Learning the Mystery of Contemplation

140px-JohnvianneySt. John Vianney (1786-1859),  a French priest who is widely respected for his pastoral work and parish ministry, once noticed an elderly man visiting his church every morning before work and every evening after work. One day, out of profound curiosity, he asked, “What do you say to the Lord during your twice-daily visits?” The old man responded, “I say nothing to him, Father. I look at him and he looks at me.”

It is sound for us to think of prayer in a number of ways but this way, called contemplation, is one that I did not learn until later in my life. If I am asked what happens when I pray I answer, “I pour my heart out in words of gratitude and intercession. I express words of confusion and perplexing doubt deeply joined with resurrection hope.” God responds by his word and his Spirit and gives consolation and a fresh reminder of his love in the very silence of such an intimate context.

But St. John Vianney is right. Prayer includes just being in God’s presence in complete silence. It is not that there is nothing on my mind or nothing that I want to talk about, just that I need to be silent and listen more intently. Simple presence says it all at such times – I sit in silence and look at him and he looks at me, his beloved child.

I believe that one of the great problems we all face in prayer is that we feel we have to say stuff, often a lot of stuff. But an even greater problem is that we believe we have to accomplish something. We need a goal and we want to get results. The whole process of prayer, from our standpoint, needs to end with a solution or a clear answer. For evangelicals this means meticulous Bible study often becomes prayer itself. (It can be prayer, I do not deny this point, but there is more to prayer, much more.) Sometimes our prayer does end with a clear solution but the older I get the less aware of this I become. Often, especially these days in y sixties, I realize that nothing is accomplished when I pray. I sit and listen – I am simply solidified in faith and my deepening relationship with him grows.

Our Catholic brothers and sisters  practice what is called eucharistic adoration. They sit before the tabernacle where the host (consecrated bread) is placed after the Mass and contemplate the love and presence of Jesus. I get it. I have actually been in such times of adoration at monasteries. Even though I do not share the view that Jesus is present “body, blood, soul and divinity” in the physical element of bread I bow and I adore Jesus and listen in silence. I believe the corporeal body of our Lord is seated/enthroned in heaven. I also believe that he has poured out his Spirit and thus when we sit and adore him, and silently wait on him, he speaks to us in quiet, but equally powerful ways. So while I do not adore the eucharistic host as a Catholic would do I understand this waiting and longing and loving to be profoundly valuable to the soul. I think my Catholic friends would agree that the point of this adoration exercise is to come to the living and very present Jesus and sit silently at his feet. I do that and I believe that without this we will become busy activists without the power of contemplative stillness.

Contemplation means “to admire something and think about it.” The word contemplation comes from the Latin word contemplatio. Webster’s Dictionary says contemplation is “concentration on spiritual things as a form of private devotion, or a state of the mystical awareness of God’s being.” Surely this form of prayer and inner experience is appropriate to a healthy relationship with the tremendous mystery that we call God.

A few months ago I attended a Catholic mission event in Chicago and met a lovely 96-year old retired priest who asked me a question at the break. He found out that I was an evangelical, when he learned I taught at Wheaton College, and said, “Do you think evangelicals will ever discover the importance and power of contemplation?” I told him that I had made this discovery and that many others were discovering it as well. He smiled and then said, “If evangelicals can join their passion for Jesus and his mission with contemplative prayer then they are likely to make a deep and lasting contribution to many other Christians.” Amen brother!

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