Getting Started in Contemplative Practice

A reader writes:

I hope you might be able to write me a quick note about a good way to get started in a more contemplative/mystical oriented Christianity.  I was involved in religious fundamentalism for most of my adult life and now I am trying to recover from that.  I am hoping you might point me to some books that would help me embark on this path.  Thanks for your time.

The Big Book of Christian Mysticism

Thanks for a great question. This is actually the subject of my book, Answering the Contemplative Call, but I’ll go ahead and try to give you some things to think about now. First, and perhaps most important, there’s no systematic way to become a contemplative — because contemplation is relational rather than juridicalor systematic in its nature. It’s not about “four spiritual laws” but rather about falling in love with God. And like any love relationship, it can never be properly captured in words! With this in mind to keep us both properly humble, I’m just going to offer a few thoughts to keep in mind as you move forward on the grand adventure of moving deeper into silence as a way to more fully love the Divine Mystery.

And yes, I’ll finish up with a few recommended books!

This first step is specifically for the person who wrote to me, who is a former fundamentalist. But others might find this useful as well…

Into the Silent Land

1. Put some effort into gratitude (where possible) and forgiveness toward the fundamentalists you left behind.This is important, because if your experience is anything like mine, extricating ourselves from fundamentalist communities can be difficult if not emotionally traumatic. Since fundamentalism is anchored in a way of seeing God that stresses God’s anger toward non-believers, the fundamentalists you used to associate with may interpret your leaving their community as a spiritually dangerous move — you are putting yourself, so they believe, in harm’s way. In their way of thinking, it would be a kindness to you to do whatever is necessary to keep you in the fold. They are probable incapable of seeing that their attempts to stop you from leaving will be harassing if not abusive, but you — again, if your experience is anything like mine — will see clearly that you have become a target. Obviously, if you have not already done so, you will have to set some boundaries to protect yourself, which may include refusing to have any contact with your fundamentalist former associates. Perhaps you won’t have to go to that extreme, but you might, depending on their behavior. But once you have protected yourself from harassment or abuse, the next major step will be safeguarding your own soul — that you don’t allow bitterness, anger or fear to dominate your memories of your sojourn in fundamentalism. What is important here is to forgive anyone who hurt you, and to discern — and celebrate — all the good motivations and experiences that shaped your fundamentalist journey.

Fully Human, Fully Divine

You became a fundamentalist for a reason — well, probably for a variety of reasons — and, I suspect, somewhere in there is a profound hunger for God, and/or a transforming experience of God’s presence in your life. Those are the jewels to hold on to — and to protect from being swallowed up by understandable feelings of resentment, disgust, or cynicism. The contemplative life is about truly experiencing and sharing with others those Divine qualities that fundamentalists pay a lot of lip service to, but never actually get around to manifesting in their lives — qualities like compassion, forgiveness, grace, loving your neighbor as yourself, and authentic, earthy humility. Actually fundamentalists do a pretty good job with these qualities when relating to other fundamentalists! But it’s moving outside the tribe that is so impossible for them. As a contemplative, you will be called not only to love, forgive, etc. other contemplatives, but even those who are radically different from yourself. And one of the best ways to practice this is — difficult though it may be — to show compassion, love, forgiveness, grace, etc. even to fundamentalists! Now, if you have set boundaries to protect yourself from harassment and abuse, that doesn’t mean that in order to be compassionate you now have to let those boundaries down! You may have to — for now, or for the rest of your life — practice compassion etc. on an interior level, releasing your internal feelings of rage and dread and replacing them with the most compassionate/forgiving feelings that you (with God’s help) can muster. It’s a lifelong journey! But all aspects of contemplative spirituality unfold slowly and beautifully over time. Which leads to my second point:

