Part 1 of this post will explain what is contemplative prayer. Part 2 will outline how to do a contemplative prayer practice. I’ve created a video, audio, and accompanying transcripts to a free mini course called How to Be Present with God using four spiritual practices. I cover contemplative prayer in the course.
What is Contemplative Prayer?
I describe contemplative prayer as the ultimate meditation. I also like to say that prayer is talking to God and meditation is listening to God. By definition, contemplative means:
- As an adjective: expressing or involving prolonged thought.
- As a noun: a person whose life is devoted primarily to prayer, especially in a monastery or convent.
The word practice is used with meditation and with spiritual disciplines because they take practice! Contemplative practices are not something that you just do with ease.
Our minds were built to think. We are thinking all the time. The idea of meditation and contemplative prayer is to stop the anxious, fearful, cluttered thoughts that cause overwhelm and rob us of peace. That is done by clearing a cluttered mind to rest in God’s presence. How? In contemplative prayer it’s done through the use of thinking on a sacred word.
A Sacred Word
Contemplative prayer uses what is called the sacred word. The idea is that when thoughts start to come into your mind, you focus on the sacred word to bring you back to just resting in God. The word is not spoken. The word is in your mind. These words are taken from Scripture. Examples of words are: Jesus, grace, peace, be still (I like these two words taken from Psalm 46:10 and Mark 4:39), mercy.
Gentleness is the key to using the sacred word. When your thoughts drift, say the sacred word to clear the thoughts. The act is as gentle as if the sacred word were a feather placed on top of a cloud.
The Mind as a River
The metaphor is that the mind is a river and thoughts are things that are floating by. In contemplative prayer the goal is to learn to just let the thoughts go, in other words, let them float by so you can just focus on God’s presence. (Examples are: I need to put eggs on the grocery list, has it been 20 minutes yet, that email has to go out by 3PM…. etc.) Just let them go, or say the sacred word to get back on track.
Many times inspirational or creative thoughts will enter into the mind. These thoughts, even though they are God inspired are supposed to be ignored. (Note, if they are truly inspired, the thoughts or ideas will come back.)
The ultimate goal is to empty your worries and cares to be in God’s presence. This does not involve listening to God. (Even though I said meditation is listening to God, contemplative prayer is to have no expectations or goals to listen for God.) It is to just be. Answers are to be sought outside of contemplative prayer.
For me, contemplative prayer is one of the most difficult spiritual disciplines; however, it can be one of the most rewarding. To receive the full benefits of contemplative prayer, it is recommended that you practice for 10-30 minutes each morning and in the afternoon. (Page 2 has an example of a contemplative prayer practice and caution when doing contemplative prayer.)
How to Do Contemplative Prayer – Contemplative Prayer Practice
- Find a quiet place that will be free from noise or interruption. Plan to devote 10-30 minutes to the practice.
- Sit in a comfortable position. The goal is to be conscious and not fall asleep.
- Choose your sacred word (or phrase) stick with that one word during your practice
- When you are comfortable, close your eyes.
- You can start the time with the sacred word (or phrase)
- When thoughts come into your mind, gently think of the sacred word and let all thoughts go by
- When the time has passed, keep your eyes closed for a few minutes and sit in stillness before getting up
Over time, contemplative prayer will become easier with practice. It is the ultimate gift to unite and rest in God’s presence.
Caution in Using Contemplative Prayer
Contemplative prayer can also open up feelings and wounds that may be buried deep within the psyche. Memories may come up as a result of practicing contemplative prayer. So, it’s important to know that up front. Past trauma, abuse, or hurts may come up. This is an opportunity for healing.
By letting go of thoughts, it is also possible to let go of areas within you that block the flow of God’s love into your heart and soul. I have a free Prayer for Letting Go and cut number 5 from my Meditative Affirmation CD called Letting Go that you can download for free.
Why Do a Contemplative Prayer Practice?
The world is a noisy place. Technology and being constantly connected robs us of peace. Twenty-four news with its violence, scandals, and sensationalism promotes fear and outrage. Social media promotes comparison which steals joy. Finding a quiet center within ourselves creates an oasis of peace.
Contemplative Prayer Provides Peace
The Apostle Paul said, “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.” (Philippians 4:8-9)
Contemplative Prayer Helps You Put on the Mind of Christ
1 Corinthians 2:15-16 says, “Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny. For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ.”
As we become more Christ-minded, we see the world as Jesus sees the world. We have greater love and compassion for others and for ourselves. That is the true importance of contemplative prayer and meditation.
If you find contemplative prayer to be too difficult, a guided meditation can help you to calm the mind chatter and experience God’s presence. These guided meditations will help you learn to be still and let go and let God. Once you learn the process and train your mind through these guided meditations, you can continue to contemplative prayer and quiet your mind on your own.
Want to learn how to experience God’s presence through three other spiritual practices? Access this free mini course with videos, audios and transcripts called Be Present with God.