Preliminary Practices for Christian Contemplatives

Fostering Humility is a Christian "Preliminary Practice" (image: Shutterstock)

Fostering Humility is a Christian “Preliminary Practice” (image: Shutterstock)

Tibetan Buddhists have a series of spiritual exercises that are seen as foundational to their spiritual practice: a sort of “spiritual boot camp.” They are called ngöndro or in English, “preliminary practices.”

The aspirant who wishes to attain enlightenment begins with these preliminary exercises, which include a series of 100,000 prostrations and a variety of chants designed to purify the individual of impediments such as jealousy, attachment, or delusion. According to Thubten Chodron, “The purpose of preliminary practices is thus to clear and enrich our minds, allowing our practice to progress smoothly and our heart to become the path to enlightenment.”

We don’t have an equivalent concept in Catholicism. As Christians, we can sit down and read a book like St. Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle or St. John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul and imagine that we are already prepared to enter into the highest forms of mystical or contemplative prayer. After all, God loves us just as we are, right? So why would God require us to go through a series of preliminary or beginning exercises, before bestowing upon us the highest of mystical graces?

While certainly God’s love for each of us is unconditional, immediate, and lavish, it’s a self-evident truth that if you want to be good at something, you practice at it — whether it’s learning to play a musical instrument, excel at a sport, or master a discipline. Christianity does not require anyone to become a saint — but those who do embody heroic virtue are a blessing to the world. It is in this spirit that the idea of pursuing (always according to God’s grace) an ever-maturing prayer life makes sense.

Put another way: Christian spirituality begins not with extraordinary experiences or mystical ecstasy (unless, of course, God chooses to bestow something like that on someone, but that is entirely a matter of grace). For most people, the spiritual life begins with humility and obedience. So even though the concept of “preliminary practices” may be foreign to Christianity, I’d like to suggest that we need our own ngöndro — our own body of “entry-level” disciplines and exercises that any aspiring mystic or contemplative would ordinarily begin with.

In the monastic world, new monks go through a series of stages in their process of monastic formation. First they are observers, then they become postulants, and after that become novices. The novitiate could last anywhere from 1 to 3 years, depending on the monastery. Only after completing the novitiate does a monk make temporary vows — and it could still be three or more years before the monk or nun finally makes his or her permanent, life profession.

So the time from when a person first thinks, “hey, I might want to be a monk (or a nun)” to the solemn profession, might easily be six or seven years (or more).

Monastic culture allows this long process not only to give the aspiring monk or nun plenty of time to make sure this is what she or he really wants, but also to allow enough time for monastic formation — in other words, time for the person to gradually take on the character of monastic life, by living it, watching others do it, and slowly adopting and internalizing the values, rhythms, and perspectives of the contemplative life. So in its own way, monastic formation serves as a kind of “preliminary practice.”

For those of us who are not monks or nuns, we might need to be a bit more intentional about our own preliminary practice. No one is going to tell us what we need to be doing or should be doing. Even if we have a graced spiritual director, he or she will likely not want to intrude in our own journey toward intimacy with God, and will likely demur if we ask for specific instructions. So we are really very much on our own when it comes to the “spiritual boot camp” of the Christian contemplative life.

So I’d like to offer a few thoughts about what I think a Christian preliminary practice might look like. This carries no weight beyond the force of my own opinion, so you are free to disagree or disregard this list if you want. But I hope that — especially if you are interested in Christian mysticism or contemplation — you’ll at least consider this list as a framework for your own spiritual practice.

If you are a beginner, here is a set of foundational exercises; if you have been exploring Christian spirituality for a while, perhaps this list will help you to fill in a few gaps or revisit the basics (always a good thing to do).

So, I propose that Christian preliminary practices involve taking these essential steps, as preliminary to any other spiritual exercise:

