PRAYER: Towards Contemplation

Towards Contemplation

From Approaches to Prayer, Henry Morgan, editor

You yourself are even another little world and have within you the sun and the moon and also the stars. (Origin)


There is much confusion about terminology.  Often people use the word “meditation” when they really mean “contemplation,” while the Ignatian tradition uses the word “contemplation” when referring to what others call “meditation”!

By “meditation” (sometimes “discursive meditation”) we will be referring to the active use of the mind, the feelings, the imagination, applied to a passage of scripture, or our own situation in life, or to any active way in which we try to understand God or ourselves in relation to God or God’s world.  This activity brings in a great richness and may well lead us to the expression of joy or wonder, thanksgiving, penitence, or intercession.  Bringing in rather than excluding.

Contemplative prayer is in some senses almost the opposite.  Some temperaments, or some people at a certain stage of their life, come to find that the ideas, the images, the imagination, the feelings, good though they are, somehow get in the way between God and themselves.  They wish to be open to God as he is without anything getting in the way.  So in contemplative prayer we shall try to put aside all the interesting thoughts and ideas that come to us, and simply home in on a single word or phrase or symbol.

This is not a question of self-hypnosis.  It is not trying to imagine we are having lovely feelings.  After the first few months of practicing contemplative prayer we are more likely to find ourselves in a desert of blankness, wondering whether there is any point in what we are doing, and yet still unable to let go of something to which we believe we have been called.

We are simply waiting upon God, being open to God, being available for God, longing towards God in a kind of inner darkness, which though dark is nevertheless friendly.

Contemplative prayer is not for everyone, and those for whom it is not helpful should never feel they are somehow second class in the work of prayer.  In the same way those who genuinely do not find Bible meditation helpful must never be made to feel that they “ought” to be able to do it.  Our enthusiasms all too often carry us away and lead to a lack of sensitivity to the fact that others may be coming from a different place.  It is a question of temperament, and to find the right way of prayer for us at any given time is far more important than trying to pursue a current fashion.

It follows, therefore, that while most prayer groups will probably want to explore contemplative prayer from time-to-time, a prayer group which is specifically contemplative (or for that matter always doing Bible meditations) will need to be selective in its membership.

Having said all that, it remains a fact that simple contemplative prayer is helpful to many more people than used to be thought.  If we are taking it really seriously we shall be wise either to have a spiritual director we can talk to, or belong to a contemplative prayer group where we can share with others, because we can sometimes find ourselves in quite deep water and may feel bewildered.

A simple method

(a) Begin with a simple awareness or relaxation exercise, and/or a breathing exercise.

(b) Silently recollect and then let go of all the things which are worrying or burdening you in your own life or in the lives of those near to you.  Recollect and let go.  We might imagine we are taking off a very heavy rucksack and putting it down for God to look after for a space.  Offer the words to be repeated silently, “Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest,” (shortening to “Come to me and I will give you rest”).  Be brief and businesslike; this is not the heart of the work, this is simply clearing out what gets in the way between God and us for, say, two or three minutes.

(c) We now take a simple phrase and hold it in the mind, in the heart, in the will.  Let’s take an attribute of God – PEACE: “My peace I give you, not as the world gives do I give you,” (shorten to, “My peace I give you” or simply “My peace”).  Whenever our minds wander we come back to the watchword.  Through the indwelling Holy Spirit that divine peace is already potentially within us and we are simply trying to be open to that peace, not in any sense of trying to induce lovely peaceful feelings, but in order that we shall be more peaceful people in the world, that we shall be able to express something of God’s peace in our lives.  If we do have a deep sensation of peace then we may thank God for it, but the purpose of contemplative prayer is not to cultivate feelings; the purpose is to allow ourselves to be conformed more closely to the likeness of Christ.

It is important for people to realize it is likely that nothing will “happen”; rather we are placing ourselves as completely as we can for the time being at God’s disposal in a longing towards that which we know only dimly.

(d) Intercession is not as far from contemplation as is sometimes thought; in interceding we bring another person into our contemplation of God to share in the sunlight, as it were.  Christians cannot keep good things to themselves and a contemplative prayer time may well find a gentle inward pressure to end with a period of intercessory prayer.

Other suggested watchwords

“These things I have spoken to you that my joy may be in you and your joy complete,” (shorten to “My joy in you” or “My joy.”)

“Dwell in my love, for apart from me you can do nothing,” (shorten to “Dwell in my love”).

“Whoever finds me finds life.”

“All power is given to me in Heaven and on Earth, and I am with you always,” (shorten to “All power is give to me” – but remember that divine power is frequently manifested in weakness”).

Contemplation can, of course, also concentrate on the visual – a tree, a flower, a bowl of water, a seed. . . remember Dame Julian’s hazelnut!

(e) You may like to round off the exercise with a suitable prayer.  Robert Coulson, founder of the Fellowship of Contemplative Prayer, always ended prayer session with a prayer which ran roughly as follows:

We thank you, Lord, that you have heard us and we offer to you, as far as we are able, as an emptiness to be filled with your peace [or joy or love], which flows ceaselessly from you, as rays from the sun, we offer to you, as far as we are able, all that we are, all that we have, and all that we hope for.

He who looks outwardly, dreams; he who looks within, awakes. (Carl Jung)

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