Practicing Contemplative Prayer, a guest post by Brittany Volpei
In my last post, I wrote a bit about my own longing to feed my soul on Christ, and how contemplative practices have helped. That’s what this blog series is about: Christians sharing ways they’ve connected deeply with God. What I am inviting you to do with these upcoming blog posts is to try them during the week, and see if they resonate with the desires of your heart. It may surprise you what you find when you become intentional and available to God.
A good place for us to start is with contemplative prayer.
Ruth Haley Barton once described contemplative prayer as “primarily beyond words,” moving from communication to communion with God (Sacred Rhythms, 64-65). Unfortunately, it reminds some Christians of Eastern meditation. This has left a bad taste in their mouths before ever getting a chance to dine. I was once suspicious of such practices, and I understand the initial hesitation for someone with little knowledge of either Eastern meditation or contemplative prayer. But the differences between the two are monumental. Spiritual formation director, Adele Calhoun, points out that while Eastern mediation involves an “attempt to clear the mind of all thoughts,” the distinctively Christian practice of contemplative prayer “allows for the recognition of thoughts and gently releases them into the hands of God” (Spiritual Disciplines, 208). So, far from denying our thoughts, passions, and innermost desires, we are to “rest in God, depending on him to initiate communion” (212).
Some will cite Jesus’ model prayer in Matthew 6:9-13 in their rejection of contemplative prayer, as though Jesus prohibited His followers from praying in any way except by reciting those five verses verbatim! (If we took this literally, we would all learn Aramaic). Yet the same Bible that Jesus affirms provides us a rich banquet of spiritual expression. The Bible says that Mary “treasured” what God spoke to her, “pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19); it tells us to meditate on Scripture day and night (Josh 1:8), and the Psalmist commands his own soul to “wait in silence” for God (Ps 62:5). There is no bifurcation in the Bible between prayer and contemplation. Is it possible to pray the Lord’s Prayer in a posture of silent meditation? I think so. Unlike the lower life expectancy of trendy self-help books available today, many Christian spiritual disciplines trace their roots through centuries of the storied history of the Church. I think they warrant our attention!
If you are struggling with the right words to say to God, yet need the peaceful power of his presence, maybe contemplative prayer is for you.
Though many agree that contemplative prayer is sometimes hard to explain perfectly–it lacks the formulaic nature that our Western mindset appreciates–there are certain steps you can take to posture yourself to receive from God. And I wanted someone who the practice has deeply affected to share it with you. Her name is Brittany Volpei.
I knew Brittany back when I started attending Reality, when, during the gatherings, she would go to the side where no one could see her, with her journal out, and her heart receptive to God.
Brittany has battled a pain disorder for the last 13 years. While the circumstances have been difficult, she is thankful for the opportunity to testify to God’s faithfulness. Below is her personal experience with the ancient art of contemplative prayer, how it’s connected her with God, and a few ways we all can take part in it. The rest of this post is in Brittany’s own words.
I learned the discipline of contemplative prayer in counseling.
For three years I struggled painfully with anger toward God. I felt abandoned, unloved, and confused. I was battling a disabling pain disorder and had dethroned God in my heart, replacing Him with healing. Because pain has been such a huge part of my life, I have done long seasons of counseling to learn how to cope. One counselor suggested I yell at God, another wanted me to journal about my feelings, but none of it worked. These failed tools left me suffocating under the weight of the heavy emotions. Then I met Karen.
I was a little skeptical of contemplative prayer because I was never taught that God is eager to answer very specific questions.
One day in counseling Karen led me to ask God, “How do You [God] see me?” Now I was even more skeptical; God gives visions [apart from gifts of the Spirit]? When I asked God how He sees me, a scene appeared: I was a bride, decked out in a white dress, and standing at the altar. Christ, the groom, was walking toward me. His gaze was fixed on mine and the audience was fixed on Him. I was so stunned that I couldn’t speak. My anger was shattered in an instant. The truth of Christ’s love broke through the lies and the hurt.
I am so thankful every time I think about this vision—thankful for the gift of the vision and healing it brought.
I have been a believer ever since then. For me, the prayer is more humble, more relaxed, and less about me. I show up to hear from God, not to get something out of it. I do ask God a lot of questions. Sometimes it feels like sitting with an old friend in silence, no words needed. The practice has made me more sensitive to the Spirit and I also feel like I hear God’s voice more clearly when I am going about any given day.
For the Christian who hasn’t practiced “being” with the Holy Spirit, the discipline may seem weird, or forced. There is no easy way to explain it, as the practice is unique for each individual. Thanks to contemplative prayer (and practice), I learned to be comfortable engaging or meeting with the Spirit. Depending on my feelings or the Spirit’s leading, I meet with all Persons of the Godhead, or just a specific One. This is what my prayer looks like (in this example, I meet with the Holy Spirit):
• I begin by inviting the Holy Spirit to direct and lead me.
• I then imagine my safe place* and visualize myself meeting with the Holy Spirit.
*For me, this place is imagined; a place where I feel safe and can find peace and healing. It’s also the same place each time. You can ignore the safe place and the imagery if it’s too weird for you and just ask God to meet you.
• I see myself and feel myself sitting in the presence of God.
I have learned to better sense His presence and can physically and spiritually sense when I am there.
• Sometimes I ask the Holy Spirit if He wants to tell me anything or I ask Him a specific question.
• I often follow my questions with, “Show me what this means?” in order to get clarity from the Holy Spirit.
• Other times I am led to sit in silence, just being with the Holy Spirit. It’s also a sweet place to worship.
When I am overwhelmed, hurting, or fearful I often go to my safe place with the Holy Spirit. The presence of God continually reminds me of the most important things: He is God and He is in control.
Lazo: the next time you are overwhelmed, hurting, or fearful this week, try these simple six steps of posturing that Brittany offered. In so doing, you are becoming more aware of the presence of God with you, especially during difficult circumstances. A moment in the presence of God can answer a lifetime of questions. And share with us any thoughts you have in the comment section!
Posted on June 30, 2014, in personal, spiritual formation and tagged Adele Calhoun, contemplation, contemplative, contemplative approach, lectio divina, prayer, Ruth Haley Barton, silence, solitude, spiritual disciplines, spirituality. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.