Me and contemplative prayer — a love-hate relationship
I begin with this title because it is my truth. As a spiritual director, I am often asked about contemplative prayer as a practice. And, if I tell the truth about it, most of my own seeking life, I have danced a couple of different dances with these ideas, contemplation and contemplative prayer. One dance looks like an angry Tarantella, with contemplation in the role of the spider. The other dance looks a lot more like the pas de deux from a grand ballet. In some situations, the idea of what it means to live in contemplation as expressed by teachers or groups has made me feel excluded, an outsider, because it seemed so dictatorial and rigid and so unrelated to my own experience. I learned simply to not share that experience, but that did not change my feelings of exclusion. I have, therefore, had to forge my own understanding. Luckily, lately my reading and my seeking have done more to affirm that hard won personal understanding than condemn it.
My personal understanding of contemplation, after 30+ years practicing Transcendental Meditation alongside many other prayer practices, is this – for me, contemplation is like breathing. It is part of the warp and woof of every moment that I live. It is not a thing that is separate – silence lives within me and is always present if I will but let it fill me and whatever space I inhabit. Contemplation is in my laughter, it is in my tears. It sits alongside me while I drive, while I watch television, while I mow the pitiful grass on the median strip in front of our house. And yet, I know that is not the truth of everyone who seeks the closeness to God’s voice that comes through contemplation and that I will be called upon to help others find their own understanding of what it means to sit with God.
Whenever I am working with a group or with an individual who is seeking to explore different kinds of practice and different ways to live into their contemplative nature, my choice of textbooks is usually The Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices that Transform Us by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, now in its second edition. What I like best about the book is its easy format. When working with a group that knows little about the wide variety of practices available to us, I often use her lists and have each participant draw the name of a practice from a hat. They are then responsible to research and demonstrate that practice for the group at our next meeting. Her descriptions are accessible – she always begins with what she sees as the desire that leads us to that practice, then follows that desire with a definition, then relates the practice to its scriptural basis, and finally, reviews the practice “process” and talks about the “God-given fruit” that might result from its faithful implementation.
Perhaps it is my grounding in TM, or maybe my response to the work of Father Thomas Keating, but I am not among those who see “centering prayer” and “contemplative prayer” as two different names for the same practice. Centering prayer is, to me, the door knob that we grasp to open the portal in our souls that leads to an experience of the contemplative experience. For Calhoun, centering prayer springs from the desire “to quiet the heart and rest in God alone, while contemplative prayer is the result of that practice, the development of a ‘receptive posture of openness toward God.’”
I have difficulty thinking of contemplative prayer as a practice for these reasons. To me, it is a state of being, achieved through the practice of centering prayer or through other spiritual means that allow us to set aside our daily concerns and the limits of our incarnation for just a moment. Contemplation is like taking a bath in God, or as Calhoun says, “resting in God and allowing the Spirit to nudge, fill or speak.” For me, the favorite image she offers (and the one that I just might steal) is this: contemplative prayer is simply “wasting time with God.”
The most common question about contemplative prayer that I have encountered when working with a group is this – why would I do it? There is so much about contemplation that is antithetical to everything in our daily culture. And the media and the entertainment industry and much of the very literature of our faith paints a stereotype of the contemplative as someone withdrawn from life, apart – you know, the picture of the person meditating, humming the OM to themselves, and ignoring everything going on around them. And so asking the why question seems like a pretty sane choice. Why would I want to do something associated with weirdos and freaks? Why would I take 20 minutes that I could use for something productive and just sit? Why wouldn’t I spend that time asking God for something? These are difficult questions to answer, but we try.
Calhoun suggests that the desire that moves us to seek this state of contemplation is the one that leads us to seek an open, restful, receptivity to God or our Higher Power, or whatever we believe is bigger than we are. We seek that relationship, we seek a version of ourselves that allows us, for just a moment, to accept that there is a God who loves us just as we are, that there is a God who wants us and wants to be with us. For many of us, leading lonely lives in a complicated culture, such a moment in God’s presence might be the first love we have truly experienced, the first acceptance that we have ever known. And that little moment can be the breadcrumb that leads us to greater self-awareness, greater self-care, and finally, to our ability to respond to the greatest of all commandments – to love our neighbors as ourselves. All of that, from a moment with God.
The very first time I ever preached in church, I preached a sermon on Romans 8. I was naïve, at the time I had no understanding of the complexities and controversies surrounding the letters of Paul. But in that one chapter, there is so much wisdom about the love of God and our participation in that love. Romans 8:26-27 is, to me, the most beautiful passage about the contemplative state and our experience of our relationship with God that is revealed in through it: “Meanwhile, the moment we get tired in the waiting, God’s Spirit is right alongside helping us along. If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. He knows us far better than we know ourselves… (The Message).”
You see, if you find yourself sitting with me in companionship and you ask me about the practice of contemplative prayer, or the practice of centering prayer, I’m not going to give you the textbook answer. I am going to tell you that, with this question, like so many others, you must find the understanding that is between you and your God. But I will gladly walk alongside you will you find your way. I too, had to find my own way and embrace that personal truth.
And that truth, at least, the current version of it? Contemplation, for me, is not about silence. It is more about standing still, for just one moment. Contemplation is about listening. Contemplation is about being who we are called to be, the bright and shiny child of a beautiful loving God. It is hard work, to be that. Most of us cannot sustain it for very long at any moment. But we do what we can. Namaste.