Compared, too, with "utilitarian" concepts of social justice or of evangelism - the greatest numbers of hungry fed, poor clothed, ears filled with the Gospel - the contemplative life seems an unlikely calling. But we must not forget that all through the years of World War II exiled Russian monks (among them Archimandrite Sophrony) prayed in the monasteries and caves of Mount Athos, and during her years in a Soviet labour camp Irina Ratushinskaya wrote poems on bars of soap with the burnt end of a matchstick, committing them to memory before she washed away the evidence.
The closer we find ourselves drawn to God, to the inexhaustible mercy that is at the heart of being itself, in-ness (Eckhart's istigkeit), the more that love comes to fill us, setting gently aside our self-concern, till we come to "[be] with God, putting ourselves in his presence, being hungry and thirsty for him, wanting him, letting heart and mind move towards him; with the needs of the world on our heart" (Michael Ramsey). That is the intercessory dimension of our contemplative prayer, not intercession in the sense of asking for things, but in the sense of being with.
In prayer, time flattens out into presence. It is as though we could stand on a high place watching someone complete a journey on the plain below: we can see the place where their trip began; we can see their destination; and we can see the dot of their vehicle, a tiny model travelling that dusty road across the open land. For them, there is a succession of times: departure; driving; arrival. But for us there is only now, containing the journey whole and present, time realised as space, complete in itself. Within this space that is Mercy itself, all our histories, as Cynthia Bourgeault points out, "past, present and future, all our hopes and dreams, are already contained and, mysteriously, already fulfilled." She goes on:
The great mystics have named this as the heart of the Mercy of God: the intuition that the entire rainbow of times and colours, of past and future, of individual paths through history, is all contained - flows out of and back into - that great white light of the simple loving presence of God. Alpha and Omega, beginning and end. And in that Mercy all our history - our possible pasts and possible futures, our lost loved ones and children never born - is contained and fulfilled in a wholeness of love from which nothing can ever possibly be lost.To hold such a vision in our hearts, together with those for whom our hearts are simultaneously broken - the poor, the lost, the weary and the sick, the victims and the perpetrators of cruelty, human or otherwise - is surely a calling to be grateful for, even if it is a hidden and a little-known vocation. For me at any rate, it is the best definition of prayer I know.