What does it mean to practice contemplative prayer? There are different views on this subject, but I am going to focus on my own personal definition of contemplation as I practice it in my daily life.
My Personal Definition of Contemplation
For me, contemplation is the act of being aware of the heavenly truth that exists in the world. Some contemplatives close their eyes when they focus on God, some keep their eyes open, but, either way, contemplation is a focused awareness.
When I take time to reflect on a Bible passage or an event that has occurred in my life, I try to comprehend the truth that exists in that passage or event. First, I try to understand what is literally there, but then I try to understand what spiritual truth exists within the passage or event. (Read a little further to see an example of this process.)
So far what I am describing sounds like focused thinking or deep concentration, but there is more to contemplation than mere thought. When I contemplate, I try to have a conversation with God. Many spiritual leaders describe prayer time as a conversation between you and God; I treat contemplation time the same way. I suppose one could speak to God out loud throughout this sort of experience, but I always hold the conversation silently in my mind. Usually, I tell God (silently) what I see and then I ask questions. If no answers come to me, I might propose some answers. This does not feel like a solitary exercise.
My Contemplation Process
So here is an example of my own contemplative process. Today’s reading comes from the first chapter of John. When I decide to reflect on a Bible passage, I will first read through the entire passage and try to get a literal understanding of what it says. (“Try” is an important word here because some passages are more difficult to understand than others.)
After reading the text for literal understanding, I read it again and wait to see what statement or image grabs my attention. This time, the last two sentences pull at my heart, so I begin to reflect on them.
“No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”
If no one has ever seen you, God, then how is it possible for any of us to know you? Is it true that we have to accept Jesus in order to have a relationship with you? Doesn’t this mean only one type of person (someone who needs to see a physical human in order to believe in a God) has the opportunity to be with you?
Notice that I am asking these questions directly to God. I do not know if every contemplative Christian reflectis in this way, but it is important for me to keep the conversation personal.
This time, responses come to me right away. (And this is a blessing because often I will not receive a response right away.) No, Jesus is not for one group of people. He is for everyone, but different people will relate to Him in different ways. For those who need a more human image of God, Jesus is there in the flesh. For those who need a set of rules to better connect with God, there are the many teachings that Jesus provides. For those who best understand God through community, Jesus provides the template for such a community. This is how Jesus serves all people from all backgrounds.
I will not reproduce the rest of the conversation here, but you get the idea. In case you are wondering, no, I have never heard the voice of God in an auditory way–God’s responses never come to me in the form of a voice. How do I know that the responses to my questions are from God and not something evil? I used to say a prayer for protection before beginning my contemplation time, but I am not as concerned about this danger today. I know ideas are from God if they focus on peace and love. Any idea that threatens to disrupt peace and love in the world does not come from God and should be ignored.
One Piece of Advice
I will end this blog entry with one piece of advice for anyone interested in trying this or any form of contemplative prayer: do not come to the conversation expecting answers. Most Christians believe that God answers prayers, but the answers may not come right away. I do not worry if I do not sense any kind of reply to my questions–perhaps I am not ready for the answer. Perhaps God will answer my question at a time that is best for me or for anyone else that may be involved. The goal should not be to obtain answers to all questions; the goal is to form a closer relationship with God. If you live closely with God, solutions to life’s many mysteries will gradually come to you.
1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. 15(John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” ’) 16From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
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