Prayer can be very wordy. Especially for someone like me who loves words. Especially when prayer is defined as “talking with God.” So I babble on and tell God how my day is going, ask for help for myself or others, pour out my anxieties and fears, pray for peace, and on and on. But sometimes I run out of words, or can’t seem to find the right ones. Words can be so inadequate! Besides, “talking with God” is just one way of thinking about prayer. Prayer is also listening for God, receiving from God, resting and abiding in God.
That’s where contemplative prayer comes in, where the focus is not so much on putting my thoughts into words as it is becoming more aware of God’s presence and word to me.
I’ve found three forms of contemplative prayer to be especially helpful:
(1) Centring Prayer. I sit quietly, breathe slowly, and centre my thoughts on God–the Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer of all things, the One revealed in Jesus as God with us. Some forms of centring prayer focus on clearing one’s mind and heart, of emptying oneself–I do that too in the sense of suspending the day’s agenda for a time, and setting aside distractions , but instead of simply becoming empty, I think of centring prayer as silent prayer that centres me on God. One night I had a dream that I was in a river with the water swirling around and over me, I was being carried away, but then my feet touched bedrock and I was standing, the waters became calm and receded. In centring prayer, I reach for that bedrock: “For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall never be shaken.” (Psalm 62: 1-2)
(2) Breath prayers. The Jesus prayer is a simple breath prayer. Breathe in: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God.” Breathe out: “have mercy on me, a sinner.” Breathe in: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God.” Breathe out: “have mercy on me, a sinner.” I sometimes sit with my eyes closed, and pray it silently, but more often for me this is a form of contemplative prayer on the go. It’s a walking around prayer, a prayer for when I’m in line at the grocery store, or somewhere else out and about, a prayer that I often vary to pray for others and for the world at large, especially when it’s hard to know what words to pray: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy. Have mercy.
(3) Lectio Divina. I’ve already written about Lectio Divina and the Divided House, Lectio Divina and Jesus Interrupted, and Lectio Divina, Sabbath Rest, and Closing the Door, which tell of some of my experiences with this practice of praying Scripture. Lectio Divina and Looking for Jesus addresses some of the critiques and cautions, i.e, that lectio divina like any other practice can be subjective and reductionist. The same could be said about centring prayer, breath prayers, Bible study, or any other practice. Bible study needs prayer. Centring prayer needs Scripture. Fasting from food requires compassion. So for contemplative prayer, it’s important for me to practice it in the broader context of Scripture, other forms of prayer, and in community–not necessarily all at once and at the same time, but as one part of a much larger picture.
Your turn: What is your experience of contemplative prayer? What have you found helpful?