Intercessory Contemplation

Intercessory Contemplation March 5, 2010

This thought came to me yesterday. We Christians understand spirituality and mysticism in communal ways: we are knit into the Body of Christ, our mandate is to love one another, we are to “be Christ” for each other, and so forth. For this reason, intercessory prayer — praying on behalf of others — is an important part of Christian spirituality. Indeed, in Catholicism it is customary to make offerings to the church to have masses said for the intentions of those we love.

Meditation and contemplation are often seen as spiritual practices with an essentially self-oriented purpose: I meditate in order to achieve enlightenment, or in order to heighten my consciousness, or in order to find greater peace and inner serenity, or perhaps even just to feel more intimate and connected with God. These are all good things. But they are all also essentially self-directed things: it’s all about me, or maybe me & God, or at best, God & me. Meditation and contemplation always seem to collapse back into what Plotinus called “the flight of the alone to the Alone.”

But what if we who meditate and contemplate in a specifically Christian context began to think about our silence in a more communal way? What if we entered into silence not for our personal benefit, but for grace and blessing on behalf of others? What if, just as when a priest says a mass for a particular person’s or family’s or group’s intentions, we did the same thing for our time spent in contemplation? What if my intention for contemplation was less about my growth/peace/enlightenment/God-connection, and more driven by a yearning that those blessings would be showered on others — on those I love, or perhaps even on those who have no one to pray for them, or maybe even for the entire world?

In other words, what if I, spiritually speaking, just gave away whatever merit or blessing awaited me as a result of my meditation? “I enter into this silence, God, seeking nothing for myself but only that you will shower your blessing on those who need it the most.” This would be, in effect, intercessory contemplation. Just as a bodhisattva declines his or her own ability to enter enlightenment out of a desire to serve others, so the intercessory contemplative will engage in his or her practice not for personal gain (or not for personal gain alone), but as a way of humbly beseeching God to transform the lives of others.

Here’s how I described it on Twitter yesterday, using the economy of words necessitated by Twitter’s character limits:

“Intercessory Contemplation”: entering into silence as a
sacrificial act of love for our neighbors and the world.

That pretty much sums it up.

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  • Amy

    Carl: Nice thought. It gives one something to ponder. But I also think we must remember, the goal of contemplation is done not so much “in order to achieve enlightenment, or in order to heighten my consciousness, or in order to find greater peace and inner serenity, or perhaps even just to feel more intimate and connected with God”. That may be the reason we begin such a practice. But it will not keep us there. We have to be convinced by St Paul to “rather be transformed in the newness of your mind, so as to determine for yourselves what is the good and pleasing and perfect will of God.” Rom 12:2

    What Paul speaks of we know as metanoia, a radical turning of one’s life, heart, soul, will, everything! to God. We turn to God until we are in a face to face encounter with him. Movement is the key here, turning toward, continually. Without the movement of the soul turning, the concept of radical holds no meaning.

    St. Bernard writes “For contemplating it [the Father] with unveiled face [the result of metanoia] we are transformed into the same image from glory to glory as by the Spirit of the Lord.” Speaking of contemplation, John Eudes Bamberger OCSO writes in CSQ (43.4 2008) that “…our Cistercian Fathers…bear witness to their dynamic understanding of the tradition that affirms the purpose of our way of life [is] to be a radical transformation of our very being and not merely the adaptation to the subculture of the cloister….divinization, which is the highest expression of transformation, as in the well-known saying of Saint Bernard: Sic affici deificari est (Dil 10) Such transformation is not just for the monk or nun…it is for every individual to discover.

    So, in my own understanding and practice of contemplation, I seek contemplation for metanoia in order to be transformed…to become a completely new person, Jesus Christ. What more could we do for our friends, relatives, the whole world than to change the one person we can…ourselves? Do we not then leave this world a better place? And does not that transformation make us selfless, generous, giving people, more aware of others than ourselves?

    Somewhere I once read…the only person you can change is yourself. I think contemplation speaks to that concept. Change yourself, and you will begin the transformation of the world.

  • Your view on Entering Into Silence was interesting. Your thought of ‘giving up’ your share of blessings for another gave me something to ponder.
    My “understanding” of this sacred Silence does not just mean to quiet. It also means to “be still” and to listen to others. Not only does this stillness help cultivate silence, but opens to a “blessing” from God throught others by way of their speach and actions. It is also a learning tool. Being still helps us observe ourselves and others to learn about what not to say or do.
    In a way, the thought of ‘giving away’ our portion of a blessing could be an act of pride instead of an act of thankfulness through Humility.

  • Thanks, Amy and Mary. Reading your comments, I am struck at how impoverished my own words are; for I agree with both of you, and yet obviously what I wrote this morning was only a caricature of what I have been thinking. Amy, your comments about metanoia are well-spoken, and yet even metanoia can be a goal to be grasped rather than a gift to be received. I think my idea of intercessory contemplation is really predicated on self-forgetfulness, not the inverse pride of “I’m doing this for other people and not for myself” but rather the deep gratitude of “may the transformation that emerges out of God’s silence be not merely a blessing for me but a blessing for all.” It’s like the idea that intercessory prayer doesn’t change God’s mind, but it does change something about the person doing the praying. I suppose intercessory contemplation works much the same way: in surrendering our ego-driven desire for transformation, we actually render ourselves more available for being transformed.

