Conversatio Divina

Part 6 of 16

Contemplative Prayer Through Back Roads

John R. Finney

God led me to contemplative prayer through back roads.

I became active in church when I was a teenager and a very attractive girl invited me to youth group. God uses all kinds of ways to enlist people in His service! My next step was to be a Volunteer in Mission in the West Virginia Mountain Project after my junior year in college. Seeing the love and generosity of the Presbyterian men and women who served this group of churches in a poverty-stricken area profoundly challenged me; I wanted what they seemed to have.

A year later, I went to seminary to get my religious questions answered. In particular, I wanted to know what people were talking about when they referred to a personal relationship with Jesus. When I graduated and interviewed for an assistant pastor position, I told them I wasn’t interested in the job unless they wanted to be innovative in Christian education, because I believed that the standard approacheswhich had provided me with such an inadequate knowledge of the Bible and the Christian faithwere ineffective. They hired me in spite of my brashness.

I was a child of the ’60s, so changing the world through “doing” was my customary modus operandi. I worked hard. I prayed little. And after three years as a Presbyterian pastor, I was exhausted. My colleague in ministry, Charles Loyer, encouraged me to cultivate more of a devotional life. While praying with a Roman Catholic priest in town, using his Morning Prayer liturgy, in the midst of reading a Psalm, I experienced a flash of intense joy amidst what I suddenly realized was a black night within me. I figured that if reading a psalm could feel that good, I should do it more. So I began going into work early and reading the Psalms out loud. When a line gave me some positive feeling, I stopped and stayed with it until the thought offered me no more gladness. I can compare the process to letting a piece of hard candy slowly melt in your mouth and bathe your tongue with delightful taste. I came to think of my time with the Psalms as God’s underlining reassurances of his power and love for me.

At some point, a Methodist pastor in town invited me to attend an informal seminar that he had arranged with a former professor of his who had retired to our community. In this way, Ray Petry, PhD, the editor of the Library of Christian Classics volume on late medieval mysticism, introduced me to the writings of such people as Meister Eckhart, Teresa of Avila, Richard Rolle, and Nicholas of Cusa. These led me to an exploration of the contemplative tradition, including retreats at Roman Catholic monasteries and retreat centers. Finally, I was able to connect the dots and see that my moments of ecstasy spawned by the Psalms was contemplation—a stopped-in-your-tracks, spellbound marveling at the reality of the living God. The way I was praying the Psalms was contemplative prayer.

Several years passed while all this was happening in my devotional life. Professionally, my convictions about spiritual development had shifted. I went into the gospel ministry with a passion for Christian education. I initially saw it as a necessary companion to the pulpit for people to grow in the likeness of Jesus. After being forced into psychotherapy because of severe depression, I came to believe that the psychotherapeutic model was needed in addition to the classroom approach. The psychologist to whom I was referred by a perceptive member of the congregation was John G. Finch, PhD, the founding father of Fuller Seminary’s Graduate School of Psychology. The growth that he fostered in me made me want to have the skills of a psychologist to help people grow spiritually.

Ironically, on April Fool’s Day 1980, I was accepted as a student at Fuller. I decided to do my dissertation on contemplative prayer as an adjunct to psychotherapy. J. R. Finney, Contemplative Prayer as an Adjunct to Psychotherapy. Unpublished dissertation. Fuller Seminary, The Graduate School of Psychology, 1984; J. R. Finney and H. N. Malony. “An Empirical Study of Contemplative Prayer as an Adjunct to Psychotherapy,” Journal of Psychology and Theology 13, 1985a, 284–290; J. R. Finney and H. N. Malony. “Contemplative Prayer and Its Use in Psychotherapy: A Theoretical Model,” Journal of Psychology and Theology 13, 1985b, 172–181; J. R. Finney and H. N. Malony. “Empirical Studies of Christian Prayer: A Review of the Literature,” Journal of Psychology and Theology 13, 1985c, 104–115. Looking back on all of this, I am tempted to accuse God of being devious.

I finished my dissertation over twenty years ago. With some reluctance, I recently reread it, hoping that I didn’t say too much that was ignorant or useless. This process helped me to clarify and gather together some convictions I now hold that might be of help to someone navigating the contemplative highways and byways. What I hope to add to the literature of the contemplative tradition—which is generally murky—are a few contemplative concepts that are explained using the vocabulary of today’s common parlance. I think some translation is needed. 

01.  Defining Our Terms

I define contemplative prayer (CP) as a set of religious practices that enable one to wait patiently on God to deepen one’s confidence in God’s power and love. It minimizes logical processing and allows one to be nondefensively available to the Divine. The techniques of CP are ways of being deliberately inattentive to the messages of reasoning and the senses. Such inattention is important so that we are receptive to what God has to say rather than what we expect God to say. These techniques include listening for God to speak through the Bible, the frequent repetition of the Jesus Prayer (i.e., “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”), and the use of a single repeated word such as “Jesus” or “yes” to sum up one’s prayer of devotion. Yet the essence of CP is not a technique, but a way of interpersonally approaching God that is characterized by a passive, undemanding openness to God.

