The Uniqueness of Christian Contemplative Prayer

Finding information on meditation and techniques is quite easy today.  Classes are taught at Buddist sanghas, Christian churches, Jewish synagogues, yoga studios, health clubs, gyms…just about any place where people can gather.  In metropolitan areas, there are often large outdoor meditation sittings where people of various traditions gather.  From the outside, it looks as though everyone is doing the same thing: people sitting on their thighs in silence, hands up-raised, and breathing slowly. The techniques are very similar across the traditions:  following one’s breath or keeping focused on a point, which could be a word, a candle, or an image.  What sets Christian contemplative prayer apart from other traditions is the intention and belief associated with it.

To be clear on vocabulary, in the Christian tradition, contemplative prayer is what members of Eastern religions call meditation.  Technically, meditation in the Christian tradition is a mental activity that is more rationale and active.  In Christian history, meditation was primarily described as a discursive process.  But today, most people just use the word meditation when meaning either contemplative prayer or Buddhist meditation.

The contemplative tradition within Christianity can be traced to the earliest centuries of the tradition.  Believing that each person is, at heart, a unique image of God, the purpose of contemplative prayer is to let go of everything that prevents us from being that image of God.

On the whole, people don’t live from their center, their heart, or their soul.  Instead, many things cloud over who we are most deeply:  social roles, pride, insecurities, ambitions, trying to be who we think we should be, as well as those deliberate things we do that hurt ourselves and others.  All these things are understood as sins.  Yes, sin is anything that pulls us away from being the image of God we are created to be.

Contemplative prayer is the process of letting go of all the things that distort or hide the Divine Light inside of us.  The Divine Light is our true self.  Over time, contemplative prayers move toward greater union between their inner self and the Divine Light.

When reading the mystics of the Christian tradition, it’s difficult not to be overcome by the sense of intimacy they experience with God.  Augustine wrote, “God is closer to us than we are to ourselves.” Augustine captures this intimacy which seems foreign to most Christians today who have been taught a very dualistic approach to prayer:  that God is in heaven above and we are on Earth below interceding for goodness and grace.  Contemplative prayer steps out of that dualism and understands that just as the fish is in the ocean and the ocean is in the fish, so we are immersed in the Divine presence which is also within us.

Having practiced contemplative prayer for most of my life, I continue to find it difficult to convey the experience.  While there isn’t a set routine or formula that enables me to sit in silence and be present to the Divine, I know that at times I am able to shut off my awareness of what’s around me and allow the chatter in my brain to be silent. On these occasions, it’s as if I pass some sort of threshold and my inner experience becomes vast, wide, and deep.  I experience a physical sensation of fullness that begins in my chest and continues to spread through my core.  Being in that place is profoundly peaceful and feels as though it is beyond time and space.  For the moments I experience this, I feel very much at home.

My practice of Christian meditation is focused on letting go of everything that prevents me from union with my deepest center, core, or soul.  At my deepest center is something of the life of God, a Divine spark.  The practice leads me to greater wholeness and abiding joy.  I have deep gratitude for the wisdom of the Christian tradition which has given me an understanding of this spiritual path.


Photo credit:

© 2017, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

Posted in Spirituality | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Sometimes We All Have Pain

It’s a classic song from my high school days.  I’m surprised how often I find the song playing as background music in my mind.  It was in 1972 that singer-song writer Bill Withers released this soulful tune:

“Sometimes in our lives we all have pain
We all have sorrow …”

Generally, we recognize that difficult times come in life, but our day to day experience pretty much ignores this reality.  We experience life as being generally okay.  We’re happy enough and get along well enough with others.  Then, something happens: we all have pain and sorrow.

Nearly three millennia ago in what we know today as Nepal, Siddhartha Gautama, came to the understanding that the world is full of sorrow.  His enlightenment was the result of understanding how to overcome the experience of sorrow in life, thus becoming the Buddha.  But most of us never quite understand the role of sorrow in our lives. It’s something we struggle to get through, hoping that things will return to the way they were before.  But that doesn’t quite happen.  Pain and suffering changes us.  For some it’s an opportunity for growth, for a kind of transformation. For others, it’s an experience that leads to resentment and bitterness.

Biblical scholar, Walter Brueggemann, explains that the Book of Psalms presents a paradigm of how people can move through the painful, difficult times of life toward the experience of transformation.  In his book, Praying the Psalms, Brueggemann notes that the Psalms can be organized into three different movements of life experience:  a secure orientation; a painful disorientation; a surprising reorientation.  These three movements are not only a way to characterize the Psalms but they also serve to describe our experience through pain and suffering.

