“Walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7). We often think of this as waiting for God to do something in the future that we would not normally expect — “I am moving ahead, hoping for the best. I am walking by faith, not by sight.” That is good.
When we practice the prayer of contemplation, “Walk by faith, not by sight” is something more immediate. It is about becoming aware of the unknown things God is doing in the present moment. Prayer amounts to faithing, walking into what’s happening with faith as a sense guiding us,not just seeing and reacting with our physical senses. God is with us, right now; prayer helps us be with God right now.
When I say “contemplative prayer” you might think of mindfulness techniques that people are teaching to jr. highers to help them settle down. That’s a beginning, but that is not the prayer of contemplation. The prayer of contemplation includes the techniques for reducing anxiety, but it is more. Contemplative prayer, and any spiritual discipline, disposes us to allow something to take place. We are not doing something to get a result; we are not making something happen, necessarily. We are doing something to allow communion with God to be our condition.
It is like this: A gardener does not actually grow plants. She practices skills that facilitate growth that is beyond her control. Prayer is like that. A sailor does not produce the necessary wind to move the boat. He harnesses the gift of wind by exercising skills that can get him home. Prayer is like that.
Basic contemplative prayer
The basic skill of contemplative prayer that facilitates and harnesses is inner silence. There are two practices within this skill set that are very important: stillness and awareness. When we attempt to be silent, we need to consider how to face the inner noise with which we struggle. We do many noisy things when we pray, too; we are embodied spirits, after all. But at the center of us is the silent place where God is simply giving himself to us and we are communing spirit to Spirit. We long to carry this silence with us in the midst of the noisy world and be content that we are in Christ and Christ is in us. We want to be at home. One of the early teachers of the church said in this center we are constantly being called home, away from the noise that is around us to the joys that are silent. He said, “Why do we rush about looking for God who is here at home with us, if all we want is to be with him?”
Martin Laird, a teacher from Villanova who wrote a book called Into the Silent Lands, tells a story about a prisoner who was accustomed to cutting himself or burning himself so that his inner pain would be in a different place — on the outside of him. This suffering man came upon some people whose mission was to teach prisoners to pray and turn their prison cells into monastic cells. The prisoner learned from them and after several weeks of meditating twice a day he said, “I just want you to know that after only four weeks of meditating half an hour in the morning and night, the pain is not so bad, and for the first time in my life, I can see a tiny spark of something within myself I can like.” That is the home we are talking about.
Our sense of separation from God is often a matter of our broken perception. We can’t feel God. We have an idea of what we should feel and we don’t feel that. Contemplative prayer is the place we let go our perceptions and become aware of God with us, as the scripture guides us:
- My soul, wait in silence for God only, for my hope is from Him (Psalm 62:5).
- I am in my Father and you are in me and I in you (Jesus in John 14:20).
- I have been crucified with Christ and yet I am alive; yet it is no longer I, but Christ living in me (Galatians 3:20).
From the perspective of the created order we are separate from God. But from the perspective of being aware, we see Christ when we look inside. When we pray, we are not merely becoming aware of our thoughts and feelings (although that is good!), we are learning to be aware of God and to be with God who is with us.
Retraining the heart
It is like this: A man was taking his dog to a field where the animal could run and he ran into another man walking four dogs. They got to the open field and let their dogs go so they could enjoy running around in a big free space. But one of the new friend’s dogs was off to the side running is relatively tight circles and did not join in with the other dogs. The man asked his new friend, “What’s with your dog?” He gave him an explanation. “Before I got this dog, he had spent years living in a cage. He was used to getting all his exercise, just as you see. He has the field, but he is trained for the cage.” I did not see this dog do this personally, so I can’t prove to you that dogs do this, but I do know myself and I have seen many of you who are reading this. We have the wide open field of grace and freedom to romp in but we run in the contours of our former cage. The prayer of contemplation is retraining our hearts to roam the wide open spaces of eternity freely.
- My heart is like a bird that has escaped from the snare of the fowler (Psalm 123:7).
Our minds tend to run in the obsessive tight circles of our mental cage. We believe we are separate from God, and we were. So now we need to learn something else. I heard something shocking from a friend not long ago. When he was a child his father sang a little ditty that he thought was funny: “Charlie Wilkins is no good. Let’s chop him up like so much wood.” I know this little boy as an old man and you can still see that putrid song playing in his head. Just like that, we may believe we are condemned by God. So now we need to learn freedom. Prayer is the training ground.
When we think about things, we have a cage of thoughts that guide us. Contemplative prayer helps us go beyond them and enter into the silence where we don’t merely think about things, we commune with God. We concentrate attention in our heart to the place of knowing, the place of awareness that is not full of the cacophony of our mind and surroundings but is full of God. It seems like we are just sitting there doing nothing, when we pray and that is exactly right and exactly good. In that nothing of ourselves and our surroundings we enter the silent land of our true being with God.
Next time I will tell you more about how this is done. But, like I said, we don’t need to perfect techniques to pray as much as we need to access the skills that are built in to our beings by our loving Father. Be silent and turn your heart to God whether you think you know what you are doing or not. Take a step of walking by faith, not by sight. You’ll have a good time with God.
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