Conversatio Divina

Conversation Guide

Kim Engelmann

In this feature of the Conversations journal, several articles are selected for use as a small group resource. We provide you with a summary and discussion questions with the hope that each issue of Conversations may morph into a thematic resource for spiritual formation groups.

01.  Being With God: The Practice of Contemplative Prayer

David G. Benner

This is a great article, with very helpful distinctions and encouragement for those who don’t think of themselves as contemplatives—who struggle with prayer—to give the practice of contemplative prayer a try. Benner dispenses with the notion that contemplative prayer is somehow a more advanced form of prayer. Rather, he contends that contemplative prayer is rudimentary and basic, involving a different, earlier kind of knowing that we may have used intuitively when we were young. In the same way that children do not need to be taught to observe tadpoles in a pond, but watch, silently attentive and filled with wonder, so can we attend to God—as we “become like little children.”

When we know through reason, we make the world conform to our concepts of it. In contrast, an encounter with reality by means of wonder allows us to adjust our concepts of the world. This is what makes contemplative prayer transformational. When someone is known in love, words become less and less necessary, just as lovers can sit in silence for hours, simply enjoying each other’s presence and being filled up inside.

Prayer is often taught as a way to talk to God rather than listen. It is couched as something that I, rather than God, take the initiative to do. It is based in my ability to reason. Yet the truth is that our prayer is a response to the God who has already called us. And the essence of prayer is not so much what we do as what God does in us. John of the Cross calls contemplative prayer “passive, loving receptivity—leaning toward God in faith with longing, openness, and love.” Benner calls this kind of prayer a dance in which the Christian allows God to lead him or her in the dance steps. He talks about these steps as having a rhythm, found in the process of lectio divina.

Lectio is reading or listening to some brief scripture. Meditatio is pondering or chewing over what you have received—a kind of nonanalytical musing. Oratio is the prayer of response. We may have words, simple awe, or a song, or we may write out a prayer or any number of things. Finally, contemplatio is prayer as being. In contemplation we rest in God, allowing our consciousness to be transformed by and infused with God’s presence. God’s Word in scripture and silence belong together, as we can see in this process. Each leads to the other, just as breathing in and breathing out cannot be separated. The goal is always God, not ecstatic experience or spiritual growth. Yet any encounter with God will change us, whether we are aware of change or not. This practice is done by faith, even when we don’t see results or have emotional experiences. We continue to offer ourselves in faith and openness to our Beloved, who, we dare to trust, longs to spend time with us.

 

  1. When was a time that you remember being awed or filled with wonder as a child? What were you looking at or experiencing? What was this kind of nonanalytical knowing like for you?

 

  1. What do you think might be the most difficult part of the process of lectio divina for you to practice? Are you someone who finds prayer easy or difficult? Is the idea that contemplative prayer is rudimentary and basic an encouraging word for you?

 

  1. Have you ever before thought of prayer as a dance, with God as your partner leading the steps? How does this image perhaps make prayer a more loving, joyful endeavor than simply a ritualistic practice? 

02.  Contemplation and Social Action: A Conversation with Thelma Galvez Nambu

Contemplation and social action are often seen as two separate camps. In this article, Thelma Nambu shows how her contemplative life informs and is profoundly integrated into her work with women who are survivors of prostitution. Thelma is honored by her fellow Filipinos and addressed as Ate, a title of respect and esteem.

In the interview she speaks about how the Filipinos love to gather together, nurture relationships, and stay connected over time. Materialism in the West has robbed many of this relational network. Thelma believes it is this emphasis on relationship that helps the Filipino people maintain a strong spirituality, as God is “best experienced in people.” Her comment that she sees Christ in all people, not just in Christians, is testimony to God as the Creator of all and the Author and Giver of life itself. There is necessarily something of the parent in all children! Therefore, she finds Christ with whomever she is working, in whatever context, at whatever time.

At the same time that finding Christ in others is significant in her outward journey as she helps women in need, so the inward gaze is also vastly significant for Thelma. The sense of mystery and the wealth inside human beings is far more a part of the Asian consciousness than it is of the Western—even if it is not specifically Christian. The richness and wisdom found within lend themselves to the ability to nurture a posture of being, not simply doing. This is how Thelma describes the essence of contemplative spirituality: waiting on God, attending to his presence both within and without.

