The Controversial Discipline of Contemplative Prayer

The Penitent Magdalene

Contemplative prayer is a subject that I have put much study into, yet I must confess my note taking on the subject has not kept pace with my practical development of. I have tried both the eastern school, hesychasm/ the Jesus Prayer and related modes the use to attain theosis, and I have tried the Western schools typified by Teresa of Avila and others like Alphonsus Maria de’ Liguori. Most tragically, I have forgotten both the author and book I found most useful in the study, otherwise I would surely share it. All I can remember is the author was anglo-Catholic from the 1980’s.

*Note: I didn’t realize this was becoming popular again, and the ways it are I don’t think are particularly in-line with anything to do with the tradition. So I’ve BOLDED some extra warnings in. The pitfall of the new methods is they take silence in and of itself as spiritual. We are hoping instead to listen… and to God in particular. The listening to God is the spiritual part… none of the rest. 

Honestly, shoveling horse manure as God’s will is far more spiritual than 100% of the spiritual things people will try to pass onto you.

Many dislike the practice from fair critiques or bias

In large part, the prayer of contemplation as the practice is also known is frowned upon in Protestant circles. In some ways this is a fair assessment; I others it is a tad biased. For example, the use of the Jesuit lectio divina has become quite popular in the environs of Fuller and many hardly wink at it. How so many then judge the use of the other paths outright is to me close minded.

In fact, what is objectionable to the historical Roman use of contemplation is actually the same aspect of the lectio that should be laid aside. That is why I can state there are teachings on the subject it is fair to reject. In both cases, the stray path is down the road of the use of images, icons, etc. that are found in their church traditions. And it is inseparable from the practices as found, for Loyola, de’Liguri, and Teresa all show indications of image teaching. The idea of contemplation in the original discipline is “imagination.”

It begs Us ask if it’s experience of God or imagination of God driving the bus.

The secondary objections I give less weight, as the critics of quietism, etc. have a hard case to make. It is true that there are psychosomatic pitfalls, the practice can breed elitism, and there are questions regarding which spirit a person of questionable Christian beliefs will uncover under the veil of darkness. Yet, I feel those that are at risk of such things are at risk of such things without engaging in the practice of contemplation, as wrong belief and vanity can infect and corrupt even regular prayer and worship practices.

My own experience is contemplation merely speeds them out; I have not found it to induce them if the trap of images is avoided. The enemy is not powerful enough, nor the Holy Spirit so inattentive to our seeking that he finds a special entry by the practice. And as I practice and teach contemplation he is actually bared against and driven out.

Here’s another good critique of the practice.  I really don’t like that this is becoming mainstream…

Image teaching

Saint Ignatius of Loyola's Vision of Christ and God the Father at La Storta
Saint Ignatius of Loyola’s Vision of Christ and God the Father at La Storta, c. 1692. Image courtesy of LACMA

Image teaching (which has other names) is a primary problem with all Catholic devotional methods, and most Orthodox, that protestants will encounter. By it’s nature, it has a stealth that renders it particularly insidious.

It occurs quickly and the human spirit enjoys it.

Any time a piece of art, a mental image, or even a “neutral” symbol such as a cross is fastened onto with the mind, image teaching is occurring.

The risk of Contemplative Prayer is that many such things are cultural, interpretive, and our nature is such that we take them as authoritative.

So while Loyola feels that contemplating a particularly sad image of Jesus crucified is healthy, I feel it is not, in as much as the Gospel in the heart quickly steps aside. Even in regular speech or preaching people attribute feelings and thoughts to biblical characters that are not contained in the Scriptural witness.  When they are added to a prayer life they become a mode by which we put thoughts into the very mind of Christ, lose what the Holy Spirit intended to communicate, and baptize our own cultural ideals.

A famous pastor once said, “What Jesus meant to say was…”

Idolatry is ever a threat in Contemplative Prayer

This can be said in a different way.

Magdalena Contemplating, Courtesy LACMA. Image link to source.

One must guard then against even cute sayings like “What would Jesus Do?” for these can lead us to determine Jesus “reasonable” course of action and thereby attribute divinity to our own opinions. We are a people of “What did Jesus actually do?” Such challenges us and reveals God’s nature to us.

