Contemplative prayer as a holy habit

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Our Team Vicar, Revd Mark Waters from St Dunstan's Edge Hill, reflects on his experience of contemplation and contemplative prayer as part of our Lent series on 'Holy Habits':

One of the most formative pieces of training that I did at Salisbury and Wells theological college was during my first month of induction there. Every day for that month we had an hour’s silence in the chapel led by the principal.

It was agony!  At least at first. I didn’t know what to do with it. I couldn’t control my thoughts. I got impatient and bored. I daydreamed. I imagined all the things I might be doing instead of being sat there doing ‘nothing’.

But as the month wore on, something about the periods of silence began to feel different. Those times took on a more useful role, and I began – almost – to look forward to them.

And then for the next three years all of our prayer time at college – morning and evening - was punctuated by periods of silence. And so it became a way of life, and for the last 30 odd years it has been part of my pattern of prayer.

Clumsily, not as regularly as I might, with great difficulty at times – but at other times with more of a sense of clarity and purpose and meaning – I have tried to fumble my way into using silence to more effect, and used a range of different ways of experiencing silence. I still count myself as a beginner, but one who is learning to swim in that particular water of prayer.

As some of you know, a couple of years ago I came across the practice of Centering Prayer – which is a form of contemplative prayer, and – for me - it has been the most helpful way of using silence, partly because of the simplicity of its method, but also because of how it works and the depth in me that it reaches – the reason for which I hope will become clear later in this talk.

But let’s be clear from the beginning. Silence is not always what we know as contemplative prayer, although contemplative prayer always involves silence. So let’s explore why that might be.

Levels of awareness

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Some writers talking about contemplative prayer use a simple image to describe it. The image involves three concentric circles – a bull’s eye diagram. The outer circle is seen as ‘ordinary awareness’, the middle circle is seen as ‘spiritual awareness’, and the inner, central one is seen as ‘divine awareness.

Ordinary awareness is the mind as it usually thinks, and the sense of self attached to that way of thinking.

As human beings we have been given what is known as a self-reflexive consciousness – our ability to stand outside ourselves as see ourselves as a third person. Because of this we are able to think of ourselves as unique persons, endowed with unique identity, qualities, capacities and needs. From this reflexive consciousness we see the world in a subject/object way. In this awareness we see ourselves as having certain attributes and gifts, and also needs that need to be satisfied if my personhood is to become whole. This sets up all sorts of expectations, and also quite a lot of anxiety – particularly about not fulfilling all this potential that I have been given.

Ordinary awareness can be very useful. It can help us make sense of our world. And it can enable us to focus on particular things that we want to do. Without it we’d be hard pressed to carry out tasks or hold down a job, and all sort of other things. But when ordinary awareness is not task-focused it is not particularly pretty. Into our heads pop, unbidden, all sorts of random thoughts, memories, associations and sensations. Sometimes these are stimulated by my environment – what is going on around me, and sometimes by that environment triggering an association – a memory – good or bad, which then triggers a reaction or chain reaction in my head – I become lost in these thoughts. Buddhists call this ‘monkey mind’ – my mind like a little beast hopping from branch to branch and dragging the whole of me with it.

At the centre of this chaotic whirl of thoughts and sensations is what seems like a solid centre – the “I” – my own picture of who I am.  And this “I” has a whole set of referential questions with which it probes and measures the universe, and all my experience: ‘How well am I doing?’; ‘Is it safe here?’; ‘What did she mean by that?’; What on earth is he up to?’ Is she better than me?’ ‘Am I okay?’.

Another name for this ordinary awareness is egoic thinking.

The second concentric circle - Spiritual awarenessdeeper than ordinary awareness, in every single person, but often unknown is often more a sensation, or a feeling. We don’t usually experience it that often. It has been described as a sort of magnetic compass, a pull of something that is fixed on God. We might experience it on a retreat, or walking in the woods or by the river, or when we are overwhelmed for a moment by the beauty of a child.

As Cynthia Bourgeault says:

It comes upon us rarely, sometimes in a moment of overpowering emotion, such as suddenly being moved to tears by watching a sunset or receiving communion at a moving Eucharist. That ‘nostalgia for the divine’ sweeps over us and we are left trembling before the Mystery almost more vivid and beautiful than we can bear. But ordinary life does not encourage such moments, and the impression fades, to be revisited only in our dreams, the usual repository of our spiritual awareness.

