Updated: Aug 20, 2018
What Is Contemplative Spirituality?
Contemplative Christian tradition is characterized by prayer-filled life, falling in love with God, a journey to inward which leads to outward acts of love, and the practice of the presence of God in all of life. Richard Foster describes contemplative spirituality simply as, “a life of loving attention to God.” (Streams of Living Water).
In his book The Sacred Enneagram Christopher L. Heuertz distinguishes three practices in the contemplative life: silence, solitude, and stillness. There are many contemplative prayer practices and spiritual exercises, of which a few examples are: centering prayer, labyrinth, welcoming prayer, prayer of simple regard, and daily examen. The goal of contemplative prayer is a loving union with God and the neighbor in the present moment.
Some well known contemplatives are John of the Cross (1542-1591), Brother Lawrence (1614-1691), Thomas Merton (1915-1968) and Henri Nouwen (1932-1996).
A Bird in Your Hands
I love the image that Piero Ferrucci uses to describe a contemplative attitude. He compares the contemplative stance to holding a bird in your hand. You need to give a gentle, listening, and felt attention to the bird. (If you have ever held any small animal you know that it’s hard not to be fully absorbed by them; their quickly moving bodies are stimuli explosions to your palms!). At the same time, you need to also hold the bird with a certain firmness. Otherwise, it will fly away.
Likewise, in contemplative prayer this “firm attention” and listening presence to the realities of our lives and God is essential or else we drift to daydreaming or get lost in the endless maze of interior chatter. On the other hand, our focus on the present moment cannot be too intense. A forced striving will kill the ability to be fully present as surely as clenching fists will kill the fragile bird in your hands.
Slowing down in the Middle of the Ordinary Although many of the great contemplatives of the church history often lived monastic lives and some even spent extended periods in complete solitude in a desert (hence the name “desert fathers and mothers”), their lives and teachings show that contemplative life can be lived in the midst of ordinary life of work, dishes, meetings and family life. We don’t need to wait for a silent retreat away in the woods, but can practice contemplative prayer in the middle of our ordinary lives.
Here are five simple ways how I have been practicing the presence of God in my normal day-to-day life. Sometimes this "loving attention"only lasts for a few seconds, other times for several minutes.
1. Waking up Try waking up to the visual of imagining Jesus sitting at your bed-end, waiting for you to open your eyes, eager to interact with you. Become aware of your body and how rested you feel. Take a few deep breaths and allow the sound of your audible breathing to lead you into thanksgiving for your life, for each new breath God gives you, and his Holy Spirit living inside you. Notice what emotions you have about yourself, God, and the day ahead. Take a moment to express your thoughts and feelings to God. Wait in silence for a few moments for God’s response. Again, the visual in your mind of Jesus sitting at your bed-end might help you to enter into a conversational or silent prayer.
2. Care Moments of caring for your body can be great opportunities for attending to God’s loving presence with you. Try turning your focus on God while slowly and mindfully engaging in a routine self-care, such as showering, taking a bath, putting on lotion/makeup, brushing your teeth, doing physical exercises etc. As you feel and watch your body without judgment, open yourself up for the possibility that God is speaking to you through what you feel and notice. Experiencing God’s affectionate love for us will help us to accept ourselves as we are right now and become friends to ourselves.
In the same way, caring for others (children, pets, or even a plant) in the awareness that God is among you can become a profoundly deepening experience, not only for your relationship with God, but also with those for whom you care. As you care for the other, gently and attentively notice what you feel toward them, God, and even yourself. Observe them and ask God to help you to see them through his eyes.
Some of us spend a lot of time doing repetitive, mundane chores. Instead of rushing through them, or listening to a podcast or radio while “getting jobs done”, try slowing down and reminding yourself again of God’s loving eyes being on you. When I fold the laundry slowly or take time to dust the shelves, chop vegetables, and so forth, I become drawn to gratitude for God’s provision for me, and I grow in appreciation for what I have (instead of wanting to have more). To this note, I do enjoy having few beautiful objects in my house rather than many, but not as satisfying to the eye.
Once in a while, take a walk to the store, park, or work instead of biking or driving. Walking creates opportunities for enjoying the environment, noticing the change of seasons, and it reminds you of the milieu where you live and work in. “Taking a walk with God” can open your eyes to his good creation and refresh your soul, or invite you to see your neighborhood and city through God’s compassion and lead you to intercessory prayer.
5. Eating & Drinking
Whether you eat alone or with others, intentionally sharing a meal with Jesus can become a meaningful moment of communion with God. Start by slowing down, turning off the distractions and really tasting and enjoying the food in all of its textures, smell, flavors, and color. For many, their first cup of coffee in the morning is a sacred moment. Sniffing the smell and taking the first sip says without words “thank you God for this new day”. Whether you eat in complete silence, in conversation with others, or quietly reflecting on a Scripture, take your time and receive the gift of the meal and taste buds!
Turning my attention to the present moment and God with me in it, even for a few seconds several times a day, helps me to remember God’s nearness and makes me more responsive to him.
Streams of Living Water: Celebrating the Great Traditions of Christian Faith by Richard Foster
The Practice of the Presence of God, by Brother Lawrence
Using the Enneagram in Prayer: A Contemplative Guide, by Suzanne Zuercher
How to Be Here: A Guide to Creating a Life Worth Living by Rob Bell
Center for Action and Contemplation and Richard Rohr's many writings
Gravity Center and The Sacred Enneagram: Finding Your Unique Path to Christian Growth, by Christopher L. Heuertz
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (Picture Book)
Journey to the Heart: Centering Prayer for Children by Bridget Mary Meehan (Picture Book)
Making Heart-Bread by Dennis Linn, Sheila Fabricant-Linn and Matthew Linn (Picture Book)
Bird photo by Jeff Chevrier/ iStock