Every-once-in-a-while, I get a spate of questions centering on one topic. I think it’s God’s way of telling me I have something to learn about this topic, whatever it is. Lately, the questions are on the subject of contemplative prayer. I’ve noticed that people shy away from this term – it’s reserved for monks, nuns, and other spiritually rigorous souls, they think. So I dispatch of the word until my folks see that they actually might be practicing it or certainly can practice it.
The questions go something like: “Me? Contemplative prayer? “What is it anyway?” “Don’t we leave it to the prayer professionals, like the Trappists?” “I do the Hail Mary and the Our Father and then I wait…”
“Wait” is the key word. I can hook on to this word to teach about contemplation. And it came once as a woman’s story fell at my feet. She prayed incessantly for her lost son. She wanted him back, healthy, ready to live. He was wandering in that horrible tunnel of addiction bouncing against its walls, feeling in the darkness, aching for help. One day while praying she recalled a holy card depicting the hands of Jesus open and welcoming. She bolted up and screamed, “Ok. You take him. You, Jesus, do something with him.” She said she literally threw, yes, threw her son into those hands. She remembers falling back into her chair, relieved and yet not praying another word. She sat and cried. But ironically she was at peace. And then she waited.
In God’s time, the son returned and is now a sober, wonderful husband and father. His mother attributes it to the prayer without words, the prayer when anxiety yields to trust. She is now learning the deeper aspects of such prayer. In his wonderful classic work titled, On Prayer, Karl Rahner says, “Unless it is set free by God into that infinite freedom wherein alone it can realize itself, our heart becomes hedged in by limitations, by suffering, by hopelessness…that chain it down.” My friend turned over all her suffering and began to realize her own heart in peace. She emptied; God stepped in. My friend’s story ends beautifully, some stories of personal agony do not. But they end in a way that God uses to bring the seeker to peace.
Do not be afraid to try contemplative prayer. When you enter an art museum you are immediately caught in the silence of people in awe of what they are looking at. There are no hootenannies in art museums! It is like being in church. As in contemplative prayer, people are letting the masterpieces speak to them. For these precious moments, we are suspended from reality and we can hear, see, touch, taste a life challenged, tortured, or at peace on canvas. Some people will sit before a famous painting for hours to absorb its full meaning. Sitting and looking. Like Mary who sat at the feet of Jesus, and who, in his words, had “…chosen the better part.”
The first step in the practice of contemplative prayer is to learn to sit quietly. Be conscious only of his loving presence. Open your hands on your lap and let your heart rise. Try to relinquish control. Who knows where your heart will go; just let it be free, as Rahner suggests. You might simply say, “Here I am Lord. I want to hear your voice.” In reality, you want to enlarge your heart, enliven your soul, become a better person of faith. You want to clear away the pain and sorrow in life. You want joy to emerge. You want to be happy. Then, you are praying contemplatively. There is no time limit. Pray this way as long as you can. The late Jesuit, Jim Von Tobel once told his parishioners: “God listens…God hears…God cares…You can suggest preferred answers in your prayers, but then you must wait in silence for God to speak…” Wait. In silence. Contemplation.
You might want to reflect on Psalm 27, especially verses 7-9. Try praying without words. Just present yourself as the person God made you to be. Think of the publican in the Temple who prayed for mercy because he was a sinner. That’s it. A simple prayer that Jesus loved.
Besides the Rahner book mentioned above, I highly recommend Richard Rohr’s small classic, Silent Compassion. A recent, easy-to-read thorough treatment of approaching prayer is Learning to Pray by James Martin, SJ.
I want all of you to know, Anonymous Angels, and my personal friends, I pray for all of you and hope you experience the joy of being alone in his presence.