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.


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

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