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What is Contemplative Prayer?

What is contemplative prayer and how do you do it? It might feel awkward at first, but these are the key elements to this type of prayer.

You might have heard people talking about contemplative prayer, or Christian contemplation — is that the same as meditation? If it’s not, what’s the difference?

I thought I knew what all these terms meant — then I did a Google search. That always helps, right? After reading several articles, I was very confused. They seemed to be talking about different things. So I went back to the basics.

As a form of prayer, meditation actively engages the mind in reflection with the purpose of gaining a deeper insight into an aspect of the spiritual life in order to grow closer to God. We might meditate on our day, a particular aspect of our faith, a story from the life of Christ, a significant event — but always in light of our Christian faith. This form of prayer requires focus and attention while our minds are busy analyzing, asking questions, pondering, or listening.

Contemplative prayer can often follow a period of meditation. But unlike meditation, the mind is at a resting place — resting in the presence of God — and this resting allows us to soak in God’s love.

An analogy might help clarify what contemplative prayer is about. Think of someone whom you love and who loves you unconditionally. Now imagine that you meet up with this person to spend time together, face to face.

You might spend some time just catching up, sharing what’s been going on in your life. As you continue sharing, you might start sharing with a little more depth, maybe unburdening yourself of what’s troubling you, sharing your hopes and aspirations — you might cry together, laugh together. This person might just listen, might offer words of encouragement, insights or guidance.

Eventually, though, you’ll reach the point when you’re done talking and you might sit together in silence. Maybe they’ll give you a hug and just hold you. That moment when you sit in silence with your loved one, simply resting in their presence, maybe being held by that person — switch that person for God and that moment is contemplation.

It’s actually a pretty simple form of prayer, but its simplicity is complicated by the fact that practicing it requires us to develop qualities and skills that our culture doesn’t really foster. Our culture values instant gratification and productivity — contemplation requires just the opposite. That makes it a radical thing to do, but it might just be the remedy we need.

Here are some obstacles anyone might encounter as they set out to deepen their prayer life with contemplation.

Our relationship with God

In the analogy above, when you’re with someone you love and care about, a hug or mutual embrace is a welcome gesture — you might even begin your time together that way. But that embrace presumes you have built a relationship of trust and love prior to that moment. We may hug strangers, after all, but it’s certainly not the same experience as hugging a parent.

So it is with God. You may jump right into contemplative prayer, but the strength and depth of your relationship with God will certainly impact your experience of this form of prayer. This doesn’t mean that you can’t try contemplative prayer if you don’t know God very well, but being honest with yourself about the state of your spiritual life can help you have more realistic expectations of how it will unfold.

If God is a “fair-weather friend” in your book, you can expect a little awkwardness in contemplative prayer. Given that God is the essence of goodness and love, however, you can be certain that God will be trying to help you persevere and give this relationship a chance to blossom.

Silence

A foundational element for contemplative prayer is the capacity for interior silence. In the analogy of that moment of sitting in silence with our loved one, the length of time of that moment will depend on how long we can stand the silence and stillness. Just sitting there not saying anything can be awkward, and not much time has to go by before we start itching to get up or say something because we are not used to just sitting there in silence.

And why is stillness necessary in the first place? You know those people who don’t stop talking and then get mad at you because you never say anything and you just want to scream at them that you would say something if they would just shut up on occasion? That annoying person would be us when we pray and don’t include silence in our prayer. It is only when we are silent that God can reach over and take our hand, so to speak, or gently comfort us and give us peace.

The capacity for the interior silence needed for contemplative prayer is definitely a skill. The good news is that there are techniques and ways to develop this skill, and it is a skill that will not only benefit us in prayer, but also in our daily lives, because it will help us be more attentive to those around us.

Presence

Another foundational element for contemplative prayer is presence — the capacity to be truly present to this moment in time. Going back to the analogy of a face-to-face encounter with a loved one: it’s that experience of being so caught up in a moment with them that when you’re getting ready to leave you’re shocked to see how much time has gone by.

Contemplative prayer requires that we direct the same focus and attention to the presence of God as we would in an intimate meeting with a loved one. There may be noises around us, thoughts seeking to be followed, but we must learn the art of being present to the moment — to the here and now — in order to remain in God’s presence.

Patience and perseverance

Patience and perseverance go hand-in-hand in developing a habit of contemplative prayer because it is a form of prayer that requires multiple attempts before getting the hang of it. There will be times when you feel you “didn’t do it right,” and other times when it seems you don’t know what you’re doing, and maybe times when you share your frustration with someone who looks at you like you must be really dumb not to get the simplicity of the prayer.

Persevering through all this apparent failure requires patience with yourself and with God — patience and trust that the awkwardness and frustration will pass.

And then, just as we start to feel that maybe we’re getting it, you might also find yourself wondering, “What’s the point?” because nothing seems to be happening – you haven’t had an out-of-body experience, no moment of ecstasy, not even an overwhelmingly wonderful sense of the presence of God. What gives?

Our culture has trained us well to look for outcomes — and not just outcomes, but immediate outcomes. The outcome or fruits of contemplative prayer will not be immediate, though. Rather, they unfold in tiny increments, at first. But if we are patient and persevere, we will begin to recognize the fruits of contemplative prayer in ourselves.

So why do it? Why work at all these things just to be able to do contemplative prayer?

We all long to be loved, accepted, understood. Contemplative prayer allows us to come to know and experience God’s unconditional love and be transformed by it, and then, in turn, grow in our love of God. And if we grow in our love of God, we grow in our love for all that God loves — we tap into the transformative force that powers all of creation.

Grotto quote graphic about what is contemplative prayer: "contemplative prayer requires that we direct the same focus and attention to the presence of God as we would in an intimate meeting with a loved one."

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