Advice for a Beginner

A reader posted these questions to my blog this morning:

As a novice to Contemplative Prayer I guess I should take the introduction pace . Any suggestions ? Also, Carl, do you consider Henri Nouwen a mystic?

I’ll answer your second question first. I certainly have the sense of Henri Nouwen as a contemplative, based on what I know of him and his work. As you may have surmised if you’ve poked around this blog very much, though, I tend to be reticent about applying the word “mystic” to people (and especially to myself!), unless of course they are widely acknowledged in the tradition to be mystics (Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila, etc.). Having said, that, like Karl Rahner I do believe the call to be a Christian is in fact the call to be a mystic, and I believe that to be a sinner (which we all are) means to resist that mystical call. John Lennon once said, “We are all Christ and we are all Hitler.” That, it seems to me, pretty much sums up how I feel about whether any one person deserves to be called a “mystic” or not. So was Nouwen a mystic? I suppose I could say “of course he was.” But I bet as a consequence of his own humility he would have been uncomfortable with the label. Read C.S. Lewis’ Letter to Malcolm in which he vigorously disclaims being a mystic himself. Then read Till We Have Faces or The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and it becomes obvious that C.S. Lewis certainly could, to use Richard Rohr’s wonderful language, “see like the mystics see.” Somehow I suspect that the same could be said of Nouwen.

Now, then; as for suggestions to an aspiring contemplative, here a few thoughts for you to ponder…

  1. Be involved in some form of Christian community. If you are allergic to traditional “church,” then at least find a theology on tap group, or a centering prayer group, or a house church, emergent group, some setting where people who are struggling to be disciples of Jesus come together for mutual support, encouragement, and prayer. This, I believe, is truly essential, and will probably be the most controversial thing I say in my forthcoming book.
  2. Find a monastery, or failing that a cathedral close or even a beautiful park where it is possible to spend time just being silent. Make it a habit to go there, not just to pray, or attend a workshop, or read a book, but to just be.
  3. If you don’t know what lectio divina is, find out. And start to do it, ideally every day, but failing that at least a few times a week. Use the Bible, but also use the writings of the classic mystics, for your lectio practice.
  4. If you do not currently have a prayer life, then get one. You can start out small: grace before meals, and a check-in with God first thing in the morning and before retiring at night. Such prayers can be formal (“Now I lay me down to sleep”), or better yet, in your own words. The point is to begin to cultivate your own commitment to recognizing God’s silent presence in your life on an on-going basis. To do that, you need to let God know that your desire for him is greater than your resistance to him. If you’re ambitious, you can take on a more disciplined form of prayer such as the Rosary or the Daily Office. But for a beginner, just making sure that you are praying every day, no matter how briefly, is the important first step.
  5. When you’ve got all of the above down, then — and only then — do I recommend beginning to drink from the well of silent prayer. Of course, if you’re doing #2 and practicing lectio, then you’re already befriending silence, but this step is about moving further into the actual practice of contemplative prayer. Technique is not strictly necessary, but for guidance in how to “do” silent prayer, I recommend The Cloud of Unknowingthe link takes you to the wonderful new translation by Carmen Butcher. As for how long: the best advice I can give is, do it every day! Better to do five minutes a day than a half hour once a week. The point is to make it as embedded in your life as brushing your teeth. So start out small, but regularly. As for a goal, eventually I’d agree with the centering prayer folks and say that 20 minutes a day, twice a day, is plenty. If you feel called to do more, discuss it with a spiritual director, which leads to my next point:
  6. Find a spiritual director or a soul friend. This person does not need to be a “contemplative” or a “mystic” him- or herself, and frankly, I would tend to trust more those who talk less about their own spiritual experience! The key to a good spiritual director is humility, love, and their own fervent desire to follow Christ. Think of your soul friend or spiritual director as a trusted uncle or aunt, older brother or sister, who you know is just trying to get through life like you are, but because they are a bit older and wiser they can offer advice, encouragement, and occasionally a kick in the pants. Check with your local monastery or centering prayer community to find qualified spiritual directors, or visit Incidentally, the URL of this blog, “anamchara,” comes from the Irish word for “soul friend.” That should give you a hint as to how important I consider this practice.
  7. Finally, perhaps most important of all: strive to live according to the “five H’s”: humility, humor, hospitality, holiness, and heaven-consciousness. If your spiritual practice is filling you with pride or a sense of self-importance, then something is off-kilter. It’s really about becoming more down-to-earth and self-forgetful (in healthy ways); also the ability to laugh is crucial (including the all-important ability to laugh gently at your own foibles!). Hospitality is so important: learning to welcome the stranger in your life, those who do not share your own mystical or contemplative aspirations, those whose lives are broken or wounded, those of whom you do not ‘approve,’ etc. Remember Abraham and the three angels who came calling, or the story of the Good Samaritan. Hospitality is a central value in the Rule of St. Benedict. You’ll also struggle to offer hospitality to God as God becomes increasingly present in your life, and — most difficult of all — learning even to be welcoming to your own imperfections (even as you continually turn away from your sin in joyful penitence). Loving yourself is, frankly, one of the hardest assignments you’ll have as a contemplative! But this leads to the important task of growth in holiness. This means more than just going to church all the time and reciting tons of prayers every day. It’s not about “purity” in some sort of Platonic sense, but rather about love: to be holy is to be loving, in a trinitarian way: love God, love others, love yourself. And this leads to the summit of the contemplative life: heaven-consciousness. Paul confidently proclaimed “we have the mind of Christ” (I Corinthians 2:16). What is that? I believe it is the mind of non-dual consciousness, the mind that loves like God loves, lavishly, indiscriminately, joyfully, delightfully, humbly, confidently, serenely. The mind of Christ is the consciousness of heaven. If we take Paul at his word, this is not just some sort of bonbon reserved for us after we die: it is a gift available to us now, for the purpose of supporting us in the task of holiness (of love).