Whereas ordinary consciousness perceives through that self-reflexive ‘I’ consciousness, which splits the world into subject and object, spiritual awareness is much more perceived through the intuitive grasp of the world, an innate sense of things and of longing and belonging and an intuitive grasp of the whole. 

Spiritual awareness is perception based on harmony, and it is not plagued by that sense of isolation and anxiety that can dominate life at the ordinary level of awareness.

And finally, Divine awareness, which is what contemplative prayer is aiming at.

This awareness concerns the idea – the belief - that God is at the centre of our being. This is dangerous stuff. We need to be cautious. We must be careful not to conclude that we are identical with the divine – it is more subtle than that – more a matter of being mysteriously interwoven. Thomas Merton puts it beautifully:

At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God written in us, as our poverty, as our son or daughtership. It is like a pure diamond blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it, we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely. I have no programme for this seeing. It is only given. But the gate of heaven is everywhere.

This divine awareness or divine indwelling is the heart of contemplation or contemplative prayer. Thomas Keating calls it ‘our personal big bang’ – because it reveals the source of our being – the explosion of divine love into form which first gave rise to our personal life.

Contemplative Prayer – so contemplative prayer is about a discipline which intentionally works at living – for short periods – in divine awareness.

It’s what has been described as ‘putting a stick in the spoke of thinking’. It is a way of silent prayer which aims to break the tyranny of ordinary awareness and its closed circle of thinking, so that the more subtle awareness at the depths of your being can be revealed.

Often in writing about contemplative prayer the symbolism is all about ascent, going higher, but a better description would be words about depth and learning to see in the dark. Cynthia Bourgeault puts it like this:

At first when you practice it feels like a place you go to. You may think of it as ‘my inner sanctuary’ or ‘my place apart from God’. But as the practice becomes more and more established in you so that this inner sanctuary begins to flow out into your life, it becomes more and more a place you come from. It is a bedrock of spiritual intelligence, a sense of connectedness known from so deeply within you that nothing can shake it.

Hard work – of course at first your ordinary awareness, your egoic thinking, hates this process of silence. And it says to you ‘You just expect me to sit here and do nothing?’. And it will do anything and everything to tear you away from the silence and stillness which is the opposite of the discursive mind. We are used to our minds being full of narratives, ideas, sensations. As Thomas Keating has said, ‘most of us spend most of our lives watching B rated videos in our head. Videos of the past, videos of imagined futures. Anything but living in the present. Contemplative prayer is a disciplined, determined attempt to get out of that loop and to connect to God at a much deeper level of our being – the deepest level.

Contemplative Prayer is not about inner peace, calmness or bliss. It is not a tool – like some meditation practices – for developing concentration, relaxing stress, or accessing higher states of consciousness. Thomas Keating disabuses people of this misconception by saying that you might experience peace and bliss in the first three months of Contemplative Prayer, but not beyond that.

Why? Because contemplative prayer is about the purification and healing of the unconscious. The early practitioners of contemplative prayer couldn’t have seen it like we do, because they didn’t have the psychological framework, but reading the Desert Fathers, or St John of the Cross, or Teresa of Avila we are left under no impression that this is what they are often talking about. A depth of praying which over time unloads the unconscious and so frees us from for real relationship with God

I cannot improve on Cynthia Bourgeault’s words on this:

As the unconscious unloads during Centering Prayer one begins to dismantle the “false self” i.e. the needy, driven, unrecognized motivations that govern most of our untransformed human behaviour. Beginning in infancy each of us, in response to perceived threats to our well-being, develops a false self: a set of protective behaviours driven at root by a sense of need and lack. The essence of the false self is driven, addictive energy, consisting of tremendous emotional investment in compensatory ‘emotional programmes for happiness. It is the false self that we bring to the spiritual journey; our ‘true self’ lies buried beneath accretions and defences. In all of us there is a huge amount of healing that has to take place before our deep and authentic quest for union with God – which requires tremendous courage and inner presence to sustain – escapes the gravitational pull of our psychological woundedness and self-justification. This, in essence, constitutes the spiritual journey. As one sits in Centering Prayer with the intent to rest in and trust in God, the unconscious begins to unload ‘the emotional junk of a lifetime. Repressed memories, pain, accumulated dull hurt rise to the surface and are, through the attitude of gentle consent, allowed to depart.

She finishes with this quote from Thomas Keating:

The gift of contemplative prayer is a practical and essential tool for confronting the struggle with our unconscious motivation – while at the same time establishing the climate and necessary dispositions for a relationship with God and leading, if we persevere, to divine union.

I guess by now you might begin to agree with me that it is not for the faint-hearted!