Prayer, both personal and in the community of believing people, is most frequently vocal, as praise and petitions are brought before God. Men and women of prayer down the ages have recognised, however, the place of silence with God, and good reason for seeking solitude, aloneness with God, even for quite long periods. But, as Leroy T. Howe puts it, ‘as Jesus’ own example shows clearly, solitude is rightly for the sake of renewing one’s strength for worldly responsibilities; unless it aims toward a more creative participation in the world from which one temporarily detached himself, prayer reduces to an escape mechanism whose inner essence flagrantly denies the grace of God itself.’ Max Warren develops helpfully the principle, following the example of Jesus himself, there should be in the Christian life a rhythm of withdrawal and return, withdrawal from the world for spiritual renewal, and then return to the world to serve there in the name of Christ.
Silent meditation has great importance in a world full of words. We are bombarded with the world’s messages, with voices all too human, in advertising, in political and religious opinion, in entertainment, and in a host of other ways. “Be still,” says the word of the Lord through the psalmist, “and know that I am God” (Ps.46:10). But it is important in the stillness to allow one’s thoughts to be filled with God. Meditation that is linked with prayer must be focused on God. There is a kind of meditation recommended as an antidote for the busyness of our world that is not necessarily centred on God. In quietness one’s thoughts can be turned in many directions other than God-wards. This is the importance of the word of God being the focus of meditation, so that silence can be truly a centring of the whole being on God and not on any false gods.
This is an appropriate place to consider mysticism, though it is too vast a subject for any adequate treatment here. Mysticism is a word that has different meanings for different people. The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church says, ‘It has no limits historically or geographically, nor can it be contained philosophically or theologically.’ More helpfully it goes on, ‘It concerns the interior life of the Spirit —. Immediate relationship with the ultimate is the essence of mysticism.’ Defined in such terms it is, of course, not necessarily Christian. Christian mysticism seeks that intimate relationship with God through Jesus Christ, and as it focuses on God approached through Jesus assisted by the Spirit, it involves true prayer. Christian mystics have spoken and written of stages to be passed through in coming to mystical experience.
The Bible says little of mysticism. Prayer in the Bible is mostly articulated in words, though Romans 8:26 speaks of intercession that is “too deep for words”. It may be right to speak of the experiences of revelation of which the apostle Paul speaks in 2 Corinthians 12 as mystical experiences, and similarly the praying “in tongues” where the spirit prays and not the mind (1 Cor.14:15).
Some Christian thinkers, however, question whether mysticism is true prayer. Daniel Jenkins speaks of the danger that it could be ‘nothing more than a dialogue of our souls with themselves and ultimately resolves itself into “intense soul-emotion”. Prayer, like all parts of man’s life, needs to be redeemed by the power of Jesus Christ before it can function aright and to imagine otherwise is to open the way to sentimentality, superstition and unbelief. It needs to be drawn into the real world where God really meets man and that real world is not to be found in the shadowy sphere of half-belief where most of us prefer to dwell but only in Jesus Christ, Very God and Very Man.’
He says later, ‘the more precise meaning of mysticism, is that it is a form of religion which, through a careful spiritual discipline, claims to achieve union between man and God in the depths of man’s own being, a union consummated when man’s identity is lost in the divine life. Christians are rightly suspicious of mysticism because it seems to imply, and in many forms of mystical prayer undoubtedly does imply, that the union is possible without the mediatorial work of Christ and that its own spiritual discipline alone is necessary. Christians also are compelled to say that the union mysticism strives for is not the true relation between man and God.
John W. Doberstein puts it that ‘The theological foundation of evangelical meditation — rejects any mysticism that puts the initiative with the worshipper. Man cannot by searching find out God. Prayer is turning to the Word of God. Prayer is nothing but response to God’s word and therefore it is nothing without the Word that precedes it. We must avoid the danger of making prayer an independent and autonomous concern of our devotional life. —Our task is not to “practice” and “cultivate” prayer and the so-called spiritual life, but rightly to hear God’s Word and give him due answer in prayer.’
Theologian Jurgen Moltmann writes similarly, ‘A “transcendental meditation” without an object can only lead to flight from life, if not to a psychiatric clinic. Christian meditation is not transcendental, it is at the core always meditation on the crucified Christ in the light of his resurrection. It has Christ as its “object”; it encounters him as one who stands over against the meditator’.
James Houston, however, believes that there is a truly Christian mysticism, ‘different from the mysticism of another faith’, as ‘The true Christian mystic always lives within the realty of certain Christian truths.’ These truths he lists as: God as Creator, the Trinity, the incarnation and mediatorial work of Christ, our relationship with God as dependent wholly on God’s initiative, and the recognition of the church as a the community of God’s people.
Taken from the article Prayer and its Relationships by Francis Foulkes at http://www.ffoulkes.org/prayer/ch9.php