Some aspects of contemplative prayer

Rob Gallacher

Some aspects of contemplative prayer

Start with “sacrament”. In Confirmation Class I was taught that “sacramentum” was the oath of obedience that Roman soldiers took, pledging allegiance to their commander, however dangerous that might be. So to take the sacrament was to renew your promise to serve Christ in the same way. Something that was between you and God, i.e. individualistic.

Now I learn that “sacrament” is the Latin translation of the Greek “mystikos”, and that gives it an entirely different perspective.

The root of “mystikos” is “my” or “mu”, and it means silence or a secret. If I were to tell you something very special, and then say “Keep Mum about it!”, what do you think I meant? “Not don’t tell your mother.” Rather, reflect in silence about my message. It’s meaning is profound and you need to take time to quietly contemplate it in order to understand, or, better, explore some of its hidden depths. The transaction here is between you and something bigger than you, bigger than your capacity to comprehend, certainly beyond your capacity to find words that will say it all. But as you contemplate the enormity of it, some bite become clear, and when you perceive a little, it leads you on to a little more.

Have you ever gone home after a conversation and suddenly you say to yourself, ‘Oh, is that what she meant?” And the next time you see her, you check it out, and out comes a whole lot more.

Mystery – not a puzzle to be solved, it is like climbing a mountain, and when you get to the top, you pause to enjoy the view, which is hard to describe. Then you see that there is another mountain beyond, and then another, for you to explore and contemplate.

I read somewhere, I think it is James Joyce who does this in great detail, that “mmmm” is one of the basic sounds out of which language developed.

Imagine the first caveman wondering how to catch an elephant. He has an idea, and he goes “mmmm” or possibly “nnnnn”. His mind is whirring. He sees another person pondering, and he thinks, that’s an “mmmm-er” too. But the elephant, it’s not an “mmmm-er”. So the word “mmmannn”, or “human” develops to express this particular characteristic of our species. We can contemplate something that is obscure, or very big, and gradually it will reveal its secrets to us.

We apply our mind. Latin for mind = mens, mentis. That gives us mental, mentality, mentor, mention.

Related words are remind and reminisce.

Latin again: “memor” is mindful, and that gives us memory, memorable, memorial, memorandum, memoir, memento, memo, and particularly for today’s study, remember and remembrance – the word Jesu used at the Last Supper, “Do this in remembrance of me”. The Greek word is “anamnesis”. So what Jesus is saying is, when you drink the wine which is my blood, do a bit of whirring, or “mmmm-ing”. There is a mystery here which is bigger than you will fully comprehend, but apply your mind and the secrets will gradually be revealed to you.

When “mystikos” is used for the mystery of the Eucharist, or for Baptism, it means (mmmeannns!) enter into this astounding action of God. And try to work out how you can catch it and apply it.

This brings us to Paul, e.g. Colossians 1:26 – the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages but now is revealed to his saints. God’s purpose which is implied or hidden in the Old Testament, is made known to us in the incarnation of Christ.

Christians share in the life of Christ through the sacraments, the “mysteria”. It is a sharing with other Christians in the mystery which is always revealing more and more of God’s truth. Not an individual direct line to God – Medieval mysticism took it this way. A mystic is a person who has a direct way of knowing God, through visions, dreams, voices, that others don’t perceive. This is the point Louth is making forcibly. In the early Christian writings, a mystic is one who perceives the secrets revealed in Word and Sacrament – Truth so big, hidden in the OT, clarified in Christ, but still so enormous that we need to contemplate as we participate, and this is communal.

An icon is a sacramental object, sometimes called, the Bible in pictures, the visible word – so it is appropriate to contemplate, to pray and “mmmm” prayer, letting it talk to you, to reveal its hidden mysteries. Letting it draw you into the great company of “mmmmm” people who share this mystery.

It has a dimension of personal commitment (sacramentum) but it is more significantly the entry into another world, through contemplation of the mystery which God has revealed in Christ.

“We all partake the joy of one, the common peace we feel, a peace to sensual minds unknown a joy unspeakable. “ Ammmmennnn.


Most of the above is drawn from The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition, by Andrew Louth, Professor of Patristic and Byzantine Studies at Durham University; this edition is a reprint to which he has added a final chapter in which he says that if he were writing the book today.