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OVERVIEW OF CONTEMPLATIVE PRAYER
Many forms of prayer exist. These include intercessory prayers, formal prayers in worship services, and prayers of thanksgiving and praise. They involve thoughts, words, feelings, and certain acts.
Another form of prayer in the Christian tradition (and also found in all the great religions) is contemplative prayer. It is “the development of one’s relationship with Christ to the point of communing beyond words, thoughts, feelings, and the multiplication of particular acts.” (1) Contemplative prayer has acquired a number of synonyms such as mystical prayer, prayer of the heart, pure prayer, deep prayer, meditation, or Christian meditation. It must be noted that contemplative prayer does not exclude other types of prayer.
The method of contemplative prayer is “any prayer practice that spontaneously evolves or is deliberately designed to free the mind of excessive dependence on thinking to go to God.” (2)
Practices that spontaneously evolve toward contemplation include lectio divina and the Rosary. (3)
On the other hand, practices that are deliberately designed to facilitate contemplation may be either concentrative or receptive. Concentrative practices include the Jesus Prayer and mantric practice (constant repetition of a word or phrase, such as John Main’s method of contemplative prayer). Receptive practices include Centring Prayer and prayer of the heart. On a scale of one to ten, some practices are more concentrative, others more receptive. (4)
An example of a receptive practice (Centring Prayer) and a concentrative practice (John Main’s contemplative prayer) follow. Mascetti describes Centring Prayer:
Centring Prayer is a method that was developed from The Cloud of Unknowing, an anonymous mystical text from the fourteenth century, that prepares us to be in the presence of God, opening the door for the spark to be lit that is the flame of our individual contact with God. Centring Prayer is rooted in God’s life within us – by praying in this way we allow God to arise within us, to become manifest in everything we do, and to infuse our whole being. We become vessels for the divine. The theological basis of centring prayer is in the renewal of our intimacy with God. In ordinary life, Christians renew their bond with God in the sacraments . . . So it is with Centring Prayer: we open a possibility of God flowing into us every time we sit for our time of intimacy with Him. (5)
Thomas Keating, a Cisterian monk and former abbot of Saint Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts, is the founder of the Centring Prayer movement. These are his instructions for our daily sitting in contemplative prayer:
1. Choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within.
2. Sitting comfortably with eyes closed, settle briefly and silently, introducing the sacred word as the symbol of your consent to God’s presence and action within.
3. When you become aware of thoughts, return ever so gently to the sacred word.
4. At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence for a couple of minutes. (6)
By contrast, the World Community for Christian Meditation (WCCM), which continues the work begun in 1975 by Dom John Main OSB, gives the following guidelines for meditation:
1. Sit down. Sit still and upright.
2. Close your eyes lightly.
3. Sit relaxed but alert.
4. Silently, interiorly begin to say a single word.
5. We recommend the prayer-phrase, “Maranatha”. Recite it as four syllables of equal length.
6. Listen to it as you say it, gently but continuously.
7. Do not think or imagine anything – spiritual or otherwise.
8. If thoughts and images come, these are distractions at the time of meditation – so keep returning to simply saying the word.
9. Meditate each morning and evening for between twenty and thirty minutes.
Until relatively recently, contemplative prayer has often been neglected in Christian churches. Many people believe that John Main’s lasting legacy was his re-discovery of the practice of contemplative prayer as a birthright of all believers, and not just reserved for those in monasteries and convents. In fact, he believed that each human being, whatever their lifestyle, is called to this contemplative depth. His teaching of this ancient tradition of prayer is rooted in the Gospels and the early Christian monastic tradition.
However, when one considers the lives and writings of such people as Thomas Merton, the American Cistercian monk; Etty Hillesum, who died at Auschwitz in 1943; Simone Weil, who wrote Waiting on God; Evelyn Underhill, the Anglican spiritual writer, Carlo Carretto, the best-selling Italian author; as well as Bede Griffiths, Jean Vanier, and Mother Teresa, one sees that “no religious tradition, no particular age, no particular culture or gender has a monopoly on the spiritual wisdom of silence in prayer. In these men and women we come to realize that the inner spiritual experience of contemplative prayer is the same in all ages: a longing for the Spirit deep at the centre of one’s heart.” (7)
John Main became the inspiration for the work of the World Community for Christian Meditation. They favour the use of the word “meditation” when referring to contemplative prayer. In a sense, the Community is a “monastery without walls” – and has become a family of national communities in over a hundred countries. The WCCM is ecumenical and has established dialogue with Christian churches and other faiths. It encourages, and supports, Christians in their daily practice of meditation – knowing the power of meditation to change hearts, and so to transform our world. Their vision is that of restoring the contemplation dimension of Christian faith in the life of the church. (For those interested, visit this website for more information: www.wccm.org) When John Main died in 1982 he was succeeded by Dom Laurence Freeman OSB who is now the director of WCCM.
Theology of Prayer
The following words from John Main are instructive:
We know from the doctrine of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit that the fullness of God is to be found in our own hearts. We know that the full life of the Trinity is lived in our hearts. This means that Jesus Christ dwells in our hearts. His human consciousness is to be found within each one of us. The journey of prayer is simply to find the way to open our human consciousness to his human consciousness.
