Contemplation is an ancient Christian and Jewish way of praying without words. The similar Buddhist practice is called meditation.
Many of us are regular church goers. Some churches are rich in liturgy. Some churches focus on powerful expressions and feelings of the movement of the spirit. But many of us are weaker at personal prayer and the sweet, rich personal experience of the presence and action of God in our daily life. This is what I am hearing in many prayer groups in Washington, DC and to some extent, what I hear in Skaneateles. The personal experience of the presence of God is not as strong as we would like. Now this is not true for everybody. I know that reading this right now are mighty prayers who move mountains, and are themselves moved through their prayers. They not only talk to God, they listen and hear God.
So, this moment in the short time we have, all I can do is introduce the concept of Contemplative Prayer. But before I could even mention this kind of prayer, we have to understand that all prayer is a daily, personal turning to God - even and especially, when things are going okay. All of us are mighty prayers at the end of our ropes. It's the daily regularity of prayer - outside the church walls - many of us are missing. If nothing else this morning, remember the importance of daily praying. Now, let's talk about the old tradition of Contemplative Prayer.
Contemplative prayer is listening to God.
The praying we do most often, the kind we do weekly and sometimes during the day, is discursive prayer. Discursive prayer is prayer using thoughts, words or intentions. It is prayer where we use our minds and our reason - and perhaps our voices in speaking or singing. This is good prayer. This is necessary prayer. But let me introduce to you another kind of prayer, beyond thoughts, words or images. Contemplative prayer is listening to God. We sit and listen to God who speaks in his first language, silence. During the first 1600 years of the Christian Church's existence, contemplative prayer was practiced by the people as well as by monks and priests. In 1586, late in the inquisition, the Jesuits in Spain ordered this type of prayer stopped. It wasn't until the mid-20th century that a popular renewal began. Thomas Merton, the author of Seven Story Mountain, was seminal in starting a broad revival of this practice outside the monastery walls. Thomas Keating, John Mains, Basil Pennington and William Meninger are now the foremost authors and movers behind this renewal.
In the past 30 years there has been an increasing grass roots renewal of this practice within the Christian community. It started with the Catholics, but has spread to the Episcopal Church, and is being embraced by Protestant churches as well. Today it is called Centering Prayer. There is a movement around the country within congregations and parishes to reintroduce the practice of contemplative or centering prayer, and to continue it as part of daily prayer.
There are four types of prayer, the first three of which we do today. The first is reading of scripture. This is a form of prayer. It can be done aloud or silently. The second form of prayer is meditating, or thinking about the scripture and how it applies to our lives. In our weekly service, this is essentially what the sermon is, the minister reflecting on the application of the scripture to our lives. The third form of prayer is speaking to God, or sharing what the spirit is saying to us with others. We do this in our church worship through praying as a congregation. It also happens during bible study when people share what the scripture is saying to them personally. The fourth form of prayer is contemplation, or listening with our minds emptied of all thoughts, words and feelings.
Contemplative Prayer is Resting in God.
Contemplative Prayer is a consent to God's presence and action within. First, choose a word. The word will serve as a symbol of your intention to consent to God's presence and action within. Examples might be Jesus, Father, love, rest, peace, Calm, Shalom, Amen. Once you choose a word, keep it for the prayer period. You can choose another if you like for another prayer period. The word is not a mantra to be contimuously repeated. All the word is for is to help let go of the thoughts and words that drift into our minds as we sit in silence.
Then, sitting comfortably, as you are now, settle briefly, with your eyes closed, and introduce the word as a symbol of your intention to consent to God's presence and action within. Introduce the word as gently as a feather falling on a pillow. When you become aware of thoughts, return ever so gently to the word. What are thoughts? Thoughts is an umbrella term for every perception, including sense perceptions, feelings, images, memories, reflections and commentaries. Thoughts are normal. Re-introducing our word when we become aware of thoughts is like saying "Yes" to God. Returning to the word, is the only activity we initiate during this prayer. There is no other activity.
At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a minute. You might say the "Our Father" very softly and slowly. This will give you time to readjust.
That's really all we have time to do today, just to introduce you to the concept of contemplative prayer. What's even more important, for those who don't have the habit of regular daily prayer in the form of reading scripture, perhaps a psalm or a portion of a gospel or a few verses from the letters, you are missing a good thing. There's too much personal experience of prayer to be missed in this life. And from what I understand it carries over.