31 October 2018

An Apologia for Contemplative Prayer

[[Dear Sister, Since you are a contemplative who prays contemplatively I wondered if you could respond to the following arguments against contemplative prayer? 1) it is rooted in a pagan, Neo-Platonic notion of God; 2) the revelation of God in Scripture becomes secondary. Awakening is rooted in the study of Scripture, not in contemplative prayer with its goal of mystical experience and its emphasis on postures and techniques; 3) Jesus and the early church did not practice or preach it. Instead the Lord's Prayer teaches us to verbally express ourselves, and to use dynamic relational prayers. Contemplative prayer is a substitute for what is promised as the baptism of the Holy Spirit. I got these from the following article: Three reasons I Refuse to Pray Contemplatively. It came up on a list serve I belong to. Thanks.]]

 Sure, I can give it a shot. I believe a large part of the reason the author of your article distrusts contemplative prayer is its linkage to the mystics of the Roman Catholic Church, however. He is also suspicious of silent prayer opting instead for verbal dialogue. He says that in the intro to his article before he lists the three reasons you cited (good job with those, by the way): [[Contemplative prayer, emphasizing "silence," has roots that go back to the mystics of the medieval Roman Catholic Church. The mystics were, in turn, profoundly influenced by Neo-Platonism, a pagan, mystical religion founded by Plotinus, a disciple of Plato.]]

While there is no doubt Platonism and neo-Platonism have been influential in Christianity, I don't see where the work of Plotinus (philosopher, pantheist or maybe panentheist), whom your author refers to at length, has any significant bearing on the practice of prayer including contemplative prayer. Moreover, even when there are similarities between mystics and some of the themes they might reflect in their prayer and Plotinus' thought, things like the transcendence of God, God's ineffableness (ultimate nature as Mystery which cannot be captured or adequately expressed in finite speech) or the capacity of one to know him to some extent in beauty or the good, this does not imply they have swallowed whole a pagan notion of God. It argues instead that we all do theology and approach similar notions of God even apart from the Christ Event. The fact is that Hellenism (especially Gnosticism) influenced Christianity in vast ways --- including both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. Someone arguing a sola Scriptura position, as I think your author does in objections nos 2 and 3, needs to be aware of this influence among the sources of both Testaments. So, to the various objections to contemplative prayer cited in your question.

1) Contemplative prayer is rooted in a pagan notion of God. On the contrary, contemplative prayer, as I know it and practice it, is rooted in a profoundly Biblical notion of God. Often this prayer is occasioned by lectio with Scripture, often it leads back to Scripture at the same time. Its God is a transcendent God, yes, but S/he is also a God who grounds the whole of existence and resides in the human heart, constantly summoning each (and all) of us to completion in God. This is the God who sought a counterpart who would exhaustively and responsively incarnate his love in space and time, and who invites us each to share in the reality of such an incarnation achieved in Jesus. It is the God of Jesus Christ, the One Jesus called Abba. We meet (him) and know him --- and more, as Paul says, we are known by Him --- as we enter deeply into our own hearts and learn to open ourselves to Love-in-Act. As we enter into contemplative silence we drop our defenses, exercise greater degrees of trust and vulnerability, and learn to allow and listen profoundly for God's presence there. In short, we give ourselves to God for God's own purposes; we wait on and for God to reveal Godself on (his) own terms --- neither  more nor less than this.

2) These encounters with God involve pouring our hearts out to him in ways and to degrees which may begin with but eventually transcend speech. The purpose of contemplative prayer is to allow God "ownership" of our hearts and lives. We allow or consent to God's sovereignty; at least in part this is what it means to pray for the coming of God's Kingdom/Reign on earth as in heaven. It is emphatically not about mystical experiences --- though we may well experience God's love in ways which can be described as mystical --- ecstasy, the gift of tears, healing and wholeness, extraordinary joy, temporary detachment from bodily needs, inner locutions, images, and so forth. However, every genuine mystic and every spiritual director will caution about the dangers of expecting, much less depending on such experiences; they are never the focus in contemplative prayer. Still, some of us are naturally "visual" or "aural" in our insights and perceptions and may be predisposed to such experiences. Of themselves they are not a sign of maturity, much less giftedness, in prayer and should never be overestimated in importance --- especially for the contemplative whose focus is God.

Prayer posture is important but must not be misunderstood as manipulative or a matter of mere "technique". In fact, contemplative prayer requires that a person sit in a way which is at once relaxed and attentive; the criticism regarding a focus on postures is as unwarranted as that on mystical experiences since there is no such "focus". One simply learns the way/posture in which one is both relaxed and able to maintain attentiveness during a long prayer period --- just as we do whenever we do something important which requires our full attention. A couple of years ago, after some time of being unable to use my prayer bench because of an injury, I learned that sitting "seiza"  on a "zafu" (a sturdy cushion made for this) allows me to pray much better than sitting in a comfortable chair --- where, over time (i.e., during a prayer period), I tend to slouch and drowse and am uncomfortable and unfocused; others will be more relaxed and attentive in other postures --- though "seiza" is well-established for allowing both relaxation and attentiveness. In any case, please check out the following post, On Prayer Postures and Prayer Furniture, for more on this topic.

