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 approaches—which had provided me with such an inadequate knowledge of the Bible and the Christian faith—were 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: