This article by Ruth Alkema from Utrecht first appeared in Dutch in De Jeruzalemkerk te Utrecht newsletter. Ruth has kindly offered to share an English translation of the article also with Holy Trinity Chaplaincy.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
I really want to share with you something that I’ve learned over the past year about contemplative prayer. More than a year ago I had never heard of this kind of prayer until someone told me about it, but I have been so blessed by it, that I gladly share. I think it’s very important for spiritual growth.
Contemplation: What is it?
When I first heard the term, mentioned in passing, I did not know what was meant by it, but it brought an image to me of being very close to God, and it awoke something in me. I wanted to know more about it. Since then I have searched and read much, and I think that it means that with all the aspects of your soul (both the ‘ordinary’: your mind, your feelings, as well as the more elusive: your spirit, maybe this is the same as what some people call the subconscious) you open up to God, and so you rely less on yourself and more on God. Basically I think there are two complementary ways of contemplation: first, a seeking out God with your thoughts, by meditating on the Bible, and doing this privately and in a spirit of worship, so that you really take in what God says; and, second, by becoming completely silent, bringing your thoughts to rest and to just be with God.
The Deep valley
Before I say more about these two ways, I want to tell you something else, that for me was also very necessary to know first, otherwise I would probably have given up halfway. The point is, it can be pretty scary to come so close to God. I was warned and have also noticed that it really is not always nice to see yourself in God’s light. Suddenly your own mistakes become very clear, and that can be frightening. I have been very blessed to have a good friend, who also takes seriously God’s holiness, and just very lovingly listened, and she pointed out God’s love for me. With her I could confess my sins, and that is necessary for me to come closer to God. Only in this way can we be as God intended us, and I believe, greater and holier than we can now imagine. Only in this confidence do I dare honestly look at myself and face how proud and selfish I still am.
Praying the Scriptures
About the “how” of contemplation, I mentioned above that you can prayerfully read the Bible. This is very nicely explained in an excellent book by Timothy Keller, titled “Prayer: experiencing awe and intimacy with God.” For me it is especially important that I see Bible reading also as prayer. I read the text before God, or rather together with God, and I also speak back. Later, I often use in my prayers the text I read as a starting point for prayer. Timothy Keller, in his book, gives several examples of how you can do that. I myself follow the pattern of Morning Prayer of the Church of England (there is an app for that!). And certainly when I first started, and did not really quite know what to pray, it helped me tremendously to simply pray the Psalms. I felt lifted up to God by these words, and after the space of a year, I still experience it so.
In my quest to know what contemplation actually is, I read also about the prayer of silence. It is to be altogether silent before God. It is a way of praying, which I initially thought could not be good – God has given us understanding, why would we leave that off? Timothy Keller is not positive about it, he looks at it exactly as I also felt. But someone I trust, and through whom I see God working, was positive about it, so I proceeded cautiously to try it. An important criterion to keep in mind is what is the fruit: are you becoming more loving toward other people or not?
To be silent before God is actually quite confrontational. I tried to be quiet, and immediately I thought, “What am I actually doing here now?” I was doing it for God (I thought), but I wondered a lot whether God really wanted me around, or if he may have thought, “There comes Ruth bothering me again”.
Because I was silent, I realized suddenly what I really thought about my relationship with God and my faith was much less firm than I had always thought. That immediately gave me much food for thought. The thoughts that came up in the quiet in me, taught me something about myself, and I brought them again in prayer to God. But that is still not really being quiet.
My acquaintance also told me of a way to help bring one’s mind to rest, namely, to repeat the same short prayer. In the Orthodox Church they use the Jesus Prayer, for example, to pray repeatedly, “Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”, and to pray with the rhythm of breathing. It seemed strange, mantra-like, but it is a way to quiet down the distracting thoughts in one’s mind, and thus give God the opportunity to work in us in the background, to recognize that we need Jesus, and also as an act of loving adoration before Jesus. It seems to me good, and I’ve now integrated this habit as part of my morning prayer.
Books I owe much to in the past year regarding this topic:
Timothy Keller – Prayer: experiencing awe and intimacy with God. This is a very well written book about prayer. There are many tips which you can apply immediately in your practice of prayer. What I found very nice about it is that it’s such a universal book, he cites many ancient Church Fathers from both the Catholic and the Protestant tradition (eg. Augustine, Luther, Calvin).
Kathleen Norris – Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and Women’s Work.
This is a wonderful personal and poetic book, about how to connect the daily grind with staying close to God.
Rod Dreher – How Dante can save your life.
This is also a very personal book of a man in mid-life crisis. He describes a process of spiritual growth that he experienced based on the famous poem, The Divine Comedy, by Dante. I include this because contemplative prayer and spiritual growth pretty much go hand in hand, and this book shows so clearly that in drawing closer to God one also comes to see and must face one’s own shortcom-ings. He also describes beautifully how the Jesus Prayer is helping him.