What is “contemplative prayer”? The question arises for Seventh-day Adventists because the new General Conference president, Ted N. C. Wilson, in the keynote sermon of his presidency, specifically mentioned it and “centering prayer” as things to avoid. Some may think “contemplative prayer” refers merely to silent, reflective prayer. It does not. In this article, I will give some background and some history to clearly define what these practices involve; that is the necessary first step before we can properly evaluate them.
I’m going to start with “centering prayer” because that is the practice that is the first introduction of many to contemplative prayer. It’s a specific technique, with a recent history, but a long pedigree. A Trappist monk (Cistercian of the Strict Obervance), William Meninger, read the medieval text, The Cloud of Unknowing (which presents a form of Christianized neoplatonic mysticism), and developed a technique he called “centering prayer.” He taught it to fellow monks of St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, MA, including his abbot, Thomas Keating, and Basil Pennington, who have done much to popularize it not only among Roman Catholics, but increasingly among evangelicals. (See also the webpage of Catholic Answers, which elaborates on their influences).
The webpage of Contemplative Outreach (founded by Keating) defines “centering prayer” in this way:
“Centering Prayer is a method of silent prayer that prepares us to receive the gift of contemplative prayer, prayer in which we experience God’s presence within us, closer than breathing, closer than thinking, closer than consciousness itself.”
Here’s where “contemplative prayer” enters the picture. The creators of “centering prayer” see it as a technique to achieve “contemplative prayer,” here defined as an experience of God’s presence. Other practices can also be used to achieve it.
The method of Lectio Divina includes moments of reading (lectio), reflecting on (meditatio), responding to (oratio) and resting in (contemplatio) the Word of God with the aim of nourishing and deepening one’s relationship with the Divine.
Like Centering Prayer, Lectio Divina cultivates contemplative prayer. Unlike Centering Prayer, Lectio Divina is a participatory, active practice that uses thoughts, images and insights to enter into a conversation with God.
“Centering prayer” is more than simply a type of prayer that focuses our attention and quiets our mind–it is a technique that involves very specific practices, including use of a “sacred word” (like a mantra), sitting and breathing in specific ways, maintaining internal silence, and doing all this for a specific period of time.
“Contemplative prayer” is, in this understanding, a state of consciousness that is reached by doing particular things. It is very like practices rooted in eastern religions.
But is that accurate? Up to this point we have considered only the teaching of this particular organization (which many Catholics have criticized). We now need to consider “contemplative prayer” in the wider context of Catholic spirituality. The Catechism of the Catholic Church lists “contemplative prayer” as a third type of prayer, after “vocal prayer” (the use of words, whether spontaneously or set prayers) and “meditation” (conscious reflection upon sacred things, in which “the mind seeks to understand the why and how of the Christian life”). In distinction to these, “contemplative prayer” is a simple spending time with Christ. It may include meditation, but he is the clear focus.
2712 … Contemplative prayer is the poor and humble surrender to the loving will of the Father in ever deeper union with his beloved Son.
2713 Contemplative prayer is the simplest expression of the mystery of prayer. It is a gift, a grace; it can be accepted only in humility and poverty. Contemplative prayer is a covenant relationship established by God within our hearts. Contemplative prayer is a communion in which the Holy Trinity conforms man, the image of God, “to his likeness.” …
2715 Contemplation is a gaze of faith, fixed on Jesus. “I look at him and he looks at me”: this is what a certain peasant of Ars used to say to his holy cure about his prayer before the tabernacle. This focus on Jesus is a renunciation of self. His gaze purifies our heart; the light of the countenance of Jesus illumines the eyes of our heart and teaches us to see everything in the light of his truth and his compassion for all men. Contemplation also turns its gaze on the mysteries of the life of Christ. Thus it learns the “interior knowledge of our Lord,” the more to love him and follow him. …
2719 Contemplative prayer is a communion of love bearing Life for the multitude, to the extent that it consents to abide in the night of faith. the Paschal night of the Resurrection passes through the night of the agony and the tomb – the three intense moments of the Hour of Jesus which his Spirit (and not “the flesh [which] is weak”) brings to life in prayer. We must be willing to “keep watch with (him) one hour.”
In contrast to the teaching of Contemplative Outreach, the Catechism does not link “contemplative prayer” to any specific practices of breathing or sitting or mantra-recitation. The focus is entirely Christocentric.
There is much discussion of “contemplative prayer” in the history of Catholic spirituality; authors don’t always agree on specifics. Following Theresa of Avila, some will break “contemplative prayer” into two parts: “infused contemplation” and “acquired contemplation.” As Fr. John Bartunek, LC, explains, “infused contemplation” is in fact the direct opposite of what the technique-focused “centering prayer.” It is not a human activity at all.
Infused contemplation is a kind of prayer in which the soul no longer does anything and God reaches down and does everything, elevating the person to an ineffable experience of the divine presence. As St. Teresa described it, prayer is when we water the garden of our souls; infused contemplation is when God sends a thunder shower to water it for us.
This can occur in a quiet way, in which the only one aware of it is the one who is praying. Or it can occur in an ecstatic way, in which everyone is aware of it through related phenomena like levitating or the experience of auras.