Revelations of Divine Love

2. Be gentle and patient with yourself (and others). Change takes time. Contemplative spirituality is like the slow food movement. It’s countercultural to our American idolatry of immediate gratification. We learn to accept ourselves as noisy (both externally and internally), narcissistic, distracted, messy, imperfect beings who can barely think about or relate to God, the Divine Mystery, in any way beyond self-interest. “Accepting” our many blemishes is not a way of acquiescing and doing nothing to grow in the Spirit! But rather, it is building a foundation of love and self-compassion that sets the stage for the deep interior transformation that the Spirit works in us, over time. Contemplation steers a middle course between two classic Christian heresies: Pelagianism and Quietism. Pelagianism (named for the unfairly maligned Celtic theologian Pelagius) seeks all spiritual betterment on our own terms, relying not on God but on our own selves to become holy. Quietism, by contrast, insists on doing nothing but passively waiting for God to form us in whatever way God chooses — and if God chooses to leave us mired in our compulsions, addictions and narcissism, than who are we to try to change? As the middle way, contemplation insists that living a life shaped by love, grace and forgiveness is possible, but must be attained by the Spirit’s lead — and our willing cooperation. Once again, the contemplative path prays for, and seeks to manifest, those lovely spiritual qualities that others merely pay lip service to: confidence, trust, love, joy, peace, patience in suffering, gratitude, forgiveness, compassion, kindness, moderation. The fruits of the spirit; the Beatitudes; the marks of a holy life. Just like it takes elbow grease to keep your house clean and your car well-maintained, you have to work at your own inner transformation — but the work begins by praying for, and trusting in, the leading of the Spirit. And then recognizing that such growth into holiness, into deeper silence, into loving simplicity, is a long process indeed. But the changes are organic, satisfying, and permanent. Which is why they need time to take root.

Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening

3. Don’t stop doing all the “non-contemplative” spiritual exercises you find meaningful. Contemplation is not about giving up going to church, or no longer reading the Bible, or abandoning vocal forms of prayer. On the contrary! The great contemplatives throughout history have insisted that, at least within Christianity, contemplation ought to be built on the foundation of a centered, humble, ordinary life in Christ. Things may shift and change: perhaps you used to spend an hour a day reading the Bible and reciting vocal prayers; as you develop a lectio divina practice you will find more and more of that time given to silence, to simply resting in God’s loving presence. A contemplative practice is not about giving more time to God so much as it is about letting go of the thoughts and things that stand in the way of simply allowing the presence of the Divine Mystery to unfold in your life. But be wary of the temptation (and yes, you’ll likely feel this sooner or later) to abandon all other spiritual practices in favor of simply sitting quietly before God. Again, that is the cul-de-sac of quietism. Contemplative silence is about fostering intimacy with God; but compare that to marital intimacy. As much as I love the physical intimacy my wife and I share, it is only one small part of our marriage. We share resources, we maintain a home together, we work together to care for our daughter and achieve our financial goals, and so forth. The spiritual life works the same way. The intimacy of contemplation must be embedded in a larger life of service and relationship-building. Otherwise it goes off kilter; it devolves into “navel-gazing.” So don’t throw away those prayer books! Just learn how to hold it all in balance.

