There are two questions that I hear as a spiritual director more than any others. One is, “What is spiritual direction, anyway?” and the second is, “How do I learn to pray contemplatively?” I prefer to answer the first in person, but maybe we can begin to grasp the second together.
In its simplest form, contemplative prayer is listening prayer. Contemplative prayer is listening for God’s voice, rather than filling a moment with our own voice. Every great spiritual teacher has instructed their students to practice this way of praying on a daily basis. Teresa of Avila describes the interior castle that is built through this practice, Hildegard of Bingen relates the visions of Jesus as bridegroom that came in her silence, and Thomas Merton says that in silence God ceases to become an object and instead becomes an experience.
Jesus encourages all of his followers in Matt 6: 5-6, “And when you come before God, don’t turn that into a theatrical production either. All these people making a regular show out of their prayers, hoping for stardom! Do you think God sits in a box seat? Here’s what I want you to do: Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense his grace.” This translation from the Message gets to the heart of contemplative prayer: show up and be authentic.
But how do you do it? It all seems so ethereal and unattainable. Images of monks meditating for hours intimidate us away from trying. Here are some basics to get your practice started.
- Find a place where you like to be, where your body is comfortable. It might be your recliner or the rocker on your back porch. It might be your office chair. You need to be able to relax your body and be comfortable in temperature and position.
- This location is ideally free from distractions like computers, cell phones, people who want you to do things, and mosquitoes. At the very least, turn away from the computer, set the phone on silent, ask the people for some time, and light a citronella candle.
- Look for a space of 5-15 minutes at a time of day when you are awake enough to sit still and stay focused. Set a timer to keep time for you so that you aren’t looking at a watch or phone. I recommend beginning with about 8-10 minutes.
- Ideally, this is at the same time of day every day. It does NOT have to be early in the morning if you are not a morning person. I use my lunch break for this. I set every lunch appointment to be 15 minutes earlier than it actually needs to be on my calendar so that I am creating opportunity to sit with God.
3. What to do.
- Spend several minutes, as many as five, thinking about your breathing and your body. Work to match your inhale and exhale in length and take 10 deep breaths this way. Scan through your body and notice anywhere that hurts enough to catch your attention. Move those muscles around in an attempt to relax and rest. Imagine that you can breathe through those muscles, moving the air in and out of them.
- Use your inhale to breathe in God’s love, or the Holy Spirit, or the peace of Christ, etc. Say, in your mind, “God is entering my body.” Use your imagination to follow God to your nose and then to your lungs. See God enter the blood stream and move to your heart. Feel God move out to your toes, your fingers, and your mind. You are full of God’s presence.
- Use your exhale to blow away the thoughts that want to distract you. The thoughts aren’t bad and you aren’t weak for having them; you are human. Just release the thoughts with your breath rather than judging yourself for having them. When you inhale again, fill back up with God.
- Continue this way until your timer goes off—breathing in God, and breathing out the distractions.
- When the timer does go off, thank God for meeting you here. Some might choose to say the Lord’s Prayer as a way to end this time. Get up and go about your day!
This is not an easy practice. Silence challenges our egos to let down the guard of ourselves, and ego won’t easily step back. Your mind will bounce around endlessly. You will wonder what in the world you are accomplishing or producing in this time. You will convince yourself that this is waste of time. You will feel like you are trying to catch individual raindrops in your hand. This is all very normal. Silence is a muscle that needs strengthening; don’t stop just because you are sore. Keep showing up every day. It is my experience that every pathway toward Christian maturity eventually goes through silence.