“May it please the Lord to enable me to say something… for to explain to you what I should like is very difficult unless you have had personal experience.”
St. Teresa of Avila
Teresa was a Catholic Carmelite nun who lived and worked in Avila, Spain in the 16th century. Her writings have been called some of the most remarkable Christian mystical literature ever written.
The first time I read Teresa’s Interior Castle I needed help. I didn’t need help deciphering Teresa’s words, the language isn’t overly complicated, but I needed help letting go of my own ideas long enough to hear her. I needed someone to help me see that she had not figured out some magical path that she was now trying to teach me.
Developing a relationship with our Heavenly Father is not a matter of knowing the right steps to ascend to where he is. So long as I treated it that way I kept being distracted.
I actually thought she was being quite rude sometimes. “As these Mansions are now getting near to the place where the King dwells, they are of great beauty and there are such exquisite things to be seen and appreciated in them that the understanding (or the mind) is incapable of describing them in any way accurately without being completely obscure to those devoid of experience.” Rude. So, if I’m not getting it then I’m inexperienced, and practically hopeless?
But this isn’t what she was saying. She wasn’t trying to be rude. I was reading through the filter of my own opinions of myself. She wasn’t trying to get me to understand anything, or to be where she is and not where I am. She was only trying to help me see what was already there. She was trying to invite me to look at my own experiences and see if God had not revealed the same to me, perhaps using other words than the ones she was able to find for herself. “Any experienced person will understand quite well,” she says.
These shared human experiences reveal to us the mysteries of God, not by explaining them to us, but by telling us to look and see. Teresa was pointing to the same thing Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon were pointing to when they declared that the glory of the heavens “surpasses all understanding” (Doctrine and Covenants 76:89). Joseph and Sidney’s description was new, and their attempt to find the right words didn’t work for everyone.
“When God revealed to Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon that there was a place prepared for all, according to the light they had received and their rejection of evil and practice of good, it was a great trial to many, and some apostatized because God was not going to send to everlasting punishment heathens and infants, but had a place of salvation, in due time, for all, and would bless the honest and virtuous and truthful, whether they ever belonged to any church or not. It was a new doctrine to this generation, and many stumbled at it” (Brigham Young, Teachings of Presidents of the Church).
Yet, this vision of a merciful loving God and mansions prepared for all was not as new as the language they used to describe it. Many already believed in grace, and had nuanced beliefs about what that meant for each individual. In the scrambling to assign value to certain words over others, many lost sight of what the whole thing was pointing to. And others, who accepted the vision, tried to nail it down and narrow it even beyond the words Joseph and Sidney used, and thereby new doctrines were formed that may or may not have been Joseph’s intention. We don’t fight about our experiences of God, we fight about our conclusions about God, as if the experience of being with God, and the revelations that pour from that relationship, could ever be concluded.
We’re all seeing through a glass darkly, as Paul explained, and we mostly do our best to speak of our experiences in ways that are helpful to ourselves and others. But language can get in the way. Conversations kept in a cerebral sphere have to be had carefully in order to make sure individuals are truly speaking the same language. We can spend countless hours trying to hash out the correct way to speak, or we can let go of the language barriers and see through experience to the truths being pointed to.
This is the heart of contemplation.
Contemplation doesn’t live in the realm of having and believing thoughts about things. Thoughts come to us in the form of language, words that come into our minds, a subtext to our lives. Contemplation is our life itself. And the challenge of discussing contemplation comes from that very truth.
How can we even know we are having shared experiences if we don’t share them? And that requires communication, and communication requires a form of language, spoken or otherwise. Language is a subjective part of our learned experiences, and that presents a challenge. It requires a new way of hearing and seeing that allows us to drop under the specificity of the words to see what they are pointing to.
It is here that we find unity, and peace. When we let go of our own language for our experiences, and are willing to hear another’s description of their experience, we can see off into the distance, or drop down into, this spacious place where we are all connected to each other in the embrace of truly loving Heavenly Parents. Our Father is holding us all in the same tender and gentle care. God is speaking to all of us through both the intentionally sacred and the spiritually mundane. The Universe’s very nature is to sustain us as the beings of light we are. You see, what we name it matters less than what it is.
Having named this practice “contemplation”, we start at the very beginning with a conundrum of meaning. To “contemplate” is to think, and we honor that thinking occurs, but “contemplation” as a practice points to something else entirely. The name we gave this practice of awareness becomes a paradox that can demonstrate the inadequacy of language and logical reasoning while also pointing us to the nondual nature of life. (We humans love giving names to things, and there are names for these helpful paradoxes too. In Zen Buddhism they are called koans.) It’s both contemplating and not contemplating at the same time. And therein lies profound truth about the nature of everything.
In contemplative practice, we are literally practicing going to that place beyond words, where the paradoxes of language fall away and what remains is unspeakable truth. We do not harbor feelings of frustration with the trouble words can sometimes cause, but we let them come and go, recognizing them as a function of our mind, who serves us greatly by keeping us alive. We do not give thoughts more power than simply sometimes being useful for survival. We do not try to focus on any object, even our breath, unless the temporary focus on one object helps us let go of a myriad of other objects that compete for our attention in the present moment.
Maybe we drop into a heart awareness that holds space for everything we sense. Maybe we transcend senses as we drift into a larger awareness. Maybe we are raising above. Maybe we are dropping below. Perhaps we are ascending to God or descending with Christ. Even in contemplation, we mustn’t let language distract us from what is being pointed to. And what is being pointed to is that great big place where you know you are loved. Not only are you loved, but everyone is loved. And you know you belong. Not only do you belong, but everyone belongs.
In contemplation, it doesn’t matter much how we get to this knowing. This knowing is always already there. There are some practices that are helpful to get us started, to help open our hearts to this spacious way of being, like sitting, meditation, stillness, and prayer, but ultimately, this knowing needs no introduction to our present moments.
As we let ourselves rest into its safety over and over and over, our knowing will present itself everywhere. It will show up in all of our experiences, from saving ordinances performed in sacred spaces to the bird that stayed on its perch just a moment longer than you expected it to. We will begin to sense that it is always there, so that we are not bothered when we do not sense it because we know it’s there, whether we are sensing it or not. Yet another beautiful paradox.
Be patient with yourself on your path of contemplation. Do not compare yourself to others who you think are farther along than you. “Farther” is a tool of the mind, helpful in its place in the mind’s important work of survival, and useless to the heart’s knowing work of living. You are whole, your mind and heart together, and you will discover many beautiful practices and experiences on your unique journey.
“And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.”
Paul, Philippians 4:7