  1. Turn away from your sin. For Catholics, this means celebrating the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I continue to be amazed at how many Catholics are not only resistant, but even hostile, to Reconciliation. I am not suggesting you just go a confessional and recite your peccadillos in order to receive Communion. Reconciliation is not a mechanical exercise, but the sign of a restored relationship. It is humbling (and depending on your sins, embarrassing) to receive this Sacrament, but that paves the way for the rest of your practices in contemplation. I know this is harsh, but I’m going to say it anyway: if you’re too proud to confess your sins to another human being in a private, confidential space, then perhaps you are too proud to do any of the other deeply humbling exercises that contemplation entails.
  2. Begin to cultivate a spirit of humility. I’m not talking about humiliation, or low-self-esteem, or false modesty. A humble person still gets to be good at the things he or she is good at. Humility is about authenticity and non-attachment. Humility means being down-to-earth, being flexible and non-attached to the circumstances of our lives. A humble person is free, because he or she is not invested in things begin “just a certain way.” To engage in this preliminary practice, pay attention to the corners of your life where you insist on being “in charge” or look for the adulation or approval of others. See what you can do to let go of that tendency to always be in control (or controlling). But note: if you are someone with low-self-esteem or a tendency to let others walk all over you, for you humility may involve learning to take better care of yourself.
  3. Pray (using words) every day. Yes, contemplative prayer is silent. But all the great saints, monks and mystics immersed themselves in prayer; those who were monks or nuns did it multiple times each day. Some folks people try to pray by holding a spontaneous conversation with God, only to find it becomes difficult on a day-in-day-out basis — which explains why monasteries use liturgical (formulaic) prayers. We who do not live in a cloister can do the same. Resources like The Liturgy of the Hours or Give Us This Day can help us to foster a regular rhythm of daily prayer. Just because you use words printed on a page doesn’t mean you just read them blithely. Pay attention to the words and recognize their meaning in your own heart. Of course, you’ll find that sometimes the words have no direct meaning for you — for example, you might be in a wonderful mood but the Psalm of the day involves lamentation over misfortune. On days like this, remember that your prayer is for the entire world — which includes people who might be feeling exactly what the Psalm is talking about. When you pray that Psalm, you’re praying for them. Incidentally, aside from the prayer resources mentioned above, an essential resource for daily prayer is the Bible. If you don’t own a Bible, get one. Read it, meditate on it, pray through it. It will be your doorway to contemplation.
  4. Remember (and observe) a weekly Sabbath day. Jesus liberated us from legalism, so your Sabbath day of rest does not have to be on a Saturday — or a Sunday, for that matter. Use common sense and pick one day a week when you will not work or worry about earthly concerns. But then stick to it. Let the time be an opportunity for rest, renewal, creativity (for love, not money) and spiritual reflection. Give yourself permission to take a long nap, a sumptuous bubble bath, a leisurely walk. Enjoy yourself! For many people this is surprisingly difficult. But you need to do this in order to foster leisure in your life, for leisure is the foundation on which your gradual formation in the Spirit of God will take place. You need time to breathe, to think, to reflect, and to rest in order to be available for the hard work of conforming to the mind of Christ.
  5. Participate in your neighborhood parish (or some form of faith community). Many aspiring contemplatives bristle at this suggestion, and I think it’s because we tend to be introverts and we don’t like engaging with people that much. So see this is a call to step out of your comfort zone. And if you don’t want anything to do with the church because you disagree with this or that policy or doctrine, keep in mind that just about everybody who shows up Sunday after Sunday has something they don’t like about church. The church does not exist to meet our needs, it exists to help us love our neighbors. If you don’t want to teach a class or sing in the choir, you don’t have to: most faith communities have a variety of needs so it’s likely there’s at least one way you can humbly pitch in to help. If you’ve given parish life an honest try and it still leaves you cold, then look at other models of community, like centering prayer groups or monastic oblate communities. While these do not replace the parish (which, after all, is where you go to receive the sacraments), involvement in an explicitly spiritual community can be a very important and meaningful practice.
  6. Do something to help out someone(s) less fortunate than you. Jesus made it clear that one of the most direct ways to encounter him was through service to those who are poor, sick, imprisoned, elderly, or otherwise in need. This can take a variety of forms, from volunteering in a soup kitchen to helping an illiterate adult learn to read to teaching English to newly-arrived refugees. Like parish involvement, look for a way to help others that draws on your strengths, for then you are more likely to feel like you are making a difference. This kind of work can be difficult and it can force us to face up to our own addiction to comfort, or lack of humility, or lack of generosity. So it’s not always easy. But it is good work and necessary work.
  7. Seek out a spiritual companion or spiritual director. Once you have anchored yourself in each of the above practices, you will be ready to begin a more intentional, serious exploration of contemplative prayer: the prayer of deep, restful silence. Only one more thing remains: finding someone with whom you can honestly share both your desire for God and your thoughts and feelings as you enter into silence. This person could be lay or ordained, a trained spiritual director or simply an amateur who shares your thirst for God. The key element for a good spiritual companion is a commitment to prayer, a loving and humble heart, and a willingness to listen. Once you find a spiritual companion whom you trust, make it a practice to be as honest as possible with this person. Your loving relationship with God is meant to be shared with others, and your spiritual companion will provide a safe and confidential arena in which you can do just that.

So… while it doesn’t involve endless chants or prostrations, I believe these seven steps can provide anyone with a thorough grounding in the basics of Christ-centered spirituality. Think of it as setting up a “base camp” from which you will climb the mountain of spiritual ascent. Everyone wants to make it to the mountain top! But to do that, we need a safe and established starting point. These seven practices will provide you with that foundation.

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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.