She emphasizes that God’s presence is incarnational and can be recognized in the most mundane circumstances, once the inner clutter of our lives is removed so that we can hear God’s still, small voice. To listen more than speak is the discipline of contemplative prayer, and solitude and silence can open us up to hear God’s voice of love. God is always present and always communicating. Yet our true contemplation must also result in loving our neighbors, especially the needy; this loving is the outward journey. It is not words alone or numinous individualistic experiences that concretize our contemplative life. Rather, the Good News is concretized to others when we incarnate Jesus for our neighbors and, in turn, see “Jesus in every face [we encounter].”

 

  1. Have you ever “seen” Jesus in or heard God’s word to you from an “unlikely” person? What was this like for you? Share your experience with the group.

 

  1. Is thinking of contemplation as an outward journey as well as an inward one a new idea for you? Why or why not? How might you foster contemplation with an outward gaze this week? An inward gaze?

 

  1. Do you agree that materialistic desire has been substituted for meaningful relationships in the West? Why might this be a poor substitute? How might this rob us of a deeper spirituality?

 

  1. Is it hard at times simply to be and not do? Why or why not? Is it more difficult to listen or to talk when you pray? Explain.

03.  A Voice from the Anchor-Hold: Journeying with Julian of Norwich

Joyce Peasgood

Peasgood reviews Julian of Norwich’s anchoritic lifestyle. It involved a lifelong commitment to austerity; in Julian’s case, it meant that she lived in a two-room cell with a small window where she could receive Communion, and a small anteroom where she was allowed to receive guests. It was here that Julian wrote her short text entitled Showings, which recorded her visions. The Revelations of Divine Love, written twenty years later, talks about theological issues that arose from these visions.

Julian integrates theology and spirituality, a rare combination. She emphasized Love and described God as our “clothing that wraps and enfolds us for love.” Julian’s emphasis on God’s love came at a time when the European church promoted the judgment and the wrath of God; her ideas were a comfort to many sufferers who came to her. Her perception of the Trinity is intriguing as well. She describes the triune God as “the maker” (the work of creation), “the keeper” and protector (the work of mercy) and “the lover” (the work of grace).

In her view, the Almighty of the Trinity is our Father; the deep wisdom of the Trinity is our Mother; and the great love of the Trinity is our Lord. This led to her describing Christ as our mother, who nurtures us by feeding us with himself through Communion and, just like a mother, knows our needs, guards and protects us, comforts us, and bears pain to create our new birth.

Julian wrote in the vernacular so the common person could read and understand. As England wrestled with the utter chaos caused by waves of bubonic plague, the Peasants’ Revolt, and the war with France, Julian had an optimistic outlook because of her strong intimacy with Jesus. “All will be well, and every kind of thing will be well” was Jesus’ message to her.

 

  1. Have you ever had an optimistic outlook when all was going wrong? Why or why not?

 

  1. How do you think an intensive prayer life lends itself to a deeper integration of what we know and what we may experience of the presence of Jesus?

 

  1. Do you think there is value in experiencing God/Christ as mother? Why or why not?

 

  1. Are there ever any days when you wish for an anchoritic lifestyle? What is appealing to you about this? What is not?

04.  Contemplation: No Better Place to Be Than with God

Jan Johnson

Jan Johnson shares honestly in this article about her own “burnout” from being a high-achieving church leader, to reencountering God through simply being or relating—“hanging out” with God, without words. She quotes Gerald May’s definition of contemplation as a “totally uncluttered appreciation of existence, a state of mind or a condition of the soul that is simultaneously wide awake and free from all preoccupation, preconception, and interpretation … a wonder-filled yet utterly simple experience.”

Waiting, resting, and delighting, all highlighted in Scripture, proved for her a model of this sort of prayer. Waiting is intricately linked with hope (she gives many references), and, rather than seeing waiting as a negative, Jan points out that waiting can be a time to listen, to ask God questions, and to become a more hopeful person—an antidote to the cynicism that can come with burnout. Resting is the posture of vulnerability and quietness before God, also a surrender in which being with God rather than telling God what to do is key. Delighting is the joy that comes from being in a love relationship with our Creator. Being in God’s presence is the best place to be, and our delight is in him. Waiting, resting, and delighting with God in these ways “slow cooks” us.

