EP 111 Contemplative Prayer
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I'm Jamie Bahr, and this is Unlocking Christian Spiritual Practices. Join me as we look at the practices that are essential for growing responsibility, and expanding leadership in our churches, families, and communities.
In this podcast, we will look at practicing contemplative prayer where the focus is on God alone. Contemplative prayer immerses us into what I like to call the silence of God. Recently, I watched a documentary about one man's journey, and his journey was just a beautiful description, visually, of what it feels like to enter into the silence of God. It's a journey about a man who was feeling alienated from his profession and his family to searching the depths of the ocean, where he found beauty in the silence of God's creation, which, in time, made him whole once again.
It was this inner journey, with particular attention to entering God's creation, in silence where we witness the unfolding of God's deep love in His creation through wordless prayer. A very real first person experience of transformation through what I'd like to call contemplation. The film is titled My Octopus Teacher. I really liked this film because it allows the viewer to see, and experience the many emotions that are similar to a journey of contemplation. Contemplative prayer, or contemplation is a journey. It's one that engages us into the silence of God, where the focus is on God alone. As we focus on God, we come to know His love more deeply, more intimately. And in turn, we come to discover ourselves anew.
My daughter and I had a dialogue on what happens when we decide to step into silence. We concluded that it was the movement in life from the aggregate to the particular that opens the way into contemplative prayer. If you have too many distractions, even in silence, these distractions of thoughts, pressures, anxieties can keep you from entering into a focus on God alone. There's a slow transformation that happens when we enter into contemplation. Transformation doesn't happen all at once. It's a lifelong journey where we are in the process of becoming, becoming more Christ-like in our character, and our life priorities.
Entering into contemplation is entering with nothing to offer God or others in our lives. There's no place to run to, so we begin with our loving thoughts in silence. Saint Augustine has said, "True whole prayer is nothing but love." The prayer-filled life is one of loving attention to God. We enter into this space of prayer by quieting the mind. For me, I can honestly be more open to the Father and become more aware of myself when words fail me and prayerful attention to God opens the way into silence. In the practice of contemplative prayer I'm usually drawn to places where I can witness a beautiful sunset, and reflect with God on His beauty, giving Him all the attention.
When I'm quiet I notice details around me, like the wind moving across the water, or the sunlight flickering through the leaves overhead. I wait, and pause, feeling His presence. The day, with all the quiet moments, seems more beautiful to me. Even after I come home, I continue this silent prayer as I take additional time to look out from a window in my house, being still and steady like a tall tree trunk of a cedar.
On another occasion, I took special effort to hike Crystal Mountain in the Cascades to look out on the serenity of the mountains before me. Walking in that silence, I became aware, noticing how quiet all of nature is. The silence actually had a sound of its own. I sat long enough and strained to listen hard to the sounds around me, but there were none, only the noise in my mind and heart. Here God slowly gave me divine rest as I walked along the trail. My mind left everything behind like the few stones I saw falling away under my footsteps, rolling down the mountain side. It had been awhile since I'd spent time here in this space, and slowly my body became more relaxed, and my thoughts remained on God's provision of beauty and rest. He was there with me, waiting for me to pause, and enjoy this time with Him.
It's so interesting that as we look out on a scene and the beauty of God, our focus is just truly on just one thing. In Richard Foster's prayer book, he said, “that's progress in intimacy with God, it means progress towards silence.” Well, for many of us, silence is difficult for us to enter into, but we must discover this space to restore and deepen our relationship with God, true intimacy with God. Foster also includes, "We allow His great silence to still our noisy hearts.” We can relax, and let go of everything except attending to Him alone. So we allow the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to calm the storms that rage within, listening to the call where God speaks the words of Psalm 62, Peace. Be still for God alone my soul waits in silence.
Contemplative prayer is more a feeling of the heart than of the mind. We are so used to using our minds and thinking through so many things. We've almost forgotten what it feels like, in my heart, to enter into prayer and dialogue with God. But here we can enter honestly, unguarded into a space where we can become more aware of God. Then we seek to be more attentive to the feelings we have had a hard time expressing. It's in these moments where words fail us, when we are left alone, that we recognize our alienation from God. Fears and doubts creep in, and we begin to ask, "Who am I?" We are unable to discuss who we are until we come to contemplate who God is through prayerful attention to God, one of loving devotion. Only then, can we truly experience, what is called, divine rest.
C.S. Lewis, in writing to a friend of his tells him, "I still think that prayer without words is best, if only one can really achieve it." Have you ever had the feeling you needed to get away? Maybe there comes a time when you felt you no longer had anything left to offer God or your family. There is a sense that the things that once mattered most to you no longer give you purpose, or the will to continue the same course. God Himself, may be sending you on a silent retreat, but often we don't realize that this is His action in our lives. This is His grace drawing us to Himself. We might be looking for answers to our prayers, but God lets us go on alone to discover these answers on our own in silence.
