Contemplative prayer is a form of prayer that involves silent, receptive waiting for God. It's about being present to the divine and allowing it to work in and through us. Psalms 46:10, tells us "Be still, and know that I am God." Jesus himself modeled this practice, often withdrawing to lonely places to pray (Luke 5:16).
Silence is the foundation of contemplative prayer. As Rumi put it, "Silence is the language of God, all else is poor translation."
Trappist Monk and biblical scholar, Thomas Merton viewed silence as transformative and essential to spiritual practice, "Silence is the door-keeper of the interior life." For Merton, contemplative prayer was not about preparing one's mind for a particular message, but rather remaining empty, open, and receptive to the words that might transform one's darkness into light.
Thomas Merton (1915-1968) is arguably the most influential American Catholic author of the twentieth century. His autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, has sold over one million copies and has been translated into over fifteen languages. He wrote over sixty other books and hundreds of poems and articles.
In silence, God ceases to be an object and instead becomes the atmosphere of our being. As Merton wrote, "In silence, we find ourselves in the presence of a reality that is far greater than ourselves, yet a reality in which we are able to participate."
Silence creates space for encountering the divine more deeply.
"God is not in the noise and clamor, but in the stillness and quiet." - 1 Kings 19:11-12
By setting aside regular time for silence and meditation, we can cultivate an attitude of openness and curiosity that allows us to listen and learn, as Proverbs 1:5 says, "Let the wise listen and add to their learning, and let the discerning get guidance."
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This inner stillness is something we can cultivate through daily practice of meditation and contemplative prayer and is especially important in this time where the world seems more polarized than ever. We have to learn to cultivate inner stillness and enter those situations of potential conflict and misunderstanding with a heart filled with inner peace, "The kingdom of God within." “Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” - Luke 17:21
With practice, we are able to cultivate this place of inner peace or inner stillness and bring it with us into the world and into those situations that might otherwise seem stressful and overwhelming.
Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly. - As Proverbs 14:29
When we cultivate stillness, we become more aware of our own thoughts and emotions, which in turn can help us respond to others with greater compassion and understanding. As we deepen our contemplative practice, we begin to recognize that the divine presence we encounter in silence is the same presence that exists in all of creation.
Christ the King Priory offers personal retreats in Contemplative Prayer with the following description. Contemplative prayer is praying in the stance of listening. It is the opening of mind and heart—our whole being—to God, the Ultimate Mystery, beyond thoughts, words, and emotions. In contemplative prayer we divest our minds of all thoughts and images in order to receive the pure and simple light of God directly into the summit of our souls.
On this way of prayer, we simply hold ourselves out to God, and open ourselves to the working of the Holy Spirit within us. St. Paul says in his letter to the Romans that the Holy Spirit prays within us. In us, God is at work before we even start to pray.
“We do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings” (Rom 8:26).
The prerequisite of all our spiritual activity is God’s initiative. In contemplative prayer, we move out of the way with our own limited ability of thinking, trusting in the work of the Holy Spirit within us, the great transformer, who enlightens our mind, strengthens our will, and fills us with the fullness of God, as we profess in the Sequence hymn at Pentecost. By letting go of all our thoughts that come to our minds, we can support the Holy Spirit’s work in us. During this letting go of our thoughts, we may trust completely in the transforming power of the Divine love within us. Meister Eckhart, the 14th century Dominican and Rhineland mystic seemed to understand this when he said, “Nothing in all creation is so like God as stillness."
As my prayer became more and more devout and interior, there was less and less I had to say. Finally I became completely still. I became — this is perhaps an even greater contrast to talking — I became a listener. - Søren Kierkegaard
”So, how can we deepen our contemplative practice?
We can start by simply setting aside regular time for silence and stillness, even if it's just a few minutes a day. As we become more comfortable with silence, we can begin to extend the practice, perhaps setting aside longer periods of time for meditation and eventually attending a silent retreat once a year or once a quarter. There is a beautiful Trappist Monastery in Peosta, Iowa called New Malleray Abby, that offers silent retreats. Some people will connect with a monastery or nunnery, or a retreat center, but many will just find a quiet place away from distraction to read their bible, meditate and pray.
In the words of Mother Teresa, "The fruit of silence is prayer. The fruit of prayer is faith. The fruit of faith is love. The fruit of love is service. The fruit of service is peace." Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification (Romans 14:19).
When the Holy Spirit fills us in meditation and prayer, it stays with us throughout the day, bringing a joyful peace and presence to all of our activities and interactions.
The following are verses on meditation and contemplative prayer from a book that I authored on spirituality and cultivating inner peace called THE WAY: A Small Book of Wisdom;
I sat in silence
Yet heard a grand symphony
I sat in darkness
Yet basked in a light
brighter than ten thousand candles
The room was cold
Yet I was filled
with the warmth of a raging fire
I was alone
Yet was embraced by a love
greater than that of a mother for her newborn child
The room was small
Yet my spirit soared to infinity
I was nothing
Yet became a part of everything.
Even in a crowded room, our internal silence and inner stillness is where we find ourselves and the peace of God.