As the flavors of divine love simmer within us, we gradually get in our guts what we intellectually know in our heads. All of this practice is rooted in the rhythm of study, reflection, and prayer since, for many, starting with a Scripture text helps the practice of contemplation. The distinction made between meditation and contemplation is a good one. Meditation is focused on words or images of a passage of Scripture, while contemplation focuses us on God and makes our meditation come to life; it delights us.

Such a posture before God makes us authentic as we allow space to hear God, see God in the people and beauty around us, and also open ourselves up to God’s gentle notification of our weaknesses and mistakes. This way of prayer is meant to lead to action, not passivity or withdrawal. It is when we are at peace with ourselves and with God that we can make a difference and more readily discern our call. Contemplation and action are inseparable, says Johnson, “[just] as loving God and loving one’s neighbor are inseparable.”

 

  1. When, if ever, have you been cynical, burned out, or mad at God? How did you arrive at this place? Did the church play a role? People? Your own habits and expectations?

 

  1. How might the practice of the contemplative life help us to have joy rather than anxiety? Change driven ambition to peaceful waiting? Allow us inner space to hear God?

 

  1. Talk about the three parts of contemplation: (1) waiting, (2) resting, and (3) delighting. Are any of these difficult for you? When do you wait? Rest? Delight? How can you create habits to practice these parts of contemplative prayer more regularly?

 

  1. Discuss the ways in which the contemplative life leads to action. How might action without reflection become a prescription for despair? How might reflection without action do the same?

05.  Ancient Christian Wisdom for a Postmodern Age Contemplation: The Aim of the Christian Life

Michael Glerup

This article gleans from ancient texts the roots of contemplation and the early understanding of contemplation as it is found in Scripture. Both the Latin and Greek roots of the word contemplation mean “looking at” or “looking into” something intently for meaning. For Christians, the term means vision—seeing with the eyes of the heart—the presence of God.

Origen saw contemplation as the aim of the Christian life. He outlined the Christian life as a three-stage process involving the moral, the natural, and the unitive (contemplative). The moral comes first and is the keeping of the law and the attainment of virtue. The natural is next, which involves the discernment of God in creation and the purpose of it. Finally, the unitive or contemplative is when we transcend the visible and gaze on invisible things that are transcendent, and receive divine illumination. The three books written by Solomon correspond to these three processes, namely (1) Proverbs—the moral, (2) Ecclesiastes—the meaning of the natural, and (3) The Song of Songs—attaining fellowship with God through love and affection.

John Cassian, who interpreted Origen, found the Mary and Martha story a paradigm for the contemplative life. Martha, in doing a holy service, asked Jesus to get Mary to help her. Mary was at Jesus’ feet, intently listening to his teaching, gazing at him with love and enjoying his company. Jesus commends Mary’s choice by saying that what Mary has chosen “will not be taken away from her.” Martha is concerned with the temporal, Mary with the eternal. Cassian’s point was that activity is not the primary good, but rather contemplation of Jesus and plunging into the divine love of God. Seeing God can also be done by contemplating nature, says Cassian. The Giver is perceived in the gift as vastness and beauty and the mystery of the natural world inform us of God’s even more vast and beautiful and mysterious nature.

Isaac of Nineveh, an eastern spiritual thinker, also talks about contemplation as wordless prayer, ecstasy, and entry into the spiritual treasure house of God.

 

  1. A goal of these early writers is to seek to know the love of Christ by simply being in, or resting in, or contemplating his presence. Do you see this kind of prayer as a form of response? In other words, have you ever been aware of God looking at you, being with you, with that same kind of wordless delight? Have you ever had that experience as you watched your children or someone you love?

 

  1. Some of these early writers saw contemplation as “higher” or “the goal” of all spiritual life. Do you think this is the case? Are we climbing a ladder, and if so, what might be some of the pitfalls? Is life linear, or is it a progression of ups and downs?

 

  1. With which of the three writers outlined do you resonate the most?

Footnotes

KIM ENGLEMANN serves as Pastor in Congregational Care at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, Calif. She attended Barnard College, Princeton Seminary, and Boston University where she specialized in Pastoral Care. Kim has three children, ages 8, 10, and 12. She is married to Timothy Engelmann, who is a clinical psychologist in private practice. The Engelmanns also have a dog, guinea pig, love bird, chinchilla, and a rabbit.