Contemplative Prayer by Reverend Erika Kirk, former minister
Some suggestions for beginners
In a sense, we are all, always, beginners in prayer. But if you have never tried contemplative prayer before, then some suggestions are set out below, and there is a list of books and websites at the end of this article. There are many different ways into this tradition of prayer, but it is important to bear in mind that it is not about learning a technique. One writer says that ninety per cent of the challenge of getting started in this way of prayer is about really wanting to do it in the first place.
In Part 1 of this article, we thought about the way that we are exploring contemplative prayer as a way of setting aside our thoughts, so that we can be present to God in mind and body. Our aim is to be still in God’s presence, so that we can be as close to God in our soul as it is possible for us to be. We are not looking for any particular outcome, for if we feel closer to God in prayer, this comes as a gift, not through our efforts. But it may be that we find this way of prayer does lead us to be more at peace and more compassionate towards ourselves and others.
We are not looking for any particular outcome, for if we feel closer to God in prayer, this comes as a gift, not through our efforts.
When beginning this way of prayer, because you will be sitting still for longer than you might be used to, it is a good idea to try and relax any tension in the body. Again, it is not the aim of this way of prayer to relieve stress and anxiety, although this might happen, as by-product, after some time. If there are other people around, it will be helpful to let them know that you are going to try and be silent for a while, and to switch off your mobile phone and put on the answer phone.
Decide on a set amount of time during which you are going to remain in prayer: some traditions suggest no less than 20 to 30 minutes. But if you know that this is going to be really difficult for you, then you might want to begin with just 10 minutes, and extend your practice as you get used to the silence. It is useful to have some way of knowing when the time you have set aside has ended. You could use an egg-timer, or a clock within sight, though there is a danger that you will then be tempted to keep checking how much time has gone by. So an alarm clock that you can set with a quiet tone is probably better, or (strange though this sounds) you can buy a CD that has 30 minutes of silence, beginning and ending with a bell.
Find a quiet space and a comfortable position that you can maintain for the length of your prayer time. Check for points in the body where you might be carrying tension, such as your back and shoulders, or the jaw or forehead, and try to let these areas of the body relax. You are aiming to be alert, but not tense. It can be helpful to close your eyes, but if you think this is likely to make you fall asleep, then a soft gaze ahead, at nothing in particular, may be better.
You might want to prepare by reminding yourself of what you are about to do. You could begin with a prayer, or a verse of Scripture, but keep this simple. Your aim then is to move into silence, both outwardly and inwardly. This type of prayer is about leaving images and thoughts behind, as you draw close to God who is beyond our understanding. But what you will discover immediately is that it is very difficult to escape from the constant chatter of thoughts that goes on in our minds all the time. It is the same for everyone, and perfectly normal!
So how do we cope with this? There are different schools of thought, but the aim is the same, to find a way of centring and focussing our minds and hearts so that we can remain in quiet prayer.
The World Community for Christian Meditation, founded by John Main, a Benedictine monk, recommends gently and silently repeating a short phrase or ‘prayer word’ throughout the time of prayer. This takes the attention away from ourselves and our thoughts, and enables us to let go of our own concerns as we sit before God.
Thomas Keating, a Cistercian monk, who founded the Centering Prayer Movement, suggests a slightly different approach. To find our centre, at the beginning of our time of silence, we begin by repeating a ‘sacred word’ as a symbol of our intention to surrender to God. Unlike the approach of John Main, Keating suggests that the sacred word is used at the outset, but not constantly throughout the prayer time. Instead, we come back to it and repeat it when we notice that our minds have wandered and that we are thinking distracting thoughts. The sacred word can bring us back to our intention to sit quietly with God.
More detailed suggestions can be found in the books and resources recommended at the end of this article, but the fundamental principles that underlie different traditions of contemplative prayer are much the same. Anyone travelling this road will find that dealing with distraction, so that we can set aside our thoughts and reach out towards God, is the main challenge.
It can be helpful to join a group, to practise with other people, as the shared silence that this creates can be encouraging and supportive. Later in 2013, we hope to develop a group at All Hallows Church, to meet once a month for shared contemplative prayer and this will be advertised in due course. But the most important thing, if you feel drawn to this way of prayer, is to begin, and in the practice itself, you will start to discover whether this is for you or not.
Set out below are some resources to explore. Further articles on contemplative prayer will appear on this website from time to time.
John Main, Word into Silence (Darton, Longman and Todd)
Laurence Freeman (ed) Door to Silence: A John Main anthology (Canterbury Press)
Thomas Keating, Open Mind, Open Heart (Continuum)
Basil Pennington, Centering Prayer (Doubleday)
www.wccm.org (Website for World Community for Christian Meditation)
www.contemplativeoutreach.org (Website for Centering prayer)
What is Contemplative Prayer? (And why would anyone want to try it?)
What are we doing when pray? Many people might say that when we pray, we are speaking to God, or more importantly, listening to God speaking to us. Some might say that prayer is about being in the presence of God. What these answers reveal is that there are many different ways of praying, from the formal prayers that we say together in Church, to the intercessions or prayers that we offer for others, to the anguished ‘arrow prayer’ that we might say when we are in trouble “O God, please help me”. Contemplative prayer is simply one of the many different ways of prayer that Christians have discovered down the ages.
This is not to say that the way of contemplative prayer is better than other ways, or that it is for people who have somehow ‘reached the top of the spiritual ladder’! The way that we pray will have been influenced by what we have been taught, and by the Church to which we belong. Our way of praying will also be affected by our temperament and our family circumstances. But whatever way of prayer we follow and however we are drawn to do it, our prayers matter to God. He waits for our prayers, and welcomes us when we pray, and even if we make contemplative prayer part of our practice, we will still want to spend time using other ways of prayer, and praying for other people.
So what happens in contemplative prayer? Contemplative prayer is about coming before God in silence and stillness. We withdraw our attention from our own thoughts and words, and we surrender to God, giving our consent to his presence and action in our lives.
We withdraw our attention from our own thoughts and words, and we surrender to God, giving our consent to his presence and action in our lives.
This may sound a little like the Buddhist way of meditation and ‘mindfulness’, and there are similarities between Buddhist and Christian practice. But the two are not identical, and there is a long history of Christian contemplative prayer, from the monks in the deserts of Egypt in the third century, through the medieval writers known as the English Mystics, to many groups today that have found this way of prayer helpful. Most importantly, Jesus himself encourages us in Matthew 6:6, to pray by going into our room, shutting the door, and praying in secret. So there is a long and trustworthy Christian tradition of silent, interior prayer before God.
Why might anyone want to try this method of prayer? Some are suspicious of it because it seems to involve doing nothing very much. But in contemplative prayer, as Christians we are doing something of the greatest importance. We are dedicating our time, our minds and our bodies to God, and we are seeking to be united with the living Lord Jesus. Just as two people who love each other can sit in silence with each other, so we can sit with God, with no need to worry about what words we might use.
In the next part of this discussion of contemplative prayer, we will look at some suggestions of how to approach this way of prayer, and discover what books and resources are available to help us.