On this page, read more about the following contemplative prayer practices.
- Listening Prayer
- Consciousness Examen
- Lectio Divina (Divine Reading)
- Prayer of Imagination
- Centering Prayer
Contemplative prayer can be understood as a listening kind of prayer. It is a way of praying that emphasizes listening over speaking, but more profoundly, contemplative prayer is intended to lead to a whole-person encounter with God in contrast to thinking about God or talking to God with prayer requests and thank-you-s. This kind of encounter can only happen if we are fully present in mind, body, soul, and spirit, not just our thoughts about God. It is commonly expressed in contemplative circles that the hardest part of the contemplative journey is traveling from the mind to the heart. It is through our desire and discipline for listen prayer practices that we hope to mature our capacity to experience all of life as contemplative – God-with-us.
There are many established forms of listening prayer that we can utilize. We see them all as containers for contemplative experience. They are not magical recipes to encounter God, they provide a framework that helps draw our attention to what is already there – a divine presence. We can perform the same listening prayer practice over and over again and each time have a different experience or different encounter because a listening prayer practice is merely the stage where the real drama of our life in God comes to awareness for us as we awaken to it.
We have described a variety of contemplative practices as a resource for you to practice individually or in groups. We think they can be useful to help you establish your own contemplative rhythms and practice, but it helps if you understand them simply as “containers” for encounter with God.
What Happens in Contemplative Prayer?
(The following introduction to contemplative prayer was written by Jeff Imbach cofounder of SoulStream, Selah’s sister organization in Canada, you can check them out at soulstream.org.)
Contemplative prayer has been described in many different ways. Here are some of them. I think each has something to contribute to our understanding of what is happening in contemplative prayer.
Opening Hearts to God
In his wonderful book, Opening to God, Fr. Thomas Green says that prayer is not something that we can achieve. He says that even the classic definition of prayer in the Catholic catechism, “lifting our hearts to God” is too achievement oriented. It already assumes that we can lift our hearts. Sometimes we can’t! Prayer, Green says, begins with simply opening our hearts – becoming receptive to the action of God in our lives.
Waiting on God
There is a significant tradition that links contemplative prayer with the word “wait.” It is one of the great words that occurs over and over in the Psalms. We are invited to wait for God, to go light with our daytimers and our goals, and let God call the shots as to when and how things will unfold. Waiting could be seen as opening for a long period of time.
In Jeremiah’s excruciating lament over the destruction of the temple he speaks of the terrible end of all that he had known about how to worship God and be in relationship with God. He says that everything failed. Prayer seems like bouncing words off a brass ceiling. It would have been overwhelmingly despairing, Jeremiah says, except for one thing: God’s faithful love continues new every morning even though everything has fallen apart. He says he remembers the awful affliction and the bitterness of his plight and his soul goes into nose dive. Yet – and that is the big shift – “I call this to mind,” he says, “and therefore I have hope. Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”
Then Jeremiah ends with a powerful conclusion from the conflict and hope of his soul. He says that when things are broken to the point of despair, the only way forward is to “wait” for God. He says, “I say to myself, ‘The LORD is my portion; therefore I will wait for him…it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD.’
Listening for God
The notion of listening adds something responsive to our understanding of contemplative prayer and waiting. It is not simply waiting like we might wait for the bus to come while we are engrossed in reading a novel. We might wait for the computer to fire up by brushing our teeth but that is not true waiting. Waiting includes an attentiveness of our hearts and minds. We are watching to see and where God is lovingly present to us and what God is doing in our experience. We can’t make anything happen, but we can at least watch for it.
Attentive Listening also implies that we are seeking to avoid the things that keep us from noticing. We learn a relaxed attentiveness. That is we learn to be ready and responsive without straining or striving.
In his book, Sadhana, Anthony De Mello provides an exercise in which he invites us to practice learning how to relax into our meditation and at the same time to be attentive. We take time to relax from head to toe and then begin to pay attention to every sensation of our skin, the chair, the temperature, and all. It creates a sense of being very relaxed and very aware at the same time.
In our culture, it is hard to listen. There is too much noise, too much distraction and too much demand. It takes intentional time and space to listen and to pay attention to the signs of the Spirit’s presence and action in our lives.
Gazing Upon God
We take a further step with this description. We gaze on God in the sense that we begin to see the experience of our lives in the light of God’s tender love embracing us, permeating both us and the circumstances we find ourselves in.
Gazing on God implies a huge transition that is at the heart of our spiritual quest. It implies a focus to our listening. It means that we begin to move away from being oriented on ourselves to being oriented to what God’s loving perspective and action might be. That is, we begin to move from focusing on our thoughts, our words, our feelings, our experiences and how we are processing them and our interpretations of our lives. This allows a new possibility to open up in front of us. The reality that God might be doing something beyond what we can “ask or imagine.”
This passage is at the heart of contemplative living. As we turn our attention to God, we see that God has already been turned in our direction. We offer our desire and love to God and only to discover that God has been gazing at us intently with incredible longing and compassion and goodness all along.
In the words of Mother Julian, near the end of her beautiful revelation, “[God] wants us to set our hearts on our passing over, that is to say from the pain which we feel to the bliss which we trust.”
Receiving from God
Now we understand why the heart of contemplation is receiving. We begin to receive the loving presence of God and the activity of God in our own selves. We let go of our concerns about how much and how well we are doing and learn the art of living out of what is given to us by God.
One author has made the point that receiving is the hardest thing for a Christian to do. We are programmed both by our culture and by our church experience to produce, to give, to do. To take a receptive stance seems too passive, or too empty.
Yet, as we begin to move away from our addiction to achievement and toward a more gentle receptivity we begin to experience the reality of God’s love. We begin to recognize that we do not have to produce an identity, we are already given an identity as the beloved sons and daughters of God. We don’t have to be so overly responsible, or so defensive. We can live openly and freely. In the words of The Message, by Eugene Peterson, we can learn the unforced rhythms of grace.
by Jeff Imbach
The “consciousness Examen” was a central part of discernment in the exercises of St. Ignatius. It helps us gradually learn to attend to our everyday experience and to notice our response to that action.
Richard Foster explains this ancient practice by saying that we prayerfully reflect on the thoughts, feelings, and actions of our day to see how God has been at work in our lives and how we respond. Perhaps the sunlight glistening through raindrops on the rose fills me with grateful reassurance of God’s loving presence. Perhaps my tendency to blame others for my troubles is my resistance to god’s invitation to face my own intolerance and find healing.
The practice is both simple and profound. As we come to the Examen we recall that we are in the presence of God who is holding us in love. We ask the spirit for help to become aware. We review our day, both the good and the difficult. We give thanks for what has been given and simply ask forgiveness for the ways we have resisted God’s action. And finally we open our hearts to become increasingly responsive to the spirit’s gracious movement in our lives.
Recollection and Thanksgiving
- For what things today am I most grateful?
- Where did I experience life, peace, honesty, courage, etc.?
Attentiveness to God’s Action
- In what ways did You invite me to experience Your love and to see You at work in my life today?
Honesty About My Choices
- Where did I notice my choices to receive and respond to You?
- What signs of avoidance or resistance to Your invitation do I sense?
- What choices or habits have been keeping me from living in the freedom of Your love?
Trust in God’s Loving Initiative
- Gracious Spirit, I open my heart to You. Teach me to trust You to lead me into greater freedom and love as You live in me tomorrow.
We encourage you not to force or make up answers. Let them emerge, even if only one thing seem significant. A good daily practice.
Lectio Divina (Divine Reading)
Receiving the Word of God
The Word of Scripture should never stop sounding in your ears and working in you all day long, just like the words of someone you love. And just as you do not analyze the words of someone you love, but accept them as they are said to you, accept the Word of Scripture and ponder it in your heart, as Mary did. That is all….Do not ask “How shall I pass this on?” but “What does it say to me?” Then ponder the word long in your heart until it has gone right into you and taken possession of you.”Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together
Helpful Guidelines for Lectio Divina
- Select a small passage of scripture
- Come to silence held in God’s presence
- Read the passage and listen for the phrase/word that God brings to your attention
- Re-read and pay attention to what God is revealing under the words
- Re-read and be open to any invitation that touches your present experience
- Rest thankfully in what God has given
Prayer of Imagination
- Get comfortable and quiet-attentively ask God to open your heart to this prayer time.
- Read the story once to get the general unfolding of events.
Using Your Senses to Engage the Story:
- Begin to imagine the setting of the story using all of your senses to create a picture.
- Where are you? Who else is there? What do you hear, smell, taste, etc? Let yourself imagine it freely. Use the details to become emotionally engaged.
- Become a participant in the story: a spectator, one of Jesus’ friends, or as the person Jesus encounters. Let the story unfold.
Encountering Jesus in the Story:
- Pay close attention to what Jesus is doing and saying. Pay attention to his demeanor.
- Allow yourself to be drawn into the experience of being there and actually encountering Jesus yourself.
- Allow Jesus to interact with you as you are in the scene. How does Jesus come to you? What does he do or say? Respond and see what happens next. Let the story come to a natural conclusion.
Responding to the Prayer Experience:
- Pay attention to the symbolic connections. (For example: What is the storm in my life? How am I lame or blind?)
- Reflect on how Jesus interacted with you in light of these connections. How does Jesus want to be present to those things in your life?
- Have a conversation with Jesus or write Jesus a letter honestly expressing your response.
- Together with Jesus reflect on how this experience might free you or what action you are encouraged to take.
“Centering Prayer is a method of silent prayer that prepares us to receive the gift of contemplative prayer, prayer in which we experience God’s presence within us, closer than breathing, closer than thinking, closer than consciousness itself. This method of prayer is both a relationship with God and a discipline to foster that relationship. Centering Prayer is not meant to replace other kinds of prayer. Rather, it adds depth of meaning to all prayer and facilitates the movement from more active modes of prayer — verbal, mental or affective prayer — into a receptive prayer of resting in God. Centering Prayer emphasizes prayer as a personal relationship with God and as a movement beyond conversation with Christ to communion with Him.” – From Contemplative Outreach International
“We do not know how to pray as we should, but the spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings to deep for words, and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” – Romans 8:26
Centering prayer is essentially letting go and resting in God. It is also the practice of “releasing” and “receiving” which is a powerful act and a holy pastime. Centering prayer is a deepening practice of surrender to the presence of God. Thomas Keatings described it as “10 thousand opportunities to return to God”.
A Brief Guide to Centering Prayer:
- Choose a word (or image) as the symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within.
- Set a timer so you don’t have to think about the time (15-30 minutes as you wish)
- Sitting comfortably and with eyes closed, settle briefly. Then silently introduce you word as the symbol of your consent to God’s presence and action within.
- When you realize that you have become engaged with your thoughts*, return ever-so-gently to your word as an anchor for your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within.
- At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence for a couple of minutes, with eyes closed, with a heart of gratitude.
Click on The Method of Centering Prayer for a more complete guide developed by Thomas Keatings and the Contemplative Outreach International.