Tag Archives: contemplative prayer

For Lent: Be still. Become aware.

When things were not working out for you, did a well-meaning person ever counsel you to “Walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7)? That’s a popular snippet of the Bible which people use as an encouraging piece of self-talk: “Settle down. God is not done with you yet.” If you take their counsel, you might develop a new conviction: “I am moving ahead, hoping for the best. I am walking by faith, not by sight.” That is good.

Contemplation: faith, not sight.I think there is something even more immediate that scripture is teaching. I have learned it through the prayer of contemplation. “Walk by faith, not by sight” is also about becoming aware of the unseen things God is doing in the present moment. It is not just looking ahead, it should also be looking in. “I am walking by the Light of the World, not just by the light of day, by faith, not sight.”

Prayer amounts to faithing. Just call walking by faith “faithing.” Faith is an action not an idea; it is relating, not just thinking about principles. And prayer is the basic place we faith. Prayer is how we develop the sense of being guided by the Holy Spirit of God and learn to see and react with more than just our physical senses. God is with us, right now; prayer helps us be with God right now.

When I say “contemplative prayer” you might think of mindfulness techniques that people are teaching to jr. highers to help them settle down. That’s a beginning, but that’s not the prayer of contemplation. The prayer of contemplation includes the techniques for reducing anxiety, but it is more. Contemplative prayer, and any spiritual discipline, disposes us to allow something to take place. The main thing that happens is love. If you find something else in the silence, you might be in the wrong place. Contemplation makes us available for relating to God. We don’t always pray in order to get God to do something for us; contemplative prayer is not about making something happen, necessarily. We are making ourselves available for communion with God. We are becoming open to experience Love, heart to Heart.

It is like this: A gardener does not actually grow plants. She practices skills that facilitate growth that is beyond her control. Prayer is like that. A sailor does not produce the necessary wind to move the boat. He appropriates the gift of wind by exercising skills that can get him home. Prayer is like that.

The basic skill of contemplative prayer that facilitates growth and appropriates gifts is inner silence. There are two practices that are very important to exercising this skill: stillness and awareness.

Stillness

When we attempt to be silent, we need to consider how to face the inner noise with which we struggle. Sometimes we do noisy things when we pray, too, of course; we are embodied spirits, after all. But at the center of us is the silent place where God is simply giving himself to us and we are communing spirit to Spirit. We long to carry this silence with us in the midst of the noisy world and be content that we are in Christ and Christ is in us. We want to feel at home. One of the early teachers of the church said, that in this center, we are constantly being called home, away from the noise that is around us to the joys that are silent. He said, “Why do we rush about looking for God who is here at home with us, if all we want is to be with him?”

Martin Laird, a teacher from Villanova who wrote a book called Into the Silent Lands, tells a story about a prisoner who was accustomed to cutting himself or burning himself so that his inner pain would be in a different place: on the outside of him. This suffering man had come upon some people whose mission was to teach prisoners to pray and turn their prison cells into monastic cells. The prisoner learned from them, and after several weeks of meditating twice a day he said, “I just want you to know that after only four weeks of meditating half an hour in the morning and night, the pain is not so bad, and for the first time in my life, I can see a tiny spark of something within myself I can like.” That is the home we are talking about.

Stillness in Rittenhouse Square park

Awareness

Our sense of separation from God is often a matter of our broken perception. We can’t feel God. We have an idea of what we should feel and we don’t feel it. Contemplative prayer is the place we let go of our perceptions and become aware of God with us, as the scripture guides us:

  •  My soul, wait in silence for God only, for my hope is from Him (Psalm 62:5).
  • I am in my Father and you are in me and I in you (Jesus in John 14:20).
  • I have been crucified with Christ and yet I am alive; yet it is no longer I, but Christ living in me (Galatians 3:20).

From the perspective of our everyday life on planet earth, we are separate from God. But from the perspective of our inner awareness, we see Christ with us. When we pray, we are not merely becoming aware of our thoughts and feelings (although that is good!), we are learning to be aware of God and to be with God who is with us.

It is like this: A man was taking his dog to a field where the animal could run and he ran into another man walking four dogs. They got to the open field and let their dogs go so they could enjoy running around in a big free space. But one the dogs was off to the side running is relatively tight circles and did not join in with the other dogs. The man asked his new friend, “What’s with your dog?” The man answered. “Before I got this dog, he had spent years living in a cage. He was used to getting all his exercise, just as you see. He has the field, but he is trained for the cage.” I did not see this dog do this personally, so I can’t prove to you that dogs do this, but I do know myself and many of you. We have the wide open field of grace and freedom to romp in but we run in the contours of our former cage. The prayer of contemplation is retraining our hearts to roam the wide open spaces of eternity freely.

  • My heart is like a bird that has escaped from the snare of the fowler (Psalm 123:7).

Our minds tend to run in the obsessive tight circles of our mental cage. We believe we are separate from God, and we were. So now we need to become aware of something else. I heard something shocking from a friend not long ago. When he was a child his father sang a little ditty that he thought was funny: “Charlie Wilkins is no good. Let’s chop him up like so much wood.” I know this little boy as an old man and you can still see that putrid song playing in his head. Just like that, we may believe we are condemned by God. So now we need to learn freedom. Prayer is the training ground.

When we think about things, we have a cage of thoughts that guide us. Contemplative prayer helps us go beyond that cage and enter into the wide-open fields of silence where we don’t merely think about things, we commune with God. We concentrate attention in our heart to the place of knowing, the place of awareness that is not full of the cacophony of our mind and surroundings but is full of the Spirit of God. It seems like we are just sitting there doing nothing when we pray this way, and that is exactly right and exactly good. In that nothing of ourselves and our surroundings we enter the silent land of our true being with God.

This post tells you more about how to practice contemplative prayer. But we don’t need perfect techniques to pray as much as we need to access the skills that are built into our beings by our loving Father. Be silent and turn your heart to God whether you think you know what you are doing or not. Take a step of walking by faith, not by sight. You’ll have a good time with God.

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2014 #7.5 — Prayer: Walk by faith, not by sight

At the beginning of the year I am reposting “top ten” posts. Here is #7.5 of the top ten most-read posts of 2014.

In April I tried to help people figure out contemplative prayer. It was proving to be a faith-saver for several people in dire circumstances. I wanted everyone to know about it.

“Walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7). We often think of this as waiting for God to do something in the future that we would not normally expect — “I am moving ahead, hoping for the best. I am walking by faith, not by sight.” That is good.

SONY DSCBut when we practice the prayer of contemplation, “Walk by faith, not by sight” is something more immediate. It is about becoming aware of the unknown things God is doing in the present moment. It is not looking ahead but looking in.

Prayer amounts to faithing. Having faith as a verb not an idea, as an experience of relationship not just a thought about principles. Prayer is where we develop the sense of being guided by the Holy Spirit of God and learn to see and react with more than just our physical senses. God is with us, right now; prayer helps us be with God right now.

Continue reading 2014 #7.5 — Prayer: Walk by faith, not by sight

2014 #7 — Three doorways of contemplative prayer

For the next few weeks, Thursday is TOP TEN of 2014 day. This is the #7 most read post of 2014. In April I tried to offer a little bit about the layers of contemplative prayer. 

We often talk about “contemplative prayer.” How is that done? Let me try to teach in five minutes what you can learn in five years.

To begin, we often start by becoming still and aware with what we call “breath prayer.” Seekers practice breath prayer as a basic skill for being quiet enough to pray. If you consciously keep filling your lungs with air and deliberately release it slowly, you will become calm. If you imagine that you are breathing in something worth receiving and breathing out something that needs releasing, that adds to the prayer. Breath prayer is a basis for what Martin Laird calls the three doorways of contemplative prayer in his book Into the Silent Lands.

You can focus your practice of contemplative prayer on an old idea for centering it: a prayer word or phrase. Many people use what is called the “Jesus prayer” as their phrase. One variation of this prayer is: Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me. I use this prayer almost every day in my practice. It doesn’t matter what word you choose. You could use, “I wait on you in silence,” or, “I no longer live but Christ lives in me.” The content of the prayer is nice, but the goal is to use the good phrase you choose as a touchstone for becoming still and aware in the silence. The goal is to let go of all other concerns and recollect yourself. When you become aware that your attention has been stolen, gently return your attention to the prayer word or phrase so you can stay in the moment with God.

Practice that for a moment using a phrase that is great for Holy Week: “I no longer live but Christ lives in me.”

lone tree

 

Continue reading 2014 #7 — Three doorways of contemplative prayer

The three doorways of contemplative prayer

We often talk about “contemplative prayer.” How is that done? Let me try to teach in five minutes what you can learn in five years.

To begin, we often start by becoming still and aware with what we call “breath prayer.” Seekers practice breath prayer as a basic skill for being quiet enough to pray. If you consciously keep filling your lungs with air and deliberately release it slowly, you will become calm. If you imagine that you are breathing in something worth receiving and breathing out something that needs releasing, that adds to the prayer. Breath prayer is a basis for what Martin Laird calls the three doorways of contemplative prayer in his book Into the Silent Lands.

You can focus your practice of contemplative prayer on an old idea for centering it: a prayer word or phrase. Many people use what is called the “Jesus prayer” as their phrase. One variation of this prayer is: Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me. I use this prayer almost every day in my practice. It doesn’t matter what word you choose. You could use, “I wait on you in silence,” or, “I no longer live but Christ lives in me.” The content of the prayer is nice, but the goal is to use the good phrase you choose as a touch stone for becoming still and aware in the silence. The goal is to let go of all other concerns and recollect yourself. When you become aware that your attention has been stolen, gently return your attention to the prayer word or phrase so you can stay in the moment with God.

Practice that for a moment using a phrase that is great for Holy Week: “I no longer live but Christ lives in me.”

the stillness of contemplative prayer

As you practiced, you may or may not have felt something. Sometimes awareness can feel like a bodily sensation — a tingle or a warmth, or a soul sensation of peace. Hopefully you felt rest and a sense that there was something beyond your normal awareness. Prayer is not always sensate, but it makes an impact in places we experience later. We can see the results of contemplative prayer in ongoing awareness of God’s presence throughout our day, in a lessening of anxiety over time and in a peace that pervades territories where it was not evident before. When we open our hearts and minds to God’s presence we gain insight and feel favor by forming a personal relationship with God. In the process of deepening our relationship with God, coming with a lack of expectation usually leads to better feelings than searching for what we want or for what we think we ought to be experiencing.

Continue reading The three doorways of contemplative prayer

Prayer: walk by faith, not by sight.

“Walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7). We often think of this as waiting for God to do something in the future that we would not normally expect — “I am moving ahead, hoping for the best. I am walking by faith, not by sight.” That is good.

Faithing

SONY DSC

When we practice the prayer of contemplation, “Walk by faith, not by sight” is something more immediate. It is about becoming aware of the unknown things God is doing in the present moment. Prayer amounts to faithing, walking into what’s happening with faith as a sense guiding us,not just seeing and reacting with our physical senses. God is with us, right now; prayer helps us be with God right now.

When I say “contemplative prayer” you might think of mindfulness techniques that people are teaching to jr. highers to help them settle down. That’s a beginning, but that is not the prayer of contemplation. The prayer of contemplation includes the techniques for reducing anxiety, but it is more. Contemplative prayer, and any spiritual discipline, disposes us to allow something to take place. We are not doing something to get a result; we are not making something happen, necessarily. We are doing something to allow communion with God to be our condition.

It is like this: A gardener does not actually grow plants. She practices skills that facilitate growth that is beyond her control. Prayer is like that. A sailor does not produce the necessary wind to move the boat. He harnesses the gift of wind by exercising skills that can get him home. Prayer is like that.

Basic contemplative prayer

The basic skill of contemplative prayer that facilitates and harnesses is inner silence. There are two practices within this skill set that are very important: stillness and awareness. When we attempt to be silent, we need to consider how to face the inner noise with which we struggle. We do many noisy things when we pray, too; we are embodied spirits, after all. But at the center of us is the silent place where God is simply giving himself to us and we are communing spirit to Spirit. We long to carry this silence with us in the midst of the noisy world and be content that we are in Christ and Christ is in us. We want to be at home. One of the early teachers of the church said in this center we are constantly being called home, away from the noise that is around us to the joys that are silent. He said, “Why do we rush about looking for God who is here at home with us, if all we want is to be with him?”

