I want to put forward a different perspective on prayer, a contemplative characteristic that I believe enriches us immensely. Author, Marianne Williamson said of spirituality, ‘I deepen my experience of God through prayer, meditation and forgiveness’ I believe that sometimes in the exuberance and vocalisation of our prayer lives, we tend to shut God out – we don’t give Him a chance to get a word in edgewise! John Main, a very well-known Benedictine contemplative said “…In contemplative prayer we seek to become the person we are called to be, not by thinking of God but by being with God.” [i]
In the norm, my petitions tend to be an incessant and sometimes confused babble, a continuous stream of one way communication; which certainly leaves me feeling rather empty, as though I have just been talking to myself! This is obviously my very human perception as God is ALWAYS listening to His children. Andrew Murray, a missionary, once said: ‘Prayer is not monologue, but dialogue. Gods voice in response to mine is its most essential part’
The Gospels seem to suggest this in reference to our attitude to prayer:
6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.[ii]
Sage advice bearing in mind that God knows what we need and want before we do. When we pray we need to put forward our petition, to ask for what we want and then to patiently listen for God’s response, instead of just prattling on. The answer may not be what we want to hear but it will always be what we need. As the poet Edward Young observed: ‘They only babble who practise not reflection’
So, what is contemplative prayer?
she regarded me with a contemplative eye
¨ involving or given to deep silent prayer or religious meditation: contemplative knowledge of God
I suppose contemplative prayer has adherents in many religious disciplines, particularly those of eastern origin but obviously not all of them are Christocentric in nature. For this reason the church[iv] issued the letter “Some aspects of Christian Meditation”,[v] putting some clarity on the church’s stance on how to approach contemplation and meditation.
In essence this document says that while many Christians want to experience a richer and more profound spiritual life, many want doctrinal assurance regarding their endeavour, that they might remain faithful to the truth revealed in Christ.[vi] The document mentions: ‘The spiritual restlessness arising from a life subjected to the driving pace of a technologically advanced society also brings a certain number of Christians to seek in these methods of prayer a path to interior peace and psychic balance.’[vii]
It goes on to say: ‘Christian prayer is always determined by the structure of the Christian faith, in which the very truth of God and creatures shines forth. For this reason it is defined, properly speaking, as a personal, intimate and profound dialogue between man and God.’[viii]
In the wake of Christian contemplative prayer advocated by John Main, Thomas Merton and others and the comparisons made generally to Eastern traditions, there has been much apprehensive comment made in this regard; in some instances perhaps, quite rightly so. As a Catholic Christian I believe that ensuring I stay firmly within the doctrines of the church is of paramount important, so some of the components of centring prayer, for instance of repeating a ‘mantra’ (an Eastern religious practice) over and over seems rather alien to me and is not normally the way I would seek to proceed! The church rightly advises us to be wary of such practices.
However, does that mean one cannot be contemplative without losing that most essential Christocentric emphasis in prayer – no I do not think so.
“The contemplation of divine things and an assiduous union with God in prayer is the first and principle duty of all religious.” – Vatican II [ix]
I believe that the essence of Christian contemplation is first of all to petition, putting your needs, your worries, your worship and your thanks before God; then in quietness and in stillness, with a great love of God and an acute awareness of God, we must listen. The last point, awareness, is to me most important as it is the main objective in Christian contemplative prayer – an awareness of God Almighty, of our Saviour Jesus Christ and of the Holy Spirit, the Lord the Giver of Life indeed, of the Divine Trinity – being in the presence of your God.
Pray, talk to God – let Him hear what you have to say. Then, in humble manner, listen in stillness to God has to say.
- Catholic Communities of Prayer. (2012). Contemplative Prayer. Retrieved Aug 27, 2013, from Catholic Communities of Prayer: http://www.catholicspray.org/contemplative_prayer
- Christian Contemplation. (2013, July 16). Retrieved August 24, 2013, from Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Christian_contemplation&oldid=564569279
- contemplative. (2013). Retrieved August 25, 2013, from Oxford Dictionaries: http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/contemplative
- Freeman, L. (2002). John Main – Essential Writings. (L. Freeman, Ed.) New York, USA: Orbis Books.
- McBrien, R. P. (1994). Catholicism (New ed.). New York, USA: Harper San Francisco.
- New International Version®. (2011). Holy Bible in the Gospel of Matthew. Retrieved August 23, 2013 from BibleGateway.com: http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew%206&version=NIV
- The Catholic Church. (October 15, 1989). Letter to Bishops of the Catholic Church on some Aspects of Christian Meditation. (J. Ratzinger, Ed.) Retrieved August 26, 2013 from EWTN: http://www.ewtn.com/library/curia/cdfmed.htm
[i] (Freeman, 2002, p. Back Cover)
[ii] (New International Version®, 2011, pp. Ver. 6-7)
[iii] (contemplative, 2013)
[iv] The Roman Catholic Church
[v] (The Catholic Church, 1989)
[vi] (The Catholic Church, 1989, p. Para. 1)
[vii] (The Catholic Church, 1989, p. Para. 2)
[viii] (The Catholic Church, 1989, p. Para. 3)
[ix] (Catholic Communities of Prayer, 2012)