May: Contemplative Prayer
“There is considerable evidence that highly experienced contemplatives may not have more unitive experiences, but they at least recognize these experiences more often.”
Gerald G. May, Will and Spirit, p. 205. HarperOne 1982.
Gerald May, a psychiatrist associated with the spiritual direction program at the Shalem Institute in Washington, D.C., in Will and Spirit, writes about the dynamics of the human mind and its relationship to God in contemplative prayer. May’s central theme is the “unitive” experience as the keystone to contemplative spirituality, being at one, loss of self-definition, totally wide awake and open, aware, more concerned for others and compassionate.
It is not something that can be achieved or made to happen, but is a gift from God, given through grace, what those in 12-step programs would call, “a moment of clarity”, where the addict or alcoholic sees for a brief second how he or she is relating to the world.
As opposed to a psychedelic experience which leaves a person right where he started, a unitive experience develops growth or integration. We may put ourselves in position in spiritual direction to find such experiences, but it is impossible to make them happen. May compares the struggle to that of the addict to quit on willpower over desire. When will power is all we have, desire wins hands down. The act of legitimate spiritual surrender must be conscious, intentional, and freely chosen and we must be willing to accept responsibility for surrender.
Contemplative practices may be associated with a greater recognition of the divine in daily life, but it should not to be associated with achievement, attainment or even a constant state of unity. Emotions must be noticed, but left alone. Some contemplatives like those who live with chronic pain, and very young children can be better at this as they stay aware and “keep their hands off their minds.”
Pascal writes that “all human evil comes from our being unable to sit still in a room.” The practice of quiet is an exercise in “not doing,” a study in surrender, letting go, which Jung points out is quite different from “doing nothing.”
May believes we cannot expect to grow in spiritual awareness without some intentional practice of silence.