The Cloud of Unknowing

4. Build relationships with other contemplatives, including looking for a soul friend or spiritual director.Christianity is not a do-it-yourself religion, not even on the mystical or contemplative level. The hermits of the 3rd and 4th centuries quickly discovered that they needed to wash each others’ feet in order to truly be faithful to the Christian life. By the time of St. Benedict in the 6th century, a life of solitude in pursuit of God was understood as something that emerged out of communal life, not in place of it. Sometimes this is difficult, especially for those of us who have been burned by religious abuse in the past. We are naturally suspicious of other people’s zeal. But the contemplative life is about love, remember? So we need someone to love. Hopefully a community of someones. Thankfully, it is becoming easier and easier to connect with other contemplatives, through organizations such as Shalem, WCCM, Contemplative Outreach, and various monastic affiliations like Benedictine Oblates or Lay Cistercians. More and more local churches are forming contemplative small groups within their roster of parish ministries; I’m seeing this especially among Episcopalians but I think you can find it in many other groups as well. Another option is the unprogrammed Quakers, but they have no ritual or sacramental life, so if that is important to you the Quakers might not be the best choice. You have to discern what is right for you — the key is to find a community where they won’t look at you like you’ve sprouted an extra head, just because you spend an hour a day in silence! And just as important is making sure there is at least one person with whom you can honestly and candidly share what’s going on in your heart. Such a person might have a formal relationship with you — a spiritual director — or be more of an informal peer — a soul friend. There are advantages to either kind of relationship. To learn more about spiritual direction, visit the website of Spiritual Directors International. Finding a spiritual director or a soul friend is a process — you need to connect with the person who is right for you. Of course, trust serendipity, but also listen to your heart: you’ll know when you’ve made the connection that will both nurture and gently challenge your growth in love and intimacy with the Divine Mystery.

The Way of a Pilgrim

5. Make time in your life for silence, solitude, and stillness.You probably were wondering when I would get around to this! Let me repeat myself: contemplation is about letting go. Letting go of the clutter in our lives, both physically and mentally. Embracing simplicity. Learning to see the vast openness between and beneath the frenzy of our mental chatter. Turning off the television, computer, iPad, iPod, iPhone, etc. etc., even if only for an hour a day. Spending one day a month, and/or one week a year, at a monastery or some other place of deep silence. Finding time to be alone with God, in a church, in the woods, or even at home. Learning to be mindfully present with all the tasks of the day: when you exercise, be present with your exercising, don’t send your mind ahead to next Monday morning. Same when you are cooking, or gardening, or cleaning. Be mindfully present, each and every moment of the day, and when you find that your mind has wandered off, gently call it back. Be here now: embrace the sacrament of the present moment. And enjoy silence wherever you can find it. Sometimes, for those of us with families or busy lives, it might just come in a few stolen moments at the beginning or the end of each day. For now, that’s enough! Just make a point of attending to it, each and every day. And when possible, try to deepen and lengthen the time you give to God in silence. You will find that you cherish it more and more.

Writing the Icon of the Heart

6. Don’t get hung up on technique: but try different ways to embrace the silence. Traditionally, Christianity has been less concerned than other faith traditions with techniques of meditation or contemplation; but some Christian practices do exist, and it is worth getting to know them: the prayer of the heart (Jesus prayer), centering prayer, and Christian meditation are three well-known examples. Then there is praying with icons, the Rosary, and Eucharistic adoration. Each of these “methods” offers a different way to embrace silence, some are wordier than others, but all include ways to focus the mind so that our attention is tethered — if it wanders off (or I should say, when it wanders off) we have a focal point to return it to. It is well worth your while to explore these different methods or techniques of silent prayer, and once you find one that speaks to you, make it a daily part of your life. But a warning: don’t get hung up on the “right way” to meditate: remember, Christian contemplation is relational. For Christians, the right way to pray in silence is the way that nurtures an ever-deepening relationship with the Divine Mystery. Meditative techniques are always merely a means to that most important end. If you’re more worried about “doing it right” than about loving God, something is out of joint. Be mindful of this.

Prayer

7. Read, read read! I would include this piece of advice even if you hadn’t asked for a reading list, but since you did, here goes. As I have written elsewhere, contemplation is about words almost as much as it is about silence, and we who have access to books and the internet are tremendously privileged to be able to learn from some of the greatest contemplatives in history (some of whom are still with us). Here are a dozen books to get you started (including two by yours truly), but of course there is a lifetime of great reading material available to you. One word of caution: don’t get so caught up in reading about the contemplative life that this becomes a substitute for actually living the life. Wouldn’t it be tragic if someone spent their entire life reading romance novels only to die in loneliness! Here’s a rule of thumb: try to balance your time spent reading contemplative literature each day with the same amount of time spent in silence. If you can find an hour to read each day, try limiting your reading to just 30 minutes — and give the other 30 minutes to God in silence. Try it! You’ll still get lots of reading done, but your spiritual life will grow by leaps and bounds.

Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism

Okay, here are twelve books to get you started:

  1. Into the Silent Land by Martin Laird (also available on Kindle). A masterful introduction to the basic elements of contemplative prayer, elegantly written, theologically orthodox but expansive in its spirit. Can’t recommend this one  highly enough.
  2. Revelation of Love by Julian of Norwich (also available on Kindle). If you read one work of classical Christian mysticism, let this be the one. Poetic affirmations of the love of God in vivid, earthy descriptions of a medieval woman’s visions.
  3. Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening by Cynthia Bourgeault (also available on Kindle). This book works as an introduction to centering prayer, but really is more universal in its treatment of how contemplative can be a force for deep inner healing.
  4. The Cloud of Unknowing by Anonymous (also available on Kindle). Written by a contemporary of Julian of Norwich, this 14th-century manual of contemplation shows the long history of the practice — and the roots of practices like centering prayer.
  5. The Naked Now by Richard Rohr. Down-to-earth reflections by one of the most popular Franciscans of our time on how to “learn to see as the mystics see” — recognizing that contemplation and mysticism entail a transformation of consciousness.
  6. The Way of a Pilgrim by Anonymous (also available on Kindle). 19th-century Russian Orthodox classic that reads like a novel; the story of a wandering pilgrim whose life is transformed by the Jesus Prayer: the prayer of the heart.
  7. Writing the Icon of the Heart by Maggie Ross. Beautifully written collection of essays by an Anglican solitary who is not only a gifted contemplative but also understands the relationship between silent prayer and social justice, including care for the earth.
  8. Prayer by Abhishiktananda. The author, a French Benedictine priest who lived most of his adult life in India, provides rich meditative insight into the nature of prayer, informed by his study of Indian philosophy. A classic both in Christian and interfaith terms.
  9. Fully Human, Fully Divine by Michael Casey. The author, an Australian Trappist monk, uses the Gospel of Mark to explore the destiny of the contemplative life: Union with God. A profound book to read (and savor) slowly, as a companion to lectio divina.
  10. The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism edited by Bernard McGinn. Probably the best anthology of classical Christian mystical writings, featuring McGinn’s scholarly (but helpful) introductions to the key writings of the greatest contemplatives.
  11. Answering the Contemplative Call

    The Big Book of Christian Mysticism by Carl McColman (also available on Kindle). My introductory book on Christian mysticism, which includes an introduction to the contemplative life through a detailed discussion of the practice of lectio divina.

  12. Answering the Contemplative Call by Carl McColman. My book is really just more of what this entire post is about: how to get started in your own contemplative response to the love of God.

So there you go. At least a year’s worth of reading (If you finish all these books in less than a year, perhaps you aren’t spending enough time in silence). May rich wonders abound in your life as you explore the contemplative path. Thanks for your question, and God bless you.

Disclosure: If you follow the link of a book mentioned in this post and purchase it or other products from Amazon.com, I receive a small commission from Amazon. Thank you for doing so — it is the easiest way you can support this blog.

  • Wayne Halford

    Thanks for this article Carl! I found several books that I didn’t have and am looking forward to reading them as well as your new book when it comes out. I might add to this list another book I have found to be very helpful. “The Aspiring Mystic” by Carl McColman. As always, your words are great deal of help in the understanding of the contemplative life.

  • http://www.crookedmystic.com TB Pasquale

    What a beautiful, I would call, virtual spiritual direction for all beginning contemplatives especially the reminders to care for one’s soul on the journey, find a community that fits and accepts your contemplative seeking, finding a director for the journey, and knowing that there is no one prescribed way of getting there!

    And a great book list! Another post I will be passing along virtually. Thank you for your prayerful words and wisdom.

