One of my favourite quotations about contemplative prayer is from Christian Meditation: The Gethsemani Talks by John Main, a Benedictine monk who began to teach about Christian Meditation about 40 years ago.
“Meditative prayer is not an intellectual exercise in which we reflect about theological positions. In meditation we are not thinking about God at all, nor are we thinking of God’s Son, Jesus, nor of the Holy Spirit. In meditation we seek to do something immeasurably greater: we seek to be with God, to be with Jesus, to be with the Holy Spirit; not merely to think about them.”
It is a very different way of prayer from what we are familiar with today. It is equally valid, dating back to the fourth century, but not as well known. In our traditional practice of prayer, we usually talk to God about the things that are on our hearts. We talk to God about our concerns and anxieties, our hopes and dreams, the things we are thankful for, and the things that we are sorry for. In contemplative prayer, though, we do something different. We try to let go of all these thoughts and concentrate on simply being in the presence of God.
This opens up a whole new dimension for our prayer life. It gives us a chance to listen to God in a very intentional way. Our minds are usually so cluttered with thoughts about our busy lives that we don’t leave much room for the Spirit to communicate with us. It is in the stillness and the silence of meditation that we become centred in the presence of God and become more open to the work of the Spirit within us.
This is very important for us, especially in the complex world in which we live today. We face many stresses and challenges, and there are often difficult decisions to make. We need God’s guidance and transforming grace. People who practice contemplation talk about how they have noticed changes in their lives over a period of time. They find that they are more understanding of others, more compassionate, not as quick to become angry, more generous, more satisfied with life. These qualities are very much needed in today’s world. They are the fruits of the Spirit.
In these challenging times, Christians also need God’s encouragement, guidance, and energy in order to determine what attitudes and actions we need to take. Openness to the Spirit is crucial and contemplative prayer is one of the keys to opening the door to the spirit of Christ who dwells within us. We become more motivated to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8b).
Working for justice can be exhausting and discouraging at times because it seems to be a continual struggle against the values that drive our society. Contemplative prayer can support this central endeavour of Christian life. When Richard Rohr founded the Centre for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he was often asked, “what is the most important word in the title of the Centre?” His answer is the word “and.” The part that does not usually get much attention is “contemplation.” It is not yet widely practised in the Christian community. This leads to the risk of individuals getting frustrated or burning out, or perhaps focusing on the wrong direction, because there is not the intimate connection with God that is made possible through contemplative prayer.
Another important aspect of contemplative prayer is that it is practised in all major religions, thus becoming a uniting factor. We do not need to get into debates about beliefs or doctrines. We can sit together in silent prayer, praying in our own tradition and limited understanding, knowing that we are in the presence of the God who loves each person.
There are several methods for contemplative prayer. Christian Meditation and Centering Prayer are two common ones. Each method is simple and can be taught in a few minutes. It is not easy though. Our minds are so continuously busy that it is difficult for us to enter into interior silence. Contemplative prayer is an ongoing practice of humility because our thoughts just keep on coming. But, it is also a forgiving practice, because when you get distracted by your thoughts, you just start over – repeating your prayer word continuously (Christian Meditation), or saying your prayer word to reorient yourself (Centering Prayer).
In the same way Christians need to gather together each Sunday to support and encourage their daily living, those who practice contemplative prayer often gather weekly to pray, learn, and share the journey.
For many people, discovering contemplative prayer has been an enriching and transforming experience. A regular practice of contemplative prayer provides benefits for the individual and, consequently, for the world.