Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Many Definitions of Contemplative Prayer

When discussing the concept of Contemplative Prayer, sometimes called "the discipline of silence", the discussion many times leads to a question of what the term "Contemplative Prayer" actually is intended to mean. At one extreme, some will say that Contemplative Prayer is no more than trying to not think about the issues/concerns of the day in order to focus attention on God (i.e., not much different than regular prayer). And others will say that Contemplative Prayer is like regular prayer, except you are quiet and listen for an extended time in order to give God a chance to speak back to you, since they say prayer should be a two way conversation. At the other extreme, some will say that Contemplative Prayer is emptying the mind of all thought and emotion so that you can experience union with God directly, and that this practice, along with acts of service, can bring unity and peace between the world religions and people groups (as opposed to "belief systems" and "practices/rituals" which divide religions and people groups).

With such a wide variety of meanings infused into the term "Contemplative Prayer", I thought it might be helpful for discussion to compile a sampling of the meanings and expectations various leaders pour into the term. I will use Green to indicate definitions that I think are rational and in keeping with mainstream historical Christianity. I will use Red to indicate definitions that seem to be mystical and that are more in keeping with the practices of the mystics, either the ancient Catholic mystics or Hindu, Buddhist or other eastern mystics.

From a Google definition search (
Contemplative prayer: This is an ancient Christian practice that was suppressed by the Roman Catholic Church during the Middle Ages and is rejected by many conservative Protestants today. It consists of a wordless form of prayer in which one simply exists in the presence of the Holy Spirit.

The definition from Wikipedia:
In Christian mysticism, Contemplative prayer can refer to:
  • repetitive chanting, breathing in a controlled manner or silent concentration to quiet the thoughts and feelings and commune with a spirit that some believe to be God.
  • infused contemplation: a divinely originated, general, non-conceptual, loving awareness of God; a pure and unmerited gift
  • acquired contemplation: for which the believer could strive with the help of grace
  • Centering prayer, which is sometimes called contemplative prayer, although "It is not contemplation in the strict sense, which in Catholic tradition has always been regarded as a pure gift of the Spirit, but rather it is a preparation for contemplation."
The Science of Spirituality's Definition:
They believe that Contemplative Prayer is the same practice, regardless of the religion a person holds:

Definitions from leading proponents of Contemplative Prayer

Please note: For those leaders who have Red in their quotes, let me say that I believe in every case their goals and motives are good. I understand the desire to try to find better ways of doing things than what is common in contemporary society. But I also believe that those methods and belief systems will, over the long term, cause a devaluing of rationality, truth and making distinctions, even more than the concept of "truth" is devalued in contemporary society today.

Thomas Merton:
"Contemplative consciousness is a trans-cultural, trans-religious, trans-formed consciousness … it can shine through this or that system, religious or irreligious" (Thoughts of the East, P34)

"It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, ... now I realize what we all are .... If only they could all see themselves as they really are ...I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other ... At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusions, a point of pure truth ... This little point the pure glory of God in us. It is in everybody." (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 1989 edition, P157-158)

"I see no contradiction between Buddhism and Christianity ... I intend to become as good a Buddhist as I can." (David Steindl-Rast, "Recollection of Thomas Merton's Last Days in the West", Monastic Studies, 7:10)

Richard Foster:
"Thomas Merton has perhaps done more than any other twentieth century figure to make the life of prayer widely known and understood" (Spiritual Classics, P17)

"There are those who feel that the Christian idea of meditation is synonymous with the concept of meditation centered in Eastern religion. In reality they stand worlds apart. Eastern meditation is an attempt to empty the mind; Christian meditation is an attempt to empty the mind in order to fill it" (Celebration of Discipline, 1st edition, 1978, P15)

"Christian meditation has nothing to do with emptying our minds"... "Contemplation goes beyond words and symbols and concepts to the reality the words and concepts describe...; Contrary to much current thinking, contemplation has nothing to do with making our minds blank or having honey-sweet thoughts. As we have observed, its chief aim is to encounter Christ..." (Spiritual Classics, P10, 13, Joyce Huggett, edited by Richard Foster)

Note that, just like when we sleep or when we are focused on one task, all mystics do fill the mind with something, whether they can recall the memory of their thoughts/emotions or not. So that is not the issue. The issue is whether we should be using our mind to think rationally, or whether we should be clearing our minds in an attempt to try to get away from rational thinking...

So, for example, here is one of the forms of Contemplative Prayer that Richard Foster has promoted :
"A fourth form of meditation has at its objective to bring you into a deep inner communion with the Father... In your imagination allow your spiritual body, shining with light, to rise out of your physical body. Look back so that you can see yourself lying in the grass and reassure your body that you will return momentarily... Listen quietly, anticipating the unanticipated. Note carefully any instruction given. With time and experience you will be able to distinguish readily between mere human thoughts that may bubble up to the conscious mind and the True Spirit which inwardly moves upon the heart." (Celebration of Discipline, 1st edition, 1978, P27)

Dallas Willard:
"Now because silence is such a radical thing and it does mean that you give up control of your situation, you can see what a tremendous impact that would have on the American church, in their services, in their meetings of various kinds. Suppose they practice silence in some of their meetings, that would actually give a place for God to break in... And you know that is the way God is, he more or less waits for us to get tired of running things then he is glad to help." (Be Still DVD)

"Genesis began as an oral tradition of narrative stories passed down from generation to generation….These stories [gradually] took on theological meaning….Over time [they] were written down and collected together (Gen 12-50), and a prologue (Gen 1-11) was added….Borrowing from other creation accounts…stories with parallels to ancient Near Eastern religious narrative and mythology were reshaped with monotheistic intent….These strands of varied materials were gathered and edited into the written text…" (Renovare Spiritual Formation Study Bible, Dallas Willard General Editor)

So, if the beginnings of the Bible were ancient polytheistic myths that were reshaped with monotheistic intent (rather than the polytheistic myths being an offshoot of accurate monotheistic history), then Christianity already has much in common with the eastern religions and the Bible may not be fully reliable. You can see why experiencing God directly might be considered by some as a more pure form of "knowing" God than studying the Bible.

Thomas Keating:
"[Contemplative Prayer]... is a process of inner transformation, a conversation initiated by God and leading, if we consent, to divine union. One’s way of seeing reality changes in the process. A restructuring of consciousness takes place which empowers one to perceive, relate and respond with increasing sensitivity to the divine presence in, through, and beyond everything that exists." (Open Mind, Open Heart, P4)

Father Thomas Keating describes "Centering Prayer" which, as defined earlier, is preparation for Contemplative Prayer:

Thomas Dubay:
Father Thomas Dubay has a 13 part video series called "Contemplation: Union with God" which has the most in depth discussion of Contemplative Prayer that I have found. His definition of contemplative prayer is as follows:

Contemplative Prayer is not:
1. a monastic exercise
2. a sterile intellectualism
3. inner introspection
4. an impersonal state
5. exalting in nature
6. visions and revelations
7. strong emotional feelings about God
8. thinking about Biblical concepts (discursive meditation)

Contemplative Prayer is:
1. being alone with the supreme Alone in a wordless presence to Him
2. meeting in mystery with the hidden God, listening to the silent word of God speaking in us
3. an experience of the indwelling Trinity
4. a knowing, loving immersion in the divine beauty of God
5. a waiting and thirsting for God
6. simply living the greatest of all the commandments
7. a divine invasion, the infinite enters our timed existence
8. reliving Jesus prayer in solitude
9. being quenched at the fountain
10. a small gentle transformation into the divine likeness, by seeing God as he really is
11. the beginning of eternal life here on earth

Contemplative Bible Reading... Small Group Discussion Guide by NavPress (The Navigators):
"Your aim is to let go of issues and agendas that occupy your thoughts and move your mind instead to God... The important thing is that your spine is straight... It is most important to relax the muscles in your throat... Slow down your breathing... praying the first phrase as your breathe in, praying the second phrase as you breathe out... Pray also that as you open yourself to the spiritual world that you will be protected from evil... Focus on God: you can do this by means of an image such as meeting God on the road and talking to him. As you inhale pray "Lord Jesus Christ" and as you exhale pray "Have Mercy". It may be helpful for you to find the right place. There is something about "sacred space"."

So, it does seem that there is more than one meaning being used for this term, Contemplative Prayer. In fact, with the wide variety of meanings there seems to be something here for people who come at this subject from almost any perspective.

If you are concerned about Christians you know who never seem to grow out of their problems and you want a new "reformation" of discipline in the Christian church, but you don't want to focus on the Bible passages that point out people's "sins" and tells them that they need to change, then instead you can teach them Contemplative Prayer and hope that experiences during that practice will motivate them toward change.

If you think this is a strange practice and have never heard of the Contemplative Prayer movement until now, then you don't have to worry about doing anything, at least until this teaching comes to your doorstep (as it came to mine)...

If you are wanting to do something to make yourself feel more "spiritual" but you don't want to go into Eastern meditation, you can use the milder, more orthodox definitions of the term. Then later, when you are ready, you have the option to start changing your thinking to use the "deeper meanings" of the same term.

If you think there is nothing wrong with Christians using meditation practices from other religions and are wondering what all the fuss in about, Contemplative Prayer will finally give your beliefs and practices more respectability within evangelical Christianity.

If you are someone who places a higher value on truth than peace and you are eager for a battle where you will be an outsider and an underdog (like the reformers in the decades around the reformation), this is one good opportunity that can keep you busy.

If you want to insure that peace and harmony are maintained (in opposition to those previous people who place a higher value on truth than peace), then you can support the more orthodox definitions of Contemplative Prayer and allow people to continue peacefully using the term Contemplative Prayer, with each person pouring in the meaning that they are most comfortable with. Most people will start out using the milder meanings in any case, so why bother to split hairs over the meaning of the term.

And finally, if you are a Hindu or Buddhist who has felt that Christianity has devalued what your faith has to offer, this practice of Contemplative Prayer should at very least bring an understanding and appreciation of the meditation practices that have been categorically rejected by Protestant Christianity in the past. One of the major walls between Protestant Christianity and Hindu or Buddhist practices may finally be removed.

So, by having multiple meanings for the same term, the practice of Contemplative Prayer can make itself attractive to a large section of society. But since this post is about defining our terms, here is one more definition you may want to understand:

: To be evasive, unclear or confusing; mystification; intending to conceal the truth by confusion