“Acquired contemplation,” on the other hand, is the fruit of human activity. We may ponder something for a long time and then, suddenly, grasp it intuitively. This is “the simple gaze.” See the article in the Catholic Encyclopedia. Thus we could say that the techniques of “centering prayer,” and the emphasis of the article in the Catechism, are both related to this “acquired contemplation,” whether through engaging in particular practices or simply by turning our focus on Christ—we do it. “Infused contemplation,” or “contemplative prayer” properly speaking, is something God does—it could be described as rapture, it could be compared to the visionary state, it is from beginning to end God’s own action on the person.
Let’s pause a moment and acknowledge that all of this talk is strange to Protestants. This is not how we speak of prayer. With both spirituality and moral theology, Catholicism has adopted ways of speaking that are rooted in philosophy, or rational distinctions, that go beyond the simple terminology of Scripture. Some of these terms may be of use to the scholar—but are going to be of no use to the person who simply wants to find Christ.
This is one specialized part of Catholic spirituality. In contrast, we can find some Catholic authors who speak of prayer in very simple, childlike language. St. Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei, was one. He dismissed all talk of prayer of silence. “Leave silence for those whose hearts are dry. We Catholics, children of God, speak with our Father who is in heaven” (The Way, 115). That reminds me of what Ellen White said in Steps to Christ (p. 93):
“Prayer is the opening of the heart to God as to a friend. Not that it is necessary in order to make known to God what we are, but in order to enable us to receive Him. Prayer does not bring God down to us, but brings us up to Him.”
Turning to Ellen White, now, we find that she can nevertheless also speak of prayer as a kind of communion that begins in petition and ends in sweet bliss (p. 98):
“In solitude let the soul be laid open to the inspecting eye of God. Secret prayer is to be heard only by the prayer-hearing God. No curious ear is to receive the burden of such petitions. In secret prayer the soul is free from surrounding influences, free from excitement. Calmly, yet fervently, will it reach out after God. Sweet and abiding will be the influence emanating from Him who seeth in secret, whose ear is open to hear the prayer arising from the heart. By calm, simple faith the soul holds communion with God and gathers to itself rays of divine light to strengthen and sustain it in the conflict with Satan. God is our tower of strength.”
Like mystics such as John of the Cross and Bonaventure, she speaks of prayers as an ascent:
Let the soul be drawn out and upward, that God may grant us a breath of the heavenly atmosphere. (SC 99)
The soul may ascend nearer heaven on the wings of praise. God is worshiped with song and music in the courts above, and as we express our gratitude we are approximating to the worship of the heavenly hosts. “Whoso offereth praise glorifieth” God. Psalm 50:23. Let us with reverent joy come before our Creator, with “thanksgiving, and the voice of melody.” Isaiah 51:3. (SC 104)
And she also speaks of states in which God intervened, and her prayer was no longer her effort, but was God enveloping her–sounding very much like what was above called “infused contemplation”:
I bowed trembling during the prayers that were offered. After a few had prayed, I lifted up my voice in prayer before I was aware of it, and in that moment the promises of God appeared to me like so many precious pearls that were to be received only for the asking. As I prayed, the burden and agony of soul that I had endured so long, left me, and the blessing of the Lord descended upon me like the gentle dew. I praised God from the depths of my heart. Everything seemed shut out from me but Jesus and his glory, and I lost consciousness of what was passing around me. (LS88 159)
She writes of times of discouragement and weakness when she hardly dared to pray—akin to what authors like John of the Cross described as “the dark night of the soul.” She also writes of other times when the spirit of Jesus filled prayer meetings, and people were struck prostrate, and shouted, “Glory!” And all of these are separate from those rapturous experiences in which she received visions.
So the writings and experiences of Ellen White provide much fodder for reflection and discussion within the Adventist tradition of different kinds of prayer—and a scholar can draw parallels to those kinds and states of prayer described by Catholic writers. From a phenomenological standpoint, one could refer to her as a “mystic,” if one understands that term simply as referring to a direct and unusual encounter with God—a transformed state brought about not by human effort, but by divine intervention.
But such language, while helpful in scholarly settings, could be misunderstood in pastoral settings. The language of “mysticism” and “contemplation” has been co-opted by individuals who weave together Christian language and the language and practices of eastern religions. They often have a view of human anthropology in which the “spirit” is the “divine” within; or even a Gnostic perspective in which the “soul” or “spirit” is light and immortal and must be elevated from a body that is in darkness and corrupt.
I think this is why Wilson is concerned, and why he, as pastor, would direct us to turn away from human speculation about divine things to consider both our own tradition, and, more importantly, what Jesus himself taught. When his disciples asked him to teach them to pray, he said simply, “Our Father, which art in heaven ….” He spoke of the need to be persistent; he spoke of abiding in him; he taught us not to engage in vain repetition or public show, but to go into a secret place; he gave us the example of going away from the crowds, of including the language of the Psalms in our prayers, and of groaning with tears. In his words and in his acts is material for a lifetime of reflection.