But we can go through our daily lives with that prospect mostly consigned to the back of our minds. We know that someday we will have to face it all, but that day is a long ways off and, for now, we can peacefully accommodate ourselves to our procrastinations and weaknesses. The time to radically face ourselves and our Maker, to stand in the searing light of full judgment, will only come at the time of death.
But, why wait until death? Why live with so much unnecessary fear? Why hide from God’s judgment? Why delay throwing ourselves into God’s mercy and peace?
Searing judgment of our souls is meant to be a daily occurrence, not a single traumatic moment at the end of our lives. We are meant to bring ourselves, with all our complexities and weaknesses, into God’s full light every day. How?
There are many ways to do this, though all of them are predicated on the same thing, namely, on bringing ourselves before God in searing honesty. In essence, we face the light of God’s full judgment every time we pray in real honesty. Genuine prayer brings us into that searing light. And, in the great prayer traditions, one particular form of prayer, contemplative prayer, is singled out as being most helpful in doing this, that is, prayer without words, without images, the prayer of quiet, centering prayer.
There are various methods for praying in this way. From the Desert Fathers, through the author of the Cloud of Unknowing, through Thomas Merton, through John Main, through Thomas Keating, through Laurence Freeman, among others, we have been invited to supplement our other methods of prayer with contemplative prayer, that is, prayer without images, without words, without concentrating on holy thoughts, and without looking for affective, faith-filled feelings in our prayer.
How do we pray in this way? We pray in this way by wordlessly bringing ourselves into God’s presence in a way that we hide nothing of ourselves. Perhaps a description of how this kind of prayer differs from other kinds of prayer might best serve us here.
Normal, meditative types of prayer essentially work this way: You set off to pray, find a quiet place, sit or kneel down, make a conscious act to center yourself in prayer, focus on an inspiring text or thought, begin to meditate on those words, try to hear what is being said inside you, articulate the challenge or insight that is making itself heard there, and then connect this all to your relationship to God, through gratitude, love, praise, or petition. In this kind of prayer, your focus is on an inspiring word or insight, the response this creates in you, and your own response to God in the light of that. But, and this is its shortcoming, the words, images, and feelings in that kind of prayer, for all their goodness, can still act as a camouflage that protects you from being fully exposed and naked before God, akin to what we can do in a conversation with another person when we can talk about all kinds of things, good things, but avoid talking about what is really at issue.
Contemplative prayer, by way of contrast, is prayer without words or images. It works this way: You set off to pray, find a quiet place, sit or kneel, and make a conscious act to simply place yourself before God. Then you simply stay there, naked and unprotected by any words, images, conversations, rationalizations, or even by any holy feelings about Jesus, his Mother, some saint, some icon, or inspirational idea. All of these, good as they are, can help you avoid having to be there naked before God. Contemplative prayer brings you into God’s presence without protection, with no possibility of hiding anything. The silence and absence of prayerful conversation is what leaves you naked and exposed, like a plant sitting in the sun, silently drinking in its rays.
We are meant to face God like this every day of our lives, not just at the moment of our death. So, each day, we should set aside some time to put ourselves into God’s presence without words and without images, where, naked, stripped of everything, silent, exposed, hiding nothing, completely vulnerable, we simply sit, full face, before God’s judgment and mercy.
By doing this, we will preempt any traumatic encounter at the time of our death and, more importantly, we will begin, already here and now, to enjoy more fully God’s empathic embrace.