Introduction to Contemplative Prayer

What do you remember about being taught to pray?
Do you remember any time or teaching where prayer was presented as a “conversation” or a “relationship” or a “listening” to God?

Perhaps we did hear about prayer being a conversation or a two-way street, but when we pray we often keep up a banter with words like “thank you,” “bless,” “guide,” may I,” “please would you,” “Dear Lord” and so on. Imagine God on the other side of this “conversation” thinking, “When can I get a word in edgewise?!” If we do all the talking, how can it be prayer that is a conversation or a listening?

Prayer is not “words” or only words; it is a relationship. It is opening up to not only sharing our concerns and pain, but being able to receive insights, nudges, or even inspirations. Perhaps our prayer life is like our everyday life in the sense that we usually aren’t good listeners. In a conversation or discussion, we are waiting our turn to add something or eager to jump in and say what is on our mind. We don’t let silence into our conversations. Of if there is a silence, it may feel uncomfortable. We may scan our brain to find something to say or contribute. Instead of listening to others, we are listening to ourselves.

In contemplative prayer, how is silence experienced?

According to experts, it takes 10-12 minutes before the body and mind slow down from their busyness to be open and attentive to others or to God. When we do any of the contemplative prayer forms or exercises, we incorporate at least 10 minutes of silence each time, followed by about 5 minutes for journal writing and personal reflection.

Silence is not “emptiness,” usually a fearful image for people. It is the completion of sound – an opening of one’s consciousness to what’s at the center of all sound – a loving Creator who is waiting for us to sense the presence of the Holy in our lives. When we are in an open and silent attitude, we anticipate the indwelling of God’s spirit in our whole self – body, mind and spirit. God says to us as he said to the prophet Ezekiel, “Be still and know that I am God.”  The great mystic, Meister Eckhart said, “Silence is a privileged entry into the light of God and eternal life.”

Some Contemplative Grounding Assumptions

  • God is always present; there is no where we can go where God isn’t.
  • God is not a static presence, but is actively inviting us into the dance of living fully with the Spirit’s leading. This is an ongoing discernment of what the next step is.
  • God always initiates the conversation through reading God’s Word which “mediates his presence and actions to us” and through what we enjoy and marvel at and through voices of others who speak a word of truth when we need it.
  • God is good; trusting that God is leading us for our own good and for the good of the world. When we pray, we should pray that we be present with God, not inviting God to be present.
  • God desires that we deepen our relationship with God, not to retreat from the world, but to be more committed and equipped to address the world and its needs for peace, justice and reconciliation. This starts with ourselves, our loved ones and family, our church and neighbors and broadens to national and world issues. Thus, contemplative spirituality is not a private matter which withdraws one from the messy world. Our God is a God of Oneness of all people within the diversity of races and cultures and belief systems.
  • Tilden Edwards, the founder of Shalem Institute, says that contemplative practice doesn’t quarantee an insight to a social problem, but “softens” us up to be open to receiving the insight when it is given.
  • Our ego self is a part of the larger self-hood which is God. We’re made of divine energy in God’s image.  To honor this, our response is gratitude and wonder, not letting it go to our heads as an ego-trip.
  • Contemplative prayer practices involve many different forms of prayer, including the ancient form of lectio divina, chanting, dance and movement, icons, art and guided meditations – always followed by periods of silence.  As prayer forms, these simply enable a person to quiet the mind and open the heart to receiving God, the Holy One’s presence.