Contemplative Prayer (Lectio Divina Series – “Contemplatio”)

Contemplation is the highest expression of [our] intellectual and spiritual life. It is that life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive. It is spiritual wonder. It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being. It is gratitude for life, for awareness and for being. It is a vivid realization of the fact that life and being in us proceed from an invisible, transcendent and infinitely abundant Source. Contemplation is, above all, awareness of the reality of that Source. It knows the Source, obscurely, inexplicably, but with a certitude that goes both beyond reason and beyond simple faith.

Thomas Merton

We now reach the last movement of Lectio Divina: Contemplation. This is the natural culmination of everything else you have done. Be aware that it can be the most beautiful part of your time of prayer, but it can also easily be the hardest. Contemplative prayer is also the hardest to explain because of its utter simplicity. Here are the instructions: just sit there. Don’t think about anything or do anything. Don’t expect anything. Just sit there. Actually, there is one other instruction: be attentive to where you are and to the God in whose presence you sit.

Moving Beyond Words

Contemplative prayer is a form of silent prayer. This is sometimes confusing because it often seems that prayer is all about words. We use words in the liturgy, words in praying for others, words in reading the Bible, words while singing, and words when just talking to God.

Word-filled prayer is very important; language is a great gift. But we need to understand that words are not the final goal. They point to something beyond themselves. For instance, when I tell my kids to come and eat dinner, the word “dinner” is not what is important. They don’t stop and say, “What a great word, Dad!” They rush by me to get to the actual plate of food sitting on the table full of food. The food is the dinner, not the word.

Contemplation is similar. It is the recognition every word we use in prayer is pointing beyond itself. Words point us beyond ourselves to the great mystery that words can’t capture. In the end, they are only signposts on the way, leading to what is really important: God. In my story of my children and dinner, the real point is not hearing the word, but that they enjoy the delicious food we have prepared. At some point, in a similar way, we leave the words of prayer behind, and just enjoy the presence of the God who made us for just this profound relationship.

Contemplative Prayer is Savouring and Attentiveness

I recognize that this can still be confusing. Let me suggest two other human scenarios that might help us to glimpse what contemplation is. First, imagine that you are eating the best meal you have ever had. It is in that little restaurant that people have told you about. You didn’t believe that food could be that good, but you went anyways. Then you put the first bite in your mouth… and oh…my… goodness!! The flavours are so rich and succulent. Your table mate asks how it is. You pause because you just want to savour that taste for a moment before answering. That savouring is a form of contemplation. You don’t think about it; you just experience it.

Second, imagine walking on the beach with a friend. It is the perfect day: warm but not hot, the faint scent of salt, the water pleasantly wet on your feet. You talk for awhile as you walk, but over time you just drift into silence. It is just pleasant to be there with your friend, all your senses taking in everything. There is nothing you need to say. It is enough just to be there.

This quiet attentiveness to what is around you is also a form of contemplation. Walter Burghardt calls it “a long, loving look at the real.” While this is easier to do when things are pleasant, to be attentive is a way of deepening spiritually in all circumstances. You can start simply with a few minutes at the end of Lectio Divina.

Beginning to Practice Contemplative Prayer

Contemplation is just sitting there. Don’t think. Just be…in the presence of God. I recognize that this is deceptively simple, so there are techniques to help quiet the thoughts and words that constantly drift through our minds.

Let me give you a little trick that most people use, even established contemplatives. When you have finished praying about your reading, choose one of the words in the reading that spoke to you. Maybe the word was faith or love or God or joy or follow. It could be anything.

As you find your mind wandering, say that word in your mind. Let the word be the tool you use to re-focus on the presence of God with you. When you wander again, say the word again. Say it as much as you need. I find that sometimes I need the words a lot. That is fine. The point is not to accomplish anything, but to be in God’s presence with no agenda. Just sit in the truth that God loves you so much.

Next time, as an example, I will reflect on a session of Lectio Divina I did with Psalm 131.

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