This post is another in my occasional series on prayer (cf. Ethical Musings Ethical Musings: Musings about prayer, Ethical Musings: Some thoughts on prayer, and Ethical Musings: Prayer can improve personal happiness).
A contemplative spirituality is a reflective spirituality, that is, a spirituality that emphasizes spending time thinking about one’s life, others, the cosmos, and ultimate reality. Contemplation connotes the active engagement of the mental faculty and is thus distinctive from meditation, which will be the subject of a future post.
One prerequisite for contemplation is regularly setting aside time for intentional reflection. Some Christians find the liturgical seasons of Advent and Lent with their traditional emphasis on self-examination especially appropriate for such reflection. Other people engage in a continuing program of contemplation.
The starting point for contemplation may be a program of spiritual exercises (e.g., those of Ignatius of Loyola, which the Jesuits still use, and in which the individual proceeds through a series of exercises imagining he/she is in Jesus’ presence, in conversation with Jesus, or enacting Jesus’ parables, progressively becoming more like Jesus). Alternatively, a walk in nature, another experience, a piece of art, music, or a written passage may provide the starting point for contemplation. Each individual is well advised to find the starting point that she/he finds most conducive for beginning a period of contemplation.
Contemplation requires time but does not need to be open-ended, e.g., a person may set aside ten to sixty minutes of quiet, uninterrupted time in a quiet environment. Some people like to bookend their contemplation by beginning and ending with a verbal prayer, spoken or silent, extemporaneous or written (such as the Collect for Guidance on p. 100 and Collects # 57 and 58 on p. 832 of the Book of Common Prayer).
At the end of the period of contemplation, time spent journaling or discussing the experience with a spiritual director may help to clarify thoughts and to identify directions for future sessions of contemplative prayer.
Of course, the temptation to identify certain experiences as experiences of God occurs frequently during contemplation. God is other and not reducible to words. Richard Holloway, the former Archbishop of the Scottish Episcopal Church, uses this story to illustrate the point:
I love the story about the composer who played his latest composition for a friend. When he finished there was a brief silence; then, uneasily, his friend asked: ‘What does it mean?’ The composer looked at him, said nothing, turned back to the piano – and played it again.
The story points up two important matters. The first is the way we tend to privilege words in the sphere of meaning, something the composer challenged by refusing to translate one form of expression - music, into another - language. [Follow the link for Holloway’s complete essay, “The Absence of God”]
Instead, the goal of contemplative prayer is much more limited: to discern the Spirit at work within one’s mental processes, both cognitive and affective. God lures (rather than coerces) people to move toward the light. Responding to God's luring may be accidental, perhaps even unintended. Contemplative prayer presumes that responding to God's luring may also be intentional, as one discerns the direction in which God is beckoning, inciting, or enticing one to move.
In a world full of busyness, unrelenting demands, and incessant electronic assaults, finding time for contemplation may be difficult; the time spend in contemplation may become in itself a gift from God as one’s appreciation for that which makes life precious (this includes life, love, beauty, knowledge, and perhaps more experienced in self, others, the world, and God) increases. Life abundant consists neither in the duration of life nor the quantity of one’s possessions or relationships but in the depth of one’s genuine existence. Contemplation is valuable because it offers many a path that leads to the depths.