Martin Laird, a teacher from Villanova who wrote a book called Into the Silent Lands, tells a story about a prisoner who was accustomed to cutting himself or burning himself so that his inner pain would be in a different place — on the outside of him. This suffering man came upon some people whose mission was to teach prisoners to pray and turn their prison cells into monastic cells. The prisoner learned from them and after several weeks of meditating twice a day he said, “I just want you to know that after only four weeks of meditating half an hour in the morning and night, the pain is not so bad, and for the first time in my life, I can see a tiny spark of something within myself I can like.” That is the home we are talking about.

rittenhouse square parkOur sense of separation from God is often a matter of our broken perception. We can’t feel God. We have an idea of what we should feel and we don’t feel that. Contemplative prayer is the place we let go our perceptions and become aware of God with us, as the scripture guides us:

  •  My soul, wait in silence for God only, for my hope is from Him (Psalm 62:5).
  • I am in my Father and you are in me and I in you (Jesus in John 14:20).
  • I have been crucified with Christ and yet I am alive; yet it is no longer I, but Christ living in me (Galatians 3:20).

From the perspective of the created order we are separate from God. But from the perspective of being aware, we see Christ when we look inside. When we pray, we are not merely becoming aware of our thoughts and feelings (although that is good!), we are learning to be aware of God and to be with God who is with us.

Retraining the heart

It is like this: A man was taking his dog to a field where the animal could run and he ran into another man walking four dogs. They got to the open field and let their dogs go so they could enjoy running around in a big free space. But one of the new friend’s dogs was off to the side running is relatively tight circles and did not join in with the other dogs. The man asked his new friend, “What’s with your dog?” He gave him an explanation. “Before I got this dog, he had spent years living in a cage. He was used to getting all his exercise, just as you see. He has the field, but he is trained for the cage.” I did not see this dog do this personally, so I can’t prove to you that dogs do this, but I do know myself and I have seen many of you who are reading this. We have the wide open field of grace and freedom to romp in but we run in the contours of our former cage. The prayer of contemplation is retraining our hearts to roam the wide open spaces of eternity freely.

  • My heart is like a bird that has escaped from the snare of the fowler (Psalm 123:7).

Our minds tend to run in the obsessive tight circles of our mental cage. We believe we are separate from God, and we were. So now we need to learn something else. I heard something shocking from a friend not long ago. When he was a child his father sang a little ditty that he thought was funny: “Charlie Wilkins is no good. Let’s chop him up like so much wood.” I know this little boy as an old man and you can still see that putrid song playing in his head. Just like that, we may believe we are condemned by God. So now we need to learn freedom. Prayer is the training ground.

When we think about things, we have a cage of thoughts that guide us. Contemplative prayer helps us go beyond them and enter into the silence where we don’t merely think about things, we commune with God. We concentrate attention in our heart to the place of knowing, the place of awareness that is not full of the cacophony of our mind and surroundings but is full of God. It seems like we are just sitting there doing nothing, when we pray and that is exactly right and exactly good. In that nothing of ourselves and our surroundings we enter the silent land of our true being with God.

Next time I will tell you more about how this is done. But, like I said, we don’t need to perfect techniques to pray as much as we need to access the skills that are built in to our beings by our loving Father. Be silent and turn your heart to God whether you think you know what you are doing or not. Take a step of walking by faith, not by sight. You’ll have a good time with God.

[Another version of this post]

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How NOT to outgrow your faith in your thirties

You’re not a twentysomething anymore. Now what? Are you outgrowing your faith like the fashions of your youth? It happens.

In their thirties, a lot of people consolidate a circle of friends that still feel right (and hope they don’t move away), get married, find a halfway decent job to which they commit for one reason or another, and save their money for fun. Jesus gets squeezed out of their limited time. He was one of their many twentysomething activities. But he never became the friend, the partner, the vocation, the fun.

If any of that is even halfway true of you or someone you care about, is there any hope for having faith when one grows up? I think so. Here are six ways to keep or restart your faith if you find it lacking in your adulthood.

1) Start over, even in the church you’ve got.

