Introduction to Contemplative Prayer

Dummerston Congregational Church
7 March 2010.


I'd like to say at the outset that I am ambivalent about the origins of Christian contemplation. The Egyptian Christians who fled to the desert in the third and fourth centuries were living at a time when the Roman persecutions were ending. Constantine ended the persecutions in 313, and although the very first Christian hermits established their place in the desert about forty years earlier, the movement really took off after the persecutions ended. I think it was a time of deep identity crisis for Christians. Until that time, being a Christian almost certainly meant facing state-sponsored persecution, and perhaps even death. Martyrdom seems to have formed part of the Christian identity at the time, so when the persecutions ended, what was a Christian to do? What did it mean to be a Christian, which had always meant standing against the dominant culture, when that culture began to adopt Christianity as its own?

I am afraid that many of those first hermits internalized the persecution and turned it into an extreme asceticism and hatred for the physical world, for the body, for all things material and natural. Mortification of the flesh was clearly part of the practice of the early Christian contemplatives, something that we, fortunately, can set aside! Especially in our day of extreme imbalance in our relationship with the natural world, contemplative prayer needs to be evaluated in terms of how well it brings us back into balance with the other lives who share this Earth.

Christian contemplative prayer has its origins in the third century when Saint Anthony, a relatively well-to-do Egyptian peasant, left his village in lower Egypt and fled to the desert to become a hermit. As the story goes, one day, on hearing the Gospel words, "If you would be perfect, go and sell all you possess, and come follow me," he took those words to heart, disposed of all his property, and devoted himself to an ascetic life of prayer and fasting.

For fifteen years he lived alone on the outskirts of his village, an act not utterly unknown in his day, but then he felt a need for even greater solitude and lived in an abandoned fort alone in the desert. He did not emerge for twenty years. We can only guess at what he did and what he experienced, but when he did emerge and began to teach others what he had discovered, he was widely recognized as a transformed and wise human being.

Following in Anthony's footsteps were many young men and women who regarded him as a wise teacher and wanted to be near him in order to learn from him. Around Anthony and his followers grew the first Christian monastic communities. Creating monastic communities made it possible for others, who were not perhaps inclined or capable of enduring many years of solitude, to nevertheless go to the desert and learn the way of desert spirituality. If the only alternatives had been to be swept along by the distractions and entertainments and repressive exploitation of the dominant culture, or to live alone in the desert for decades, not many would have found a way out of the trap of civilization and into contemplation.

Fleeing to the desert for safety, solitude and transformation did not begin in the third century. John the Baptist fled to the desert, as did Jesus after his baptism. And there was a Jewish precursor in the Essenes, active at the time of John and Jesus, who left Jerusalem and created a community in the desert to try to regain some of the purity of religious practice that they felt was being lost in the temple practice in Jerusalem.

Fleeing to the desert is a way of standing against the dominant social order and returning to a more elemental way of living. The harsh desert environment strips things to the essentials. I would guess that fleeing to the desert in some form is a human practice as old as civilization. It is a way of getting free of cultural and social norms, which wield immense influence over our identity and behavior. Very practically, it was a way of fleeing persecution and oppression. It is quite clear that earliest Christianity, as initiated by Jesus and expanded especially by Paul, provided a space for equality and reciprocity across gender, class and ethnicity. With the Romanization of Christianity, it seems to have become necessary once again to flee to the desert to escape the oppressive norms of civilization. Both women and men did so.

But even more potently, fleeing to the desert, and by extension contemplative prayer, is a way of facing oneself at the deepest levels, and perhaps to see through all in the human mind that is illusory, destructive and life-defeating. Without civilization's distractions, we come face to face with ourselves in our actuality, including those unappealing aspects of ourselves that our busyness, our compulsiveness, our conformity to social rules, and our immersion in entertainment usually obscure.

Contemplative prayer is profoundly optimistic, because the assumption is that what one will find if stripped to the core, is not evil, but blessing, a communion with reality that is beyond words. It is not without its challenges however, especially if we are carrying the legacy of severe personal trauma, and so contemplative prayer is not to be taken lightly or without any support that might be helpful or necessary. That is why most of us, who are not spiritual athletes, want to have some kind of community of support for our contemplative life.