  • Gary Snead

    Great thoughts, that can lead to simple silence for community transformation. Self-focused contemplation can become a negative self-pleasuring, but focused on enlightenment, connection with God, then I suspect one would become aware of their community and be moved to act within the will of God within the community.
    Just a nudge, Carl, if you release the blessings and merit for others, intentionally, in an intercessory context, would it not be best to be consistently intentional, specific, very clear as to where that may be redirected? My understanding is that intercession ought to be very specific and offering open-ended petitions like ‘peace for everyone, everywhere’ or perhaps ‘for those who need it most’ are not really scriptural or helpful. We, enlightened by our connection with God ought to perceive who individually, within our personal sphere of influence, needs a blessing, and can lift them up to God in prayer, contemplation, worship.
    A compliment – I think interacting through your blog is contemplation that reaches out. I think I am more able to reflect Christ within my faith community, within my family, friends, geopolitical community, social networking, and am more aware of when I do not reflect Christ, by being here with your blog.

  • Gayle

    Love your writings, Carl.

    In many schools of buddhism and hinduism, followers are encouraged to dedicate the benefits of their meditation to all sentient beings.

    Indeed, individual enlightenment is considered salutary to all of creation, as enlightenment by its very nature abolishes the idea of the individual as apart from creation and its Creator.

  • suzanne

    As always, thank you for your reflections, Carl. More and more I find I trust Evelyn Underhill on matters such as intercessory Prayer, as she always saw prayer as a “self-donation” to God, not a trying to wring something out of God, nor not a begging of God to do such and such. Underhill believes that the power of intercessory action flows from our surrender to God and union with the Spirit. She felt that we offer ourselves to God both as worshiper ad “workmen”, so that our spiritual energy may be used to promote God’s purposes. It is our prrfound surrender, being at the disposal of God that matters in the life of prayer, to Underhill, and she sees intercession not as a request, but s a general offering of one’s will and love to God through Christ, so that the healing and power might reach someone and acieve, not a particlar purpose, but God’s purpose for them. The point is in our silence, we can lift our intercssion up with faith and love and offer it to God and God will use it where and how God chooses.
    Blessings for a holy Lent Carl,

  • Al Jordan

    I like it. Sort of a Christian contemplative version of the Buddhist practice of tonglen. If we practice silence and stillness…and invited, God’s presence comes to us and holds us in its love. If we intentionally bring others into that place of Grace and love, then God also holds them. I have prayed that way for some time because I don’t always know how the Grace and Mercy in which we live and move and have being will work in an individual’s circumstances and life but I do know that if I am in a state of beholding and being held that I become a conduit for that grace to work in the world and in others. So thanks for sharing this idea and I hope you can incorporate it in your group.

  • The Buddhists do this. It’s called metta.

  • Infinite Warrior

    my idea of intercessory contemplation is really predicated on self-forgetfulness, not the inverse pride

    I’m more and more struck by how much our language itself establishes — in our minds and, consequently, the world — the very dichotomies we seek to abolish in contemplation.

    “Intercession” suggests there is a mediator to begin with that must be “forgotten” or “sacrificed” to “become one with God” or to “intercede” on behalf of another, but this “self” we seek to “forget” — and this according to every wisdom tradition in the world — is merely an illusion. If we didn’t believe this separate self exists, perhaps nothing would ever come in the Way.

    Out beyond ideas
    of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
    there is a field.

    I’ll meet you there.

    When the soul lies down
    in that grass,
    the world is too full to talk about.

    Ideas, language
    – even the phrase “each other” –
    do not make any sense. ~ Rumi

  • I suspect that your words would find resonance with at least some of the monks at the monastery where you work.

    Amy’s comments made me think that the practice of conversion, or metanoia, and true contemplative prayer, with or without a specific intention on our part, by their very nature and the nature of our spiritual communion with one another in Christ, will have an effect on the world and other people. But I’m sure that having a specific intention towards the the benefit of others can’t fail to delight God!

    I’m also reminded of a passage of Merton’s, from 7 Storey Mountain, I think, where he speculates that his own opening to grace and journey to monastic life were in some way dependent upon the prayers of generations of unknown monks before him.


  • noel a light bearer

    so all that time i was seen as sitting around doing nothing
    i was doing humongous stuff
    yes the way to being is in Him
    becoming christ

  • Thanks Carl,

    the esoteric Christian traditions I am part have always taught these concepts. I thought they were part and parcel of all Christianity. Almost the exact same concept is THE core understanding of Mahayana Buddhist practices – all of them.

    Paul says: “So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another”, so it just makes sense to me.

    In actuality there can not be any individual spiritual illumination of the deepest kind. There is only communal. As that great man, Martin Luther-King says:

    “We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way God’s universe is made; this is the way it is structured.”

  • I love this thought!

  • I often “customize” the Jesus Prayer into an intercession by saying “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on [whoever you wish to remember]”.

  • Jeff

    I usually begin my practice of centering prayer with a special intention for someone else in mind.

  • Amy

    Thanks, Carl. I think we are thinking the same things, just expressing it with different words. I do love the thought.

  • brazenbird

    It’s been my experience that when I truly quiet the mind, I am lead to be still on behalf of those in my life who need prayer only at that point, there are no words and I am full of knowing that Someone else is Knowing the words for me. It’s a very sacred moment where time stands still or, rather, simply doesn’t exist.

    My heart expands as more and more people are brought to my mind. My job at that moment is to simply hold the space for them and for their needs.

    I’ve never been successful at meditation when it’s focused on me. I get antsy and I feel like, God knows me, knows my heart knows my needs, knows my deepest desires because I’m in communion with him all day long. My personal enlightenment doesn’t come through meditation. It often comes in the middle of something rather ordinary.

  • Yes Carl, I agree with what you say!

    Suffering makes you gradually move from self-centredness towards intercessory prayer. This Christian idea of intercessory or even substitute suffering is tmo cerntral to the Christian faith. See again all great mystics and visionaries.

    I happened to discover today a before unknown name of a great mystic: