Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Contemplative Prayer ~ Part One

Dear Friends,

“Pastor, my prayer life is such a struggle for me,” she said, “I want to go deeper in prayer and I just can’t seem to be able to do that.” Most of us have been there or that might even describe our prayer life right now. Our prayer time is dry and our prayers seem shallow, repetitive and insignificant. Our mind is so cluttered with thoughts, frustrations, anxieties, that we can hardly think straight much less pray straight!

Our mind is inundated with chaotic images from our TV and computers. We’re on mental overload and many people go to churches with loud “rock” worship, dazzling light shows, projected images and fog machines. We’ve been taught that effective prayer is loud, intense and fervent. For some of us that’s exciting! But for others, the chaos is tiring and we’re feeling that something is missing from our prayer life. And we wonder if the answer for us is not going “louder” in prayer but “deeper” in prayer.

To go deeper, we need to clear out the clutter to make space for God. Praying charismatically in tongues may take us there, but for 2000 years, pilgrims seeking the presence of God have relied on the spiritual discipline of contemplative prayer – silence, stillness and solitude – to go deeper in prayer.

Dallas Willard, a Protestant theologian, points out that these spiritual disciplines are "bodily disciplines analogous to the rhythms that sustain biological life – eating and breathing." Silence, stillness and solitude sustain our spiritual life and bring refreshment from God.

Going deeper is slowing down our conscious thoughts so that we are able to focus on our conversation with God. As we go deeper in prayer we find ourselves no longer engaging in shallow, repetitions of petition. We are no longer just giving God our “honey-do” list. We are coming into His presence. And, in doing so, we are not practicing a new prayer tradition. This is ancient prayer.

To go deeper in our prayer life, we need to journey back to the ancient tradition of our faith. Come with me past our recent American prayer traditions, past the Reformation, past the Western (Catholic) Church traditions and back to the mystic traditions of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Getting a little concerned over where we’re going? Remember, if you’re a Christian, the roots of your religion lie in those ancient Eastern practices. Everything added since that time has been.. well.. “added.”

The Western Church replaced Eastern mysticism with dry ritual. The Reformation and age of Enlightenment replaced ritual with rational thinking and expository sermons. And any leftover spiritual mysticism was squeezed out of the American church by strict Puritan extremism.

Some of us have trouble with the spiritual word “mysticism” because that word has been used by pastors to describe practices that are unwise or unsafe. But I’m using this word in its literal meaning to describe having to do with transcendent realities – having a  consciousness of the transcendent or ultimate reality of God. If we want to go deeper in prayer, we need to come into the presence of God. And that dear friends is what’s called, “mysticism.”

This is not recklessly descending into some kind of spiritual weirdness. In 1 Corinthians 14:15, Paul tells us to pray with both the mind and the spirit. The mysticism in Eastern Orthodox prayer traditions helps people “descend with the mind into the heart.” Another way of saying that is that we are to spiritually engage God from the very center of our being while keeping our conscious and discerning thoughts with us.

In next week’s AMEN Corner we’ll continue to look at the spiritual discipline of contemplative prayer.  We’ll see how silence, stillness, solitude and second-century Christian prayer practices can enhance and deepen our own prayer time. 
to be continued...

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