The reason why in the Christian tradition we meditate is that we believe that Jesus has sent his Spirit to dwell in our hearts. In other words, the Spirit of God, the Spirit of the Creator of the universe, dwells in our hearts, and in silence is loving to all. In the Christian tradition, meditating is simply being open to this Spirit of Love, the Spirit of God.
Listen to St. Paul writing to the Colossians:
So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness . . . For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and you have been given fullness in Christ, who is the head over every power and authority. (Colossians 2:6-10)
This is what the essential message of Christianity is about, that our call and our potential is to enter into the life of God through Jesus, through his Spirit present in our hearts.
We do this, not by analyzing God or analyzing Jesus, not by thinking about God or thinking about Jesus, but by being silent and still, and in his presence opening our hearts to his love, and doing so in the steady rhythm of our daily meditation.
This is the wonder of the doctrine of the Incarnation because Jesus, being man and possessing a human consciousness, is our way to the Father, because it is possible for us to open our human consciousness to his. That is the marvel, the perfection, of the Christian revelation – that he is the Way, and he is the only Way. He is the universal Redeemer and the universal Sanctifier. He is so for us because his human consciousness is fully open to the Father in love. When in the silence of prayer, in the concentration of our meditation, we open our human consciousness to him, we go beyond him, to the Father. We go beyond him by his power of self-transcending love.
(Peter Ng, ed., The Hunger and Depth for Meaning: Learning to Meditate with John Main (Singapore: Medio Media, 2007), 54-55).
On the Nature of Contemplative Prayer
In contemplative prayer, we open ourselves to the central silence in the core of our very soul. Meister Eckhart (1260-1327) explains it as follows: “The Central Silence is there where no creature may enter, nor any idea, and there the soul neither thinks nor acts nor entertains any idea either of itself or of anything else.” (8)
John Main has explained a certain innate aptitude for contemplation in each one of us as follows: “The wonderful beauty of prayer is that the opening of our heart is as natural as the opening of a flower. To let a flower open and bloom it is only necessary to let it be; so if we simply are, if we become and remain still and silent, our heart cannot but be open, the spirit cannot but pour through into our whole being. It is for this we have been created.” (9)
St. Paul wrote in the book of Romans:
In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will (Rom 8:26-27).
This can imply that before a person can pray, they first need to become still and attentive – they would then be in a better position to enter into loving awareness of the Spirit of Jesus within their heart. Other Christian writers have described this same process. Walter Hilton wrote that one needs to simply allow God to work in the soul. St. Theresa wrote that in prayer a person needs to dispose themselves – the rest is in the power of the Spirit who leads them.
Down through the centuries, the great teachers of prayer have taught that it is not ourselves who are taking the initiative. In contemplative prayer, a person is not talking to God – they are listening to the Word of God within them. They are not looking for God – it is God who has found them. Contemplative prayer, then, is the work of the Spirit who prays within a person – it is the prayer of the Spirit, in Jesus and in all who are of God.
In other words, the prayer of silence is the place where direct contact with the Christ within can occur – once the never-ending activity of the mind has been stilled.
Readiness for contemplative prayer, based on St. John of the Cross, occurs with the awareness that discursive thinking at the time of prayer may be a distraction and counter-productive.
In the teaching and explaining of silent prayer, words will inevitably come up short. The Chinese philosopher Hua Hu Ching writes that “the highest truth cannot be put into words.” Nevertheless, despite the poverty of human words to express the inexpressible, one must still strive to pass on the teaching to others – bearing in mind, that the true teacher, Jesus, is always there, invisible in our midst. (10)
The Tradition of the Mantra
In contemplative prayer, the distracted mind needs to be brought to stillness, silence, and attentiveness. The psalmist wrote: “Be still, and know that I am God” (Ps 46:10, NIV). In order to achieve this stillness, a sacred word or phrase (a mantra) may be used. The use of a mantra in Christian prayer can be traced back to Western monasticism, St. Benedict, John Cassian, the Desert Fathers and Mothers, and even to Apostolic times.
Contemplative prayer is a pilgrimage in which, in the depth of the heart, the Spirit speaks to our human spirit through our life situation and the Word of God. Our part in contemplative prayer is to enter the stillness and to wait for God there.
1. Thomas Keating, Open Mind, Open Heart: The Contemplative Dimension of the Gospel (New York: Continuum, 1992), 124 (emphasis mine).
2. Ibid., 124-125 (emphasis mine).
3. Ibid., 125.
4. Ibid., 125.
5. Manuela Dunn Mascetti, Christian Mysticism, with an introduction by Peter Roche de Coppens (New York: Hyperion, 1998), 175-176.
6. Ibid., 176.
7. Paul T. Harris, Frequently Asked Questions about Christian Meditation: The Path of Contemplative Prayer, with an introduction by Madeleine Simon (Toronto: Novalis, 2001), 16.
8. Meister Eckhart: A Modern Translation by Raymond B. Blakney (Harper and Row, 1941)
9. John Main, Community of Love (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1990).
10. Harris, Frequently Asked Questions about Christian Meditation, 15.
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