From the earliest centuries of the common era, up to now in the third millennium, the heart of Christian spirituality is the practice of contemplation. The earliest monks read the Bible in a contemplative manner, a practice known as lectio divina (“divine reading”). Some of the earliest known Christian mystics, who abandoned a comfortable life in the Roman Empire to seek God in the deserts of Syria and Egypt, entered into deep silence to pray — a practice written about by spiritual teachers like Evagrius Ponticus, who lived in the fourth century. Today, such prayer of deep silence is known as contemplative prayer. It’s not just a relic from the ancient world: evidence of contemplation as a central Christian spiritual activity can be found in the middle ages (see The Cloud of Unknowing), after the Renaissance (St. John of the Cross) and into the modern and postmodern eras (Thomas Merton).
I find it helpful to understand the language we use to describe something. As for contemplation, it is a word derived from the Latin contemplare. What I find interestesting is that this Latin word literally means “in the temple.” It has a pagan origin, referring to the temples where diviners would conduct their auguries to discern the will of the gods. Once Christianized, contemplation lost its fortune-telling connotation, instead coming to signify the prayerful practice of attending to the presence of God. Obviously, this could easily suggest devotion in a literal temple — in other words, a church — but it also evokes a more spiritual sense of seeking the presence of God in the gathered community of believers, wherever they may be (Matthew 18:20), or even, and perhaps most significantly, in the “inner temple” — the solitude of one’s own heart (I Corinthians 3:16). Thus, for Christians, contemplative spirituality consists of our efforts to spend time “in the temple” of silence, with God. Contemplative prayer, therefore, involves receptive, listening silence, held gently within ourselves for the purpose of fostering the experience of God’s presence within us — a presence promised to us by scripture (John 14:17).
Contemplative prayer is not a technique of prayer. Granted, over the centuries and around the world, various spiritual teachers have developed different techniques for fostering inner silence. But prayer itself — especially in a Christian sense — can never be reduced to a mere procedure. Contemplative prayer is not so much about mastering silence or achieving a desired state of consciousness, but rather, it is a gentle, unforced opening-up of your mind and heart, a simple gesture of allowing yourself to sit in the uncreated presence of God. In other words, contemplation is not something we achieve, it is something we receive; it is not something we attain, it is something we allow. We allow ourselves to spend time with God just as we allow ourselves to spend time with anyone we deeply love.
To enter into contemplative prayer requires nothing more than a commitment, an intention to spend time in silence, offering the time to God. Time spent in contemplation is time spent listening gently for God’s soft, wordless whisper. Of course, this is easier said than done! We live in a particularly noisy world — you are most likely reading these words on a computer, tablet or smartphone, meaning that you have access to technology, and therefore to the noise and stress that technology brings into our lives. From machinery to music, from telephones to traffic, from broadcast media to mental chatter: ours is a world filled with frantic noise. As a result, for many of us silence feels foreign and awkward, if not anxiety-provoking. Consequently, even the best-intentioned Christian will face many obstacles to contemplative prayer: a busy life, an active mind, a nervous body, all contribute to forces both external and internal that conspire to prevent us from simply sinking into the silence where God’s presence may be discerned as a “still small voice” (I Kings 19:12).
For this reason, contemplation is not something that can be done once or twice. Contemplative prayer, like any other practice designed to foster a living relationship, has to be done frequently and regularly. No marriage will succeed if one or both parties simply stop making an effort to communicate with each other. Likewise, the relationship with God that is sought at the heart of contemplation can only be found within the context of a recurring — ideally, daily — discipline.
When we enter into silence, it is tempting to fill this time with “stuff” — we want to tell God all about our needs, and the needs of others. We want to fill our time given to God with lots of words. But isn’t this like getting together with a friend only to insist that you do all the talking? It’s not very intimate; on the contrary, it’s a way of trying to control the agenda. Thankfully, God is more loving and forgiving than the best of human friends; God patiently waits for the times when we let go of our need to control, and we allow the silence to wash throughout our consciousness like a cleansing wave of crystal water.
There are times when we cannot discern God’s presence, for even when we give up trying to control our time of contemplation with verbal prayer, we nevertheless seem to be continually distracted by the static of our thinking minds. But then there are times when we do notice the Uncreated Presence within and beyond the silence that rests quietly beneath our mental clutter. Sometimes, time spent in contemplation is rewarded with an experience of resplendent joy and profound experiences of heavenly love. For most people who walk the path of contemplation, these times are rare, and appropriately so. God comes to us to be in relationship, not just to make us feel good. So contemplation ultimately nurtures us at a level far deeper than feelings or conscious experience.
As mentioned above, contemplative spirituality has been a part of the Christian landscape since ancient times. However, in the twentieth century, a new era of contemplative spirituality dawned when many Christians discovered the rich practices of yoga, meditation and zen found within eastern wisdom traditions. Some Christians even began to write about contemplative spirituality using terminology and imagery drawn from eastern sources. Thus, the Benedictine monk John Main wrote about “Christian meditation” while Trappist monks including M. Basil Pennington, Thomas Keating and William A. Meninger borrowed the language of Transcendental Meditation to present contemplative prayer under the name of “Centering prayer” (based on an image from the writing of Thomas Merton). A generation later, it’s ironic that some Christians attack contemplative prayer because of its so-called “eastern influence,” dismissing it as a new age innovation. But such objections are uninformed, not taking into account the long tradition of authentic Christian contemplation that stretches back into the early centuries of the Christian faith. Even though many Christian contemplatives believe that Christians can find their faith enhanced and nurtured through learning from other wisdom traditions, the practice of contemplation is so thoroughly Christian that it is appropriate even for those who only feel comfortable engaging in Christian spiritual practices.
To enter into contemplation is to go on an adventure within the wilderness of the mind and spirit — an adventure centered on the quest for Divine Love. If you are new to contemplation and wish to foster a daily discipline of setting aside time to be silent in God’s presence, please seek the support of a wise and caring guide. Speak with your priest or pastor to see if there are resources in your community for individuals who wish to grow deeper in silent communion with God. Organizations like Contemplative Outreach, Shalem, or Spiritual Directors International can also help beginners to find their way in starting or developing a disciplined life of prayer. Many monasteries and convents offer retreats or have lay communities where contemplative spirituality is practiced. If all else fails, explore the books below to learn more about this rich and vibrant spiritual tradition.
May God bless you on your journey!
Some books for further reading:
- Martin Laird, Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation
- Cynthia Bourgeault, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening
- Michael Casey, Toward God: The Ancient Wisdom of Western Prayer
- James Finley, Christian Meditation: Experiencing the Presence of God
- Kathryn J. Hermes, Beginning Contemplative Prayer: Out of Chaos, Into Quiet
- Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer
- Thomas Keating, Open Mind, Open Heart
- Willigis Jager, Contemplation: A Christian Path
- Jan Johnson, When the Soul Listens: Finding Rest and Direction in Contemplative Prayer
- John Main, Moment of Christ: The Path of Meditation
- Virginia Manss, ed., The Lay Contemplative
- Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer
- M. Basil Pennington, Centering Prayer: Renewing an Ancient Christian Prayer Form
- Mark E. Thibodeaux, The Armchair Mystic: Easing into Contemplative Prayer
- Carl McColman, Answering the Contemplative Call