Conversatio Divina

Part 2 of 16

Being with God: The Practice of Contemplative Prayer

David G. Benner

To anyone who knows me even superficially, my writing an article on contemplative prayer might seem ludicrous. By temperament I am far from being a natural contemplative. I am active (often impulsive), restless, and nonreflective. And anyone who knows my spiritual life well knows also that I have always struggled with disciplined prayer, in fact, with spiritual disciplines of any sort. How, then, could I be one who dares to offer others anything about this seemingly most advanced of all forms of prayer?

But, as we shall see, far from being for either spiritual elites or particular personality types only, contemplative prayer is part of the call of all Christians to abide in God. And far from being the most advanced form of prayer, it is really the most basic. Perhaps, therefore, before exploring contemplative prayer, we should first remind ourselves of what prayer itself is.

01.  The Divine Invitation to Relationship

As a child, I was taught that prayer was conversation with God. Although I was exposed to both liturgical and extemporaneous ways of praying, the form of prayer with which I was most personally involved was the informal, conversational prayer I was encouraged to offer to God each day during a “quiet time.” The pattern I was given for these times of prayer was summarized by the acronym ACTS—adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and worship. As it turned out, this was not a bad way of summarizing some of the most important components of my part of the conversation. It lacked, however, the big picture of what prayer really is.

The problem, of course, with this childhood understanding of prayer was that it presented a seriously one-sided understanding of communication with the Divine. It was all about talking, not listening. And it made prayer something that I, not God, initiated. In short, it failed to recognize that God always has both the first and the last word in the Divine-human conversation. God is ever reaching out in love and has no more ceased being Revelation than he has ceased being Love.

The essence of prayer is not so much what we do as what God does in us. Meeting God in prayer is responding to the Divine invitation to relationship (“You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you”). Prayer is not simply a request for Divine favors. Nor is it, at its core, a form of spiritual work. In essence, it is simply being with God. It is relationship.

There is an apocryphal story often used to illustrate this that I find very helpful in reminding me of the essence of prayer. The story may be familiar to readers of Conversations since it was reported in two different versions by two different authors in the Spring 2004 issue. My version is based on the way I first encountered it in Opening to God by Fr. Thomas Green. Thomas Green, S.J., Opening to God: A Guide to Prayer (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 1977) 19.

The story is of a simple laborer named Jimmy. Each day, when returning from work, Jimmy would stop in his neighborhood church and sit quietly in the back for several minutes. The parish priest noticed Jimmy’s regular visits and wondered what he was doing during them. One day he asked. Jimmy replied, “Nothing much, Father. I just say ‘Jesus, it’s Jimmy,’ and he says, ‘Jimmy, it’s Jesus,’ and we’re happy spending some time together.”

Jimmy knew something that we often forget. He knew that prayer is a response to an invitation to relationship with God—a God who invites friendship, not simply belief or obedience. And whether he knew it or not, in this simple response to Love that he understood to have first reached out to him, Jimmy was practicing contemplative prayer.

02.  Deconstructing Contemplation

But what exactly is contemplative prayer? Etymologically the Latin word contemplatio is based on three root words. I am indebted to Fr. Basil Pennington for this insight. He and two fellow Cistercian monks, Fr. Thomas Keating and Fr. Thomas Merton, have done more to shape my understanding and practice of contemplative prayer than anyone else. Most of the thoughts contained in this article are based on the writings and orally communicated teachings of these three sacred companions. Tio means an abiding state. We all have these. It may be an abiding state of anxiety, cynicism, or optimism, but Scriptures hold out for us the possibility that it can also be a state of blessed awareness of abiding in God. You may, like me, know occasional moments of God’s presence and extravagant, desiring love for you. But, we wonder, how can we live more constantly in that communion and blissful awareness?

That brings us to the second root: con, which means “with.” It immediately speaks to the desire planted in our spirits to abide in and with God. Of course, we feel resistance to this desire to surrender and abide, but that resistance (what theologians have traditionally called sin) points to the more underlying desire and would have no meaning without it. The resistance is secondary. The longing for union with God is primary.

The third root word is templa. In Roman times, the templa was a particular segment of the heavens, the place where God dwelled. The earthly temple was, of course, the place where one went to commune with God and experience God’s presence. So templa is the place where God dwells.

When we put these three words together, contemplation means abiding with God. Gregory the Great described it as resting in God—resting because of the stillness of the heart and mind, which are not so much seeking as experiencing what they have been seeking. We could also describe it as simply being with God. This was the way Jimmy in our earlier, apocryphal story practiced it. He understood that his Lord loved him, and because of this, he wanted to spend time with his Lord. He just wanted to be with God.

03.  Beyond Words

Jimmy also knew something else about contemplative prayer. He knew it didn’t depend on words.

