The place of contemplation

Did you grow up going to church? I did and, although my family was far from perfect, I am ever grateful that from an early age I learned that God is real, He is present, and that my life - and the life of my community - is somehow caught up in His.

During my childhood, I grew up attending what was then called a ‘house fellowship.’ While these congregations had their roots in the Brethren tradition, they had also been impacted by the Charismatic renewal of the 1960s and ‘70s. My early church experience was both conservative - women still covered their heads in church - and charismatic, in a way that resisted planning for the sake of leaving space for the Holy Spirit. 

In the midst of this, as part of the evangelical stream of the Church, I learned to value the word of God as the basis for church life and personal growth. Sunday mornings meant singing hymns that were rich in theological truth, and listening to sermons that were on the whole more Bible studies than stirring preaches. There was a sense that anything that could not be found explicitly spelled out in scripture must be dodgy and deceptive, if not downright demonic.

So, while I don’t feel the need to justify practices of contemplation, I get it when those with a similar upbringing to me react to words like ‘contemplative’ or ‘meditation’ with suspicion.

To evangelical ears, anything contemplative can sound a bit too floaty and mystical, and meditation can smack of eastern religions and the influence of Buddhism. And yet, both these concepts are deeply Christian and part of our heritage. The early Church fathers and mothers wrote extensively of contemplation and meditation (as did the psalmist, of course!) so that, rather than being something new and dangerous, these ancient ways of meeting God are perhaps once more offered to us as part of the renewal of the Church.

Meditation and contemplation are two primary forms of praying. In meditation, we use our minds. We ponder the basic principles that guide our life. We pray over words, images, and ideas.

I have found myself particularly moved when meditating on scriptures, poems and paintings. As I mull over particular words, they become richer and deepen in their significance for me. The practice of Lectio Divina, or Holy Reading, is a form of meditation. It is a way of chewing on scripture, not just to ‘know more’ but to receive from its truth and respond to its invitation to us personally. In a similar way, we might ponder a particular image, perhaps one related to a Bible story, mulling over the truths offered to us through the story’s depiction. (If you are new to meditating on images, you might want to take a look at Juliet Benner’s book, Contemplative Vision: A Guide to Christian Art and Prayer.)

Contemplation is more about feeling than thinking. Contemplation often stirs the emotions and enkindles deep desires. In contemplation, we rely on our imaginations to place ourselves in a setting from the Gospels or in a particular scene. We pray with Scripture, rather than studying it. Rather than learning about God, the intention is to experience God.

Praying the Psalms, so rich in emotion, can be a form of contemplation as we allow ourselves to be stirred by the feelings they portray. Reading scripture imaginatively, placing ourselves in the stories, is another form of contemplation. There are many other ways of allowing the Spirit of God to bring us to a place of awareness about how the emotions we experience are mirrored in the characters we encounter in scripture. A prayer of postures would be one example. And as we allow ourselves to experience these inner movements, we are able to present what is most real, or honest, about us more whole-heartedly to God as we pray. (To explore further, you might enjoy Tom Wright’s little book, Finding God in the Psalms.)

As we pursue these ways of encountering God, we grow in our capacity for discernment. That is, we come to notice the interior movements of our hearts, and discern where they are leading us. A regular practice of listening in this way helps us make good decisions.

Meditation and contemplation are thus about many fundamentally Christian themes. These include a sense of collaboration with God’s action in the world, spiritual discernment in decision making, generosity of response to God’s invitation, community and companionship in service, and a disposition to find God in all things. In this way, we move towards greater integration of our beings: integration of contemplation and action, prayer and service, and emotions and reason.

I am profoundly grateful to have experienced the gifts offered by contemplative ways of experiencing God. For me, this has been a shift of focus from what to believe, towards how to know. It is my prayer that you too will discover many diverse ways, both old and new, of encountering the Life and Spirit of God for yourself. May we all be led beyond the confines presented by past experiences, as good and important as they may have been, into one biblical writer called ‘the glorious freedom of the children of God.’*

*Romans 8:21