  • Mark Jurgensen

    Carl: In your list of recommended books, I see that there are no works of fiction. I’m in the middle of “Breakfast with Buddha” and am enjoying it so much I don’t want it to end. Are there any other works of fiction that you would add to a contemplative reading list?

    • Carl McColman

      Mark, I’ll have to think about that. I’m sure I can come up with a few books — C.S. Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader is an obvious one.

      And yes, Breakfast with Buddha is a winner. The Yoga class alone is worth the price of the book.

  • Cindy Wilson

    For someone new to contemplation, there are some books on that list that stand out to me, mainly Cynthia Bourgeault’s ‘Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening’; Martin Laird’s ‘Into The Silent Land’; and ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’. These three books helped me immensely when starting to read about Contemplation, mysticism, and Contemplative Prayer. I agreed with several authors that contemplation is a gift from God – it isn’t something you necessarily learn from books or other people, but Centering Prayer can bring you to your center, where God is, and that’s where contemplation began for me. Going to the many retreats across the country also put me in touch with others that are searching and want to learn a form of prayer that brings you to your center, where God is. Some excellent instructors are out there that can offer you a path to undrstanding the facets of contemplation. I consider you, Carl McColman, among the best, since you can make contemplation so clear and understandable.

    Looking forward to you new book coming in January.

    My relationship with God and my prayer life have been SO enriched over the years of exploring the different views of the mystery of God in Christianity, and also the beliefs of so many peoples and religions around the world that see a commonality in the spirit of God.

  • Ann Dayton

    I have made a list of the books recommended (some of which I have already)

    Just to point out that Abishiktananda, whose book on prayer was one of

    your recommendations, was a French Benedictine monk, and not a Jesuit.

    I’m very drawn to the first book you recommended so highly by Martin

    Laird, a name new to me.

    Thanks for a very interesting post.

    • Carl McColman

      Thanks for the correction on Abhishiktananda, clearly my brain was off somewhere else! I’ll fix that right away.

      I suspect you will love Martin Laird.

  • gregorylent

    after which, one can let go of the contemplator :-)

  • Bill

    Thank you so much for this posting. When I wrote the email that prompted you to write this, I was just hoping for a brief introduction. A day or two after I sent the email, you announced the upcoming publication of your new book, and I thought that was my answer. I have been very happily surprised by this post. As you probably suspect, the first step will be quite challenging for me. I am already receiving “sermons” in my Facebook messages. I also have one other challenge in this step, but I will share that with you privately. From where I stand, the rest of the steps look like Mount Everest to me, but then I suppose that the spiritual mountain at whose base I stand actually dwarfs Everest. Thank you for the booklist; I love reading, but it will be a challenge to not so immerse myself in the writing that I forget to actually DO the contemplation.

    -Bill

  • OtterB

    Thanks for these. I have read most of them, several from your recommendations in The Big Book of Christian Mysticism. I’m especially fond of the Laird and of its sequel, A Sunlit Absence.

    I wanted to add to the list a book that helped me quite a bit at the beginning, and again recently when I came back to it as an intermediate. I recommend Armchair Mystic: Easing into Contemplative Prayer, by Mark Thibodeaux.

    Also thanks to the commenter who mentioned Breakfast with Buddha. I’d never heard of it, and my library owns it, so I’ll be picking it up the next time I’m there. I also like fiction with a spiritual but not preachy theme. If you like fantasy where the religious construct is taken seriously but has no direct analog in our world, I highly recommend Lois McMaster Bujold’s Chalion books. The first, The Curse of Chalion is excellent, and its sequel Paladin of Souls is even stronger in my opinion.

  • http://bobholmes.blogspot.com Bob Holmes

    Carl,

    Thank You for all your hard work.

    When I started writing about Christian Meditation, I thought I was alone all alone in this. I’m thrilled to find a whole community. It’s a little overwhelming to see all the resources you’ve amassed.

    God Bless You In Your Heart of Hearts!

    Bob

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