Perfect Peace: My First Lesson in Contemplative Prayer

In my youth I joined the choir at my family’s Anglican church. We weren’t Christians then, just pew warmers; but when I revisited that church recently, I realized what a profound influence it had had on my early spiritual formation.

I’ll never forget the first choir practice I attended. It was a twilit evening in early autumn, the leaves just starting to show color, and I remember the sound of kicking through them, and another sound: a pileated woodpecker—my favorite bird—rapping away at the top of an elm outside the beautiful old stone church. Inside, rows of boys and men faced each other across the chancel, directed by choirmaster Gwyllym Bevin, a Welshman who exuded music from his pores. 

Right from the start I was captivated by the beauty of the music, and by the vast difference between consuming music as a listener and actually being a part of its creation, between being outside and inside reality. As the evening light gathered into a kind of glowing pool in the big church, I recall looking out over the rows and rows of empty shining pews, down the broad central aisle to the front door that was wide open into the great bewildering autumn night—and I thought what a strange, warm, curious scene we must have presented to a passerby, our songs swelling up so clearly, so plangently, so incongruously on a Thursday night.

What really made that evening memorable to me was the anthem we practised. It was “Thou Wilt Keep Him in Perfect Peace” by Samuel Sebastian Wesley, with lyrics assembled from four different scriptures: Isaiah 26:3, Psalm 139:11, 1 John 1:5, and Psalm 119:175.  

Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace
whose mind is stayed on Thee.
The darkness is no darkness with Thee,
but the night is as clear as the day.
The darkness and the light to Thee are both alike.
God is light and with Him is no darkness at all.
Oh let my soul live, and it shall praise Thee. 

As a young boy the profound beauty of this piece, both words and music, made a deep impression on me, but I had no idea that years later, after my conversion, these words would come back to me and become what is known as a ‘life verse’: a scripture that plays and plays in the mind like the theme song of one’s life. How interesting that these lyrics are all about light and dark, day and night. I believe Wesley may have chosen these words at a time when he was wrestling with sleep—as I do—perhaps plagued by problems that particularly afflicted him at night. 

What mainly stuck with me were those opening lines: “Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on Thee.” Yet many years would pass before I shifted my attention from the “perfect peace” part to the latter half of the verse—“whose mind is stayed on Thee”—and especially that word stayed. At first I thought of it as meaning focused, but now I feel it’s better rendered as arrested. That is, peace comes when the mind stops. 

This is the essence of contemplative prayer: beyond words, beyond images, beyond ideas, simply basking in the loving presence of God. Contemplative prayer is a willing arrest or suspension of our rational faculties, with the aim of allowing God to work in our spirit at a level beyond our comprehension. It is a naked, abandoned enjoyment of the mere presence of God. It is perfect peace which can be experienced right here and now.  

Listen to Thou Wilt Keep Him in Perfect Peace performed by the Choir of New College Oxford

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