As I began to contemplate (verb chosen deliberately) the writing of this article, I did what any alert twenty-first-century seeker would do: I went online. Sure enough, my article has already been written many times, both tersely and expansively, eloquently and not so eloquently, and almost exclusively under the rubric, “Centering Prayer.” As I browsed among the offerings unfurled upon my screen, it became clear to me that more than enough has already been written about method and that I was drawn to something deeper.
So after the Web, I turned to my faithful Webster’s. The very words, contemplative and contemplate, have mystery at their heart: in ancient times, the templum (temple) was the space where soothsayers practiced divination, seeking signs and omens. There is something uncanny here, a suggestion of otherworldliness, a sacred precinct set apart in the busy marketplace for a different kind of study and knowing.
So, what has all this to do with devotional practice in the twenty-first century? We know from centuries of tradition that there are broadly two ways of praying: kataphatic, which welcomes the gifts of our imaginations and our senses, and apophatic, the prayer of self-emptying, in which words and images are banished, and God is sought in silence and emptiness. Traditionally, this latter is seen as the path to contemplative prayer.
We know from Scripture that God is to be encountered in solitude and silence. Elijah stands outside the cave on Mount Horeb and encounters the Lord God not in the great wind, not in the earthquake, not in the fire, but in the sound of sheer silence. Similarly, the Psalmist speaks of waiting for God alone in silence. And Jesus lives and gives powerful examples: his baptism would seem a call to action, yet he withdraws for forty days to the solitude of the desert. Later, he slips away from the crowds who are seeking healing or maybe just a time in his presence, and goes in the predawn darkness to a deserted place to pray. We don’t know what words he used, if any, nor do we have any indication of his posture. Did he kneel, stand, sit, or prostrate himself? We just don’t know. Method doesn’t seem to matter. But presence and attentiveness do. Letting go of self does.
To contemplate is to gaze inward, deeply and single-mindedly. To contemplate is to put self aside and become totally absorbed in the object of our contemplation—the God who made us, loves us, and keeps us. Then we can want nothing more. As Paul writes to the Ephesians,
I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God (Ephesians 3:14–19, NRSV Scripture quotations marked (NRSV) are taken from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.).
Contemplative prayer—whether it be centering prayer as taught in the fouteenth-century Cloud of Unknowing or by Thomas Keating and his brother Cistercians in our own day—is about knowing the love of Christ and being filled with the fullness of God. It is also about praxis, about a spiritual discipline that is fruitful and life-giving for many, but difficult or inaccessible for others. Our inborn temperament, our psychological and spiritual makeup, plays a decisive role here. The practice of contemplative prayer, narrowly defined, is but one aspect of contemplative living, which is to live in constant awareness of the glorious power and presence of God, to live in a state of reverent awareness, and to let go of self.
To contemplate is to gaze with awe, to wait and listen, to be still and know that God is God. To contemplate is to pray and to be aware of our own smallness and fallibility.
In my own life of prayer, I seek and cherish those times of emptiness, God’s deserts in a too busy, overstimulated world. Drawn as I am to kataphatic prayer, it is for me hard work to still my imagination and quiet my inner voices. But I know that I am enriched and deepened when I seek the inner silence. More broadly, though, I feel drawn to live in awareness of the abundant evidence of God that surrounds me, to feel the almost palpable brushing of the Holy Spirit against me, and to embrace the challenge of not only praying but living contemplatively.
Long ago a wise teacher said to me, “We either contemplate or we exploit. When we contemplate, we can look at the flower without wanting to pick it.” So when we pray and live contemplatively, we can let go of greed and the compulsion to consume. We lose the desire to exploit and destroy. In the words of Paul, we are rooted and grounded in love and filled with all the fullness of God. What more can we need? Want? Imagine?