Reflecting on 2018, I’m recalling 7 things that made a big difference this year. I’m writing as a note to my future self – but they might be of help to you too.
Sadly, most Christian religious traditions rarely go out of their way to explore and explain different approaches to prayer. For me, coming from a Pentecostal background I tended to only know prayer as a time of petitioning (asking for intervention), praise and worship, journalling or speaking in tongues. Most of that was all done out loud and with plenty of energy. All of these things are fantastic but not necessarily formational. I’m so glad to have been introduced and practising some different forms of prayer this year. I have a feeling that many of these will be instrumental practices for me in the coming decades.
One of the gifts that come with going through burnout and ‘coming to the end of yourself’ is that you have very little energy to produce the same amount of output that you used to. Everything, including prayer, feels like a chore. Coming to God with a list of things I need Him to do, finding energy for praise and worship or even praying in tongues, all feels like swimming in molasses to nowhere. After all, most midlife faith crises include a deep disappointment in God and unanswered prayer to requests you thought you had the power to change God’s mind. Till now you often think that you can invoke heaven to relieve you from pain immediately. As if you are the Lord, or He is some kind of Panadol.
It’s purely and simply naivety and ignorance that have kept me from knowing about ancient contemplative/monastic types of prayer which, I now realise, have been part of the Christian tradition for many thousands of years. In my research, I also discovered that if you want to experience real spiritual and personal transformation the only two types of prayer that cause this are, in fact, outward prayer for self (God, help me be…). and a contemplative prayer approach.
What is the difference, you might ask? Contemplative practice really is about ‘being’ and less about doing. It is about making way for the deep work of the Spirit. If anything were to happen that results in personal formation and change, one cannot say it was a result of their own effort or energy, but would honestly have to say it is a deep work of the spirit who is working in us to form us into the image of Christ, especially beyond our consciousness.
I’m starting slow, understanding that contemplative prayer approaches are actually spiritual practices. Emphasis on ‘practices’.
There is no end goal. Only intent. There is no indication that you have arrived. There is no place where you can say ‘I’ve got it.’ or ‘I cracked the code.’ Or ‘I have some kind of secret that I can share with you so that you can pray and get breakthrough in all things.’ It is a practice. Much like marriage is practice. A daily commitment and intention to spend time with someone who loves you and you’ve made the decision and choice to love also. Beyond that, you really enjoy just spending time together.
We are so blessed in this day and age to have access to some fantastic teachers on contemplative approaches to prayer including Father Thomas Keating, Father Richard Rohr, Cynthia Bourgeault and a myriad of texts from the Desert Fathers and Mothers who were doing this thousands of years ago. It’s easy to find their books and videos online.
For me to explain how one practices contemplative prayer here in this article would be an insult to those who have spent a lifetime practising, teaching and training others. But several contemplative and monastic approaches to prayer include Centering Prayer, Lectio Divina, Examen, and more.
If you come from an Evangelical / Protestant background as I do, I kind of had to get over the terrible habit of being the one in control of how prayer works, my desired outcome, and reliance on my energy. I also had to get over any criticism and judgement I had on the Catholic tradition which is so much older (and grounded) than the Protestant tradition, and is where you will find some of the most outstanding, beautiful, loving teachers on this subject.
Not even six months into this practice, I miss it when I don’t take time out to practice it. I’d have to say my entire being, body soul and spirit, including my nervous system and brain, love the deep rest in the peace that comes with spending most of my prayer time in silent contemplation. Usually 20-40 minutes a day. Making way for the Spirit dwelling in me by letting go of all my desires for control, power, and security; which is what most of us spend our energies on all day – and which fail us and often leads to burn-out and toxic responses to life and others.
Even these reflective ‘notes to my future self’ blog posts that I’m writing have demonstrated to me that despite experiencing a year filled with a lot of pain, transition and renewal, I still managed to be effective and do a lot of stuff. Like most recovering rescuers I tend to be an overachiever. My goal is to have less than seven next year.?
I guess it’s too early to say what the long-term result of this would be. However, if I look at the lives of those who practice contemplative prayers on a daily basis, and consider their fondness of God, their service to humanity and the deep ‘ground of being’ that they demonstrate in their lives, I want to be like that. If you want a famous example, look no further than someone lile Mother Theresa.
I should note that contemplative practice shouldn’t be something that replaces other kinds of prayer. There is always value in petition prayer, praise and worship, journaling, adoration, communion etc. But I would argue that contemplative prayer should be part of our spiritual life; after all, what we do comes out of who we are – and God is deeply, mysteriously being and relationship itself.
Note to my future self: Dave, as your counsellor and spiritual director reminded you, you have a sharp mind, which is a gift that can also be your Achilles Heel when it comes to developing a deeper and meaningful relationship with God. Centering prayer and other contemplative practices need to be a non-negotiable for you. You must regularly let go of mastery and keep leaning further into mystery.
OTHER NOTES TO MYSELF