Many types of prayer, or prayer forms, are engaged in by Christians. We pray prayers of intercession, prayers of praise and prayers of petition. Breath prayer and physical involvement in repetitive prayer forms, such as using prayer beads or prayer ropes, can bring a meditative quality to prayer. The prayer of silence before God seems to be a particular challenge for our action oriented, mentally active culture. But such contemplative prayer can bring with it a deep and abiding sense of God's presence, teaching us in the process the lessons of humility and obedience. The prayer forms described below move us toward contemplation and perhaps a new experience of God, connecting us with the mystery of God's presence within us all.
Thomas Keating, Basil Pennington and William Meninger have opened up a path for us moderns that leads to the experience of contemplative prayer. Based on the ideas of the unknown author of The Cloud of Unknowing, they have taken a simple method for stilling the mind so that we may listen more clearly for God's still small voice, or simply rest in the mystery of God's presence and love for us.
In adopting this practice, a person seeks to simply be with God, all agenda left behind. What is important is the relationship and the awareness of that loving relationship. Typically, a person chooses a word or short phrase that symbolizes her or his intention to come into this state of simply being with God. This word is used gently and silently whenever thoughts and feelings come to distract. Ideally, 20 minutes of silence, morning and evening are recommended. It may be much less daunting in the beginning to simply set aside 5-10 minutes during the day to center on God in silence. Then as one becomes accustomed to sitting in silence, the time can be extended. A dedicated place may be helpful and some find that lighting a candle helps focus. The Contemplative Outreach organization (see Resources) provides much help and encouragement for one starting on the path of centering prayer. It can be especially powerful to sit with a group in silence. Such prayer groups also help a person maintain their individual daily practice.
The goal of centering prayer is contemplation, in the sense of simply letting go of all but the reality of God's loving and welcoming presence in our lives. This prayer of silence is especially needed in our busy and anxiety producing life styles.
At it's basic level, contemplative prayer involves inviting God's love to live in us and to come alive through us for others.
Literally divine reading, Lectio Divina is a time honored method for moving toward contemplative prayer. More mentally active, at least at first, than centering prayer, lectio (pronounced lex-ee-o) uses scripture to focus the mind. The traditional lectio divina, developed in monastic settings, consists of four components. The diagram to the right shows these in a circle, indicating movement from one to another.
The LECTIO component calls us to read either silently or aloud a passage from scripture. Usually this is done slowly, giving attention to any word or phrase that catches our attention. The reading can be done several times if desired. A period of silence between readings is helpful to let the words sink in. Once we have selected our particular word or phrase, we move to the next step.
MEDITATIO consists of meditating on the word or phrase, slowly repeating it over and over. Here we hope to receive the Holy Spirit's revelation of its message and meaning for us. In this form of meditation the mind is active. Here we chew on the word, as Saint Benedict said.
Next we move to a time of ORATIO, or praise, thanksgiving and petition. Here we hope to share our honest and deepest thoughts and feelings with God.
As we complete the phase above, we come to a time of CONTEMPLATIO or contemplation. Our goal here is similar to that in Centering Prayer, that is to simply be with God. We rest in God in the silence of our hearts. This is the fruit of our earlier steps, where we experience God's loving presence.
Occasionally, readings from other works can be used in the Lectio portion, particularly those of Christian writers we admire.