The word "contemplation" comes from the root "templum", which means a place set aside, and originally referred to an area set aside for the observing of auguries. The prefix "con" in this case is an intensive, so the meaning of contemplation is essentially, "close or intense observation." To contemplate is to observe closely, to observe ourselves, the world around us, and the place where the inner and outer meet and create each other. The early Christian hermits used the word "quies" to refer to contemplative prayer, which means stillness, or peacefulness.

Contemplative prayer is finding that stillness, the essential inner emptiness, at the heart of our lives that allows us to view ourselves and the world with honesty, clarity, and deep affection. That emptiness ultimately unites us with everything, with the whole movement of life.

Personal History

My first experience with contemplative prayer was in college. I took part in a 6 week course in contemplative prayer that was taught by a seminarian from the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, MA. I had learned Transcendental Meditation just a few months earlier, and had felt something lacking in that practice. I found it dull and vacuous, so I was intrigued to learn about Christian contemplative practices.

My senior year I was given a copy of Henri Nouwen's book The Way of the Heart, which is based on Thomas Merton's translations of the teachings of the Third Century Desert Fathers and Mothers, and that book turned my life upside down. It seemed almost like a parallel universe that no one had ever told me about, a world of profound transformation founded on inner silence. I felt deeply drawn to understand that world, if at all possible.

In 1983 I heard Henri Nouwen speak. He had just returned from Nicaragua and he told of a profound spiritual experience. I felt that I too had to go to Nicaragua, which I did in 1986. I had my own life-altering experience there, which defied explanation. I became quite disoriented at that time; the familiar world now felt strange and foreign. I did not seem to belong anywhere. The language of meditation and contemplation came to my aid, giving me a way of talking about that experience. At the same time the experience made me realize that contemplation is not an isolated activity, but something that is relevant to every aspect of our life.

Following that experience, I became a monk. I spent about a year as a novice at Weston Priory, in Weston, Vermont, and although that did not ultimately turn out to be the right path for me, it was a rich experience that I continue to draw on.

Then in 1995 I met a whale for the first time, and that was also a life-changing experience. And although already I had discovered that contemplative prayer, followed to its conclusion, leads back out into our life here on Earth, in fellowship with all of Life, that meeting drove the point home in unexpected ways, and set me on the path of becoming a marine naturalist. It was my mother who made explicit the connection between the whales and the contemplative life.

Everything I had read and seen for myself indicated that at some point in the contemplative life, one has to strike out on one's own, and enter a trackless land, and trust that the way will become clear. I did that, and I would like to share with you today a little of what I have found over the course of 30 years as a contemplative person.

What is Contemplative Prayer?

Contemplative prayer is an act of deep listening. It is not merely quietude, not merely relaxation or rest, valuable as those are. You may have the impression that contemplative prayer involves creating a quiet or peaceful place, and then quieting the mind as well, through some practice or technique.

In my experience, contemplative prayer is not about creating or experiencing silence, whether internally or externally. At its heart, contemplative prayer is about living from silence. It is about being present to the whole movement of life from the core of your being.

Contemplative prayer is very simple but it is not something that the mind does. Nor is it something the mind can fully understand.

Because it is not a project of the mind, there are no instructions or rules or procedures. Each person must find their center in their own way. Because it is about finding the core of your being, it is highly individual. How one does this will vary from person to person. No one can tell you how to find the heart of your own being. And so we enter silence without a guide other than silence itself, without knowing what to do, and without knowing how to stop our compulsive doing.

Contemplative prayer is not very well known or understood. It bears some similarity to meditation, such as TM or Insight Meditation, or Centering Prayer, but there is a big difference as well.

Most meditation and also centering prayer, involves the repetition of a word or a sound, either out loud or silently, or it involves focusing on an object, like a mandala or a candle, or in Insight Meditation it usually involves focusing on the breath. Thoughts are set aside, and so are sensory perceptions, in favor of this point of focus.

Contemplative prayer is quite different, simpler, than meditation and also in a way more challenging. Talking about contemplation is difficult. Although it is simple, it touches upon and involves the whole of everything: our selves, our relationships, the Earth, the whole movement of life. Nothing is excluded from this simple little practice. Nothing is untouched by it.

The closest I get to providing an instruction for contemplative prayer is this:

Be still, possessing nothing, welcoming everything.

Welcome everything. Allow everything to be what it is. Let everything go. Be attentive to whatever is happening. Let it come, let it be, and let it go. What could be simpler?

Clearly, however, this is not an activity of the mind, which is caught up in resisting, judging and clinging. In fact from the conscious mind's perspective, THIS IS IMPOSSIBLE!

The mind wants to make it into a project: TRY to be still. TRY to accept. TRY not to cling. But that is the mind trying to take possession of something that simply does not fall in its domain. Contemplative prayer is the most natural thing possible, because it is not an attempt to achieve some special state of mind. It is simply a recognition of what is already happening. Not in the mind, but in the whole of your being. Which means something very important: you are not defined by your mind, by whatever your mind happens to be telling you.

Contemplation involves simply being here, being fully present. It is really that simple. It is an act of deep listening to the whole movement of life, no matter what form it is taking.

There is no purpose to sitting in a state of deep listening, no point in being present, other than listening itself, other than simply being present, being here. It is the simplest thing imaginable, but our minds have become so clever, and we are so enthralled with our own mind-created worlds, that we find it hard now to do this very simple thing: be present here, listen, look, feel, be aware, be alive, in this body, in this place, in this time, without prejudice, without projecting anything onto this moment.

The mind dismisses this simple stillness, because it does not give the mind anything to grab hold of. To the mind it is nothing. Boring. Ridiculous. Naïve. Foolish. No opinions? No judgments? No reactions? No complaints? No visions or miracles? What good is that?

This is what good it is. Have you ever been listened to completely? Have you ever been fully heard? Has anyone ever stopped everything, suspended all judgment, silenced all opinions and advice, and simply listened to you with full attention?

Then you know what a potent thing this deep listening is. That person knew this stillness in themselves and could offer it to you. When someone gives us the gift of their silence, their deep listening, we know it. We feel it. It is one of the greatest gifts we can give each other, our presence, our undistracted attention, our centered stillness.

Still, inevitably, we identify with the activity of the mind, and so if the mind is noisy with chatter, I feel that "I" am noisy with chatter and I think the chatter must somehow be stopped in order for "me" to find stillness. If the mind is judging someone or some situation, I feel that "I" am judging. If the mind is in conflict, I feel "I" am in conflict. If the mind is still, then I feel that "I" have found stillness.

Contemplative prayer breaks this exclusive identification with the contents of the mind, with thought.

Contemplative prayer means dwelling in and living from that attentive listening more and more and more, in every circumstance. Contemplative prayer is very simply paying deep attention to the whole movement of life, inner, outer and the dynamic boundary where the inner and outer meet and mix and create each other.

Although in its origins this practice of sacred listening was applied to the inner life, and still has a profound role to play there, in our current age it is just as important to bring this kind of deep listening to the natural world.

I have found that in essence there is no difference between the inner and the outer worlds. The distress we see in one is mirrored in the other. The beauty and wonder also. The sources of our being are to be found in both.

So I encourage taking time, every day if possible, to be alone, without books or music or any agenda at all, in the natural world. Just listen deeply to the wind, to the movement of the trees and plants, to the singing of the birds, to whatever is happening. Not to add to your bird life list or identify or categorize. Just listen and look and be present. There are riches beyond imagining to be found in this.

The plants and the animals, the land and the sea, are also part of the creative world. They have gifts for us we have lost and forgotten. They have ways of knowing and communicating that we lack. They are not layered over with civilized concepts. They embody unity and interdependence. We can learn from them. We can begin to glimpse their world - our world - if we simply pay attention to them without imposing our agenda on them. We have so much to learn about living in balance, from the trees, the grass, the birds, the other mammals, for me the whales and the seals have been my best teachers. Just by observing freely who and what they are in and for themselves.

We have spent many thousands of years imposing our will on the Earth. Even now, we are often more concerned with imposing our solutions than with listening to what the Earth has to tell us. How can we solve a problem if we do not truly understand its cause? And how can we know the cause if we do not listen and learn from what we see and hear? Deep listening, which is the heart of contemplative prayer, is a vital part of the re-engagement with the Earth that we so desperately need right now.

Be still, possessing nothing, welcoming everything.

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