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.
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.
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.
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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