I’m currently reading three books on prayer:

  • Prayer: Conversing with God by Rosalind Rinker. A classic evangelical book from the 1950s about developing greater intimacy and faith in God through unscripted, conversational prayer.
  • Praying Our Experiences by Joseph F. Schmidt. A guide to discerning the prayerful quality of all of life’s journey, including our feelings and our struggle to know and discern truth.
  • Prayerfulness by Robert J. Wicks. Prayer is not just something we do, it is an attitude of living, and this book encourages the cultivation of a mindful, prayerful way of life.

I didn’t set out to read these three books, all at the same time; it sort of happened by accident (hmmmm….). I wanted to read Prayer: Conversing with God because it is the #1 book on Christianity Today’s list of The Top 50 Books That Have Shaped Evangelicals. Meanwhile, Praying Our Experiences was an assignment from my confessor, and Prayerfulness is a review book that recently came my way. Each of these books is, by itself, an insightful guide to ways we can deepen our daily life of prayer. But taken together, they make a pretty persuasive argument for making prayer — not just meditation, not just contemplation, but just good old fashioned “Dear God” prayer — a central part of our spiritual lives.

It’s easy for those of us who read the mystics and who want to incorporate their wisdom into our lives to have a spiritual life that is skewered toward silence and away from thoughts or words offered to God. When John Ruusbroec tells us that we must leave all images behind us, or the author of The Cloud of Unknowing insists that we have to leave every created thing beneath the “cloud of forgetting,” or Louis Lallemant notes that “Contemplation is a participation in the state of glory,” it becomes just too easy to forget that the great mystics became great mystics because they built their house of contemplation on the solid foundation of prayer. It becomes a major temptation for the would-be contemplative of our time to simply short-circuit the emotional messiness of actually revealing the inner dynamics of our thinking, our values, our beliefs, our attachments, and our sin to God, through the old fashioned method of actually getting on our knees and having a chat with him. That feels so… well… childlike. Never mind that Jesus told us we would have to become like children to enter the kingdom of heaven.

Christians who are opposed to mystical and contemplative spirituality argue that mysticism leads to gnosticism, or syncretism, or pantheism. And of course, some formerly Christian mystics do end up getting lost in those kinds of quasi-Christian or non-Christian spiritualities. While it is not my purpose to judge those who consciously choose to abandon orthodox expressions of Christianity, it is my goal to promote expressions of Christian mysticism that are, and remain, thoroughly orthodox, even while they lead us to transformed consciousness, growth in holiness and love, and, hopefully, a positive and loving appreciation of the world’s great wisdom traditions. In other words, I believe it is possible to be a 100% orthodox Christian who is anchored in the faith, even while moving deeply into contemplative spirituality, which includes (among other things) relating positively and appreciatively to the great wisdom found in other contemplative paths, such as Buddhism and Vedanta. In fact, that is precisely the kind of contemplative I aspire to be. And I believe one of the keys to growing in to that kind of deeply orthodox Christian contemplation is prayer: good, old fashioned, prayer-that-consists-of-words, whether liturgical, scripted, or extemporaneous (in fact, I would argue that a “balanced prayer diet” requires both liturgical and spontaneous prayer).

Liturgical prayer: participation in the mass (or equivalent corporate gatherings for non-Catholics) and at least some part of the Liturgy of the Hours, ideally every day (that’s why they call it the “Daily Office”). Spontaneous prayer: those times when we set the book aside and, in simplicity and honesty and naked vulnerability, express to God, using words, our love for God, our gratitude for all our blessings, our sorrow for our sins, and our desires, both for ourselves and on behalf of others. It can also involve screaming at God, spewing out our anger and our rage, getting all neurotic with our confusions and obsessions and compulsions, and — eventually — breathing through our words, learning to rest in them, and finding that wonderful place where words shade off into silence.

When Guigo the Carthusian wrote about the four part process that we have come to know as lectio divina, he advocated oratio — verbal prayer — as the bridge between meditatio (reflecting on our sacred reading) and contemplatio (moving into the deeper waters of God’s silence). The whole process begins with lectio, sacred reading, which generally speaking involves reading scripture, not in an analytical, “Bible study” sense, but in a more formational, open-hearted, “what is God saying to me here?” sense. I said prayer is “one of the keys” to exploration contemplation in an orthodox manner. Immersion in Sacred Scriptures is another one of those important keys.

I personally find that prayer is more challenging to my ego than is contemplation. With contemplation I can just let the ol’ ego take a break. But it comes roaring back after the silence has ended. Prayer, meanwhile, requires all of me, ego included, to submit in a posture of humble faithfulness and trust to a God whom my ego will often regard more in deistic rather than orthodox Christian terms. In other words, my ego loves to be in control, and operates under the fiction that God is “way up there” and therefore not too involved in my little affairs; after all, God has a universe to run. Contemplation does not directly challenge that ego-aggrandizement. This is similar to Ken Wilber’s insistence that we need both psychotherapy and meditative practice, because while meditation will deepen our spiritual intelligence, it doesn’t necessarily go after our shadow issues. The Christian corollary to Wilber’s insight is that meditation/contemplation can transform us in many ways, but it doesn’t necessarily make us holy, or more faithful, or more trusting in God. But traditional prayer, engaging the ego as it does, can help us in precisely all of those areas.

So sit in silence for 20 or 40 or 60 minutes every day. But do it in the context of a life rich with prayer.

Preliminary Practices for Christian Contemplatives
Emptiness and Non-Attachment
The 2016 Presidential Candidate Prayer Challenge: Are You In?
Is Mysticism Genetic?
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Larry C

    There is always a tension between contemplation and service. Between talking to God and listening to God. Teresa of Avilla compared the life of one called to service to the example of Martha, “always ready to serve at Christ’s table.” The life of the contemplative she compared to Mary, “always absorbed in devotion.”

    The key for me is to understand the rythm of my prayers and discern when to be still and wait for God and then to know when God is available and listening to my heart.

  • elizabeth

    The best books on prayer I’ve found are Anthony Bloom’s Beginning to Pray and Courage to Pray. There’s alot of overlap between them, but they’re priceless. Brief, but very rich.