One dark night,
Fired with love's urgent longings,
-Ah, the sheer grace!-
I went out unseen,
My house being now all stilled;
(Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh, OC.D. and Otilio Rodriguez, O.C.D., Washington, D.C.: ICS (1979) p 711.)
St. John of the Cross orients us to the beauty of silent prayer in these first lines of his poem, Noche Oscura. Such prayer is a hidden experience of ecstasy, a going out of self to meet God. In this experience, God is like a secret lover who is waiting outside our normal preoccupations with self. The soul yearns to be with God, yearns to be loved. This soul that yearns for love also suffers imprisonment, trapped in its own house, in its own self: what it imagines, what it feels, what it thinks it wants. But what happens when all this limiting activity is silenced? What happens when my passions for my own comfort, reputation, and self-satisfaction are asleep? This is a sheer grace, a delightful surprise, a longed for opportunity. Now the soul can sneak out of itself and search for the One for whom it longs.
This silent prayer is a loving movement by which we leave behind, if only for a few minutes, all the anxieties and concerns that eat up so much of our day to day living. Forgetting everything, pressing forward to what lies ahead, those who take up this kind of prayer encounter the Bridegroom who eagerly waits for them. Such prayer normally requires preparation - although God can also grant it as a pure surprise to someone when they least expect it. In our next post we will consider the preparation John of the Cross proposes.