I stumbled into contemplative prayer by accident. After having been a hyperactive leader in my work, church and a local charity, I experienced disappointments in all these areas. I no longer wanted to pray. At a retreat I found myself in the chapel staring out its two-story high window at the tree-filled mountainside and a tiny tree-house structure near the top. I had a sense of God inviting me to stop being mad and just “be” with God. Then I shut my eyes. No words. No tears. I just wanted to be still and know that God is God.
Has anyone else ever done this?
With a little effort I found that saints throughout history have done this contemplative prayer, following these three patterns in Scripture: waiting, resting and delighting.
Waiting. While people consider waiting to be a negative, tiresome void, waiting on God can be full and rich. It’s active, expectant and open-ended: “Truly my soul silently waits for God; my soul, wait silently for God alone; for my expectation is from Him” (Ps 62:1, 2 & 5 NKJV).
Listening prayer trains us to be hopeful and trusting rather than pessimistic and suspicious. “Wait” is often linked with “hope”:
- We wait in hope for the LORD; he is our help and our shield. (Psa 33:20)
- But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. (Rom 8:25; italics mine)
Waiting in prayer may involve asking God questions, but we don’t expect God to answer us that moment. Our asking sets us up to hear God later in the voice of a child, in the recalled words of a co-worker, in an article in the newspaper. This puts us in a posture of listening to God in the back and forth of life.
Resting The shadow of the Almighty is a great place to rest for the soul that is scattered, parched, guilt-ridden, or uncertain. The psalmists spoke to their soul about rest, saying: “Find rest, O my soul, in God alone; my hope comes from him” (Ps 62:5, see also 116:7).
Delighting Waiting and resting can lead to delighting: “I delight greatly in the LORD; my soul rejoices in my God” (Isa 61:10, see also Ps. 27:4). We realize there’s no better place to be than with God.
One of the best illustrations of listening prayer is one of an old Russian peasant who with clockwork regularity everyday would slip into the church to sit and, apparently, do nothing. The priest observed this every day, and knowing the peasant was poor and needed to be working, finally asked him why he wasted his time every day doing this. The old peasant said, “I look at him. He looks at me. And we tell each other that we love each other.”
Listening prayer works well as a follow up to reading the Bible. After we have read it slowly and carefully, we hold it lightly within ourselves. What stood out to us? What do we need to know from this passage about God? From God? (This is a short form of lectio divina.)
How We’re Changed
Peace in agitation Practicing this quiet prayer makes it easier to slip into a state of rest even when you wait to pick someone up from school or a busy airport or as you sit in the dentist’s chair. I notice it most after an airplane lands and we passengers in the back wait for the folks in front to deplane. It’s normal for people to complain and even gasp, “I must get out of here.” For several years I prayed the 23rd Psalm in this situation but have gradually slipped into just “being” with God. Yet it’s an alert waiting—you notice who’s struggling: the person getting suitcases out of the overhead bin and or the mom holding a diaper bag and juggling a baby. So you lend a hand.
Able to be changed The quiet, restive moments with God melt one’s hard heart. Many times we know what the kind and loving thing to do, but we don’t have the kind and loving heart needed to do that thing. I want to be willing to reach out to someone who has scorned me; I want to lay down my self-importance and need to be noticed; I want to stop voicing my opinion when no one is asking. But I can’t quite do it. Sitting with God in the midst of such tension often invites the heart to come into alignment with God’s heart and we find ourselves doing that thing that was impossible before.
Searched and known. In the quiet of such prayer, God searches us and sees our offensive ways and gently notifies us about them. We may find ourselves praying such things as, “Lord, change me on the inside so I’m different on the outside.” The faces of those I serve at a drop-in center for the homeless come to me in moments of contemplation at home. In the early years of volunteering, especially, I would hear in my head the shrill words I spoke to a client or feel the resentment toward one I deemed undeserving. In these quiet moments, I saw my real self and asked God to put within me a deeper and quieter love for these “have-nots.”
Nudged forward into service We let go of the Mary-Martha stereotypes, i.e. people are either passive praying-types or active doing-types. We see that pray-ers make powerful activists and activists cannot survive unless they’re pray-ers. In the quiet, we become motivated by God to roll up our sleeves and partner with God in reconciling people to God, to others and even to themselves. And so life is never boring: There’s no better place than to be on the journey with God.