It is a state of receptiveness that contemplation tries to create in us. We work at being fully present to the moment and content to relax in God’s presence with us and within us.
What is contemplation? Unlike other prayer forms, contemplation does not rely on words or images. They may come, but they are only incidental to the prayer. This prayer is much more intuitive. It is a focused effort to rediscover what we already know in our bones of God. It seeks the experience of God.
Ever since Adam walked with God, belief has been founded on that experience, especially as some individuals have known it. Judeo-Christian faith began with Abraham’s call to leave home for an unknown land where he would become the father of many nations.
It took on a clearer form when Moses stood before a bush that was burning yet not consumed by flames. The voice that spoke from that bush called him to lead a band of Hebrew slaves out of Egypt and across the desert.
We cannot order up such an experience, of course. All we can do is create the circumstances that can enable it to happen. I suspect that the experiences we have had came about because we were focused on the moment. Gone were the concerns about what we had to accomplish that day—all the things that crowd our minds and hearts.
It is that state of receptiveness that contemplation tries to create in us. We work at being fully present to the moment and content to relax in God’s presence with us and within us.
To put it another way, we are following the advice of Father Richard Rohr, who quotes a line from Scripture—“Be still and know that I am God!” (Ps 46:10)—and then breaks it down:
“Be still and know that I am.”
“Be still and know.”
We usually pay little attention to being. It is not something that seems to require our attention when there are so many things we must be doing instead. Contemplative prayer is a setting aside of all the things by which we define ourselves and to which we cling for dear life.
How, in our noisy world, is it possible to achieve an absolute quiet of mind and heart that allows us to focus only on God?
A lot of folks retire to a certain quiet place—a prayer corner, perhaps, where they place an icon or a candle. A friend speaks of her garden as the spot in which she can best relax with God. When I had a weeping willow tree outside my window, I could see how the slightest breeze set its leaves to trembling. I used to stare at it, feeling again the movement of the Spirit in that meeting room. Now I simply listen to the sound of my own breathing or my heartbeat, knowing that it is in God.
In those moments of stillness and quiet, I hear the voice of God.
We do not fully leave our cares behind us when we pray this way, however. According to the late Basil Pennington, a Trappist monk and guru of centering prayer, “There may be thoughts and words, but they are inconsequential. The important thing is that we let go of them and let God use them. They are no longer ours. They are his.”
God certainly deals better with our worries and sorrows than we do. I know from experience that there is no better way to calm my anger at someone who has offended me than simply to stand in God’s presence with that person and try to see what God sees.
The act of contemplation is necessarily solitary. At a contemplative retreat, people sit in a circle. But they face the wall—not each other. Still, we never pray alone. That is simply not possible. Whenever we turn toward God, we do so in the company of what the Letter to the Hebrews calls “so great a cloud of witnesses” (12:1)—the angels and the saints, the living and the dead, believers of every age and of every nation.
Need for Community
This very solitary prayer is not a substitute for that most communal of all prayers—the liturgy. I worship in a community that has an extraordinarily high level of participation. There I am nourished by the conversation before and after services, the sound of voices raised together in song, prayer, and statements of faith. I am fed by warm handshakes or hugs at the sign of peace.
And, yes, I love the words of Scripture brought to life by skilled readers and the consistently excellent preaching I am privileged to hear.
I know that I need a frequent dose of communal experience to keep my solitary prayer firmly rooted in the conviction that I am a member of the communion of saints, that the silence of my prayer is, as St. John of the Cross called it, “silent music, sounding solitude.”
It is therefore always part of that glorious chorus of praise with which heaven resounds.