The other day a friend said she wanted to do something…finally. She was over the trauma of moving to town. She had the new job. She had found her favorite restaurants. She even had a boyfriend. Then she realized she had to get started! She now needed her life and she was sure that life had to do with Jesus.

If you are inspired like she is, it means changing; and change is hard. The need for change uncovers how lazy we all are — it is like the original sin. M. Scott Peck’s famous quote says that evil is laziness carried to its ultimate, extraordinary extreme.

Truly evil people … actively rather than passively avoid extending themselves.  They will take any action in their power to protect their own laziness, to preserve the integrity of their sick self. Rather than nurturing others, they will actually destroy others in this cause. If necessary, they will even kill to escape the pain of their own spiritual growth. As the integrity of their sick self is threatened by the spiritual health of those around them, they will seek by all manner of means to crush and demolish the spiritual health that may exist near them (The Road Less Travelled, 1978).

My friend has the insight to know she needs to start over and has the guts to do something. She is also kind of scared not to! You don’t have to move to a new state, new church or new friendship circle to start over. You have to not be lazy.

thirties2) Learn to pray. Now is the time for contemplative prayer.

Many twentysomethings love the church because their friends do. Any number of people in Circle of Hope like to be a part of our community even though they don’t like the founder of it: Jesus! But they get to a point where the relationships change, there is conflict, or people just grow up. Then they need a relationship with God, not just nice people. It is time to learn to pray. We need to learn a method for connecting with our natural aptitude for “the inner life, that simplicity of our childhood once our adult minds have become overly complex and busy.”

That’s what Cynthia Bourgeault says in Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening (2004). Some people have never read her book or any book about spiritual disciplines. They have never personally learned to pray and rely on others to do it for them. They come to a church meeting and let a leader make them pray. That’s not adult enough.

3) Get a spiritual direction

Repent. Turn a new, Jesus-following direction – not like you used to think about spirituality, but in ways your heart and mind tell you to move now. Think and feel about how you think and feel spiritually. Enough said, for now.

4) Get some spiritual directors.

Adult faith is not singular. Maybe in your twenties you needed to assert your own identity. Adulthood requires community and help. Therapy might be a good place to start. Retreat centers often have someone who wishes someone would come by so they could listen to them and help them listen to God. Our Pastors, Cell Leader Coordinators, and Cell Leaders can listen or help you find someone who can. Your cell or another group you form will help. Having a good friend in Christ will help, too, but we cannot always rely on people who are attached to us to be detached enough to see and tell the truth we need. Your spouse can be helpful, but not enough. Make a life-giving connection somewhere.

5) Get some buy in.

Like I said, adult faith requires community. The biggest reason people back-burner their faith, and often lose it altogether, is because they have to fight for it — and they are sleeping with the person with whom they are fighting!  Any number of spouses have decided Jesus is the lover with whom they are in competition and they say, “Jesus or me!”

So have an honest talk about your desire to be a Christian with your intimates and get their support. Even if they are unbelievers, they probably love you enough to help you. If your faith is secret or private, it will probably end up strangled.

6) Serve. Give. Commit.

The thirties are sort of a proving ground. It is time for integrity. Do you count? Does what you say matter? Do you know for what God has laid hold of you?

Time is short. The assignment of transformation takes a long time. We need to do something. (If you are a twentysomething reading this, it is not too early. If you are past forty, it is not too late). Plus, our resources are limited. We need to make the most of them. When we are up against sickness, addiction, relationship problems, or failure, it is hard to have faith. And who is not up against one or more of those things on a given day? We need to make the most of our time and limited resources to live in a way that matters.

The easiest way to look at doing this is to “give what you are given.” Sometimes we want to wait until we have what we should have or we are who we should be before we give. That’s a long wait. Serve where you are stationed. Waiting for the ideal situation or job could be a long wait. Make indefinite commitments now. No one knows what tomorrow will bring. Engage your heart in the present, not in the idealized future.

The thirties are often a very difficult era. But they don’t need to be a time to endure with gritted teeth. For the Jesus-follower, they are often the beginning of their richest era of spiritual development. But you’ll have to grow into it, not just outgrow your previous faith.

 

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