates his teaching through love poetry:

Oh, night that guided me,

Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,

Oh, night that joined Beloved with lover,

Lover transformed in the Beloved!

And this language of a love affair is erotically charged:

And on my flowering breast

Which I had kept for him and him alone

There he stayed sleeping and I caressed him

Here the language of desire takes on a dimension which was conspicuously absent in Chapman and often in wider conversations on contemplative prayer in the English Benedictine tradition (though it is important to note that Chapman presents a particular extreme of this austerity that finds counterpoints in other sources and teachers). The entry into contemplation as a response to desire is a movement of loss of thought and sense. Thus when language needed to be used to provide some description of what exactly it is that is being related to, it was the language of absence: “nothing”, “a void”, “a blank”. Shorn of the sensual, only a silence around desire was possible. To refer to the object of desire through sensual language would be to fall back into conceptualisations that limit God, and back to the self-focused senses that must decrease so that God can increase.)

I would subsequently discover (through the same person who gifted me the Letters) the theologian Sarah Coakley’s sympathetic but perceptively critical reading of Chapman in which she remarks on his negativity – even scorn – about feelings and his suspicion of ecstasies, as well as his silence around sexual desire; “the most curious of all excerptions from John of the Cross’ writing.” All this means that Chapman, while emphasising our endurance of the night of the senses, has little to share of what John of the Cross describes as the newness of sense in which we rejoice in God after the nights of the senses and the soul. As Coakley succinctly puts it, we are left with “sanjuanism with a stiff upper lip.”

What are the social dimensions of all this? The first thing to note is how desire becomes bound up with aloneness. In the English Benedictine context this was most apparent in the emphasis and importance placed on private prayer. You might have your duties within the community, and the day was shaped by the shared points of prayer of the liturgy, but the need to be alone with God in private prayer was paramount.

This privacy opened up a remarkable space for freedom. While the preconditions of contemplative prayer can be described – the ‘roadmap’ that leads one there – there was not only a reluctance to describe contemplative prayer itself, but an insistence that its non-imagistic and non-conceptual nature rendered such a description impossible. Furthermore, because the experience of prayer cannot be described, it is very difficult for authority structures (within the monastery as well as beyond the cloister walls) to guide and shape it. Each monk is left solus cum solo, ‘alone with the alone.’ One might go further and say that this aloneness tended towards the asocial: the very emphasis on the divided consciousness in contemplative prayer involves a separation from everyday thought and sense – the faculties through which social interaction and behaviour in the world is directed. They are a self which is ‘not me’.

Consequently, as one monk explained to me, “It is no surprise that people can find [prayer] a lonely and thankless task. Yes, I am on the brink of a very forlorn place.” It was only with time that he saw in this something to be valued. “I found myself thankful for finding solitude no longer odious.”

This emphasis on an interiorised spirituality, private in the senses described above, was often described to me as ‘individualistic’ – even to the extent that it might be in tension with other aspects of community life. For example, it could lead to a neglect of other duties, even the sense that one should not be too concerned if one has to be away from the shared prayer of the Divine Office – the points of communal prayer that shape the day in the monastery – given that the core of one’s prayer life is elsewhere. Such an attitude would sit uncomfortably with St. Benedict’s exhortation in Chapter 43 of his Rule, “Let nothing, therefore, be put before the Work of God [i.e. the Divine Office].”

The nurturing of such individualism in the context of the communal life of a monastery might be seen as something of a puzzle, though one which makes a little more sense when we consider that, for much of the history of the English Benedictine Congregation from its foundation in the 16th century, its focus was on preparing monks to be sent on the ‘mission’ by serving as priests in post-Reformation England, often in situations that would place them in a great deal of danger. Even following Catholic emancipation and the 19th century return of monasteries to England, the English Benedictine commitment to send priests to work away from the monastery in parishes persisted. For this reason, it might be suggested that the ‘training’ provided through a longstanding tradition of private prayer, onto which Chapman’s own approach was grafted, equips the monk to live an individual spiritual life in a state of separation from the community.

