My first awakening to the spiritual life and to the life of prayer occurred when I was twenty years old. I had finished college, and I decided to hitchhike from the Bay Area in California to Alaska. I was on a quest—for what I wasn’t too sure. I cared deeply about the world, about the problems of the day, and yet my involvement with politics and other secular approaches to these problems always left me feeling vaguely dissatisfied. They never seemed to quite get at the heart of the matter. At the time I knew nothing about contemplative prayer. For me prayer meant reading the lines in the church bulletin or speaking a formula at meals. So it was unusual that as I got ready for my trip, I found myself sliding a book on contemplation into my backpack. Later, as I read this book by the side of the road in the vast wilderness of the Yukon and beyond, I suddenly realized that here was something that reached down into the core of our dilemma as human beings. Here was something that struck a blow at the evil separating us from one another and preventing us from loving our brothers and sisters. That something was this different kind of prayer— a deep conversation with God beginning with communion and leading to transformation.
Today I still feel deeply convicted about the value of contemplative prayer. And it is this passion and vision, first kindled many years ago, that inspires this book. We are creatures who are lost and confused, trapped in the maze of our own little view of the world, and the only way out of that maze is the lifeline God offers us. Yet often we cannot even see that salvation—the solution to our estrangement from the divine—is right under our noses. Prayer opens our eyes. Prayer illuminates our minds, enabling the love of God to permeate all that we do. This book is truly about life with God: a life in which the awareness and consciousness of God sweep us off our feet the way a lover would. It is about taking on the mind of Christ, a process that is a journey, the journey of prayer. When we sit down and begin to pray, we enter into a new land, a land of many surprises, many challenges, and many rewards. Even though we enter this land immediately as we begin to pray, we must cross it; we have not reached the destination at the outset. Just as I did, many people start with the understanding that prayer is nothing more than speaking formulas or appealing to God for help. I hope you will begin to encounter something much more rich and profound as you read this book. For my desire is that you read not only to obtain information or to learn a prayer technique but also to pray. At first you might read simply to understand the literal meaning of sentences as with prayers in a church bulletin. But perhaps soon you will find yourself drawn into the process in such a way that you begin to relate to something deeper than words on a page. Through your reading and reflecting, you feel called and compelled to relate directly to God.
This type of deeper prayer doesn’t happen right away; it takes time to adjust to this new way of being with God. After I returned from my trip, I began to spend time in silence, trying to undertake this new way of praying. Most of the time, all I got for my efforts was a sore back and numb legs. However, slowly but surely, something began to happen. I began to be aware that I was not alone in my prayer, that this thing called contemplation truly led to an encounter with the living Jesus. The slow transformation in our experience of praying is the journey, and the vehicles for this journey are the practices described in this book. In addition, each chapter features a historical figure (or figures) associated with the prayer practice. These pray-ers used, created, or have made the disciplines available to us. And we need them, for our journey is both solitary and communal. It is our path and it is the path of the church. The figures in this book are traveling companions. They are people who have walked “the Way” (the original name of Christianity) before us; when we enter into prayer, we who seek Christ today stand on their shoulders, hoping to see the risen Jesus as he goes before us down the dusty roads of this broken world. Throughout the book I quote from writings by these historical figures and other sources that reveal these ancient journeys to us. The citations are noted in parentheses, simply giving the short title of the book and the page number of the reference. You will find the complete bibliographic listings for these sources in the References section.
The Practice of Prayer
But why “practice” prayer? People often ask this question. They insist that they pray all the time, not just at some specified hour of the day. People resist putting a set time for prayer in their Day-Timer.
As Paul tells us, prayer without ceasing (1 Thess. 5:17) is the goal of the spiritual life, and we will meet one person, the pilgrim (chapter 3), who took this goal very seriously. However, given the reality of our human condition, we delude ourselves if we believe we can be aware of God at every moment without any sort of practice. Such a feat would be comparable to competing in the Olympics without ever training or practicing a sport.
A prayer practice is just that: practice. It is taking time to learn how to listen for God. It is taking time to see the hand of God at work in our lives. We need to take this time because this listening, this seeing are difficult tasks. I once introduced a time of silent prayer at a prayer service by saying, “Let us take some time to listen to God.” One woman who was struggling with various concerns said, “I listen and all I hear is the fan on the ceiling.” God’s voice is often very soft.
Prayer practice is the art of setting aside our own individual desires to seek the desire that God has placed on our heart. It is becoming aware of the distractions of our minds and then letting them go, and as we repeat the disciplines over time, we become more skilled at seeing God in all that we do.
Sensing God’s Presence
What does “seeing God” or “hearing God’s voice” actually mean? This is an important question. First of all, I am not talking about seeing apparitions or hearing an actual voice in our head (although neither of these possibilities is out of the question). I am referring to any experience that gives us a hint of something “other” than ourselves at work in the universe.
As we shall see in the following chapters, each of these prayer practices gives us the opportunity to experience this sense of “other” in different ways. We can hear God through a feeling, a thought, a picture, an action, a person, total silence. Yet because all these voices may not be “of God,” we need to practice discerning God’s voice through the repetition of prayer!
God may first appear as a momentary flicker in our consciousness, a shadow that flits almost imperceptibly across the backdrop of our thoughts. Then we may have a thought that we think is “of God,” but we are not sure. Slowly, after many hours, days, weeks, even years, we begin to know with greater certainty when we do “hear God’s voice” (although if we ever feel absolutely sure, we are probably wrong).