Contemplative prayer can be compared to two lovers walking on the beach hand in hand, relating to each other even though no words are spoken. The person praying is “hanging out” with God, listening rather than talking. The opposite of CP is to want or strive to have a particular religious experience or virtue. CP can lead to intensely positive emotions and a deep sense of well-being, but to pursue such experiences is to fail to practice CP.

Contemplation is not a new concept in the church. It is the ancient Christian term for mystical experience. This phenomenon is a personal experience that is perceived as real.  It is an intimate connection with God that is ultimately beyond description. To elaborate:


  • The individual believes that she or he has encountered God, that God has been directly experienced, personally.
  • The experience is described as real, but different from the ordinary reality known by the five senses and reason. After one’s first mystical experience, personal reality has two dimensions where, before, it had only one. The new dimension is independent of time and space, an experience of eternity. For a brief time, one has been emancipated from the limits of sense perceptions and intellectual processes to grasp the fullness of what is real.
  • One has the sense of somehow being united with God and knowing God as one knows oneself. Through Christian mystical experience, one learns that one’s deepest self is not self at all, but Other.
  • The fullness of the experience is inexpressible. When one tries to describe what happened, one struggles for words, often resorts to paradox, and ultimately finds that it defies description. It is like trying to explain what makes great music or visual art breathtaking.

02.  Two Pathways to Contemplation

Christian mystical experience falls into two broad categories: kataphatic and apophatic. Literally, these terms mean “with images” and “without images.” Word pictures such as those found in the Psalms can trigger kataphatic mystical experiences. They involve positive emotion that can range from feeling very loved by God to intense bursts of pleasure that are appropriately described as spiritual orgasms.

Richard Rolle, an English mystic who died in 1349, reflects his kataphatic experience in one of his prayers:

In contrast to kataphatic experiences—which always involve word pictures and mental images—apophatic mystical experiences are triggered by what one can hypothesize to be moments of unconscious awareness of the presence of God. On a conscious level, when reflecting on such an experience, we cannot point to what thought or feeling has renewed in us the intuition that we are loved by the all-powerful God. Yet there is a profound certainty about God’s personally loving us and keeping us in his care—we just don’t know (in words or images) how we know.

An apophatic experience can be like being in a very dark room with a Loving Presence that you cannot see, but you somehow know is there. Or one might also compare apophatic mystical experience to knowing there is a party going on in the next room because the sounds are pleasant ones, but you cannot make out anything that is being said. Some people have apophatic mystical experiences in which there is really no immediate experience at all. It is as if they have been asleep, but afterward they know they are subtly different, and they have the intuition that they have been united with the Divine through love.

The Cloud of Unknowing, written in Middle English in the fourteenth century, is in the apophatic tradition. To provide a flavor of this mystical tradition, I include the following excerpts from the anonymous writer of this spiritual classic:

Nowhere physically, is everywhere spiritually. . . . When your mind consciously focuses on anything, you are there in that place spiritually, as certainly as your body is located in a definite place right now.  . . . How wonderfully is a man’s love transformed by the interior experience of this nothingness and this nowhere. . . . He who patiently abides in this darkness will be comforted and feel again a confidence about his destiny, for gradually he will see his past sins healed by grace. . . . Finally there will come a moment when he experiences such peace and repose in that darkness that he thinks surely it must be God himself. Yes, he will suppose this nothingness to be one thing and another, yet to the last it will remain a cloud of unknowing between himself and his God. W. Johnston, ed., The Cloud of Unknowing (New York: Image Books/Doubleday, 1973) 136–138; excerpts from chapters 68 and 69.

03.  Personally Speaking

As a psychologist, I know that the unconscious mind can counterfeit any human experience, including mystical experience. Thus, I must say that the authenticity of any encounter with God is verified by an increase in Christlikeness afterwards. Speaking to a similar issue of possible self-deception, Jesus said,

Drawing conclusions from my own experience, I must say that CP produces progress, not perfection. I am not a candidate for sainthood. Just talk to my wife! I am still inordinately anxious on a daily basis. I can have rage fantasies that would make Darth Vader blush. Nevertheless, as I have followed my practice of reviewing the previous day during my devotional time, I have been surprised at how spontaneously patient and generous I have been at times. For me, CP has produced goodness that has happened more by accident than by intent. My aim is simply to keep my appointments with God.

Although more difficult to document, my ongoing practice of CP seems to make me more honest with myself, more sensitive to beauty, and more aware of the feelings of others as I go about the business of my day. To put it another way, I seem freer of the unconscious filters I developed in childhood to make reality more palatable. Another apparent result of my regular practice of CP is that I have unexpected moments when I feel effervescent with God. It is as if the presence of Jesus is bubbling through me. Finally, I suspect that CP helps me give up cherished desires that have been proven to be unrealistic for me to continue to long for.