We arrive, finally, at the problem of the presence of other people and their relation to desire. This is a dual problem: firstly that other people can be a frustration of a desire that can only be met by getting away into privateness. This privateness is a precondition for the emptying-out of prayer and yet, as individualism, runs a risk of inflating the very self that is to be overcome. Secondly, in that privateness and the divided consciousness it fosters, the desire for people becomes incidental, even disowned (or repressed?): “O God, You know these thoughts are against my will, I don’t want them, they are not ME” (90).

In this context, it is interesting to note the experiments in ‘shared prayer’ that were a feature of life at Downside and elsewhere in the English Benedictine Congregation during the 1970s as part of the process of renewal of monastic life in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. The monks’ recollections of these experiments stressed the spontaneity and free-flowing nature of shared prayer (in contrast to the formalisation of the liturgy of the Divine Office), and also the importance of communication, in contrast to the silence and isolation that we see associated with contemplative prayer. However, these practices did not endure. Not only were there concerns about cliquishness, as one monk explained that “life is full of distractions anyway, but in private prayer we’re able to set those to one side. You can’t do that if you’re talking away with other people, or they’re talking away, or whatever.” In the words of another monk: “It’s like tuning a radio and getting interference.”

Yet the impulse leading to such attempts to find a place for shared prayer in the institutional life of the community was by no means an artificial one. It was a sign of wider tensions around monastic prayer life. In the case of the community of Downside, such tensions were very clearly expressed in The Experience of Prayer, a book co-authored by monks who had been sent away to a parish in inner-city Liverpool (a posting that was in part a way of removing some of the theologically troublesome monks and limiting the disruption they could cause in the monastery itself). It begins with an introduction by Peter Harvey that explained the context the monks were writing out of, where “one’s prayer was not an experience which could be shared or communicated, so there was no sensible touch-stone of authenticity,” while the experience of love “was at best peripheral to the life of the community and to our real task of seeking God in prayer.” Harvey concludes,“The resultant private love-world in fact carried with it the same radical constriction as the private prayer-world.”

Little wonder, then, that later in the book Kevin Maguire states “Private prayer is a lonely thing.” What the book records are experiments in prayer that get bound up with desire that finds more expression with others than without them. Not surprisingly, for much of the book the task of infusing the language of prayer with more love finds expression, as with John of the Cross, in poetry that does not mask its erotic nature, as in Maguire’s poem “Knowing Nothing”:

scarlet pervades the wind

opening fleshwounds that

sear the sunblinded eyeballs




                                    of fuckly fuckly loving

every eye and limb and nostril


                        sweet grass


up to skies of dazzling horizon openblue

Ultimately, whatever the hope for a renewal of the relational basis of contemplative prayer, “such that, to my surprise, I find I can no longer pray most fully when alone,” the desire that permeates The Experience of Prayer could not be easily contained within English Benedictine life. Of the four Downside monks in Liverpool at the time the book was written, three left the monastic life and priesthood. The other, Sebastian Moore, migrated to the USA in the wake of difficulties and struggles with the Downside community, and was absent from the life of the monastery until he returned 22 years later. It was he who gave me the copy of Chapman’s Spiritual Letters.

“My secret is God, I’m God’s secret” [1]: desire, the closet, and queer ministry

In Spain, a man contests the sexual politics of the Catholic Church by opening the first LGBTQ+ faith refuge.

Women’s Desire for Priests

Reflections on a Catholic ‘gender paradox’: When womens’ desire for priests drives the Church’s ‘passionate machine’

Polish Grassroots Theologies of Desire: From Internal Conflict to Political Action

Polish Catholics protest against the Church’s conservative approach to sexuality. Liberal traditions have been successfully silenced since John Paul II, so now they create their own theologies of desire. Will the Church listen?

Responding to the Desiring God

Contemplating a radical response to contemporary politics of (sexual) desire

Contemplative Prayer, Desire, and the Problem of Other People

In its embrace of solitude, contemplative prayer opens up a space of tension around the social and embodied qualities of desire.

Desire and Meaning in Augustine

Language and meaning originate not from a fullness trying to communicate itself but from a lack that strives after enjoyment.

Like what you're reading?

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This

Share this post with your friends!