In contemplation the stated purpose is to get to the point we are open to God’s communication; if we box him in and start dictating that communication, or more likely approach looking to find our own ideas confirmed, we find we are only going to come into contact with our own human ideas about God.

In effect, we create an idol and the true God who is beyond comprehension remains a distant target. What is worse, if we in that state think we are successful in our contemplative efforts, the net effect is that our idol bars us in other fields from relationship to the true God.

The contemplative life is tasked with a vigilance.

Scripture needs to guide the process and it alone.

But that double edge sword is an effective weapon we can trust; as Prof. Goldengay states, “It frees us not only to believe, but from what we already believe.”

Prayer of Contemplation done right is actually more effective in that second mode, so we cannot set before it images, ideals, etc. that prevent the witness from having its impact.

The cloud of unknowing and the un-piercible darkness

This threat has in someways always been acknowledged in the mystic traditions, albeit indirectly and often times with the net negative that a secondary threat is placed up.

Christian mysticism in general has somewhat earned its negative reputation because it many-times seeks to go to far in describing the hidden nature of the divine mystery. Eckhart placed his trust in his own thoughts,while others in the emotions and feelings they find in quite times. These are simply the secondary images.

A good example of going afoul in the practice is to seek to enter the cloud of unknowing. God is indeed known to his people, as shown in the flesh of Christ. But it can take other forms of mental euphoria, etc.

It is better to seek the limits of the darkness (though some find light), that place where our imaginations cannot go. For empty of all idols we come to a place were God is more free to communicate himself and his will. Still, do not think he is without the communicative properties without our seeking. He gives freely and speaks to us without our seeking.

In fact, as seeking, contemplation, and prayer rest solely on his grace drawing us inward. Without such it is empty indeed. Yet, as it is based on the same grace given us daily, I feel over suspicion of mysticism may be wrong headed.

It is my instead feeling the wiser of the mystics indeed left us this kind of road-map, one to a point of careful attention; it is conscious and purposeful. The method below I designed along this path.

Contemplation- the actual practice

The first step is to find a good chunk of time. For initial sessions and tentative attempts at Contemplative Prayer I suggest you keep a timer set at about 15 minutes.

At this point, we are trying nothing spiritual beyond acknowledging that our bodies. Part of God’s good creation cannot and will not ever be separated from a “soul.” For even in glorification, the saints are embodied and resurrected.

Gnostics here think they are laying aside; a better view is that we are bringing the body inline.

Find a comfortable position, one you can maintain for the duration. As the “soul/body” connection (I must confess I have no dual or tripart view of humanity) is so strong that there is no “spiritual” movement without its agreement to the mind.

I suggest something upright, like a comfy chair.

Spiritual preparation as an “embodied being”

The second step is to prepare yourself, as a human, to encounter the God who came as flesh. So it is indeed very “body-centric”

Close your eyes and allow yourself to feel all that is going on in the temple of the Lord.

A good order is to take some time to feel your eyelids, and move your attention from the top of your body to the bottom.

Feel for tension in your jaw, neck, shoulders, hands

Note it; the purpose of all of this is not to correct it per say.

It is primarily to take stock of what your body can tell you about your emotions etc. Our God is praised by the physical being of humanity. Running, laughing, and playing are all to his glory. So we get in touch at this juncture with his greatest gift. Listen to the embodied aspects of spirituality at this juncture.

We must never seek to sever that. Embrace it.

For the novice, this alone is a fascinating experience.

I suggest you do not seek to go farther. It’s a waste of time. Just learn the aspects of being human you’ve never truly noticed.

In fact, as in latter steps there can be psychosomatic side effects I’d suggest you learn to induce such so as to avoid pitfalls latter.

Imagine perhaps you are holding a ball, eventually you can focus really hard and “feel it.” Buddhist mediators in fact celebrate such as chi focus but its just the level of connection your brain has over your nervous system. That is trap number one.

  • at this point I fault many of the psuedo-eastern styles Warren and others put forward.

Do this a few times over a week then go to the next step

Spiritual focus as a “thinking-being”

Step two follows after you have induced the awareness of the fist step. By now you’ve probably realized that the internal monologue does not shut up!

But, our goal is not to quite it all the way.

Instead, it is to allow it to run on without giving it attention. This is were you learn what distracts you and what is really going on in there.