I hope these thoughts are helpful. As for pacing, that’s where humility kicks in. You don’t have to have it all figured out tonight, tomorrow, or next month. We are like babies, learning to crawl. Yes, we want to walk and run, and we will get there, eventually. But it’s important to be gentle with ourselves, for change takes time. First things first, in patience and confidence and joyful awareness of the gifts of each precious, present moment.

So there you go!

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  • TLH

    Carl, you might like what Fr. Robert Barron talks about in this video:

  • TLH

    Oh my! I didn’t realize it would post the actual video! I thought it would just post a link.

    Um, sorry about that.

  • Carl McColman

    Oh, no problem at all! I’ll gladly extend my blog’s hospitality to Fr. Barron’s wonderful comments on the Blessed Trinity. :-)
    Thanks for sharing.

  • John M


    This is wonderful. Thank you! I think this post serves as a helpful reminder even for those of us who have been at it for a while. In a certain sense we’re all beginners, after all.

    Also, as I read your remarks I found myself wondering: have you ever thought about being a spiritual director yourself? From this post and others on your blog I get the sense that you fit the description of someone who “is just trying to get through life like you are, but because they are a bit older and wiser they can offer advice, encouragement, and occasionally a kick in the pants.” I don’t need an answer to that question; just thought I’d throw it out there.


  • Maggie Daly

    Oh, wow. (Deep sigh of relief.) Found, lost and fortunately re-found your site this morning. Was cruising through my Favorites folder on spiritual direction and came across a reference to an article you posted (page expired) but got to your homepage just as the computer went down — without leaving references to the pages just visited. “Website of Unknowing” didn’t bring any results but three hours of webwork did.

    This is a wonderful site, inspiring and informative. Thank you very much for your sharing.

  • Carl McColman

    I’m glad you (re)found me, Maggie. I’ve been laboring under the apparently faulty assumption that a Google search for “Website of Unknowing” would lead straight to me. Maybe I have some more SEO work to do. Thanks for the heads up.

  • claire

    Carl, this is a great post. You write here some points which are coming just at the right time for me!

  • Green Sufi

    Great advice, Carl!

  • Maggie Daly

    I tried “Website of Unknowing” and “anamcara”, noting that you had speeled the latter as a single word but not that you included an “h”.

    Great advice for those at any stage of our spiritual journey.

  • TLH

    OK well if you’re interested in more by Fr. Barron, look for wordonfire on YouTube. He’s got a LOT of *awesome* videos out there for your viewing enjoyment.

  • TLH

    PS: The Holy Trinity is why I use the green triskele as my icon. When I first viewed Fr. Barron’s video, I just about swooned when he described “lover – beloved – and the love they share.” Wow.