As we first learn to pray, words are unquestionably helpful. But if prayer stays too long in a place of words and does not move from the head to the heart, it gradually dries up and becomes mechanical and impersonal. When someone is known in love, words become less and less necessary in order to remain present to the other. Lovers can sit together in silence for hours, simply enjoying each other’s presence. They have learned just to be with each other. So, too, should it be with God. Intimacy demands that talk be balanced by attentive openness in silence, and only as this happens do we begin to know the deeper communion of shared presence that no longer depends on words.

This is Jimmy and his Lord. And this is contemplative prayer in its simplest and purest form. Words are unnecessary—even distracting. From time to time, words may be shared. But they are not the core of the communication. That core is openness in love. This openness keeps the lines of communication busy even when words are few and far between.

The goal of contemplative prayer is not the elimination of thoughts or words. The goal is openness to God. But thoughts and words cannot bring us to God or God to us. Only faith can do that. Our part is simply what John of the Cross called passive loving receptivity—leaning toward God in faith with longing, openness, and love.

It is by God’s grace that we enter into the Divine relationship, not by means of anything we do or don’t do. Our part is simply openness in faith. Contemplative prayer is not the suspension of action or the elimination or thoughts or words, but turning toward God in faith and openness. The rest is up to God.

04.  Learning from Children

But you may already feel that as I am describing it, contemplative prayer is too complicated. It may seem simpler to talk to God in the manner to which you are accustomed, offering your petitions and gratitude in the worded way you were taught.

Recall, however, that I said contemplative prayer is the most basic form of prayer. The reason this is so is that contemplation is the most natural human form of knowing, a way of knowing very familiar to children, even if forgotten by most adults. As a child, you knew a way of opening yourself to the world and engaging with it that was even more basic and natural than thinking and talking. That way was contemplation.

Following Gerald May, I would define contemplation as an apprehension of existence that is uncluttered by preconception and interpretation.Gerald May, Will and Spirit: A Contemplative Psychology (New York: Harper & Row, 1983) 25. Instead of thinking about what we are experiencing and trying to analyze or understand it, in contemplation we simply allow ourselves to be captivated by it. Rather than our trying to get it, we allow it to get us. We allow ourselves to be captivated by it, and we remain with it wordlessly.

Think, for example, of what happens when you gaze out into the heavens in the silent darkness of a starry night. The knowing that you experience on such a night could never be reduced to words or thoughts. It’s more like being caught up by the experience. Abraham Herschel described it as knowing by the way of wonder rather than the way of reason. When we encounter the world through reason, we seek to make the world conform to our concepts of it. In contrast, an encounter with reality by the way of wonder allows us to adjust our concepts of the world.

Contemplation is knowing by this way of wonder. It is a way of knowing that is intuitive for children. No one has to teach a child how to gaze with fascination at tadpoles in a pond or an icicle in the sunlight of a winter morning. Children know how to stand in awe of the small, ordinary things in their world and see the specialness that is present in the moment. This is contemplation.

Contemplation is wordless openness to the world. In contemplation we surrender our need to subject experience to analysis and reduce it to propositions. This knowing by the way of wonder that comes so naturally to children is an important part of the reason, I believe, that Jesus urged his followers to become like little children.

05.  Openness to God

Contemplation becomes prayer when we open our eyes and hearts not simply to the world that surrounds us, but to the God who is in it and, more importantly, who dwells within us. This is the mystery of “Christ in you” proclaimed by St. Paul. Galatians 2:20 and elsewhere. God is not contained within us, but God is within us. There is no need to fear this mystery. It is what makes prayer possible.

Contemplative prayer is wordless, trusting openness to the God who dwells in the center of our being. It is the opening of our bodies, minds, and hearts to the Ultimate Mystery, who cannot be captured by either words or thoughts, but in whom we dwell and who dwells in us.

I know that such mystical talk makes some Christians nervous. Fearing a compromise of the transcendence of God, they are reluctant to embrace fully the reality of the indwelling Christ. Yet this teaching was not central just to St. Paul; it was also at the core of what Jesus taught and promised. Constantly, he spoke of the Kingdom of God, which, he proclaimed, was within. Think also of his prayer for the unity of all Christians—unity that was possible because he was in us, and the Father in him. John 17:22–23. Even more directly, recall his promise that when he left, he would send the Spirit to dwell within us, this giving us the assurance that we are, indeed, children of the Father.John 14:16–17.

Contemplative prayer is not believing these theological propositions. It is the act of opening oneself in faith to their reality.

06.  The Practice of Contemplative Prayer

But enough of the theory. How does one actually practice contemplative prayer?

I like to describe the practice of contemplative prayer as a dance. Your partner is the Spirit. The dance takes place in the sacred space between the Word and silence. And as you step onto the dance floor, you must forget everything you thought you knew about dancing and allow your partner to teach you the steps of this dance of “being with God” that is a response to the rhythm of the Word and the music of silence.

