A Contemplative Approach to Christianity
It’s probably strange to hear the phrase, style of praying. I never would have identified one of my spiritual practices as a style. In my earlier years, I would have defended everything I did as the “right” way to do things. Now I’m learning that we all have styles in our spirituality. No single church or Christian encapsulates all that is Christ (that’s a good thing!). Praying is no different. Ah, that I could pray perfectly as Jesus did (John 17, anyone??) But I don’t–I pray like Chris Lazo. And my style of praying is partially influenced by my personality, friends, and church culture. I represent one strand of the universal Church. And as a representative strand–a fledgling one at that–I have a style to my prayer life. For example, I love boldly claiming the answer to prayers that I am confident are God’s will! I get a buzz from listening to authoritative prayers that are saturated with Scripture. I like intense words like travail. And unction. I have a habit of praying to persuade. And often, these prayers take their greatest shape when they have a goal in mind, e.g., tearing down walls, storming hell’s gates, etc. My church is heavily influenced by this type of praying. We often just call it intercession. And I love it. It has changed my small view of God into something I can sink my teeth into. It has shown me the encouraging power of a prayer answered. The friends who taught me how to pray this way opened me up to a world of praying that has left me with happy jitters. But it isn’t the only style of praying out there.
I had to remove myself from what was comfortable for me at the time to see the wealth of beautiful Christian expressions in the church today. It’s often when I observe the way God meets with other people that I learn the most about how to meet with God. Spirituality is so easy to exploit when everyone else behaves just like you. This has its strengths and weaknesses. First, it can surround you with people of like mind, vision, and tenacity. But other times, unfortunately, by remaining in a cultural bubble, your experience of God can become very myopic if you let it. In the same way, if we make prayer only about our particular style–whatever that may be–we might miss out on the panorama of communion with God. I’m learning this the hard way. I’ve grown in a particular strand of prayer that has intercession as its root, and I have so thoroughly benefitted from this. I will never stop participating in those fiery prayers of unction. But I also need to be refilled.
I guess you could say that I am restless.
I’m not always bold in prayer. I frequently struggle with doubts. Some of those doubts are so menial, it’s embarrassing how easily they tear me apart emotionally. Even in my loud, corporate prayers, I’ve felt the sting of spiritual dryness. I suppose much of this new soul-searching has been due to a very fiery season in life, replete with things I don’t feel capable of bearing. And it’s difficult to toss up words in those seasons where I am emotionally and spiritually spent. Sometimes I just need to change things up. Now, I don’t want to change for the sake of change, but for the sake of shaking up a rigid spiritual equilibrium. Sometimes all it takes is a slight diversion from old routines. Instead of always being heard, I need to listen. Instead of shouting, I need to whisper. Instead of having an agenda in prayer, I sometimes need to be ok with not having any other goal than just to be with Christ. Instead of bringing words, I bring silence. There come certain times in my life when I need to put away my loud “amens,” along with the calling down of fire, and trade it for a more contemplative approach. Of course, both of them are valuable! But recently, my soul has really needed the balm of the latter. I wonder if yours does too.
This is a blog series about contemplative spirituality.
The path of the mystics. These phrases used to trigger some ugly connotations for me in the past, when I was warned about those “Easterners” and their “Zen Meditation.” While there IS a dangerous side that exists (aren’t they everywhere?), traditional contemplatives trace their roots through a long strand of Christian history. And I don’t mean 1950’s Christian history. I mean ancient practices that have stood the test of time. The ancients were people just like us, in difficult situations like us, and often far worse. They clung to Christ just as we do. But they did it through tried spiritual disciplines like contemplative prayer, solitude, meditation, lectio divina, and many others.
The richness and breadth of some of these centuries-old church practices have been water to my soul.
