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Contemplation and the Monastic Life

The Sisters of St. John the Divine walk the labyrinth together.
Photo: Michael Hudson

At the age of 30, I left behind my career, my lifestyle, my church family, and various relationships, to take up another way of life. I felt a call within: a keen desire to deepen my relationship with God. I wanted to be alone with the Alone, and to do so I hied myself off to an Anglican convent, the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine, in North Toronto. There I was immersed in a regimen of prayer, work, study, and rest: living a more balanced life within a monastic community of similarly like-minded people whose ultimate goal was union with God. We prayed together several times daily, ate all our meals in common, and worked together for a common purpose. I had classes and received mentoring to help foster my prayer and life in community.

I learned various forms of prayer that prepared and opened me to contemplative prayer. Contemplative prayer helps bring about inner conversion and transformation as we intentionally open ourselves to the loving presence of God in our lives. Far from being restrictive, the monastic life supplies a trellis, or a set of building blocks, that enables our hearts to grow in desire and love for God; our lives bear the fruit of this prayer in our loving service for the sake of the gospel.

For me, contemplative prayer is a complete resting in God’s presence. Easier said than done! Sometimes I approach contemplative prayer through Lectio Divina, which is a method of reading and praying with scripture. In Lectio I read a short passage of scripture and when a word or phrase grabs my attention, I pause, put down my Bible, and silently repeat the word to myself. I repeat the word to help keep my mind from wandering as I sit in silence, waiting for the Spirit to illumine my heart.

Sometimes I respond to the word with a spontaneous prayer arising from my heart. Other times I find that the word itself has fallen away from consciousness and I suddenly realize that I have spent some time in silence in the presence of God. Contemplative prayer has happened without my doing anything, that is, except for the ground work of being attentive to God’s presence in scripture, and continually turning my mind and heart back to God or my word every time I find my mind has wandered away.

Centering Prayer is another form of contemplative prayer. I begin my time of prayer with the sole intention of simply being in the presence of God and remaining open to God’s presence within. I may take up a favourite prayer word to help quiet my mind when I have a hard time quietening down. I don’t repeat the word constantly, but only use it to help bring my mind back to stillness and my intention of being open to and in God’s presence.

Sr. Elizabeth Ann Eckert has been a member of the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine since 1987. She Currently serves as the director of Novices and delights in singing the daily office.

The purpose of contemplative prayer is transformation, which isn’t something we can do entirely of our own volition. We rely on the action of the Holy Spirit, who works within our innermost being to bring about the changes necessary to help us become more Christ-like.

As with liturgy and praying with scripture, the purpose of practising the presence of God through contemplative prayer is to allow God’s Spirit to transform us from the inside out and then to propel us into our ministry: at home, at work, in our community, or in the wider world. The monastic life gives us the freedom to pursue our intention to be transformed into the likeness of Christ by giving us the disciplined lifestyle for intentionally practising contemplative prayer.