Contemplation is a form of prayer that has been practiced for many centuries. So what is it?
The underpinning belief is that God is already present within us and we in God − the divine indwelling. As scripture teaches us: “It is no longer I that live but Christ living in me, (Gal:2:19) and: “In God we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28).
Many of us may associate contemplation as something for the mystics, the early fathers of the church, monks, hermits, and those who have gone off into the desert or climbed to the top of a mountain. But, what about us? You and me? Is this for us? St. Paul certainly thinks so when he says: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you?” 1 Cor 6:16. Or, as St Augustine says “God is closer to your soul than you are to yourself.”
Given God dwells within us and that we dwell in God then why are we not more prayerful? I think Meister Eckhart answers this question for us when he says: “God is at home. It is we who have gone out for a walk.” In sum:
Contemplation is a prayer of “coming home” and becoming more aware of and more attentive to God who is already present within us.
Practicing Contemplative Prayer
As you might expect, much has been written on the subject of contemplation. I wish to share four dimensions that I have found helpful: 1. Silence, 2. Presence, 3. Attention, and 4. Consent.
1. Silence. It is in silence and stillness that we are able to “come home” and allow God to speak to us.
Rumi, the inspiring Sufi mystic taught us: “Silence is the language of God, all else is poor translation.”
In a similar vein, St. John of the Cross wrote: “Silence is God’s first language.”
2. Presence. Contemplative prayer has its roots fundamentally in the belief of God’s presence in us and our presence in God. It is an experience of oneness with the divine presence in us, in others and in all beings. Thomas Mertontaught “Contemplation is a mystery in which God reveals Himself as the very center of our own inmost self.” (The New Man, 19). James Finley, a former trainee of Thomas Merton, wrote: “Contemplation is a state of realized oneness with God. When engaged in contemplation, we rest in God resting in us. We are at home in God at home in us,” (Christian Meditation).
3. Attention. Once we become more tuned into the presence of God we may experience an inner awakening, a growing awareness of the hand of God reaching out to us. Simone Weil, last century philosopher, activist, and mystic wrote: “Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer,” (Gravity and Grace).
Cynthia Bourgeault, Episcopal Priest, and highly esteemed modern day writer and retreat leader says: “In essence contemplative prayer is simply a wordless, trusting openness of self to the Divine Presence.” (Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, 3).
This awakening requires us to let go of self interests and open our hearts and minds to God. As Karen Armstrong wrote: “This self-forgetfulness, was an ekstasis that enabled you to “step outside” the prism of the ego and experience the sacred,” (A Case for God, xiii).
4. Consent. Once we become more open to God within, we may experience movement we can call Grace, God’s will, or an invitation to the call of God. Our prayer is a response of consent - to follow the call.
Michael Casey, an Australian Trappist Priest wrote: “We do not produce prayer. We allow prayer to act,” (Toward God, 33).
Similarly, Thomas Keating, Dominican Priest and founder of Centering Prayer, taught us: “The only initiative we take during the period of centering prayer is to maintain our intention of consenting to the presence and action of God within,” (Open Mind Open Heart, 7).
Closing: As we move now to developing our practice of contemplation I am reminded of the wonderful line in a poem by Kabir:
“You don’t grasp the fact that what is most alive of all is inside your own house,” (The Gardener is Coming, 4)