The Pathway to More of Him
Contemplative prayer is about intimacy with God. Although in practice it goes far beyond methodologies, at heart it is really quite basic. Contemplative prayer, or what we call soaking in the River of God’s presence, is about our setting apart regular time exclusively for intimate encounter with the Lord.
Christian contemplative prayer is a biblical concept.
Unfortunately many Christians today, although desperately hungry for intimacy with God, get nervous at the mention of words like contemplation, meditation, and quietness, not to mention the ugly word discipline because of their modern association with New Age and occult practice. So it is important that we clearly distinguish between biblical contemplative prayer and its pagan counterfeits.
So how do we discern that? To start with, Christian contemplative prayer is nothing like any New Age technique so don’t allow the term, “contemplative prayer,” to throw you. Christian contemplative prayer is a biblical concept which implies “being still and knowing that He is God,”(Psalm 46:10), meditating or reflecting on the Lord so that praying doesn’t become self-centered or man-centered but focused on Jesus. It is a journey down a road less traveled strewn with the bodies of martyrs and other saints who were excommunicated or subjected to other forms of church “discipline” simply because they sought deep personal communion with God. It is a path filled with people whose hearts have been captured by the Lord Jesus Christ who have given themselves to becoming very heavenly minded in order that they might become of great earthly good.
WHAT IS CONTEMPLATIVE PRAYER
So then what is contemplative prayer? It’s very hard to adequately describe it in words because it is experiential. Any of you who have ever had a deeply moving emotional or spiritual experience know how difficult it is to explain it to someone else. One of the reasons the experiences of contemplatives have been misunderstood is that they are indescribable. It is one thing to experience the grace of God’s intimate nearness; it is another to be able to communicate it. Sometimes someone who truly has a contemplative experience with God expresses it in a way that upsets the more conservative culture of the church and society. Such a person is often labeled a heretic when in reality he or she is simply expressing himself clumsily.
It is communion with God that increases our awareness of His presence.
The language of the Christian contemplatives is not doctrinal or theological language. It is the language of the bedchamber, of intimacy, of love; hence, hyperbole and exaggeration abound. As our contemplative inner experience with God deepens, it may become increasingly difficult to speak about. It may be so precious and so sublime that it becomes as holy to us as it is to God. It is the language of the heart, too deep for words. In the end, we are reduced to the simple confession of Walter Hilton: Contemplation is “love on fire with devotion.”
Contemplative prayer immerses us into the silence of God and helps us let go of control of our own life that leans on the props of this world for fulfillment. It is communion with God that increases our awareness of His presence. As we become more aware of His presence we are more willing to submit to the Holy Spirit’s cleansing work of purification bringing us to a place of surrender.
Contemplative prayer is an exercise of resting in God, which fosters the realization that God lives in you. It is not a suspension of all activity, but saying yes to God’s presence. It produces in you all the fruit of the Holy Spirit. As He immerses you in His healing love, it helps you to love God for His own sake and then carry the love you experience in prayer into every area of your life.
The spiritual consolation you will receive from direct contact with the Holy Spirit during times of contemplative or soaking prayer can be so satisfying that it can lead to spiritual gluttony where you seek only the pleasure of the experience rather than God Himself. Understand that the Lord will lead you into a balance between the inner life and the outward, active life of servanthood. Contemplative prayer creates intimacy with God that will automatically fuel your service to others leading them to long to know Him, too.
THE ROAD TO CONTEMPLATIVE PRAYER
While there are no hard and fast rules, generally speaking there are three progressive steps or phases that you will pass through on your way to the region of contemplative prayer. Many of the contemplative writers in Church history have identified these progressive steps as recollection, the prayer of quiet and spiritual ecstasy.
The first phase, recollection, means allowing the Holy Spirit to bring cleansing and healing into your soul. It means learning to let go of all competing distractions and focus neither on the past including your guilt or woundedness nor on the future including guidance, words and unfulfilled promises, but on God in the “here and now.” Recollection means learning to follow Simon Peter’s injunction to cast all our anxiety on Him because He cares for us. (I Peter 5:7) As you begin to rest in the Lord, ask the Holy Spirit to make Jesus real to you. Close everything off; and because He really is present, it is OK to picture Him there with you. God created the human imagination, and utilizing it in contemplation is not only appropriate, but also the best use we can make of it. This is not the same as New Age imaging but simply practicing the presence of God. If frustration and distractions attempt to press in, we should not follow them. Instead, we should lift them up to the Father, let Him care for them, and allow His “Peace, be still” to silence our noisy hearts. This does not come easily or quickly, but simply recognizing this fact is a step in the right direction. Another positive stride forward occurs when we recognize our inability to conquer these distractions in our own strength. That creates in us a necessary sense of dependence on God.
Step two is called the prayer of quiet. Richard Foster, in his book, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, Harper San Francisco 1992, gives a beautiful description of phase two, the prayer of quiet.
“As we grow accustomed to the unifying grace of recollection, we are ushered into a second step in Contemplative Prayer, what Teresa of Avila calls, “The prayer of quiet.” We have through recollection put away all obstacles of the heart, all distractions of the mind, all vacillations of the will. Divine graces of love and adoration wash over us like ocean waves. ...At the center of our being we are hushed. ...There is stillness to be sure, but it is a listening stillness. Something deep inside us has been awakened and brought to attention. Our spirit is on tiptoe-alert and listening. There is an inward steady gaze of the heart sometimes called beholding the Lord. We bask in the warmth of His presence... As we wait before the Lord, He graciously gives us a teachable spirit.”
THE FINAL STAGE
The final step in contemplative prayer is spiritual ecstasy. The word “ecstasy” is derived from the Greek word ekstasis, which is often translated in the New Testament as “trance.” Spiritual ecstasy is an activity initiated by the Holy Spirit where one is “caught up” into a realm of the Spirit so as to receive visions and revelations God wants you to receive. It is not an activity that you undertake, but a work that God does upon you. Ecstasy is contemplative prayer taken to the “nth” degree. This step is quite rare. Even the recognized authorities in the contemplative life found it to be a fleeting experience rather than a staple diet.
"I was so filled with joy, peace and sweetness, that I cannot express it."
So what is spiritual ecstasy like? Richard Foster quoted Theodore Brackel, a Dutch Pietist in the 17th century who recorded as best he could his own experience. “I was...transported into such a state of joy and my thoughts were so drawn upward that, seeing God with the eyes of my soul, I felt...God’s being and at the same time I was so filled with joy, peace and sweetness, that I cannot express it. With my spirit I was entirely in heaven for two or three days.”
In contemplative prayer, the goal should never be to “achieve” spiritual ecstasy, or even to seek any particular kind of experience or spiritual “manifestation.” The sole purpose is simply to be with God in that central place of quiet in your spirit, where He remains your all in all. It is the place where you live to worship and adore Him, waiting patiently and humbly for His voice, and basking in the warm glow of His eternal love.
Take Jesus’ arm and let Him be your escort as He walks you down this ancient, less-traveled pathway. Your journey began when you started soaking in the River. Press in for more.