Be Still and Know: Contemplative Prayer

Walt Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself” begins with the line, “I lean and loaf at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.” This is not a bad way to begin the practice of contemplative prayer.

If you are one of those Christians who feels that God doesn’t speak to you, ask yourself: When do I ever lean and loaf at my ease to enjoy something beautiful for its own sake? Do I even know how to be at ease for one minute? 

Contemplation is the ABC of prayer. Just as all language is formed from the alphabet, so all prayer—whether worship or confession or thanksgiving or intercession—flows out of the stillness of contemplation. Far from being a ‘high’ form of prayer, contemplation is the simplest form. Contemplation is the prayer that all of us do naturally, without thinking. If we could notice what we are doing when we are not thinking, and do more of it, our prayer lives would move ahead wondrously!  

The trouble is that most of us are bent on doing things we do not do well or spontaneously. We tend to think that if something is too easy or natural, it won’t count. In this way we devalue our true gifts. Don’t let the term spiritual gifts mislead you into expecting something dramatic or unnatural. The gifts of God are supernatural in origin, but in their operation they are as beautifully natural as a summer’s day. Every believer has a natural gift for prayer, but we will not know about it until we relax enough to do what comes naturally. 

A prayer life is like a voice or a face. We may long for the face of a model, but this will not change one iota the way we actually look. God wants us to turn to Him the face He sees, the one that is ours and ours alone. Similarly He does not want us to speak to Him in a high squeaky voice or to affect a foreign accent. He loves to hear our own true voice. 

Sadly, most of us do not know our own voice. We’ve spent too many years with a noose around our necks, never having a good cry or a good bellylaugh, never making funny or rude sounds the way we did in elementary school, never running through the fields and shouting at the top of our lungs. What would it take for us to cut loose? As a writer I poured myself for years into journals, volumes and volumes of them, until eventually I began to hear my own voice. I had to learn not to think so hard, but just to write. I had to notice what I was thinking when I wasn’t thinking. 

The Bible sums up contemplation in one verse: “Be still, and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10). The knowing that takes place in this stillness is really beyond knowing. For contemplation is not just a remembering of God but a forgetting, in the sense of letting go of everything we thought we knew about Him in order to take hold of something new. 

It is not that what we already knew was wrong, necessarily. But we must continually grasp the old truths in brand new ways, and this means a bursting of the old forms. True learning does not consist in absorbing more and more facts, but in forging new pathways and categories for comprehension. New discoveries are the product of new categories of thought, new ways of thinking. “The real voyage of discovery,” wrote Marcel Proust, “consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” We want a fresh newspaper every day; but how often do we change the way we read it? 

Thus with God, we come to know Him better only as we release Him from the box of our old thoughts. To know God is to find Him continually escaping all bounds. In stillness, we slip through the fences in our minds and hearts and escape to open country. 

An excerpt from Practicing the Presence of Peoplepp 82-84.

Next Post:  The Night Stair: Contemplative Prayer and the Spirituality of Sleep

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