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Contemplation: three doorways and three difficulties
Prayer is about growth. It’s not a technique that you can learn and just conquer, so there is always going to be some hesitation, some growth area, some weakness that you exhibit when you encounter the various ways to do it. It’s important to move beyond our cynicism into something greater and fuller.
Perhaps that it is both what is so appealing and difficult about contemplative prayer. It’s a prayer that is silent. One that you can’t describe in great detail with words. One that’s done privately. One, that frankly, if observed, can’t be really distinguished form just “zoning out.” If you take a picture someone driving on a Midwest Interstate and you take a picture of a monk praying, the only different might be that the monk’s has his eyes closed.
It’s a paradox. It heals anxious people, but anxious people can’t seem to do it.
Paul tells us to "Walk by faith, not by sight" (2 Cor 5:7)—this might very well be the antidote to all of our difficulty with prayer, we might just lack faith. We often think of this as waiting for God to do something that we would not normally expect. But in the prayer of contemplation that I want to explore, it is about becoming aware of the unknown things God is doing in the present moment. Pray helps us be with God right now. We can’t force it, though.
A gardener does not actually grow plants. She practices skills that facilitate growth that is beyond her control. A sailor does not produce the necessary wind to move the boat. He harnesses the gift of wind by exercising skills that can get him home.
Contemplative prayer is not a technique. It is a skill. The basic skill of contemplative prayer is inner silence. There are two practices within this skill set that are very important. Stillness and awareness. Tonight we are going to talk about the process of facing the inner noise with which we struggle when we attempt to be silent. And I hope you will tell us some of your struggles and successes with the practice.
Let me try to define it for you first and then venture into why it might be difficult and perhaps how we can succeed in it.
We often start with what we call breath prayer, which most of need as a basic skill to being quiet enough to pray. I imagine we will be doing that later. But if you keep filling your lungs with air and release it slowly, it will calm you. If you breath in something good and release something to be rid of, that adds to the prayer. So that's a basis for what Martin Laird in a text he wrote called Into The Silent Land calls the three doorways of contemplative prayer.
1) The first doorway to enter in contemplative prayer begins when you choose a prayer word and stick with it until you don’t need it anymore
It helps you deal with the fidgety and flighty aspects of our being. Think about it like a vaccine. You are using a small dose of the disease to ward off the full thing. In this case, the disease is our overactive and restless minds. Many of us have brilliant minds that serve functions that are invaluable, but they are ultimately distractions from our union with God. Relating to God is the fullness of our identity.
2) The second doorway is becoming one with the prayer word.
For me getting through the first doorway is hard enough. The second doorway is deeper. I’m attracted to the first doorway because it is such a refuge for my anxiety and weariness. But getting beyond the “weather” and into something deeper is better. In our calmness, we might enter the second doorway. It’s in the fact that we can’t control our circumstances that we begin to really venture deeper. Life and wisdom is not found in trying to control the wind, but in hoisting our sails to move with the Spirit in the present moment. This praying is hoisting sails.
Entering into the second doorway is like entering into the second doorway of our souls too. We begin to become aware of the things of which we were initially unaware. We become conscious of the unconscious, of things previously out of our perception. When we begin to see what’s going on underneath is, it is a powerful place to resist all of the scripts that we unconsciously run through our minds.
3) The third doorway is being present in awareness itself.
In the third door way, we move beyond simply recognizing our thoughts, to recognizing how we recognize. It sounds out there—it is.
Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waters.
We forget about our troubles and commune with God. It is a self-forgetful communion. We become in touch with the whisper that Elijah was referencing.
Here’s why it’ll be hard:
You might be anxious. You might be unable to get into a prayerful mode because you’re life is too unrestrained. Try doing some out loud prayer first; get the thoughts out of your mind. And if you can’t you can keep trying.
You might be anxious about being alone for more than five minutes at a time. Confront that anxiety and try it out. Learn that it will be OK if you are alone. That nothing will happen to you.
It might be too loud or you might be too distracted. Find a silent place. Get rid of your phone. Try to find a quiet place to pray. You could even buy a noise machine. You could do it with your windows down in your call on the highway. You could do it on retreat in a secluded place. You could do it right after a snow storm. But try to do it without doing anything else. Don’t confuse exercise, or manual labor necessarily for contemplation. Doing dishes can be contemplative, but find more time to do it then then.
And your emotional distractions? Let them be. You can’t control the weather. You can’t make the plants grow. But you are not the weather, you are the mountain. If the storm comes, let it come, you will be unmoved.
You might expect too much of yourself. Take it easy. Find yourself in Jesus. Be OK with your failure. Try to do it incrementally. I wouldn’t try for four hours right away. Try for four minutes. We already did it for one minute today. And let yourself do it. You’ll know when you can go longer.
When you are distracted, bring yourself back to your word. Speak it out loud if you need to.
A few more helpful hints. Stay mindful. Pay attention. Keep breathing intentionally. Breathe in the word and breath them out. Watch your posture. Sit on a hard chair, keep your back straight, your rear elevated so you can breathe easier, and your posture open. Be ready to receive. Pay attention to your thoughts; when you start to zone about all of the trouble that has found you in your life, go back to your word. You are swimming beyond your thoughts into something deeper. Try to let go of your thoughts and move through the doorway.