In conjunction with an increased sense of God’s presence, our practice begins to bear fruit in our work, our play, our family, and our relationships. We begin to move freely with the Spirit as we notice God moment to moment. The prayer practice is not the goal but the means to the spiritual life. The historical figures you’ll read about here created the practices and integrated them into their faith lives with this aim.
In view of that last statement, a word of caution is in order. We may be tempted to believe that these prayer practices were invented at a single point in time, that one certified holy person created each practice and put it into use in the church. This is simply not the case. Every one of the practices in this book has been prayed in some form since people first began to search for God.
People have always used scripture, silence, creativity, symbol, body, and reflection to seek the signs of the divine in their everyday lives. In fact, all of us already use these things, but most of the time we are not conscious of this process of seeking. All a particular form of prayer does is to organize, mark, and make intentional the search for God, which is already under way in each and every one of us. Prayer is nothing more than conversation with a partner whose presence is elusive—God isn’t here in material form, so we use all the resources at our disposal to enter into this conversation.
History and the Traveling Companions
Despite the universal nature of prayer practices, at points in the history of our faith, particular people in par ticular places did lift up certain prayer methods. In these moments the prayer practices took on a clarity that propelled them into the consciousness of the larger church. They became available to a greater audience than before; they became part of the faith’s common vocabulary. The people profiled in this book represent a small cross section of those who occupy such pivotal positions in Christian history.
Before I say more about these important pray-ers, let me comment on my use of history. In the past thirty years, postmodernism has changed our understanding of history from a recitation of “objective facts” to a narration of “stories.” History no longer can be said to have happened one certain way; rather we pick and choose ways to tell the story of history. Some people even assert that there is no such thing as history; instead we write our own projections onto the blank slate of the past.
This book is not a history book. As I tell a small bit about the people I have chosen to highlight, I am not relating everything about their social and cultural situations. I am not trying to give you a full analysis of these people and their times. I am telling you a story, and this story is a simplification distorted by my own prejudices, views, and desires.
So it is important that I share with you my basic preju dice, which is this: Whatever the particular situation in which these people found themselves (and of course, as premodern people, they were not aware of their circumstances in the same sense we are as we regard them from a distance in time), somehow God spoke powerfully through them. Somehow the Spirit took root in them in their place and their time, and others around them saw this manifestation of the mind of Christ. The brief accounts I tell here attempt to capture this “spiritual essence” of their stories. I realize that their stories may be told in many ways and have facets I do not talk about, but I believe that God spoke through these people. Furthermore, I believe that they heard God’s voice at least in part because of the way they prayed; therefore, it is worthwhile for us to know about, share, and learn from these methods of prayer.
Most of these people lived in monastic communities, which is not surprising since these communities have always incubated the practice of prayer. In the past century, these communities dwindled, and in the Christian West, most of them have died out. Yet the practice of prayer has not died with them; rather we have witnessed an explosion of interest in prayer and contemplation among those of us who live our lives in the so-called secular world.
Looking at these parallel changes over time, it is as if the fruits of prayer ripened on the monastic vine, and as the plant has withered, the ripened pods have broken open, scattering the seeds on the face of the earth to bear new fruit in all of creation.
Twelve Prayer Practices
The purpose of this book is to help nourish such new growth, and to that end, the chapters present twelve prayer practices along with corresponding historical figures. Each chapter describes how to use the prayer practice either alone or in groups.
For those who lead groups, it is essential to become familiar with the prayer practices by doing each one yourself before teaching it to others. An overview of the material may be helpful. The first two chapters are fundamental to all that follows. Chapter 1 uses the desert mothers and fathers to focus on the general practices of solitude and silence, key elements to any prayer practice because these disciplines cultivate the skill of listening essential to all the practices. The second chapter describes the practice of lectio divina, or sacred reading. This prayer practice grounds the seeker in the world of scripture. Sacred reading takes seriously the contention that the Bible is the Word of God; the purpose of the practice is to hear how God speaks here and now through the Word. The traveling companion for this practice will be Saint Benedict.
The next five chapters describe prayer practices that are primarily “mental” in nature. These practices focus on using the mind to come to know God: the Jesus Prayer, silent contemplative prayer, the examen, creativity, and journaling. The corresponding historical figures for these practices are the pilgrim, the unknown author of The Cloud of Unknowing, Ignatius of Loyola, Hildegard of Bingen, and Julian of Norwich. All these people used their mental faculties in powerful ways to deepen their prayer lives.
Chapters 8 and 9 shift the focus from our minds to our created bodies. Body prayer (chapter 8) and the labyrinth (chapter 9) are both means by which we can pray with the material being God has given us. Chapter 8 uses a biblical resource, the Song of Solomon, to show how we can relate to our bodies as a house of prayer; and chapter 9 explores the example of the many Christian communities that have used walking as a means of making the journey of prayer visible and real. The last three chapters take us beyond our individual selves and seek to show how we can incorporate the world and our lives into our prayer life. Nature, our livelihood, and our community are the prayer practices in these final chapters, and these practices are accompanied by Francis of Assisi, the Beguines (a group of women in the late Middle Ages), and, once again, Saint Benedict. With these final prayer practices, it is now possible to pray deeply within any aspect of our existence.
As we meet these figures who come to us from the distant past, as we learn these prayer practices and begin to integrate them into our lives, we gain strength for the journey. We become more intimate with God, and we become more skilled at listening to God’s call for us. We meet Jesus along the Way—the way to love, the way to healing, the path of peace.
Allow yourself to be drawn in. Allow yourself to follow Jesus into the mists of your mind. Cry out to God in the depths of your soul and wait for the reply. Pray while you read this book. It is my hope and prayer that all who open these pages will embark upon this sacred journey.
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