Most fundamentally, CP renews in me the intuition that I am safe in God Almighty’s loving care. This is what the author of Hebrews is talking about: “To have faith is to be sure of the things we hope for, to be certain of the things we cannot see” (Hebrews 11:1, GNTScripture quotations marked GNT are taken from the Good News Translation® (Today’s English Version, Second Edition) © 1992 American Bible Society. All rights reserved.). When I get up in the morning, my spontaneous thoughts and feelings suggest unreasonable apprehension. My unconscious mind seems to believe that the world I will encounter for the rest of the day is dangerous and full of malevolent people.

Contemplative prayer is spiritual dialysis that temporarily removes much of the paranoid poison from my unconscious. The result is that I find myself assuming that I am safe enough to be myself rather than needing to protect myself every moment. The pervasive unconscious fear of living and dying that is a product of my genetics and early childhood learning is temporarily replaced by a freeing confidence in God. Even with CP, however, I still need psychiatric medications to free me from the extremes of depression and anxiety.


04.  Contemplative Prayer’s Surprising Sibling

What I have said so far demands a larger context. The Christian tradition suggests that followers respond to the Almighty God’s undeserved love and forgiveness by trying to live as Jesus lived, by being a part of a worshipping Christian community, and by praying. Prayer includes actively talking to God and passively being available to God. CP belongs to the latter category.

As I studied the variety of manifestations of Christian prayer while writing my dissertation, I was surprised to find myself concluding that CP and “speaking in tongues,” or glossolalia, both appear to involve—more so than other forms of prayer—an interior surrender to the loving presence and power of God. Both contemplative prayer and glossolalia seem to require a passive, undemanding openness to God. For instance, Thomas Merton speaks of “an unconditional and totally humble surrender to God” as central to his prayer as well as living his whole life for God.Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer (New York: Image Books/Doubleday, 1996), 68. It was originally published as The Climate of Monastic Prayer (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1969). In a similar vein, Jack Hayford describes the inner receptivity to receiving one’s spiritual language as a “freely open, fully available, spiritually vulnerable moment in the presence of our precious Savior.”Jack Hayford, The Beauty of Spiritual Language (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1996) 43.

Consistent with CP’s deliberate inattentiveness to the messages of reasoning, the Episcopal charismatic Dennis Bennett says of speaking in tongues, “You can’t speak in two languages at once. You can’t pray with the Spirit and with the intellect at the same time.”Dennis Bennett, How to Pray for the Release of the Holy Spirit (Gainesville, FL: Bridge-Logos, 1985) 69.

I can imagine Thomas Merton in his monastery cell at 4 am, relating to God with a verse from Psalm 16: “You, Lord, are all I have, and you give me all I need; my future is in your hands” (v. 5, GNT). Then I see Jack Hayford in front of thousands of people, leading the congregation in the famous song he penned, “Majesty,” with raised arms, speaking in tongues. While the external appearance may appear to be in stark contrast, both worshippers may be coming to God in a remarkably similar way—with an unconditional receptivity to the power, presence, and love of God. I am deeply convinced that Jack Hayford and Thomas Merton have more in common than is usually recognized. But this is a road yet to be thoroughly explored.

Through a circuitous route I have come to understand the concept of a “personal relationship with Jesus” as Christian mystical experience. The most helpful exposition of this for me has been the contemplative tradition. CP is a means of renewing one’s intuitive certainty about God’s love and power. It leads to an encounter with Mystery. I have tried to speak about contemplative prayer with simplicity and directness, but ultimately, I can’t explain much. Like the blind man, really all I can say is that once I was blind, and now I see (John 9:25).

In the language of the monastic fathers, all prayer, reading, meditation, and all the activities of the monastic life are aimed at purity of heart, an unconditional and totally humble surrender to God, a total acceptance of ourselves and of our situation as willed by him (emphasis added). Contemplative Prayer, 68

I’d heard all the warnings [about a quest to speak with tongues]: Don’t seek an experience for its own sake! Look out for deceiving spirits! Beware of manipulation, emotionalism, suggestiveness! Don’t let sensationalism about the supernatural catch your fancy! Given the endless stream of such doubt and fear-inducing dictums—however sincerely spoken—there are enough obstacles to block any Christian from pursuing a freely open, fully available, spiritually vulnerable moment in the presence of our precious Savior. . . . I prayed, “Lord, I ask You to fill me with the Holy Spirit. I want to receive Your power and Your love so I can fulfill whatever You want to do with my life.” What took place next happened so quickly it surprised me. As soon as I spoke those words, a phrase instantly came to my mind. It was as clear in my mind as if someone had whispered, “I praise You, Lord,” but it wasn’t a phrase in English. It was four syllables I had never learned.The Beauty of Spiritual Language, 43.


John R. (Jack) Finney, MDiv, PhD, was a Presbyterian clergyman in a local church for ten years before he felt called by God to pursue a doctorate in clinical psychology so he could be best equipped to help people grow in their relationship with Jesus. Vocationally, Jack works for the Veteran’s Administration as a clinical psychologist helping former military personnel deal with the mental scars of war. Avocationally, he describes himself as a fifty-nine-year-old married Protestant “monk” who loves sex. He works, prays, and gardens in Roseburg, Oregon.