Quick: what does contemplation mean? (No fair peeking at this post.)
If you’re drawing a blank, don’t worry. It took me forever to understand it even a little—and I’m trying to live it. Contemplation doesn’t come up in everyday conversation. But as the focus of this blog, it’s worth trying to describe.
Today, let’s look at a central practice of the contemplative life: silent prayer.
Silent prayer may sound like an oxymoron to some folks, who think of prayer as talking to God. That’s one form of prayer, but there are many others. In silent prayer, we make a wordless connection to God.* How, exactly? Whole books have been written on the topic, but I think it comes down to this:
You sit and gaze at God.
God sits and gazes at you.
Allow me to unpack that a little. The word gaze is intentional: not look, not glance, but gaze—“to look steadily and intently, as with great curiosity, interest, pleasure, or wonder,” says dictionary.com. It implies a sustained, relaxed attention. Ever just stare at a breathtaking sunset, or vista, or painting, for minutes on end? It’s like that.
I could have added some elements to the “instructions” above: God and you gaze at each other with hearts wide open, or with boundless love. But for one thing, God’s heart is always open, and God’s love is always boundless. For another, if you gaze at God long enough, your heart will open too. It comes with the territory.
Now, to get at the essence of silent prayer, I’ve made it sound simple. In one way it is. Practicing it is not.
One big thing: distractions. Our active, annoying minds glom onto whatever thought happens to pass by. It takes a while to learn not to suppress the thoughts, not to feel guilty and promise God you’ll do better, but simply to notice the thoughts and let them pass. It helps me to know that God will make something fruitful of our time together no matter what, even if my mind is focused on the pie in the refrigerator the whole time.
Over the years, people have developed techniques to support silent prayer, and they’re both fruitful and beautiful. Centering prayer. Gazing at icons. I’ve found that silently saying the Rosary gives one part of my brain something to occupy itself—the words of the prayers, the feel of the beads—while the rest of my head enters into contemplative silence. Zazen hones the mind’s ability to focus while approaching the Ultimate from an entirely different path.
These days, more often than not, I just sit in my favorite spot and gaze out a high window at the maples beyond. Over the years I’ve watched those maples sprout leaves and lose them again, explode in color and stand stark against the brilliant winter sun. The cycle of the seasons seems to fit well with silent prayer.
If this intrigues you, give it a whirl. Try different practices, icons, what have you. Or sit in your favorite spot and gaze at God.
When you sense God gazing back—well, that is a moment like no other.