Is it possible to “fail” at contemplative prayer?

Is it possible to “fail” at contemplative prayer? March 29, 2017

Live-for-the-momentAnyone who has ever trained with weights knows that form is important. If you lift heavy weights without proper form, you run the risk of a significant injury.

The other day I was working with a trainer, and we were doing a fairly basic shoulder press, and he noted that my back was bowing. He mentioned it to me, and I immediately began to overcompensate. He pointed that out to me, and I said “I’m worried about my form.”

“Your form is going to fail,” he remarked. In other words, as I continued to do my reps, and my muscles became fatigued, it was inevitable that I would “recruit” other muscles in my back to support my arms and shoulders as I lifted the weights. Since I was working under the watchful eye of my trainer, I knew the risk of injury was low.

It was insightful moment for me: go ahead and fail! If I were working out with weights that were easy for me to lift, I really wouldn’t be working out at all; on the other hand, if I tried to work with weights too heavy, that’s when the risk of injury increases. But by relying on my trainer’s expertise and working with weights that were just heavy enough to fatigue my muscles, I could safely, but effectively, increase my overall fitness.

This is not a blog post about working out, but about contemplation…

I’m telling this story from the gym to open up a reflection on a comment I often hear from beginners in contemplative practice. This comment shows up in several different ways:

  • “I’m not very good at meditating.”
  • “I don’t think I’m doing it right.”
  • “I’m a failure when it comes to being silent.”

It’s easy to get stuck in our heads when we pray — after all, prayer and meditation involve awareness, attention, consciousness. But we are embodied creatures, and so even something as mind-focussed as praying occurs cradled within our human form. So there is a form prayer and contemplation just as there is a proper form for lifting weights.

The form for contemplation is almost incredibly simple. There are two essential steps:

  1. Be still;
  2. Know God.

We find, however, that we tend to be pretty incompetent at both.

Instead of being still, we fidget, we scratch itches, we shift, we bounce our foot on the floor like we’re playing a video game with it. And interior stillness (which is to say, silence) seems equally elusive: our thoughts dance like ballerinas on amphetamines, while emotions and images flood our attention as surely as the surf crashes on the shore during a violent storm.

Given how badly we are at “being still,” it’s no wonder that we tend to fall short in the “knowing God” department. Is God an experience — or is that “experience” (in whatever form it arises) just our imagination? Do we sense God in feelings of love or serenity or peace? But what if the only feelings we have are anxiety, or grief, or anger? How do we know God then? We might desperately wish for a sign — a vision, a locution — but then the great mystics warn us to ignore that kind of stuff when it happens anyway.

All the various techniques of methods of entering into silent or contemplative prayer: centering prayer, Christian meditation, the Jesus Prayer, prayer of the heart, working with icons or labyrinths or sitting quietly in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament — all of these methods are simply tools our tradition has come up with over the centuries to help us to be still and know God.

I’m all for using a method of prayer that you find useful or meaningful. But so often we find that the method only helps us so far. The form of contemplation seems to remain just as elusive as ever.

The humility of contemplation: of course your form will be imperfect!

So back to my workout at the gym. My trainer watches over me and allows me to “fail” at my form, because that’s what I need to do in order to become more physically fit.

In a similar way, our “trainer” in the spiritual life — the Holy Spirit — allows us to “fail” when we embrace contemplative prayer, because the practice of contemplative, over time, really does help us to become more still and to begin to recognize God’s presence in our lives.

I’ve heard teachers of centering prayer say the only way to do centering prayer “wrong” is to stop doing it, or not do it at all. I think that’s very sound advice.

Prayer is about fostering and nurturing our relationship with God. It’s not about becoming “spiritually fit” (that’s where my gym analogy breaks down), or attaining enlightenment, or having mystical experiences (if you are in it for having a cool experience or achieving some sort of spiritual benchmark, may I lovingly suggest that you are doing this more for yourself than for God? Just something to be aware of, but also remember that no one has perfectly pure motives — and God can even bless someone who prays for all the wrong reasons!).

So when you are having a hard time being still, take a breath and relax. Your prayer is “Lord, I am having a hard time being still right now.” When you cannot find the silence in your heart because of the noise in your head, take a nice breath and relax. Your prayer is “Lord, I am distracted by many things, please help me find the one thing necessary.”

When your desire to truly know God is lost in a funhouse of miscellaneous doubts or random thoughts or unruly emotions, take a breath and be still. Perhaps your prayer is “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief! But through it all, please let go of the anxieties that say you’re not cut out for contemplative prayer, or that you’re doing it right, or that you’re a failure at it. Those kinds of thoughts are simply your resistance to the silence where it is possible to be still and know God. That silence is always available, right here and right now. You crave that silence, or else you wouldn’t be practicing contemplative prayer. But you’re only human, and you struggle with the same resistance to God, resistance to love, resistance to silence that dogs us all. And one of the most clever ways we resist silence is by an inner monologue telling ourselves we’re no good at being silent!

So when those feelings or doubts about failure show up, smile at them, breathe through them, and gently turn your attention back to the stillness and the silence as best you can.

Be still.

And know God.

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