In our day to day lives, our orientation to relationships, family, work, and the other aspects of life is secure.  Generally, things are good … or at least good enough.  But something occurs that’s painful and disorients us:  the loss of a job, the death of a loved one, a diagnosis of an illness, or some sort of insecurity rises us and takes over our mind.  The way in which we understood ourselves and our lives just doesn’t fit any longer.  We struggle against it and try to return to our previous “secure orientation.”  But that doesn’t work.

What are we to do?  It’s at this time that the admonition of the Buddha is critical:  we need to face that the world, our world, is full of sorrow.  Like those in twelve-step programs know so well, we are powerless to change our situation.  Instead, we need to release of need to control, accept what is and allow the way forward to present itself.

Saying this doesn’t mean we allow ourselves to become victims to whatever befalls us.  Instead, we need to let go of what we held so securely and accept that something has changed.  It is only with this acceptance can we begin to allow a surprising reorientation to occur.

The reorientation doesn’t mean that everything is better than it was before.  What it means is that we are able to find something good out of the change we’ve experienced.

For decades, I worked with people with serious illnesses, both long term chronic illnesses and terminal illnesses.  As people moved through the painful disorientation of their diagnosis and treatment, I often heard them say, “This was the best thing that ever happened to me.”  They didn’t say that as a denial of their condition or of the hardship they experienced.  Instead, their illness allowed them to examine life in a different way and to find something meaningful that they had not found in the past.  Does this happen for everyone?  No.  But this process of transformation does happen, particularly when people stop struggling against the serious life change and accept that even with a serious illness, life can be good for them.  That’s the surprising reorientation.

Bill Withers was right in many ways:  we all have pain.  But if we’re wise, we’ll know that there’s always tomorrow.  That tomorrow can be an opportunity when we open ourselves to the possibility of change in the midst of pain and allow others to carry the burden with us.

Photo credit:

© 2017, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Faith: Moving Beyond Dogma

Faith.  It’s trust and confidence in someone or something.  It’s a conviction about something that’s not based on objective evidence.

While we usually think about faith in terms of religious beliefs or the existence of a deity, we actually have faith about a great number of things in life.  For example, in developed countries, we have faith that the water which comes out of our faucets is safe to drink.  We don’t look for evidence each time we take a drink.  Instead, we have faith.  Of course, lead in Flint, Michigan’s water and non-potable water in many communities give us reason to question our faith in water safety.  But even with growing concerns about clean water in the US, most people think:  “That’s not here in my community.  I trust our officials will do the right thing.”  In a sense, we double-down on faith in such situations.

I recently received an email from a young man struggling with his faith.  He was raised in a religious family and is known for being very devout.  But he’s finding that his faith isn’t as sure as it once was.  Is there a god? Is this god good?  Why do things happen the way they do in life?  He’s been told that to question faith is wrong, but to just believe.  He wrote that he’s tried to “work himself into it,” but his faith just isn’t what it once was.

In responding to this young man, I had difficulty not to say what I really felt:  “How wonderful for you! Questions lead to new insights!”  Instead, I held my enthusiasm and tried to connect with him in his struggle.  I am aware from my own experience that faith grows, changes, and evolves over the course of life.  Some of the best growth occurs when we question and struggle and look to gain new insight.

In the early 1980s, James Fowler, a theologian and professor of human development, published a theory of faith development.  Since its publication, this theory has been studied from many different perspectives.  I won’t summarize all the stages here, but simply say that Fowler describes a process of growth and maturation of faith moving from literal, concrete beliefs through a period of angst and questioning to a stage when faith is not about rules but internalized ways of understanding the world which is marked by compassion for self and others.

In other words, people generally begin with faith in formal beliefs, statements, and creeds.  A formal belief could be that the universe operates on the law of karma, that there is one God, or that Jesus is the savior of the world.   Then, a life experience comes along which doesn’t fit with these formal beliefs.  This causes anxiety and confusion.  One resolution is to give up faith entirely.  For many people, giving up on faith isn’t an actual solution because people are often left with very mixed feelings about the beliefs once held.  Fowler’s theory of faith development shows that one can sort through the transition and come out the other side with a more nuanced understanding of faith.  Faith becomes internalized.  In other words, a person could evolve from a belief that the universe operates on the law of karma, to beleiving in a sort of quid pro quo for each and every action, to an internalized sense of karma that it’s better to do good in the world than evil, no matter what comes my way.  The belief becomes something of a personal ethic.

In the end, I contend that the only way to have a mature, integrated sense of faith is to lose that formal, dogmatic faith which Fowler understands as characteristics of the early stages of faith development.  As with most things in life, maturity is about integration.  With faith, that means not focusing so much on the externals but learning to live in ways that can be described as faithful.


Photo credit:

© 2017, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

Posted in Spirituality | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments