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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Contemplative Prayer

I have been reading Thomas Merton's little book Contemplative Prayer, and I would like to share some quotes on Theos Project, perhaps combined with a few short thoughts of my own. For those who have an interest in contemplative Christianity, there are few figures as influential as Thomas Merton. Merton was a Trappist monk, a poet, and a deeply engaged intellectual. He combined the passion of an activist with his love for the contemplative life in the monastery.

My interest in contemplative prayer has developed in the last year. For me, prayer had been an empty exercise for many years. My prayer life in the past centered on bringing my list of petitions, along with some form of emotional exercise of "connecting" with God. The latter often felt like I was trying to force my heart into a particular state of being, one in which I either felt energized by the feeling of God's presence or else some sense of sinfulness, that I had fallen short somehow and needed to experience a sense of guilt. What was most lacking, I think, is the sense of letting myself be, to come just as I am to prayer.

For me, silence has been something that I have been exploring over the last year. I began with a short meditation practice, spending five or ten minutes each morning in silence and stillness. Over time, this lengthened. Many months later, I began to combine this meditation with a ritual of prayer, eventually re-incorporating petitions and requests to God as part of my prayers.

Contemplative prayer seems to me to be the combination of conscious elements of prayer with a certain stillness. The term "contemplative prayer" is seeks to engage God in a stance of openness. I'll save more on defining contemplative prayer for Merton. For many Christians in the U.S., prayer can lack this reflective and contemplative openness. My inclination is to say that such reflection and openness necessitates grace, an unconditional acceptance of everything we are. It may take on many moods, but if prayer does not in some way root itself in grace, then it risks becoming empty activity and routine, and further, without grace we tend to hide certain elements of ourselves from God, from others, and from ourselves. Contemplative prayer, then, is an exercise in grace.

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