Praying with the Heart:
What I will say about contemplative prayer will be a gross over simplification. I do not have the knowledge or depth of experience to adequately express contemplative prayer, as Saint John of the Cross in Dark Night of the Soul, the unknown author of Cloud of Unknowing, Basil Pennington in Centering Prayer, Teresa of Avila, or Thomas Merton can. So I will refer you to their works. What I will do is discuss some elements of contemplative prayer that may help those of us who are novices in our prayer life.
I grew up thinking of prayer, primarily, as talking to God. Daily prayer was a to do list: confessing sins, saying thank you, praising God, and asking God’s help for a number of people including myself. Certainly there is nothing wrong with any of these kinds of prayer, unless we forget to stop and listen to God and take time simply to be with God.
Contemplative prayer, sometimes called centering prayer or apophatic prayer, is the prayer of silence. Contemplative prayer is to “be still and know” that God is God (Psalm 46:10). Contemplative prayer follows Jesus as he withdraws “to deserted places to pray” (Luke 5:16). Contemplative prayer is opening our hearts door to Jesus who is patiently knocking (Revelation 3:20). Contemplative prayer is listening to the still small voice of God that is not heard in the wind, earthquake, or fire (1 Kings 19:11-12). Contemplative prayer is Mary sitting quietly at Jesus’ feet listening intently (Luke 10:38-42). Contemplative prayer is being with God and loving God with all your heart.
Thomas Merton in his book, Contemplative Prayer, quotes Gregory the Great’s classic definition of contemplative prayer,
The contemplative life is to retain with all one’s mind the love of God and neighbor but to rest from exterior motion and cleave only to the desire of the Maker, that the mind may now take no pleasure in doing anything, but having spurned all cares may be aglow to see the face of its Creator: so that it already knows how to bear with sorrow the burden of the corruptible flesh, and with all its desires to seek to join the hymn-singing choirs of angels, to mingle with the heavenly citizens and to rejoice at its everlasting incorruption in the sight of God. (Contemplative Prayer, 51).
In the practice of contemplative prayer, Merton writes, “We wish to gain a true evaluation of ourselves and of the world so as to understand the meaning of our life as children of God redeemed from sin and death. We wish to gain a true loving knowledge of God, our Father and Redeemer. We wish to lose ourselves in his love and rest in him. We wish to hear his word and respond to it with our whole being. We wish to know his merciful will and submit to it in its totality” (Contemplative Prayer, 67).
Notice that contemplative prayer is not about grasping, striving, controlling, comprehending, but is more about letting go and submitting to God. Contemplative prayer is about letting go of our thoughts and our striving and letting God take control.
Contemplative prayer for some may begin with words something like this, “God I give up. I’ve been working hard to try and figure it all out. I’ve been trying to earn my worth. I’ve been trying to say the right things. I’ve tried to understand you. But I’m tired. I don’t know what to do or say. I can’t do it on my own. I’m just going to sit here quietly and rest and let you hold me and if you want, speak to me, I’m listening.” Then, much silence.
God is so far beyond our ability to comprehend that we simply cannot know God by our own effort, creativity, or will. All we can do is be still and trust in the grace of a loving God to take care of us.
I attribute the experience of waiting for the birth of our second child, with deepening my understanding of prayer. Because of some risks to our unborn child my wife was put on bed rest several months before the birth and was mostly confined to the recliner in our living room. So we spent a number of hours together each evening, she in the recliner, me in the rocking chair next to her. Often we sat there without saying a word as I read and she worked on various projects. But even though we were not always talking to each other, I had this sense that we were together in a significant way; that I loved her and enjoyed simply being with her. I thought about how simply being with God, enjoying God’s presence, can be prayer.
Practicing Contemplative Prayer
The practice of contemplative prayer is simple but can be quite difficult. Our minds are not easily quieted and tend to race from one thought to the next. Here are some suggestions for a group, or individual engaging in contemplative prayer: (1) Find a quiet place, as free from distractions as possible. Sit up straight in a comfortable position with eyes closed or focused on a point on the floor or table in front of you; (2) Decide how long you will pray, preferably twenty minutes or more. (3) Do not approach contemplative prayer with any agenda other than to be with God. (4) When practicing contemplative prayer it can be helpful to use a sacred word. Any word that reminds you of God’s presence can work, for example: God, Jesus, love, grace, or peace. The word is not to be repeated continuously, but is repeated only when our mind is distracted. Whenever our mind begins to wonder, we start trying to figure God out, or we find ourselves initiating the conversation with God, saying our sacred word can bring us back to the center of God’s presence. (5) Reflect on the experience. If in a group setting, group members may discuss the experience.
Walking meditation can be another way of practicing contemplative prayer. The walking path can help keep us focused on God. Glenn Hinson describes how he uses his daily morning walk for prayer,
My own method, if I can call it that, is to walk three miles every morning before breakfast. I can’t describe exactly what I do because I do not have a set routine. Some days I just walk. Some days I am overcome with awe as our great fiery sun comes up over the horizon. Some days I meditate on a passage or passages of scriptures. Some days I intercede for someone or pray about some concern. I can tell you what results from this time of solitude and attentiveness: I am collected. I am present where I am, really present, not just halfway present. As a consequence, I get more done. My writing is deeper. My relationship with those around me is more satisfying for all (Spiritual Preparation for Christian Leadership, 154).