An oldie but a goody; the following article was originally written for a prayer retreat I was asked to help with during my Bible college years. Apparently I was the campus mystic or something like that… goodness knows how anyone would think me qualified to teach on prayer of any kind. Nevertheless, a useful little guide to contemplative prayer was born because of it. I hope you find it helpful.
Contemplative prayer in my opinion is nothing else than a close sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us. – St. Teresa of Avila
Contemplative prayer is a wonderful tool to help us experience deeper intimacy with Christ. It is a mode of prayer in which we truly pause, coming to a full stop in the midst of our chaotic lives to simply be at rest in the presence of God and hear from him. Over the centuries, different modes of contemplative prayer have developed. Perhaps one of these modes could be helpful to you. Scan this post for a practice that catches your eye and dig in.
Lectio Divina (Divine Reading):
This is one of the most common methods of contemplative or “listening prayer.” A staple spiritual discipline in the lives of saints throughout the ages, this was a favorite method of morning prayer for Saint Benedict, the Father of Western monasticism. In it’s most basic sense, lectio is nothing more than the slow, prayerful reading of Scripture or classic devotional literature. It is taught in a variety of different ways, probably because there really isn’t a “right” way to do it. Remember that prayer is a living thing, it often takes on a life of its own… so don’t worry about “getting it right.” Here are a few of my favorite ways to practice Divine Reading:
- Traditional Lectio: Traditionally, Divine Reading is done in five parts. They have fancy Latin Names, but for our purposes we’ll call them read, listen, experience, respond, and relax. Before you begin, it would be helpful to find a comfortable spot to sit in. Next, choose a passage to meditate on. Maybe it’s a favorite Psalm or story from the gospels. If you have difficulty picking one, you might try a reading from the lectionary. Now try to calm quiet your heart and mind to prepare yourself to hear from the Lord. You might do this by taking a deep breath and slowly exhaling the name Jesus. If you’re often distracted by things around you you may want to fix your gaze on an Icon or close your eyes. Once you feel like you’re in a place where you’re ready to hear from God, slowly read the passage, pausing at the end of every phrase or sentence. Don’t be afraid to sit in total silence for a few minutes; let God’s word really soak in. Go ahead and read it again, this time listen for a word or a phrase that sticks out to you. Once you have it stop. You may want to jot it down on a piece of paper. Next we experience the text. Take the word or phrase and slowly mull it over in your head. How does it connect with where you are at life right now or your past experience? How does it connect with your emotions? Make it personal, what might God be saying to you through it? What might he be inviting you to do or be? Now take some time to respond to the text in prayer. This is simply a time to talk with the Lord Jesus about what he has just heard. Let there be some ebb and flow. Try to just sit in silence and listen as much as you talk. If you find your mind is wandering just bring it back to that word or phrase, let it be an “anchor” of sorts for you. Finally we relax. Think of yourself as the Apostle John, the beloved disciple leaning back on Jesus’ chest. Or maybe you’re a small child, curled up in his lap. Maybe you picture yourself sitting on a beach with Jesus, or on the side of a grassy hill. Whatever this looks like for you, be sure to practice silence, let go of your own words; this is a time to simply enjoy the experience of being in God’s presence.
- Visual Lectio Divina: This follows the same general pattern as the traditional mode, but it includes a creative element. Try drawing out your experience as you go through the steps. It doesn’t have to be anything elaborate. If you’re reading a narrative, maybe you draw out the scene you’re envisioning, or maybe you sketch out a visual representation of what the passage makes you feel. Use your imagination; read the text and let your pencil go! As Henri Nouwen has said, “imagination is the truest bridge between the mind and the heart.”
- Freewriting: For those who maybe aren’t so artistically inclined, or for those who love to write, you might consider going through steps one and two, and then letting your thoughts come out on paper. Just let it flow, don’t worry about style or structure. Write it out and then read it back to God, you’ll be glad you did.
