Contemplative prayer, an ancient but controversial practice

By Yvette Walker

I did a prayer exercise with a group of friends recently, in the model of the children’s game, Nut, Nut Squirrel. Sounds a little silly, but stay with me. Nut, Nut Squirrel is a card game where you draw from the deck to collect as many nuts, or acorns, as you can. If you get the Squirrel card, you lose your stash.

In the exercise, I challenged everyone to discuss how they pray, or what prayer means to them without using the word pray or prayer. If they do, they’d “lose their stash.” I did this because the word prayer can be intimidating to many people.

I was that person not so very long ago. I believed I wasn’t good a pray-er. I wasn’t eloquent enough. Others were better at praying. And certainly, I would NEVER pray aloud.

As my friends took on the challenge, they talked about what the word meant to them (without saying it). Of the four who played this game with me, all of them used the same word.

Conversation.

Prayer simply is a conversation with our Father. And it’s an important time to spend with him because it enriches our personal relationship with him.

But if we are worried about our ability … if we think we aren’t good at it, what do we do?

We go back to the basics and model Jesus, who often spent time alone in the  presence of God.

One way to do this is to practice a form of prayer called contemplative or centering prayer. The two practices are different, but share an important benefit: listening.

In many prayer forms, we acknowledge God, praise him for his gifts, then ask him for our needs. There is nothing wrong with that. But in these listening forms of prayer, we don’t do any of that.

We don’t ask for needs.

We don’t praise him.

We don’t talk at all, not even in our heads.

Instead, we sit, silently, and allow ourselves to come into his presence. We invite him to join us where we are and listen for His voice.

HOW TO DO IT

Rich Lewis, a teacher of Centering Prayer, has a simple method for this practice:

  • Sit comfortably and close your eyes.
  • Think of a short syllable word, for example, love Jesus, ocean, or a color. I choose Joy.
  • In silence , say that word in your mind to begin your prayer and then let it go.
  • Empty your mind of distraction and allow yourself to come in his presence.
  • When you feel the world start to drift back in, say the word again and start all over.

This isn’t meditation, and you don’t recite your word over and over like a mantra. You’re just sitting with God.

Contemplative prayer is not a replacement for other kinds of prayer. The best kind of prayer is how Jesus told us to pray in Matthew 6: 9-13 (NIV)

“This, then, is how you should pray:

“ ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. ’ ”

But we also know that Jesus withdrew to quiet places to spend time with His Father.

I’ve been a seeker for a deeper relationship with God and yearned to get back to when I was a young girl who could hear Him clearly. I felt nearer to God then. But growing up, His presence felt harder and harder to feel.

I thought I wasn’t good enough because He stopped talking to me.

But He NEVER stopped talking. I forgot how to listen. Too often, I try to pray but my mind is filled with stuff from my day: work, shopping lists, forgotten errands, etc. Clearing out my mind is necessary for me to enter into any kind of prayer, but especially contemplative prayer.

The Bible tells us how to hear the voice of God.  It’s just two commands:

1) be not hard-hearted, quarrelsome, or prideful,

2) and listen to know what His voice sounds like.

First Kings chapter 19, verses 11 and 12 implores us to hear His voice and tells us where to find:

The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.

Psalms 95 verse 8 counsels not to harden our hearts when he hear his voice. Similarly, Paul writes in Hebrews 3 verses 7 and 8 that the Holy Spirit warns us against unbelief, that if we hear his voice, we should not harden our hearts. Once we soften our hearts, we WILL begin to hear Him and to recognize His voice.

These silent prayer forms may allow us to listen to Him, and to cut through the noise of our day.

WHERE DID CONTEMPLATIVE COME FROM?

A review of research about contemplative prayer shows that its origins began in Christian mysticism, which dates back to the early church. The first three centuries of Christianity had church fathers such as Gregory of Nyssa, Basic of Caaesarea and Anthony of Egypt who were contemplatives.

The organization Contemplative Outreach writes that Centering Prayer was developed in the 1970s as a response to Roman Catholicism’s invitation to revive these early  teachings. Three Trappist monks at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts – Fathers William Meninger, Basil Pennington and Thomas Keating – are credited with developing the method of silent prayer. 

CRITICISM OF THE PRACTICE

There this prayer is not without its critics. There are many sources who believe that this prayer form is heretical, saying that it isn’t Biblical. Some of those arguments include being “emptied” and encountering nothing or no one, which isn’t a pathway to God.

Proponents of the practice counter this argument, pointing out that if we follow Psalm 46:10’s encouragement to “be still and know that I am God,” we are not emptied. We must come with expectancy, and we do this to “encounter God and be filled with his presence through the Holy Spirit.” (Christianity.com)

Focus of the Family calms fears that this is connected to New Age meditation:

“There is nothing unbiblical or anti-Christian about solitude, silence, and contemplative prayer. Not, at any rate, as they have been practiced within the context of Christian history. As a matter of fact, these disciplines are part of a time-honored tradition. They’ve been central to the church’s spiritual life for centuries. … This tradition has nothing to do with the depersonalizing, self-abnegating, Nirvana-seeking spiritual practices of the Hindus, Buddhists, and New-Agers.”

Consider adding this method of prayer to your other daily petitions, and see if begin to recognize His voice.

I think I partly hated not hearing from Him because I felt that I had disappointed Him in some way, or that I wasn’t worthy enough for Him to listen to me! And what happens when you feel like no one is listening? You turn to otherworldly things to seek validation. But that was a lie sent from the enemy! God hears our every plea. Yes, he hears us!

Are you at a crossroads? Do you think God doesn’t speak to you and He doesn’t hear your cries? He does, and He wants you to hear His soothing words and Fatherly advice. Now is the time.

I pray this: Lord, I want to talk to you daily. I want to hear your voice and all the messages you have for me. I know you are real and I believe in you. Help me to soften and open my heart so that your voice floods my soul. Amen.

And then, I sit silently and wait on His still, small voice.

I hope you enjoyed reading this. If you’d like to support me as a writer and podcaster, consider signing up to become a Positively Joy Patreon member. It’s as little as $5 a month and you get unlimited access to bonus content, free merchandise, and a shoutout on the show!

Yvette Walker is the host of the Positively Joy podcast, and founder of Positively Joy Ministries at positivelyjoy.com.

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