We have been exploring the depth of meaning in the John Main prayer which Christian meditators say before meditation. The second sentence of the prayer reads: “Lead us into that mysterious silence where Your love is revealed to all who call.” In this article I want to reflect on the phrase: ‘Lead us into that mysterious silence.’
We have seen already that meditation is a practice that takes us beyond mental activity to an experiential appreciation of who we are at the deepest level of our being. James Finley is one of many people who have written much about Christian meditation. He says that in meditation “we freely choose to offer the least resistance to the tyranny of thought”. Isn’t that a lovely expression ‘the tyranny of thought’? And he goes on to say “we open ourselves to the mystery of knowing God in ways that utterly transcend what thought can grasp or contain”.
As John Main expressed it: “The beauty of the Christian vision of life is its vision of unity. It sees that all [people have] been unified in the one who is in union with the Father. He goes on to add that the central task for each person is to grow into this vision in their own personal experience.
And, so in this contemplative prayer, we ask God to lead us into that mysterious silence. We ask because we know this is not something we can achieve of our own volition. We can leave ourselves open to it through contemplative prayer but we cannot bring it about through our own efforts. But we trust that in the stillness and silence of meditation God will lead us into a graced encounter with Silence. Pope Francis points out that “trust-filled prayer is a response of a heart open to encountering God face-to-face, where all is peaceful and the quiet voice of the Lord can be heard in the midst of silence”.
And it is a deeply mysterious experience because it occurs at a level of consciousness deeper than ordinary, everyday consciousness and for that reason the experience cannot be captured in words. Whatever words we use merely point us towards it, but to apprehend the depth of the silence we must experience it for ourselves. When we first begin to practice meditation we may be hugely surprised at the amount of pointless thinking and interpretation that goes on inside our heads. And we may be almost overwhelmed by how continual and the relentless thought can be. But the more we observe our thoughts and interpretations, the more we begin to realise that they are not reality – they are merely thoughts and they can be let go.
And when we let them go we begin to encounter that which lies beneath – we begin to apprehend the deep, mysterious silence beneath the noise. I deliberately use the word apprehend rather than comprehend. We perceive the silence, we experience it at the level of the heart without fully understanding that experience at the level of the mind. It lies beyond the rational but it is real and deeply meaningful; it is a trans-rational heartfelt experience.
What we apprehend is that we are loved – not for our talents or our achievements, not for our ego or our performance – but that we are loved for who we truly are, that we were created as love and remain intimately connected to the ground of all being, to Reality with a capital R, to Love with a capital L, to Being with a capital B, Presence with a capital P. Thomas Merton, who was the first in our time to rediscover Christian meditation, once wrote that when we meditate we discover that “underlying the subjective experience of the individual self there is an immediate experience of Being … [which] is totally different from the experience of self-consciousness”.
He described this discovery, this growing awareness, as the discovery of our true-self. We discover the true self not through the mind but through the heart. Sometimes words help us to appreciate a deep truth, especially when expressed through poetry. But words can only point to something – no word is ever the thing it seeks to describe. This is especially true when it comes to describing the landscape of the spirit, of the human heart, when we try to give expression to that which is experienced in the heart and not the mind. The mysterious silence into which we are led in meditation is the ground of our being, it is who we really are. We all participate in it, uniquely, but equally. In this silence we discover that we are truly one.
While in everyday life we think of ourselves as separate beings, we discover in meditation that instead we are unique manifestations of the same being. We are all beloved children of God. And when we discover that, when we truly apprehend the truth of that, our way of seeing – and therefore our way of being in the world – changes. We become kinder to ourselves and others. And, remember, kindness, like silence, is a language, a presence, which everyone understands – a language that even the deaf can hear and the blind can see.
After 40 years in the education sector Noel Keating was awarded a PhD for his research into the child’s experience of meditation and its spiritual fruits. Noel now leads, in a voluntary capacity, a project which offers free in-service to primary schools who may wish to consider introducing meditation as a whole-school practice. Noel is author of Meditation with Children: A Resource for Teachers and Parents.