Augustinian Meditation: This is a method of Scripture mediation coined by… you guessed it: Saint Augustine. It’s another favorite of mine. The following description comes from augnet.org, a website dedicated to Augustinian spirituality:
- Choose a Scripture passage before your quiet time. You may use suggestions from a devotional book, from the church year or choose your own.
- Begin by sitting in a comfortable position. Take a few deep breaths. Imagine breathing in the Spirit and breathing out the busyness and tension of daily life.
- Thank God for being present with you.
- As you feel “centered,” read the Scripture passage slowly, one phrase at a time. Do not try to “get something out of it”; simply offer it as a prayer. Repeat each phrase as often as it seems to have life. Then pause and listen before moving to the next phrase. If it is a story text, imagine yourself in the narration, using your imaginary senses of smell, touch, hearing, seeing. Pay attention to who you are in the text. How are you responding to what is happening? What do you want to do or say?
- When you sense that God is touching you through a phrase or word, stay with it as long as you like. Sometimes God will touch you so deeply that you move readily into a prayer of response. If so, let the rest of the text go and follow where the Spirit leads. God is the initiator. We are giving God this time to speak to our hearts, guide us, heal us and bring us into loving knowledge of the Trinity.
- As your meditation time ends, respond in prayer in whatever way is appropriate to what happened or did not happen. Close the time with praise and gentle with yourself. A relationship with God is a growing experience. Some days one feels close to God, other days distant. Do not worry about these fluctuating feelings. Christ lives within us. God is always healing, renewing, creating and deepening us whether we feel it or not.Remember: sometimes the greatest gift of our reflection time is the silence.
“Unceasing Prayer,” “Hesychasm” or “The Prayer of the Heart”:This is another wonderful method of prayer that brings the soul into quiet contemplation of God. The basic purpose of this mode of prayer is to “descend with the mind into the heart, and there to stand before the face of the Lord, ever-present, all-seeing, within you,” as St. Theophan the Recluse once said. Through Hesychasm, we seek to create an inner attitude of prayer to carry with us, that we might become a walking “thin place” between heaven and earth through which the radiance of God’s glory may shine.
Sound difficult? It’s not, the method of prayer is really quite simple. We simply sit and silence, focusing on a single word or phrase. Traditionally the “Jesus Prayer” is used: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner,” but lines from the Psalms such as “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me” or “Find rest, O my soul, in God alone” are also common. Slowly, in rhythm with our breathing, we repeat one of these phrases in our minds, thinking of nothing but the presence of God. As Anthony Bloom, a leader in the Orthodox Church says, the Jesus Prayer, more than any other, helps us to be able to stand in God’s presence. This means that it helps us to focus our mind exclusively on God with no other thought occupying our mind but the thought of God. When we make a habit of concentrating our minds wholly on him, we will discover a depth of relationship with him we never imagined possible.
The Rosary: What you see before you is an Anglican rosary, used by Protestants all over the world as a means of contemplation. My wife and I have both made ample use of it in the past, and it continues to be one of my favorite ways to listen for God’s voice.
You can find fairly detailed instructions on using Anglican prayer beads here. Try whispering the prayers for each bead, slowly and reverently. As you do so, allow your mind to wander a bit to the things you want to hear from God about. Hold those questions in your mind without breaking the stillness, if you can, and wait to hear an answer.
You can find a Lutheran take on the traditional Roman rosary here.
A Last Word: I would encourage you to make contemplative prayer a part of your everyday life, it is a wonderful means of hearing God’s voice and experiencing his presence in such a way that builds our faith and calms our restless souls. Too often we are afraid of stillness and silence. Perhaps this is because of our fast-paced culture, perhaps it’s because we’re afraid of what we would find if we did stop and listen. But imagine for a moment; what would happen if we did stop, and rest in the presence of Jesus more often? How would our lives be changed? Perhaps, as St. Theodore the Studite once said, we would find that being more perfectly at peace with God, we become a source of peace to others.