One of the first books I read about contemplative prayer—more than thirty years ago—was Prayer Is a Hunger by Edward Farrell.1
This is exactly what prayer is, a hunger. Deep inside all of us is a deep yearning—a God-shaped vacuum that can be filled only by the divine.
Unfortunately, however, Christians have sometimes assumed that all it takes to fill this vacuum is a decision to follow Jesus. As a result, we bring people to Christ, get them involved in church and Bible study, and help them find a ministry. The newness of it all is wonderful, but in time, we find that the inner hunger is still there. We find that all our activity doesn’t fill the vacuum. In fact, the longing often becomes even greater. The hunger is the Holy Spirit calling us from deep within our souls. God wants us, not our service or our knowledge about God. Scripture tells us that God is love. Love by its very nature requires relationship. God desires relationship with us and has created us to desire that relationship as well. We long for relationship. We long to be loved unconditionally.
An old song reminds us, “What the World Needs Now Is Love, Sweet Love.” The world longs for love. All of us need to love and be loved. It is the way we were created—to love and be loved by God.
Being and Doing
For hundreds of years Western culture has ignored this inner need. Ever since the Age of Scholasticism, our world has been centered in reason, science, and the dualistic ideas of Greco-Roman intellectualism. Emotion and feelings have not been given much credence.
Christian spirituality has been shaped by this same culture. I recall a Lutheran pastor telling me that Lutheran spirituality has always been “good teaching.” In many ecclesiastical circles, it seems that memorizing scripture, performing service, and petitioning God are the essence of spiritual life.
Spiritual disciplines become something we do to be good Christians. Becoming a Christian is often more about behavior modification than inner transformation. In our dualistic thinking, we separate our spiritual lives from everyday life, work, family, and play. Spiritual life becomes something we do on top of all the other things that take our time. Is it any surprise that the result is clergy and lay leaders who feel empty and spiritually dry in the midst of their ministries?
Scriptures describe the Christian’s relationship with God in terms of marriage. We are the bride of Christ. Our relationship with God is to be a love relationship. In Jeremiah, God tells us that we are loved with an everlasting love. Isaiah 43:4 (NRSV) states, “you are precious in my sight, . . . and I love you.” Spiritual life is, in essence, “being in love.” The great Roman Catholic theologian Bernard Lonergan describes this as a being in love. 2It is learning to be in love rather than simply do in our relationship with God.
Love and Listening
Christian mystics write of the contemplative experience as a love affair. The ancients understood the Song of Solomon as a metaphor of the Christian life. The great saints wrote in similar fashion of their relationship with God. Bernard of Clairveaux wrote interpretations of the Song of Solomon (or what Roman Catholics call the Song of Songs). John of the Cross wrote numerous canticles on the love of God. And Teresa of Avila wrote books and poetry on her experience of God’s love. These and many other Christians experienced God’s presence primarily as loving intimacy. This is an answer to Jesus’ prayer in John 17 that the love with which God loved him would be in us. Our relationship with God begins with falling in love, and the journey continues as a discovery of the depths of the love of the Beloved and who we are becoming in love. Prayer, in this context, takes on new meaning. It becomes part of a relationship with one who loves us intimately and passionately. Prayer is not so much a duty as it is loving intercourse with the Beloved. In essence, it is responding in love to the God who has chosen and called us—not a guilt-producing agenda of prayer lists, petitions, and intercessions.
Our spiritual growth comes more from being in God’s presence than from our knowledge or efforts. In the words of the Apostle Paul, “We all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18, RSV).
Contemplative prayer is the prayer of love and listening. In the late sixties, I had my first introduction to this sort of prayer. I learned about listening to God as an alternative to simply talking to God. Listening transformed my relationship with God and changed my whole life. It moved prayer from being my responsibility to prayer as opening and paying attention to what God is doing. Letting go of being in charge and resting in God’s love is often the most difficult of all spiritual practices. But it changes everything.
The Practice of Listening Prayer
When we go to prayer, we should go to listen. Listening should be the most important part of our relationship to God. We are to be like Samuel, who heard God calling him and, when he realized it was God, said, “Speak Lord; your servant is listening.” Often, we are more likely to say, “Listen, Lord; your servant is speaking.”
Listening requires silence and solitude. It is very difficult to hear the still, small voice of the Spirit when we are on the run or constantly engaged with people and activities. God wants to be alone with us, to share time with us. Prayer is setting aside time to open ourselves to God. God will take care of the communication. We need only to listen and respond.
Prayer as listening is a demanding spiritual practice, but all the spiritual disciplines fall into place when we learn to set aside time for listening prayer. God is always present in and around us. God is always infusing us with inspiration and guidance. Our role is to learn to listen to and be aware of this presence.