3) Relativizing the revelation of God in Scripture: God comes to us in many ways and is mediated to us through a world which is potentially sacramental at its core. We meet him in the Risen and Cosmic Christ who comes to us variously in Word and Sacrament, but who also can be met in one another and so many of the works of our hands that communicate truth, and goodness, and beauty, and meaning. Yes, the Scriptures are a privileged means of this mediation and they are central to God's revelation of Godself; they are normative and are a crucial way we measure and clarify other more partial revelations of God's power and presence. (Remember the NT itself points to other partial revelations of God than in Christ. cf  Heb 1:1-2;we recognize prophetic presences, speech, and actions today even apart from Scripture. So too do we find partial or fragmentary but real revelations of God's presence in other religions, the sciences, and so forth. We will measure and clarify these partial and more obscure revelations according to the Christ Event as revealed in the Scriptures, but we cannot simply deny them and still adequately honor the God of Creation or of the Risen and Cosmic Christ.)

Personal prayer (including contemplative prayer) is one of the ways God reveals Godself effectively and powerfully. (This is generally recognized by the author of the article you cite when he points to the dialogical or "relational" nature of prayer. I think it needs to be remembered however, that prayer is not relational because we bring ourselves into relationship with God during this time but because prayer is an expression of and opening ourselves to an already-existing relationship with and invitation by God. God is knocking at the door prompting us to open it in prayer. This is true whether our prayer is liturgical, silent, spoken, acted out, contemplative, etc. Prayer is always a graced and responsive reality, invited and empowered by the living God --- a responsive act which presumes an existing relationship, no matter how fragile or tenuous.

4) "Jesus didn't practice or preach it." It is impossible to prove a negative like this and affirming that Jesus never prayed silently and/or contemplatively simply goes beyond the evidence. On the other hand, we know he frequently went apart in the night; we know he poured himself out to his Abba in ways marked by significant inner (heartfelt) exertion and physical symptoms (think Gethsemane) --- all of which go beyond verbal expression; we know others slept while Jesus prayed to/with his Father. I don't see why any of this indicates Jesus -- whose intimacy with his Abba surely went beyond the limitations of words --- did not, much less that he could not have prayed silently and contemplatively as well as using the psalms and other common Jewish prayers. (Though I do not wish to follow this thread at this point, I should also note that the way Mary responded to God's activity in her own life was to "ponder (all these things) in her heart." I have always thought this  meant the whole of the Christ Event, not just Jesus' conception. Sounds like contemplative prayer to me!)

The single prayer Jesus taught his disciples is what we call "the Lord's Prayer" (LP) and generally speaking, it reprises the Jewish prayers Jesus was familiar with --- with the single exception of the invocation ("Abba" or "Pater") whose intimacy goes well beyond anything Jews would have been comfortable with. The Lord's prayer was known in a number of versions in the early Church (we have three now, those in Matt and Luke and the Didache) and so we have Greek translations and Aramaic as well. What we do not have is any indication we are meant merely to recite this prayer. Yes,  Jesus' instructions say, "When you pray, say (λεγετε). . .," but it is important to remember that prayer is the work of God in us and speech in such a context is more speech-act, a matter of saying and doing simultaneously, of making real in space and time, than it is merely a matter of recitation. (Whenever God speaks in the Scriptures things happen, things come to be or come to greater wholeness and perfection. To pray in the Name (i.e., the power, and presence) of God is never merely simply to recite words; it, in Christ, is to change reality, whether our own or that around us.)

Moreover, the LP differs in the versions we have, both in words and in number of petitions. If Jesus was giving us something he simply wanted us to recite (and accurately!) I don't think the early Church would have given us three different versions. And finally, the structure of the prayer corresponds to an outworking of Jesus' instructions, "Seek ye first the Kingdom of God (part 1 of the prayer), and all things else will be given to you. (part 2 of the LP)" We pray by calling upon God by name, an act in which the entire prayer is already accomplished or "heard" (for what else can it mean for our prayer to be heard than to be brought into the intimacy accomplished and evidenced in invoking God by name? Invocation is a speech act which makes God's reign more fully real in history). Then we open (or continue opening) ourselves to God in more specific ways; we open all we are and hold within us to his holiness, his sovereignty or reign, and to his will. We seek the Kingdom first of all; we let God love us, empower us, lead, challenge, and enlighten us; we open ourselves to the coming of his Kingdom in and through our prayer and thus, to being remade in his Son's image and likeness. We seek the accomplishment of God's dreams and will, that is, to being made authentically, exhaustively, and truly human.

And, as the second half of the prayer indicates, with renewed mind and heart we now turn to the present moment without anxiety; we turn to the world of ordinary needs and challenges, the world of daily bread and the love we are called to today --- a love we can receive and rejoice in as gift but for that very reason never hoard; we turn to the world of sin, alienation, and forgiveness, of temptation and freedom, bondage and choice --- and we find we can now live more truly without fear (or the consequences of that fear) in this same world. In other words, the dialogue which goes on in the prayer is deeper than words; it occurs at the level of heart.

The dynamic is not that of speech only (though our words introduce us gradually into this dynamic) but of loving, being loved, and living in light of that love. In other words, when Jesus taught this prayer he was showing his disciples the essence of prayer, not simply giving us a text to recite; he was showing us what had priority in a Christian life devoted to allowing God's life, plans, and projects to come to fulfillment. The LP is more a paradigm of what a prayerful life rooted in the Gospel of God's Kingdom looks like and how it comes about than what prayer sounds like! This is because Jesus was more profoundly concerned with the prayer we would become than the prayers we would say; after all, as indispensable as prayers are and as it was for Jesus, prayer is always more about becoming the incarnation of God's own Word than it is about reciting prayers.

I sincerely hope this is helpful. Let me know if I have been unclear or raised other questions.