I disciple a younger guy here every Saturday afternoon. We meet for lunch, chat, shuffle our feet, and eventually get into prayer, Bible reflections and, perhaps, a more focused discussion of a book or issue. Every week before we pray I set up a table. On that table I put my crucifix.* In front of that crucifix I lean an icon of Mary with Jesus (Salus Populi Romani), which I bought in Rome after World Youth Day. At the base of the icon, partially to keep it from sliding down, I place a red plastic heart. And next to all these things I place a lit candle. I tell my friend the following:
‘We want to be like Mary. We want to hold Jesus. We want to be close to Him, especially as he suffers on the Cross. We want to place our hearts before Jesus. We want to pray with our hearts, breathe with our hearts. Do you see the candle? We want the fire of the Holy Spirit. We are like wax: without this fire we are hard, cold and inert. But with the fire--! With the fire we become soft, warm, fluid, bright – alive! When we are soft, Jesus can remake us in His image. But if we remain cold and hard, all His efforts to move, guide, heal and change us will only break us.’
And that’s what I’m trying to tell you too. All these ‘techniques’ are but devices meant to open us to the fire of God. Not one of them, as a particular method, is essential for becoming soft wax. As St. Teresa Avila said, ‘Pray as you can for prayer doesn't consist of thinking a great deal, but of loving a great deal' (Interior Castle, IV.i.7). In fact, she said, God can lead to the heights of mystical contemplation even some one who uses only the Lord's Prayer (Way T, xxv.1; xxx.7). What, then, does matter? St. Teresa again: 'Never, for any reason whatever, neglect to pray' (as cited in E. W. Trueman Dicken, ‘Teresa of Jesus and John of the Cross’ The Study of Spirituality [Oxford University Press, 1986] p. 366; as cited here).
What does this entail? What does being melted, by any means, mean for our daily lives? It means being with Jesus, Him who, as God, was so consumed with the divine fire, that, as man, He in turn ignited the whole race with new hope and new life. What, though, does it mean to be with Jesus? Many things. But one I want to encourage in particular is being with Him ‘in the desert’.
40: Now when the sun was setting, all those who had any that were sick with various diseases brought them to him; and he laid his hands on every one of them and healed them. 41: And demons also came out of many, crying, "You are the Son of God!" But he rebuked them, and would not allow them to speak, because they knew that he was the Christ.
42: And when it was day he departed and went into a lonely [Grk., eremon = desert-ed] place. And the people sought him and came to him, and would have kept him from leaving them; 43: but he said to them, "I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose."
So, you have made it this far ‘praying with the Cogitator’. Congratulations (I think). It goes without saying that, if any particular prayer technique is not essential for being melted in Christlikeness, still less is listening to my many words essential. Why, then, have I wasted so much time explaining non-essential ‘techniques’ to people already flooded with words and ‘good ideas’? To answer that question, and to close this series, I adapt as my own Henri Nouwen’s words in his foreword to Reaching Out:
How can I tell other about reaching out [or about prayer], while I find myself so often caught in my own passions and weaknesses [and prayerless apathy]? I found some consolation in the words of one of the most stern ascetics, the seventh-century John of the Ladder, who lived for forty years a solitary life at Mount Sinai:*
If some are still dominated by their former bad habits, and yet can teach by mere words, let them teach…. For perhaps, by being put to shame by their own words, they will eventually practice what they teach.