If you fasten on a single thought, drum it out not by force but with a simple phrase or even just the name of Jesus.

This is a exercise in simply learning what it is to be you, so spend time learning you. Already things that God wants you to hear may come up. The learning at this point consist of rejecting the urge to “think things out.”

Give to God those thoughts. Empty them out before God as you take time to train yourself at this juncture that God resolves things with his grace and provision, not you by guile, smarts, or worldly means.

There is little “listening” at this point. You are still “speaking.” And visualize it as such.

I suggest at least two weeks here, giving it out to God as it comes. Many say they give their lives to Christ. But you will find there is a lot you have kept.

Simply “being”

The next phase of Prayer of Quite is fast or slow for some.

Take stock of your body, and give up those things God brings to mind.

This third phase is not spiritual at all; it prepares a person for the fourth. The goal to set before yourself is to become quite or at least to let the monologue go on unintended.

There are two strands of it.

The audible and the visual.

Visual is easier to overcome. Set your mind to not even focus on black but just to “see” nothing.

Audible is harder, set your ears to “hear” nothing, from either the inside or out.

This is not the goal but a functional step. (we aren’t going for silence but learning to listen)

Eastern mediators and transcendentalist take this as the end goal. And while uou may sense why as a strong feeling of peace and bliss can arise from it…

Bear in mind that NONE of this is spiritual. It is all just self-discipline.

Practice here until you can “be quite” for at least five minutes or so.

The actual process of Contemplative Prayer

The above done, you are ready to go into the realm of contemplation.

Keep in mind the warnings about images, any arise set them aside as in steps 2 and 3. Smash those idols

Any audible thoughts break in that you do not want, do the same. Tell Satan to be gone, and submit all things to God.

In both cases you must resolve to truly trust in Him and him alone.

You should enter the meditation with a stated goal, something like a verse, etc. to contemplate.

But the action in this final stage is not to speak, reason, etc. but to listen and about something.

Ask God to speak into your subject (he is invisible, so do not seek showing).

You are not being active here mostly because you don’t want to be suggesting things to God. But surrendering them to him.

If you have done the previous steps you will have a good stock of when you are feeling, when you are thinking, and what is “of you”

Eventually, God will speak to you. The extreme “otherness” of it will mark it out.

Simply follow where the Spirit leads your heart at these times. It will get active and it is there… NOT IN THE QUITE you want to go.

Satan comes as an angle of lite, and private revelation never disagrees with general

The final lesson at this point is to stay disciplined enough to test the spirits. You are at a place where many have fallen astray now.

It sounds sacrilegious to some… But I want test very rationally and with lucid prayer the things you find and are told. In fact we are ordered to test the spirits.

Final step

The last step in all of this is to eventually move beyond it as such a “purposeful exercise.” Your lucid prayer should benefit from all you have learned, so should your general decision making process, and your discipleship.

Contemplation is at best a side show for a religion that focuses very much on embodied acts, everyday living, and a God who came “among us.”

My hope is not that you become the best contemplative prayer warrior, that is as useful as becoming the best at exercise! play the sport!

Instead, it is that you grow in general strength and an ability to sense the Spirits leading. Some are so blessed they never need such a process, and many get there through very different paths.

This is not right for everyone; anyone can try Contemplative Prayer for themselves.

Open for discussion on Contemplative Prayer

I am well aware that this practice can send a person to the 7th heaven as Paul just as easily as to the madhouse.

Contemplative Prayer is quite antithetical to repression. Indeed, you may find yourself needing outside council to resolve issues that come up.

Abuse victims etc. can find the process of God removing Satan’s bolt’s rather painful as he often barbs his arrows.

Others get odd ideas in their heads, and need reality checks.

What I would like to ask my readers is if they have ever tried such a practice, would like guidance, or have hit a hurdle in such attempts.

I confess I am no guru at it; I have alternative methods for the utilization of contemplative prayer that focus on an entirely different tact; moreover, someone out there may indeed hold a better method of contemplation.

I would love to hear it!

Post Author

Paul is the founder of and a life long Christian with a childhood interest in systematic theology. He holds an M.Div. from Fuller Theological seminary and hopes to use his education to better his fellow man. He also operates an automotive blog, has worked at Google, and has diverse life interest.

reformedmonk – who has written posts on Religible.

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