Conversatio Divina

Contemplative Prayer: More Essential Than Esoteric

Gary W. Moon

This summer I was vacationing with my family in Europe when I was slapped in the face by a sentence hiding in a book. We were near the end of our adventure and had worn most of the print off our four Eurail passes. My wife and two daughters were napping, and by reading Huston Smith’s The World’s Religions, I was trying not to join them. Somewhere between London and Edinburgh, I found the words that left me red-faced: “Paul, whose letters epitomize the concerns of the early Church, knew what Jesus had taught, but he almost never quotes him.” Huston Smith, The World’s Religions (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991) 330.

I was jolted. My first reaction was to question the theological veracity of the author. Surely, he must have it wrong. I was aware Paul did not have access to a red-letter New Testament, but I still could not fathom how the individual whom God dramatically called and personally trained for the job of apostle would “almost never” quote the source of the Christian faith. It couldn’t be!

When I got home, I immediately e-mailed a trusted friend and student of Scripture—and namesake of the Apostle in question—Paul Smith. I asked him if the claim were true, and within the hour he sent me the only three passages he knew in which Paul quotes Jesus: Acts 20:35, 1 Corinthians 11:23–25, and 2 Corinthians 12:9. When he reminded me about the lack of a good King James Bible in Paul’s day, I reminded him that I’ve quoted Dallas Willard more then three times while standing in the express lane at our grocery.

Jesus was transformational. This fact is perhaps most graphically supported by the two very different lives lived by Saul/Paul, but Huston Smith’s observation is poignant: “The news that transformed [Paul] was not Jesus’ ethical precepts . . . it was something different.” Smith, 330.

But if not Jesus’ words, then what was it that transformed lives, producing men and women who found the secret of living and a willingness to face Roman legions and hungry lions?

And then there is the even tougher question. How can we expect a person who lived over two thousand years ago to produce radical change in a human life here and now?

I believe Lewis Smedes offers the most likely answer to those questions—as well as to why Jesus was infrequently quoted by Paul. Lewis B. Smedes, Union with Christ: A Biblical View of the New Life in Jesus Christ, 2nd rev. edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1983). According to Smedes, Paul’s writings are driven by one consuming theme. One hundred sixty-four times Paul makes reference either to our being “in Christ” or to Christ’s being “in” us. Apparently, the Apostle believed there was something even more important and transforming than the moral teachings of Jesus. It was the great mystery revealed. It was the present possibility of entering into union with Christ—the center and condition of authentic human existence.

The more I reflected on Huston Smith’s observation, the more I became convinced that Paul’s central teaching—being “in” Christ—is closely connected to contemplative prayer, the theme of this issue of Conversations. Contemplative prayer is the experience of being “in Christ.” As David Benner offers in his foundational article for this issue, contemplation literally means abiding with God.

Michael Glerup, in his Ancient Wisdom column, echoes Benner’s observation while allowing the voices of Origen, John Cassian, and Isaac of Nineveh to travel the centuries and enter the conversation. According to Glerup, “contemplative prayer is fundamentally a plugging of the soul into the divine love of God” and a way of “fulfillment of Jesus’ prayer in John 17: I ask . . . that the love with which you loved me may be in them . . . that they all may be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us.” (John 17:20, 26, 21, 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.).

Perhaps the reason Paul quoted Jesus’ words so infrequently was the lead story he was covering at the time: “The mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people. . . . Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:26–27, NIV Scripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™ ).

I don’t believe the transforming power of Christ is present with us now because he once said, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” but because the living Christ can love my neighbor through me by being in me. The difference here can be as vast as the chasm which separates reading a prayer about God from experiencing prayer with God.

We hope you will enjoy this issue on contemplative prayer. It offers a variety of voices describing this experiential way of prayer as deepening receptivity to and awareness of the mystery of being in Christ.

Footnotes