The rhythm of Christian contemplative prayer emerges from soaking in Scriptures and then allowing the gifts of that soaking to open us to God. The ideal method for that soaking is lectio divina.

Lectio divina is a prayer process involving four components that were first described by the twelfth-century Carthusian monk Guigo II: lectio, meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio. Anticipating where contemplative prayer might fit within this scheme, you will notice right away its place as the fourth movement in this prayer dance.

Lectio is prayer as attending. This is the foundation of all prayer. Literally meaning “reading,” lectio reminds us that prayer begins as attentive openness and expectancy. In lectio we read or listen to a short passage of Scripture. We wait for the still, small voice of God that will speak to us personally and intimately. We seek to hear a word or phrase that is God’s word for us for this day. In faith, we wait for God to speak to us through Word and Spirit to our spirit.

Meditatio is prayer as pondering. This is chewing over what we have received from God in lectio. While lectio involves the senses and intuition, meditatio is primarily a cognitive (head) and affective (heart) activity. To describe it as cognitive means it involves thinking. But the thinking that is spiritually productive can never be restricted to rational, analytical thinking. It is more like pondering or reflecting. Consider Mary, who, after the remarkable visitation of the angel of God and the communication of unimaginably breathtaking news, is said to have pondered all these things in her heart.Luke 2:51. Meditatio can never be simply an activity of the mind. It must also engage the heart. The pondering of meditatio combines head and heart.

Oratio is prayer as responding. After pondering God’s word to us, our hearts are touched, and our wills are stirred. Oratio is our response. There are many forms that such response can take. It may take the form of a worded response. But we may also prostrate ourselves in worship, stand in awe and gaze, read liturgical prayers, write our own psalms, sing, or do many other things. What joy it is to learn to pray not only with words, but also with our hands, feet, and hearts! The word we have received has now begun to touch our deepest selves, and we respond from those depths.

Contemplatio is prayer as being. In contemplatio, we rest in the presence of the One whose word and presence have invited us to transforming embrace. That word, having touched both our minds and our hearts, now leads us into quiet rest in the Beloved. This is a prayer of presence—the gift of consciousness that is transformed by and infused with God’s presence. It is prayer as being—a gift of being in and with God that allows all my doing to flow from this center. It is, as described by Thomas Keating, the movement from conversation to communion.

Lectio divina is often described as if it consists of a series of stages of prayer. This is an unfortunate misunderstanding that turns a rich, dynamic prayer practice into something mechanical. Organizing the four components hierarchically also predisposes people to think of them as having an order of importance. This has been part of the reason contemplative prayer is mistakenly assumed to be a “higher” form of prayer. It is not. All four movements of prayer are equally important; all are gifts of God for all Christians; none is simply for those of a particularly personality type or on a particular stage of the spiritual journey.

Rather than thinking of these four components as stages, think of them as movements of the dance of prayer. This dance does not have to follow a preset order. Because the Spirit is leading this dance, you should allow it to unfold spontaneously. Sometimes it will include only one or two of the movements, and sometime all of them. Don’t worry, therefore, about the sequence of what happens once you step onto the dance floor, and don’t try to control the process. Just open your heart to God and allow the Spirit to lead this dance of Love in the way that is appropriate for the present moment.

07.  The Essence of the Dance

But if we look at it more carefully, we can see this dance is even simpler than I have suggested. Its four movements can be distilled down to two primary ones: the Word and silence.

Both the Word and silence belong to the core of prayer. God’s Word draws us into silence. It cuts through our words to the silent center of our hearts. But, severed from what Cynthia Bourgeault calls the “nurturing ground of contemplative silence,” Cynthia Bourgeault, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening (Cambridge, MA, Cowley Press, 2004) 73. our engagement with the Word tends to become analytical and loses its transformational power. Silence quietens our spirits and deepens our awareness of God and ourselves. But in the absence of the Word, silence becomes an empty void, a place of presence to self that is not anchored in presence to God.

The Word and silence belong together. Their rhythm is as simple and basic as breathing. We draw in. We let go in response. Then, spontaneously, we open ourselves and draw in once again. And, just as naturally, we then respond with release. So, too, it is with the rhythm of contemplative prayer—we open ourselves in faith and draw in God’s Word, and then we rest in silence, allowing that Word to become life to us.

All Christians need both movements. No one can specialize in either the Word or silence, ignoring the other, without consequences to the health of spirit and soul. To do so is like trying to breathe only in or breathe only out. Each leads to the other—at least if you want to stay alive!

Where should you start? With the Word, opening yourself in faith and taking in the gifts and invitations you receive from God through the Word. Let the Word wash over you, as you might stand in a warm, gentle summer rain. Ponder it with heart and mind. Allow yourself to respond to it. But then be sure to leave sufficient space in silence for the being that grows out of what you receive.