Think of where and how you experience God’s presence. Perhaps it is sitting on your deck looking at a sunset. Or possibly it is watching your children at play or walking the dog. Often, we fail to see ordinary activities as prayer. But they can be, if that is our intention.
If our desire is to be with God, to listen to God, and to experience God’s love in our lives, God won’t let us down. “How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13, NRSV).
Begin where you are. Even the desire to pray is prayer. Begin to turn your thoughts inward and pay attention to the indwelling Spirit while you are doing ordinary activities. Let these be times of inner communication with God. They may be simply an inner act of love without words or images. This is a way to practice the presence of God that helps us be more open when we come to a time of formal prayer.
When you have a time that is set aside for prayer, turn your thoughts inward to where you sense the warmth of God’s Spirit. Sometimes it helps to try to imagine where the Spirit lives inside and try to focus your attention there. Or you might try to recall a past experience of the presence of God and then stay with that awareness. God is always present. The Holy Spirit dwells within, so being in touch with God’s presence does not require conjuring up something, but simply opening oneself to God.
Listening to Listen
If you have been used to doing all the talking in prayer, the movement to more contemplative prayer and awareness may make prayer seem rather empty. It may seem that nothing is happening. Learning to listen to God is often aided by a slow, meditative reading of a sentence or two of scriptures. Try not to listen for something, but just listen. Focus on God, not what you can learn from the passage. Open your heart to God. Listen with your heart, not simply your mind. Many have found this to be a way to change their prayer from talking to listening. It can be a way of entering into a more direct experience of God’s love and presence.
However, the time may come when it seems cumbersome to use scriptures in this way. You may sense God’s nearness when you sit down to pray but may feel as though you are stepping back from the presence of God when you begin to meditate on scriptures. This feeling is often a sign that God is inviting you to a more contemplative form of prayer. Such contemplation can be difficult because you may feel that you are being too passive in the silence and that consequently it cannot be prayer.
I believe it was Irenaeus who said we should pray as we can and not as we can’t. In other words, we must follow the leading of the Spirit to learn the prayer God is inviting us to pray. Some people refuse to follow God on this journey out of fear of where it might take them. They continue with whatever prayer forms they are accustomed to and never reach the places of intimate encounter to which God is inviting them.
Although prayer should never be reduced to a technique, there are things that we can do to help us develop contemplative listening to God. Many people find it helpful to pay attention to their breathing, imagining that they are being filled with the Holy Spirit as they inhale, and emptying all busy thoughts as they exhale. You may want to try this.
Or try imagining that you are sitting with Jesus, keeping him company. If your thoughts begin to distract you, go back to your breathing until you return to Jesus’ side. Or try slowly repeating a name or attribute of God, such as Abba, God, Love, Friend, or Jesus to keep your heart centered on God. As you begin to find the space within where you sense the presence of the Spirit, simply stay there.
Don’t give up too soon. It may feel as if nothing is happening, but remember that God is faithful and is always working in us if that is what we desire. Our part is to spend the time and open our hearts.
Sometimes I find it helpful to think of how a flower grows in a garden with its blossoms facing the sun. It seems just to grow as the sun and rain fall on it. It doesn’t have to do anything but be present to the elements. As we continue to be present to God, we begin to notice that God is at work in us whether we feel anything or not.
Usually, the best time for this type of prayer is early in the day before one’s mind becomes too cluttered with the day’s activities. Throughout the day, it is important to recall as often as you can the sense of presence, peace, or love that may have been there at the time of prayer. Recollection is a way of practicing awareness of God and listening to God in the middle of the day’s activities.
Another way to do this is the daily examen. Here, one takes time at night before sleep to review the day and think of times when you noticed God’s presence and times when you were unaware of it. This practice and a time of morning quiet are like bookends on the day to keep us aware of God’s action and open us to a deeper experience of it. And, of course, keeping a spiritual journal helps us remember and notice these things in a deeper way.
When I first read Prayer Is a Hunger, I was looking for ways to slake my own hunger for a relationship with God that had not been satisfied by intellectual faith. Over the years, these practices have helped keep me aware of the incredible healing and transforming love of God in the middle of all the ups and downs of my spiritual journey.
When our inner person is filled with God’s transforming love, ministry and service follow. Jesus was a servant and laid down his life for others. When we experience oneness with Christ, our desire will be to live out the Christ-life in our world. The fruit of this prayer of love is wholeness and holiness. Taking time for solitude and silence in our word-glutted and stress-driven culture is a countercultural move that can become intercession for our world. At this time in history, God is restoring the lost grace of contemplative prayer to heal not only us as individuals but also a world that is longing for love.