In this short chapter, the author counsels two things in preparation for advancement in prayer: meekness and freedom from distraction.
To move the reader toward meekness, he reminds the reader of how blessed he is to have reached this advanced stage of prayer and how the Almighty has condescended to guide the soul as a shepherd patiently guides and tends a sheep. He points out that, if God is leading us forward by the hand, we should not be looking back over our shoulders at what we have left behind.
To emphasize the need to be free from distraction, he illustrates the point with a very earthy example: closing the windows so that one is not bothered by flies while praying.
Hurry up about it! Don’t keep God waiting!
Meekness: Allowing ourselves to be led by God
Meekness may be an unfamiliar concept in our modern day of self-importance. The world is constantly telling us to be mindful of ourselves, our own needs, our importance. We might expect that someone who has already advanced to the third stage along the contemplative way would have no problem avoiding such self-centered thoughts. And yet . . . I know that, having read the previous chapter, I got a little thrill of pleasure to realize that I was already that far along the path, when many of my contemporaries seem to have fallen behind. Perhaps you felt a similar surge of self-satisfaction?
But we shouldn’t. God has been doing the real work all along, and we mustn’t forget it. We need only to remember how often we fail when we try to do things on our own and that should make it easy for us to trust in Him rather than ourselves. He has brought us safely this far, after all, and has plenty more yet to do with us before we are perfected, so we need meekly to let Him take us where He would have us go.
It’s worth pausing to ask: What does it mean to be meek? Many dictionaries will tell you this means to be submissive, but being submissive does not have a very good ring to it. In the worldly sphere, submission is frowned upon — we must assert ourselves! Only submission and domination suggest deviant sexuality does it meet with the world’s approval. But here, in the divine realm, we can put submission in its place, because this is the only attitude that will allow us to advance further along the contemplative way. We cannot acquire true contemplation by our own effort but only by meekly submitting to the will (the control) of Almighty God.
But, of course, there remains a part of us that wants to look back, like Lot’s wife, on what we are leaving behind: the illusion that we had control of our prayer life and where it was taking us. But looking back proved disastrous for Lot’s wife, and it will be disastrous for any soul who truly wants to move forward, deep into the heart of God. He is unimaginably powerful and unimaginably good and abandoning ourselves to Him can be a daunting prospect. Wouldn’t it be nicer, we wonder, to stay at the stage where we could just read and meditate, feeling like we were “giving God time” rather than letting Him have his way with us. But when God has us by the hand, we must not tarry. No lolly-gagging! We must say, as St. John Henry Newman says in his hymn, “Lead Thou me on!”
And so we meekly submit our will to God’s, trusting that He is leading us to greener pastures and more refreshing still waters than we could ever find on our own. So, we dispose ourselves to submit to His will for us, whatever that may be.
Time alone with God, no distractions!
God is a jealous lover,” our anonymous author reminds us. He does not want to share our time together with anyone or anything else, not now. As we near our destination, we should be eager to move forward, shouldn’t we? Nothing competing for our attention, no distractions — and no checking our Facebook updates, planning dinner, reading spiritual books, or even writing informative and inspiring blog posts during our daily alone-time with God.
Okay, I’ll admit, this part is hard for me, perhaps even harder than it has ever been in the past. O irony! Just when I want to “be still and know that He is God,” I find every kind of distraction clamoring for my attention. I have been trying to carve out a time of day that belongs to God and none other — and so far with little success. I’ve surrounded myself with sacred icons to help me focus, I’ve set all sorts of prayer alarms and reminders and yet I manage to tune them all out in my ever-varied busyness. Why is it that I can focus so intently on doing many other things that I want to do, yet can’t focus on sitting quietly, intently with God? Yet I have far fewer distractions than most people, who must report to bosses, look after kids, and do a thousand other things that I don’t need to worry about.
These distractions should not surprise me, though. As our author says, now that we are God’s, His enemies are our enemies. And His enemies want nothing more than to distract us from the contemplative way, to make us wander, if even for a moment, back into the broad thoroughfare where “real life” is happening, in all its fascinating busyness.
So how do we do it, we ordinary folk with ordinary lives, who don’t have the silence and calm routine of the monastery to help us remain recollected? Because, you see, I am convinced that we are all called to the same, deeply transformative prayer as any cloistered contemplative is. You and I and every other soul is called by God into this intimate union with Him, so that we may be refashioned, refined, reformed into His likeness by His love. Every intimate relationship requires “quality time” in which we can be alone with the Beloved, even if nothing happens during that time except us gazing with love and longing up on the One we love and feeling His returning gaze. How much more, then, must we take pains to spend time regularly alone with God?
“Be still and know that I am God.” Who knew that such a simple command could be so hard to accomplish? To help myself try harder, I’m going to change a few pronouns and make our author’s words my own (my paraphrase of the original):
My whole life from now on must be to stand in desire and longing for God, if I hope to become that perfect version of myself that He has in mind. And this desire and longing must continually be wrought in my will by the hand of Almighty God, with my own consent. But I must remind myself of one thing, that He is a jealous lover and will abide no other companions when we are together. He wants to be alone with me so that He can refashion my will. All He requires of me is my presence. I just need to keep my gaze fixed on Him and allow Him to do what He will.Chapter 2, The Cloud of Unknowing, my paraphrase
Of course, now the question arises: I’m ready, eager, and willing, so now what? We’ll begin to learn that in the next chapter.