We have recently started a new service on a Wednesday evening at 5.45pm: Silence in the City. This is a quiet contemplative service and we asked Sam Eccleston to explain a bit about Contemplative Prayer.
The label ‘contemplation’ is applied not to a single thing, but rather to a family of Christian spiritual practices. These practices are largely derived from the spiritual lives of members of religious orders and are often named after famous Saints who inspired or developed them. There are disagreements about what precisely the word ‘contemplation’ means; some would say that, properly speaking, contemplation is actually a mystical grace that can only be received from God, consisting of an effortless awareness of and attentiveness to God’s presence. Such people might argue that what we do when we practice contemplative prayer is we try to prepare ourselves for and open ourselves to such an experience. Others would say that contemplation is a state of undistracted focus; either a diffuse but alert awareness of one’s own body, mind, and surroundings, or the concentrated awareness of a prayer word, or repeated prayer phrase. Still others would include visualisation exercises and self-examination within the remit of contemplative prayer.
What is really important is the distinction that is being made is between practices which aim at mystical experience, self-examination, and the transformation of the mind, and the prayer more typical of communal worship; thanksgiving, intercession, repentance, and supplication.
So what is contemplation for? Its uses and functions vary; it can be used to seek a deeper more experiential understanding of God, to observe one’s own mind and learn how it works, to imagine the stories found in scripture more vividly, to learn to let go of compulsive habits, to examine puzzling emotions and behaviours, or simply as a kind of relaxation; the presence of God, Christians believe, is consoling.
The practice of contemplative prayer is therefore an open-ended and dynamic process, which takes on a life of its own when undertaken regularly. Contemplative prayer can often throw up unexpected ideas; reveal hidden motivations and attachments, and re-acquaint us with dormant emotions and needs. It can also be seen as an exercise in faith; simply sitting, waiting, and trusting in God. Additionally, as contemplation takes us deeper into our own minds, it is something that escapes our ordinary vocabulary. It is therefore better practiced than discussed!
What can be said with confidence is that the states of mind cultivated in contemplative prayer are very different from the mental chaos, stress, and over-stimulation of life in the modern city. In this environment it can be difficult to keep God in sight. Silence in the City offers just that; silence and the chance to open up to God in a deeper and more meaningful way.
There are many good books and also useful apps. You could try Martin Laird, Into the Silent Land or Thomas Keating; Invitation to Love or Cardinal Robert Sarah, The Power of Silence.
The Centring Prayer app which is available in the usual places is quite a useful app.