For those periods of silence, start with as little as five minutes a day. Longer is better (15 to 20 minutes might be ideal), but not always possible. Sit somewhere comfortable and settle yourself in God. Don’t try to think about God. Just let go. Just be with God. Having declared your intention to make this time available for God, just spend it with God in whatever way God chooses. As you become aware of anything—thoughts, feelings, sensations—simply release them. Don’t try to fight them off. Don’t try to retain the most precious of them. Just gently release them and turn again toward God in openness and faith.

You may find this release aided by silently repeating a love name for God each time you become aware of anything. Those familiar with centering prayer will recognize my adaptation of it here. Centering prayer is a form of contemplative prayer, perhaps the most commonly practiced form since its popularization by Frs. Basil Pennington and Thomas Keating in the last half century. A good introduction to the method taught by them is presented in Basil Pennington, Centering Prayer (New York: Doubleday, 1980). Don’t attempt to drive out your thoughts or feelings by obsessively repeating this word. Just offer it gently as a prayer each time you find yourself thinking about something—thinking about anything. Remember, this isn’t the time for thinking, not even about God. This is the time for wordless openness to God. It’s time to be spent simply with your Beloved, a time that should be uncluttered by preconceptions and interpretations.

08.  What to Expect

Nothing can ruin prayer more than inappropriate expectations. This is particularly true of contemplative prayer.

Don’t confuse contemplative prayer (or any prayer) with experience. You may have a mystical experience of union with God or an ecstatic sense of Divine Presence, but most people who pray contemplatively for a lifetime do not. This does not mean they did something wrong. The essence of contemplative prayer is not an experience of God, but simply spending time with God. We ruin prayer if we are constantly examining where we are in it and what we are getting from it. Cynthia Bourgeault reminds us, “What goes on in those silent depths during the times of Centering is no one’s business, not even your own; it is between your innermost being and God.”Bourgeault, 6. So, as much as you can, ignore what’s going on. The only thing to seek in contemplative prayer is God.

Try not to think of silence as an empty container into which God pours content. Instead, accept silence as its own form of communication. Thomas Keating reminds us of something long taught by Christian mystics when he asserts, “Silence is God’s first language; everything else is a poor translation.”Thomas Keating, Invitation to Love: The Way of Christian Contemplation (Snowmass, CO: St. Benedict’s Monastery, 1992) 90. In order to learn that language, we must learn to be still and to rest in God. Contemplative prayer is God’s language school, the place where we learn God’s language of silence and learn true spiritual rest.

What should you expect to achieve from contemplative prayer? If you are attempting to use it for relaxation or mental calming, you should expect failure and frustration. As soon as thoughts are released, new ones rush in to fill the vacuum produced by silence. While this does offer you the gift of continuing opportunities to practice surrender, it is not easily confused with the peace you might have hoped to achieve.

But what should you expect to receive as you continue to release these thoughts? You should expect to receive the gift of growth in the virtues and the fruit of the Spirit, as well as a transformational, deep knowing of both God and self. Don’t get me wrong. Contemplative prayer is not a form of psychospiritual therapy. The goal is God, not growth. But any genuine encounter with God involves an encounter with self, and when this occurs within the regular practice of contemplative prayer, it will change the interior landscape of that self.See Cynthia Bourgeault’s Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening and Thomas Keating’s Invitation to Love for an excellent discussion of the nature and process of this inner change.

The invitation to contemplative prayer is an invitation to walk the path of pure faith, a path that demands that we persevere in making ourselves available to God in stillness and silence without regard for what we are getting out of it. Thomas Keating likes to say that you don’t have to feel it, but you do have to practice it. That practice is simple but—make no mistake about it—also extremely demanding. The demands, however, are not what you might expect. What it requires is not so much resolve as faith. Yes, we must choose to make space for God. But the real challenge is to follow the path of dark faith that contemplative prayer demands—dark because we must walk without seeing. What we encounter in contemplative prayer cannot be seen by the natural faculties. It can be seen only by faith. Contemplative prayer, like all prayer, demands faith. Without faith it wouldn’t be prayer!

Prayer in all its forms is nothing more than a response to the Divine invitation to friendship. Contemplative prayer is simply offering ourselves in faith and openness to God, spending time in silence with our Beloved, who, we dare to trust, longs to spend that time with us. It will test our faith (it will, however, also strengthen it!) and may, on occasion, feel like a supreme waste of time, but it is the purest form of response we can make to that remarkable invitation simply to be with God.


David G. Benner, PhD, CPsych is Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Spirituality at Psychological Studies Institute in Atlanta. He is a contemplative prayer novice who seeks to live his life with trusting openness to God while helping others do the same. He and his wife live on Vancouver Island in Canada.