Today, we live in a fragmented world where we can lose our humanity, where we become almost creaturely. This is when God sends us into obscure moments so that we recognize what we have become. There's a dissonance there. One where we no longer know who we are, or how far we have fallen away from who God is. By this I mean we can spend our lives busy every day, and then one day we realize we have lost our way. Maybe we've lost the love we once had for a spouse, or a ministry, or perhaps your profession, or sadly, we come to realize that our friendships are more for what we can get from our friends than what we can offer a friend. Something inside has altered our heart. This change and who we've become doesn't feel right, but we don't know what to do with it. This is alienation from God.
It happens slowly over time, and often we are unaware of it until something unexpected happens to us. Something that throws us on the altar in prayer. Now we are front and center with God. It's a slow reappearance of an emotion we once had as a Christian but lost, it’s the deep love of God, and the beauty of life. Contemplation on a regular basis draws us back to God alone, to worship, to offer loving attention to God. And here we can awaken to the truth that our isolation is contrary to the Trinity. Our cultural individualism is our weakness. It's our spiritual decay. The more we come to love God, the more His love is poured out into our hearts. By spending time with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we slowly become human again, filled with his love for the world, and for others.
We come to see as God sees, and there's a renewed purpose and energy for something we never thought possible. I know that our culture may use meditation and contemplation interchangeably, but they are not the same for maturing Christians. We have the ancient writers as our guide to contemplative prayer. Madame Guyon writes that this divine union cannot be brought about merely by your own experience. It takes an act of God, His grace to make union a reality. We read this in scripture, in the upper room discourse where we hear the words of Jesus, "Abide in me as I abide in you." And also, "I am the vine, you are the branches," in the book of John. This is deep friendship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Richard Foster tells us that, “contemplative prayer begins with the love of God. We receive His love for us, and we love Him back in return.” So love is the engine that puts the entire enterprise into motion. He goes on to say that love has its perfect way leading us into the purity of heart. So while contemplatives often find it difficult to put the experience of union into words, a favorite quote that I like, by Walter Hilton, states that, "Contemplation is love on fire with devotion." That to me expresses the desire of union with God.
For a contemplative practice there are two exercises, you can choose from. One is focused on thoughts, another on your emotions. For the practice on thoughts; go to a quiet spot and reflect on how satisfied you are with your life, with how you are spending your time, and where it seems to be headed. Ask yourself if your life seems hurried and out of control, then consider whether your days contain enough margins, or sufficient times of rest, play, and reflection. These are not three separate activities, through prayerful attention to God, be ready to experience divine rest while you are playing. And then notice God's activity during this time of reflection. You will find that by being open and aware of God as you play, you become more relaxed, more rested. God's creation is healing and provides a space for wordless contemplative prayer. Then take a few moments to journal what you experienced in these moments.
A second practice deals with our emotions. Here, you want to take 10 or 15 minutes to offer a prayer in which you only communicate your love for God, no requests, or favors, or mentions of details from your life. Nothing but your love for the Trinity. Oftentimes, we can't find words to express our love. This is where the scriptures come in. Beautiful love language found in the scripture begins to build our vocabulary for expressing God’s love for us and our love for Him. Then take additional time to listen to God's reply. Allow yourself to experience the gift of waiting, and notice what changes in you. The purpose of this practice is to move from the aggregate to the particular, to focus on only one thing, loving attention to God. It's amazing how restful prayerful attention can be. When we seem lost or disorientated, we can seek the silence that leads to peace, especially today when there are so many competing and urgent needs in the world. Time with God gives us a sense of wholeness even while living and working in a fragmented world.
Julian of Norwich wrote Revelations of Divine Love 500 years ago, as a theologian and mystique during the black death, where almost 50% of the population suffered and died. She writes that the whole reason why we pray is to be united into the vision, and loving contemplation of Him, to whom we pray. During this incredible suffering God reveals to her that all will be well, all will be well.
On one other note, preparing for contemplation can begin with what some call centering prayer, and maybe you've heard this phrase, but not sure what it means or what you're supposed to be doing during centering prayer. The idea during a pause at the beginning as you enter into contemplation is to let go of all competing distractions until you are truly present where you are. It is better described as a time of letting go of all inner noise, or allowing the things that preoccupy your mind to drop away as you become more aware of God's presence. That may take some time, but once you get the practice, you will be able to recenter yourself in all kinds of places and environments when you need to be focused on God.
Like my experience on Crystal Mountain with silence all around me, my thoughts were a distraction until I looked off into the distance, watching the mountains fade into the silence. I was in awe of the beauty all around me. It really took my breath away, along with all the competing distractions within. When we can't get away to a sacred space, we can use our imagination and recall a beautiful scene, or place that brought you peace and quiet in the past.
I find that when I remain with this image, my body also begins to relax. Centering prayer can begin with recalling places of beauty. Great beauty can chase away the noise of life. This allows me to collect myself, and feel a sense of wholeness as I enter into a time of contemplation, a time of silent waiting on God, who's waiting for me to become contemplative. There we can discover deep intimacy with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. When we take effort with the Father through contemplation, we come to reflect his beauty, love, and the hope of glory.
If you have any questions to review the show notes or resources, please go to my website, unlockingchristianspiritualpracticespodcast.com.
Thank you for listening, and blessings on your journey.