What is Contemplative Prayer and How to Do a Contemplative Prayer Practice

Contemplative Prayer as a Feather

Part 1 of this post will explain what is contemplative prayer. Part 2 will outline how to do a contemplative prayer practice.

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.)

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