Conversatio Divina

Classroom: Being with God: The Practice of Contemplative Prayer

Joannah Sadler

Read the article by David Benner and then join me in the classroom for some questions and exercises to learn more about the practice of contemplative prayer.

“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 a relationship.” (Benner, p. 7) In this wonderful article, David Benner helps us see prayer as the foundation of our relationship with God. Contemplative prayer is the form of prayer where we can learn to understand, and even speak the same language of God. Benner opens the article by clarifying any myths the reader might have about contemplative prayer: it’s not for the spiritual elites or certain personality types, it’s not the most advanced form of prayer— he even suggests that it’s the most basic.

If prayer is the response to a divine invitation to relationship, it would make sense to consider the participants. Oftentimes, prayer can become one-sided, filled with our words of petition or confession. This elementary understanding of prayer, Benner says, “[is] 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 the first and the last word in the Divine-human conversation.” Benner reminds us that it’s not so much what we do, as what the Spirit does in/through us.

“In essence, [prayer] is simply being with God. It is relationship.” When I think about my most important relationships, and how I feel when I’ve spent time with those I cherish, most of the time I don’t qualify them based on what I get out of the relationship. I just enjoy being together. Although sometimes my ego gets in the way of authentic connection, and the true work of maintaining a healthy relationship must be done. That’s a topic for another day, but sadly, the same can be said of our relationship with God. It can become all about us, filled with our words, and lack the space for openness to what the Spirit might be inviting us to hear in silence or through the written Word of Scripture.

That brings us to some important aspects of contemplative prayer. Etymologically the three root words: tio (an abiding state) con (with) templa (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” (Benner, p. 8). Contemplative prayer moves us beyond words when we begin to realize that they aren’t necessary in order to remain present to God. Just as we experience with those we love deeply, it’s possible to remain in each other’s presence without filling the space with words (or a device in front of our face!) “The goal of contemplative prayer is not the elimination of thoughts or words. The goal is openness to God.” As the last issue of Conversations centered on the topic Means of Grace in our lives, this article reminds us that “it is by God’s grace that we enter into the Divine relationship, not be means of anything we do or don’t do. Our part is simply openness in faith.”

Think for a minute about how young children learn—especially those ages two to four. Children are naturally captivated by their surroundings. Babies crawl to an object, pick it up to observe, then put it in their mouths. Toddlers notoriously stop to smell the flowers or examine a rock or stick, usually while their parents are rushing to get somewhere. Benner notes, “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 or talking. That way was contemplation” (Benner, p. 8). He goes on to say, “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.” (Benner, p. 9). My own children are at various stages of this wonderment with the world, and curiosity about God. They continue to teach me that the best way to hear from God is often in slow, unplanned moments of contemplation.

The final section of the article lays out a practice for contemplative prayer that Benner describes as a dance with your partner being the Spirit. “The dance takes place in the sacred space between the Word and 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.” Readers of this journal will be familiar with this practice of engaging the Bible, or rather letting “Scripture read you,” as some have said. Included in the questions and exercises below, is a suggestion to practice this ancient way of reading the Word. One must not forget to allow space for silence in this process of dancing with the Spirit. As “Thomas Keating reminds us of something long taught by Christian mystics, ‘Silence is God’s first language; everything else is a poor translation.’”

  1. Is the concept of prayer as a “response to the Divine Invitation to friendship” (Benner, p. 12) new or familiar to you? In what ways would you contrast this view of prayer to what you first learned about prayer.
  2. Think about Jesus’s suggestion that his followers become like children, and how contemplation comes so naturally to the young. Spend some time working the muscle of wonderment this week. Gaze at the stars one evening. If you’re near the ocean or mountains—take in the scenery that has become so familiar and less captivating. Resist the urge to describe the experience, true wonderment cannot be put into words. Sit in the silence of how that experience of being in God’s creation drew you closer to the Spirit.
  3. Read David Benner’s words about lectio divina and the space for silence that follows. Use this suggestion for a time of centering prayer this week (Benner, p. 11):

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. . . . 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. . . .
You may find this release aided by silently repeating a love name for God each time you become aware of anything. . . . This is the time for wordless openness to God.