We often ask what disciplines will help us to live more contemplatively or prayerfully. The following quote is some of the most profound wisdom on the topic of spiritual disciplines I’ve ever read. It is by an anonymous 14th century spiritual director and author, most known for his (or her) book The Cloud of Unknowing. The Cloud author also wrote a letter of spiritual direction in response to questions about contemplative living, The Assessment of Inward Stirrings, from which this quote is taken:
You are well aware yourself that neither silence nor speaking, extraordinary fasting nor ordinary diet, solitary living nor company–none of these in themselves, nor all of them, are the true end of our desire. But they are to some people, though not all, true means which help to the end, as long as they are used lawfully and with discernment; otherwise they are more a hindrance than a help. Hence I do not intend to counsel you here simply to speak or to be silent, simply to fast or to eat, simply to live in company or alone. And why? Because perfection does not lie in any of these…
When then you see that all these things can be both good and evil in their use, I beg you to leave them both alone; that is the easiest thing to do if you wish to be humble. And leave off this detailed introspection and searching of your mind to find out which is better. Rather do this: Set them both aside, one here and one there, and choose for yourself something which is hidden between them. When once you have this third thing, it will permit you to take up and to leave aside either of the other two in freedom of spirit, at your own good pleasure, without incurring any fault.
And now you ask what this third thing is. I shall tell you what I understand it to be: It is God.
For him you must be silent, if you are to be silent; for him you must speak, if you are to speak; for him you must fast, if you are to fast; for him you must eat, if you are to eat; for him your must be solitary if you are to be solitary; for him you must be in company if you are to be in company; and so for all the rest, whatever they be. For silence is not God, nor is speaking God; fasting is not God, nor is eating God; being alone is not God, nor is company God, nor yet any one of every such pair of contraries. He is hid between them; and he cannot be found by any work of your soul, but only by the love of your heart. He cannot be known by reason. He cannot be thought, grasped, or searched out by the understanding. But he can be loved and chosen by the true and loving desire of your heart. Choose him then, and you are silent in speaking and speaking in silence; fasting in eating and eating in fasting, and so with all the rest.
Art by Louise LeBourgeois