We often talk about “contemplative prayer.” How is that done? Let me try to teach in five minutes what you can learn in five years.
To begin, we often start by becoming still and aware with what we call “breath prayer.” Seekers practice breath prayer as a basic skill for being quiet enough to pray. If you consciously keep filling your lungs with air and deliberately release it slowly, you will become calm. If you imagine that you are breathing in something worth receiving and breathing out something that needs releasing, that adds to the prayer. Breath prayer is a basis for what Martin Laird calls the three doorways of contemplative prayer in his book Into the Silent Lands.
You can focus your practice of contemplative prayer on an old idea for centering it: a prayer word or phrase. Many people use what is called the “Jesus prayer” as their phrase. One variation of this prayer is: Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me. I use this prayer almost every day in my practice. It doesn’t matter what word you choose. You could use, “I wait on you in silence,” or, “I no longer live but Christ lives in me.” The content of the prayer is nice, but the goal is to use the good phrase you choose as a touch stone for becoming still and aware in the silence. The goal is to let go of all other concerns and recollect yourself. When you become aware that your attention has been stolen, gently return your attention to the prayer word or phrase so you can stay in the moment with God.
Practice that for a moment using a phrase that is great for Holy Week: “I no longer live but Christ lives in me.”
As you practiced, you may or may not have felt something. Sometimes awareness can feel like a bodily sensation — a tingle or a warmth, or a soul sensation of peace. Hopefully you felt rest and a sense that there was something beyond your normal awareness. Prayer is not always sensate, but it makes an impact in places we experience later. We can see the results of contemplative prayer in ongoing awareness of God’s presence throughout our day, in a lessening of anxiety over time and in a peace that pervades territories where it was not evident before. When we open our hearts and minds to God’s presence we gain insight and feel favor by forming a personal relationship with God. In the process of deepening our relationship with God, coming with a lack of expectation usually leads to better feelings than searching for what we want or for what we think we ought to be experiencing.
1) The first doorway to enter in contemplative prayer begins when you choose a prayer word and stick with it until you don’t need it anymore.
This practice helps us deal with the fidgety and flighty aspects of our being.
The prayer word or phrase is like a vaccination. A small dose of the disease: words, is introduced to the body to call forth the antibodies that will ward off the full disease: the preoccupation with our inner dialogue and invasion by our huge collection of data. Our overactive minds are like a disease infecting the silence where we meet with God Spirit to spirit. A good mind is great for teaching a class, but it obscures the deeper ground of being and leaves us with the sense that we are separate from God and others. We end up getting our sense of self from pasted-together bits and pieces of mental process rather than from relating to God. The vaccine of the prayer word detaches us from our inner chaos and helps us let go of our clever minds. But we’ve got to practice before this way of prayer is effective. It is like learning to play the piano or developing some other skill.
Jesus son of God have mercy on me is the phrase to which I return when I notice thoughts are invading my stillness and distracting my attention from yearning for God’s presence.
2) The second doorway is becoming one with the prayer word.
When you get started with this kind of prayer it can be like hitting a brick wall. Repeating your prayer word or phrase can take quite a bit of mental effort. The more we practice, the more our contemplation becomes simple awareness instead of activity. We start to feel the benefits of calmness. We start learning not to control everything, but to go with God. Life and wisdom are not found in trying to control the wind, but in hoisting our sails to move with the Spirit in the present moment. This praying is hoisting sails.
The second doorway is deeper. The first doorway was like a refuge for our weary, anxious souls. The second is a matter of having our sights lifted to what comes after we are not so fidgety. We begin to see the things about ourselves that were previously out of our perception. Our therapist often does beginning soul work like this too. There is kind of an unloading of the unconscious. You can see how rich a place this might be, noticing and letting go of the usual inner videos and audios that dominate our internal landscape. Eventually they lose their power to control us. When some people get to this place, maybe they stop using a prayer word altogether. They can just sink into awareness without using it so much.
3) The third doorway is being present in awareness itself
This sounds kind of spacey, and it is. We have gotten though the doorway into stillness. And we have entered into deeper awareness of things in us that we have let go into God’s hands. Now we are invited into a shift from recognizing thoughts to recognizing how we recognize. We are simply aware. Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waters (Ps 42). We become aware of the deafening silence of earth and the new sound beyond sounds of knowing God. We hear what Elijah named “the still small voice.” In this home we can also experience the I am of being ourselves. We enjoy the self-forgetful communion with God for which we are created, and it transforms us and enlivens us.
I feel more at peace just talking about this practice which is so dear to me! I have been delighted to see its results in so many other people. They no longer live in their old, dominated selves, but Christ lives in them and they live in Christ.
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2 thoughts on “The three doorways of contemplative prayer”
I’m indebted to Martin Laird’s text. Easy-to-read, hard-to-master. Thanks for distilling it further.