I just had an email chat with a friend (Hi Tracy!!) about meditative and contemplative forms of prayer. I’m gonna bet these are probably the least attempted form of prayer out there. Pretty sure that when people think of prayer they think of reciting liturgy or the Lord’s Prayer, saying grace at the table, children’s bedtime prayers, or praying for others. Then there is the old “Help me!” in times of crises prayers…we all know that one!
Eastern religions tend to have the corner on meditative and contemplative prayer in American society…this is changing, but has been the norm since the 1960’s. Less well known, but on the rise, is the awareness that Christianity has always carried these forms of prayer. In the Old Testament (pre-Christ) there are numerous references to meditating on God’s Word, on God’s Law, on God’s Love, God’s Works, God’s Wonders, etc. All the way back to Isaac (Genesis 24) we see God’s people meditating on Him. What is this kind of meditation? Well, the way I read it, it is turning one’s mind to seriously ponder, behold, and\or focus on an attribute, word or deed of God’s. God gets prime time brain time, gotta love it!
In the early centuries of the church, we see recorded other kinds of meditative prayer and the mention of contemplative prayer (although, I’ll bet contemplative prayer had been around for some time). The early harbingers of these prayer forms were the desert fathers and mothers (God seeking hermits in the desert, basically) and, a wee bit later, the monastics (monks and nuns). Since they devoted all their energy and whole life to prayer, they were the early pioneers into the deep places, interior places we encounter God.
Meditative prayer forms, although including pondering\beholding God’s Law, Word, Love, etc, also include the kind of prayer where one enters into one’s imagination and meets God there, say through day dreams or through imaginatively entering a Bible story that involves encountering God. Other forms out there are Lectio Divina (specific form of Scripture reading which helps one listen for God’s message to the reader), Examen of Consciousness (prayerfully reflecting on one’s day and seeing where God is and isn’t in it), repeating words or phrases (i.e. saying the rosary), repetitive worship songs (yep, those contemporary Christian songs that sing the chorus over and over and over again sometimes fit here), walking a Labyrinth, going on Pilgrimage, meditative forms of worship like Taize, etc. etc. If you don’t think Christianity does meditative prayer, you’re way off!
Contemplative prayer (a.k.a. centering prayer), which is sometimes called meditative prayer but isn’t, is a wee bit different. Unlike meditation, which requires imagination/brain activity, contemplative prayer has more to do with an exertion of will in lifting ourselves into His presence, in focusing on Him alone. We don’t speak and a quieting of the mind (or at least not giving passing thoughts our attention) is central to contemplative prayer. In Eastern religions the kind of stance one aims for is being empty inside, which, in my view, requires a lot of self focus. In Christianity, the focus isn’t on one’s self, but on the One we wait for and the One who is already with us (yes, it is a both/and here). We are surrendered, open and receptive, resting in His presence and waiting, waiting for a much anticipated guest’s arrival. All of the great saints/pray-ers of the church say that true contemplation (spiritually contemplating Him as He is, not as we imagine Him: visions and ecstasy can ensue) is a gift and cannot be earned, we can only be open to receiving it…that is the best and the most we can do. The rest is God’s choice. Encountering God in this way rarely happens and many pray-ers die without it ever happening. That is ok, the heart behind contemplative prayer is what He sees :-)
Contemplative prayer aids include things that help us quiet our minds and focus on Him. Some meditative prayer forms can be those aids (i.e. repeating a sacred word over and over). Others include lighting a candle and focusing on it; being in a silent, distraction free environment (visiting a chapel); creating a small altar in one\’s home or yard/garden (i.e. icon or cross with candle in the corner) and making that a space apart for God.
I don\’t have any website addresses up my sleeve to post here, but much is published online and in other forms. I encourage you to search your tradition\denomination first, they probably have resources available. Catholicism has a rich tradition of these prayer forms, so you can always go there. I personally resonate with St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross, they’re a bit “out there”, but then I love wild, totally sold out lovers of God :-)