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.
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.
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.