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Center for Action and Contemplation

The Narrow Gate of Contemplation

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

CAC teacher James Finley describes contemplation as taught by the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing. This fourteenth-century work inspired the creation of Centering Prayer, and teaches a way of praying that involves surrendering our thoughts so that we can simply be in God’s presence:

Contemplation is a wordless resting in the presence of God beyond all thoughts and images. So, in contemplation, we’re not thinking of anything. We’re not thinking of anything, but we’re wordlessly resting in a presence beyond thought that’s intimately accessing our heart as we intimately access it, and we rest in the oneness. . . . How do we pass through the narrow gate [of contemplation] into God’s presence? [1] This is what the author of The Cloud of Unknowing says we are to do:

Lift your heart up to the Lord, with a gentle stirring of love desiring him for his own sake and not for his gifts. Center all your attention and desire on him and let this be the sole concern of your mind and heart. Do all in your power to forget everything else, keeping your thoughts and desires free from involvement with any of God’s creatures or their affairs whether in general or in particular. Perhaps this will seem like an irresponsible attitude, but I tell you, let them all be; pay no attention to them. [2]

In the latest season of the podcast Turning to the Mystics, James Finley and Kirsten Oates discuss the challenge of this method of prayer and of “paying no attention” to thoughts. As soon as one sits in silence, the thoughts continue! Jim reflects:

Those thoughts are still there. See? You’ve been called to something beyond thoughts. Therefore, because you’re still accustomed to thought, we’re very bound up with our thoughts. That self that’s accustomed to thoughts, good thoughts, noble thoughts, the thinking self and all that it thinks, because we’re so accustomed to it, at first, it’s very hard. It’s a very strange thing. You have to sit long enough for it to catch hold.

How long do you sit? Let’s say you try it and go, “Wow. That was hard.” You try it again, four days later, it’s still hard. . . . I think it goes like this: first of all, there’s like this beginner’s mind. At first, you realize you’re getting acclimated. It can go on for weeks and weeks. It’s still difficult. Even though it’s difficult, you can sense in it a certain resonance. It’s difficult but there’s something here that’s quietly shining in the difficulty. I feel called to do it. That’s the important thing. . . .

Let’s say you’ve been exercising for a while. So you go for a long run or a long distance whatever it is. It’s a certain point where it’s difficult and you want to get to that point where you’re burning off [energy] but even though it’s difficult, it’s not just difficult. There’s meaning in it. There’s meaning in the difficulty because it’s a transformative difficulty. [3]

[1] The Cloud of Unknowing; and the Book of Privy Counseling, ed. William Johnston (New York: Image Books, 2005), 40.

[2] Adapted from James Finley, Following the Mystics through the Narrow Gate: Seeing God in All Things (Albuquerque, NM: Center for Action and Contemplation, 2010). Available as CD, DVD, and MP3 download.

[3] James Finley with Kirsten Oates, “Dialogue 1: The Common Life,” March 21, 2022, in Turning to the Mystics, season 5 (Albuquerque, NM: Center for Action and Contemplation, 2022), podcast, MP3 audio.

Explore Further. . .

Image credit: Chaokun Wang, 夜 night (detail), 2017, photograph, China, Creative Commons. Unknown Author, Close-up of New Growth (detail), 1970, photograph, British Columbia, Public Domain. Chaokun Wang, 竹子 bamboo (detail), 2015, photograph, Heifei, Creative Commons. Jenna Keiper & Leslye Colvin, 2022, triptych art, United States. Click here to enlarge the image.

This week’s images appear in a form inspired by early Christian/Catholic triptych art: a threefold form that tells a unified story. 

Image inspiration: Moonlight, dewdrops, the overnight growth of bamboo. Nature reveals the great mystery of the Divine in the cycles and patterns of life.

Story from Our Community:

I spent the night of January 30th [2021] alone with my 87-year old Mom, who had been released to hospice care 24 hours earlier following major palliative surgery. I was sleeping in the same room on the couch – more accurately, not sleeping, as she mumbled aloud all night. . . When I greeted her shortly after midnight to give medication, she didn’t recognize me and her fear was evident. It was a stunning, all-too-quick transition that heralded the brevity of the precious life before me. . . Around 6 a.m. I opened the CAC Daily Meditation: “Unknowing: The Inadequacy of Words”; how kind of you to offer that entire reflection just for me in that little living room. This particularly hushed my racing mind: “Mystery,” “mystical,” and “to mutter” all come from the Greek verb muein, which means “to hush or close the lips”.”
—Terri B.

Share your own story with us.

Prayer for our community:

God, Lord of all creation, lover of life and of everything, please help us to love in our very small way what You love infinitely and everywhere. We thank You that we can offer just this one prayer and that will be more than enough,  because in reality every thing and every one is connected, and nothing stands alone. To pray for one part is really to pray for the whole, and so we do. Help us each day to stand for love, for healing, for the good, for the diverse unity of the Body of Christ and all creation, because we know this is what You desire: as Jesus prayed, that all may be one. We offer our prayer together with all the holy names of God, we offer our prayer together with Christ, our Lord, Amen.

Listen to the prayer.


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In a world of fault lines and fractures, how do we expand our sense of self to include love, healing, and forgiveness—not just for ourselves or those like us, but for all? This monthly email features wisdom and stories from the emerging Christian contemplative movement. Join spiritual seekers from around the world and discover your place in the Great Story Line connecting us all in the One Great Life. Conspirare. Breathe with us.