There are probably a number of reasons why. Here’s one: It’s easy for me to pray in a corporate setting, when I feel the affirmation of others who are praying with me. I’m not saying that we do this, but it certainly is available to fall into if we want it to stimulate our self-esteem. The “mm-hmms,” the “amens,” and the “groans,” that accompany a Spirit-led prayer can easily tantalize me with using prayer to induce a response in my endless search for affirmation. Again, those corporate responses in prayer are good things! I love it when a group of people can pray in unison, and the “amens” often help cultivate that unity and create a wonderful momentum of vision and agreement when the church is knocking on the door of heaven. It is also very encouraging to experience. I’m also not saying that we should stop praying corporately, and only pray privately. Those are apples and oranges. Private prayer is different from corporate prayer, and we need both of them, not one to the exclusion of the other. So I’m not saying we do away with the “amens,” the corporate groans, or the loud prayers. I suppose I just want to identify, confess, and confront the wicked tendencies of my own heart in prayer. In that it is possible for me to pray for the wrong reasons, and I probably do this more than I imagine. Certainly, it is easier to do than I thought. There is an uncomfortable measure of productivity present in my normal routine of prayer. But that’s where these other spiritual disciplines come in.
The “quiet” prayers of the contemplatives are so haunting to me. There is no one to listen to me except God alone.
In fact, some ancient spiritual prayer disciplines involve no speaking whatsoever! This sometimes feels very counter-productive to me! Adele Calhoun empathizes with this on the practice of Centering Prayer, in her book, Spiritual Disciplines (which I can’t recommend more highly).
This prayer may seem mysterious to some because it depends so little on words. We do not give God information about all our needs, projects, ideas, programs, plans and agendas. We don’t suggest things we would like him to do. We sit in the presence of God and give them our undivided love and attention… Because centering prayer is a way of being with Jesus that doesn’t cover prayer concerns, some people wonder if it counts as real prayer. Furthermore, if it doesn’t make you feel or experience something particular, what does it do? It is never possible to judge the value of any prayer based on feeling or experience alone. Experiences are not the point.
I have often felt this way–like nothing was getting done unless I was saying something worthwhile (worthwhile could mean loud, wordy, catchy as far as my subjective feelings go). A lack of words left me feeling unproductive. Yet whenever I forced myself to sit in solitude, I ended up wrestling with myself. As it turns out, that was the obstacle getting in the way of my communion with God: myself. My self’s preoccupation with productivity, busyness, and “getting things done.” Calhoun confirms my conflict and the freedom that results from wrestling,
In centering prayer the goal is to so dwell in Christ that the fruit of this dwelling begins to show up in your life. Centering praying may “do” nothing at the moment. You sense no rapture, no mystical bliss. But later, as you move out to the busyness of life, you begin to notice that something has shifted. Your quiet center in Christ holds.
This is the trench that I continue to plow, without letting go of corporate prayer, or the unction-closet. I warn you, it has sometimes left me tattered, helpless, and hungry. But in my hunger, I’ve needed to step out of my normal routine, and receive again from others in our long history of shared faith. Out of this I’ve discovered a beautiful God in the wealth of His joy and beauty. A God who bids the sinner to come close in Christ. I would love to share in this with you as others have graciously shared with me. Not because I have all the answers to spirituality, prayer, or the dry seasons. But because I’m guessing that all of us hit those dry spots sooner or later. I’m also not the one giving anything. This series will be driven largely by other people. People who are also driven into the quiet places. Here’s how the series will look.
For the next six weeks, I’ve invited others to share specific ways that they connect with God in private, contemplative communion.
Many of these will be authentic disciplines that have been in use by Christians over many centuries. Others are more personal, and even quirky. But they all have something in common: the person practicing them has connected with God through that practice in a meaningful way. So here’s what I want us to do (myself included). I want all who are willing, to read from the experiences of these men and women, let them confront our own static routines, and learn a new spiritual discipline. Then…let’s DO them for that week. For example, if someone shares about solitude, learn from them, then practice solitude in a desire to connect with God. Same with reading the Word. And meditation. And listening.
My hope is that we will discover new plateaus to connect with God. In so doing, may our souls be ministered to by the fountain of God in Christ.
One last thing. It may not surprise you that spirituality is communal in nature, even when some of it remains private. So I welcome you to share your experiences during this series. Please comment on the posts, and interact with each author that participates. It will only be a blessing to us all. Until then, – Chris Lazo
Posted on June 23, 2014, in personal, realitysb, spiritual formation and tagged contemplation, contemplative, contemplative approach, lectio divina, prayer, solitude, spiritual disciplines, spirituality. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.