First Sunday of Lent – Contemplative Prayer
May I speak in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
As you are probably aware, the sermons in the parish throughout Lent are focussing on prayer, and today – on this first Sunday of Lent – the focus is on contemplative prayer.
So, as contemplative prayer is largely silent, I was rather tempted to fill this sermon spot with a 7 minute extended period of silence, although I guessed you probably wouldn’t thank me for doing that, and quickly reconsidered. Equally I didn’t want to turn the sermon into a lecture on the history of contemplative prayer and so, after much contemplation of my own, I would like to focus on three things this morning, the first 2 reflecting on the potential challenges of the silence and stillness which accompany contemplative prayer, and then to look at this discipline of prayer in a bit more detail.
So firstly ‘the sound of silence’. In 1952 a piano piece by John Cage was performed for the first time by a pianist called David Tudor. David Tudor sat at the piano, opened the keyboard lid, and sat silently for thirty seconds. He then closed the lid and reopened it, sitting silently again for two minutes and twenty-three seconds. He then closed and reopened the lid one more time, sitting silently this time for one minute and forty seconds. He then closed the lid and walked off stage.
It may not surprise you to be told this had mixed reviews. Silence is something which makes many people feel uncomfortable. Whilst some embrace and long for silence, for others it can feel frightening or isolated. In the silence we can easily become aware of our surroundings and also become aware of our thoughts and even our fears. Silence can feel peaceful and yet can also feel deafening.
The second point I want to make is related to the first and that is the idea of the wilderness. The wilderness is something which, like silence, can make us feel uncomfortable. Wilderness or desert can refer to a physical place Jesus took himself off to a quiet place to pray on a number of occasions. Or it can refer to a spiritual wilderness – It is true that often in the spiritual wilderness we are confronted with our own doubts and weaknesses. . In today’s Gospel reading it would be easy to focus on the temptation of Jesus and see the desert as a place to be feared, but it is also a place where we can spend time with God, draw strength from him and grow in faith.
So with these things in mind, the third point I want to look at is contemplative prayer itself.
When I first explored this discipline of prayer I found the following general definition quite helpful
‘Christian contemplative practice refers to certain ways of praying that involve silent, mostly individual, awareness-based, God focussed techniques’. There is a firm biblical basis for contemplative prayer and much of it is rooted in scripture. In Psalm 46 we hear the words ‘be still and know that I am God’. In Psalm 63 we read ‘when I remember you upon my bed and meditate on you in the watches of the night’. We have already reflected on how Jesus withdrew himself to pray and Jesus says in Matthew 6 ‘when you pray, go into your room and shut the door’.
Contemplative prayer is about being present in the presence of God. Being mindful of the God who is outside our concept of time and space. Time can be described in different ways; there is chronos time and Kairos time.
In Chronos time nothing is ever finished. There are events of the past and future events to come. Time is ordered and the word chronology is derived from this. This is how we live; in the constraints of our world this is how we must live.
But there is also Kairos time; being fully present in the moment, in stillness. Kairos time is God’s time
It is about ‘being’ not ‘doing’. A good analogy for this is Mary and Martha – if you remember the story of Martha hurrying around, busy, doing the jobs in the house. And Mary sat at the feet of Jesus, simply sitting in his presence gazing up at him. Our sense of worth can often come from ‘doing’ and so we can forget the need to be still and just ‘be’ – and actually we need both – there is a time for action and busyness like Martha, but there is also a time and a need for stillness– like Mary, gazing upon God and allowing him to gaze upon us.
There are different ways of categorizing prayer and I’d like to share one way with you which I think is helpful. Kataphatic prayer involves words, images and metaphor. Often this is what we see and use and there is certainly a need for this type of prayer. But there is also another type of prayer which we also need. Apophatic prayer is limited by words and images; it isbeing with God, in stillness, in his presence in the present moment and contemplative prayer falls into this category.
Jean Pierre De Caussade, a French Jesuit, talked of the 8th sacrament as the present moment – this to me is a powerful suggestion and certainly impacts the way we think about prayer.
Contemplation comes in many forms and there are examples from a number of traditions such as the Franciscans, Benedictine or Ignatian Spirituality and one example which I would like to reflect upon with is the Jesus Prayer.
The Desert Fathers of 4th and 5th centuries in Egypt, Syria and Palestine, used types of short prayer, brief and repeated – the words often came from scripture and the idea of praying with ceasing from 1 Thessalonians was part of this tradition.The Jesus prayer is as follows:
‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner’
The Jesus Prayer focuses on the breath – making prayer our every breath. The words of the prayer can be said in one breath and as the prayer is repeated you are able to shorten it so eventually it can become the word Jesus. It can also be prayed meditatively with prayer beads.
I read this account of a man hearing this prayer for the first time: ‘One’s mind could wander……..and we could even go to sleep… yet all the time the prayer was going on and we were part of it……… the emphasis of the words Lord Jesus Christ kept on recalling me to the presence……… after I came out of the chapel, the prayer was still praying itself inside me for many hours’.
This reflection picks up on the fact that contemplative prayer is not always easy as we have a tendency for our minds to wander and yet it is only through experience and discipline that this form of prayer becomes easier and a more natural way to be with God.
Another example is Lectio Divina. It is a slow contemplative praying of the scriptures and is it not dissimilar to the way scripture is reflected upon in the Pilgrim group material. I have certainly found it useful to simply sit with a piece of scripture and allow myself to absorb it – in kairos time. No right or wrong interpretation, no debates and discussions – praying the scriptures in an apophatic way. Don’t get me wrong, there is a place for discussion, I also love to interpret scriptures with commentaries and you’ll often see me looking up Greek words, but Lectio Divina is about God speaking gently and quietly through his holy word.
So this Lent what can we take from this exploration of contemplative prayer? Well Lent isn’t just a time for giving things up, it can also be a time for taking things up – discipline ourselves to read more scripture and spend more time in prayer. For me personally the Jesus Prayer and Lectio Divina help me enormously but in truth I find it hard to find time to take myself off to pray. I long for stillness and quiet, I embrace being alone, and so for me carving out for time to sit with God and pray this way is high on my agenda this Lent. I too find the wilderness uncomfortable but also believe Lent is a time to acknowledge our own weaknesses and doubts and in address them in prayer – a time of penitence but also a time for strengthening our relationship with God. For some of us it may be exploring different forms of contemplative prayer and for others it may be simply finding some space in the busyness of daily live, whether physical space or metaphorical space – perhaps praying through the psalms.
Contemplative prayer is about being; being present in the moment, not concerned with worries of the future or pains of the past, and being in the presence of God, in his Kairos time……….. in silence and in stillness and in relationship with him.
In the silence our minds wander, this is inevitable, especially if we are not used to apophatic, wordless prayer, silence can feel uncomfortable and it is sometimes in the silence where we are confronted with our own weaknesses. And yet it is through the stillness, being present with God, that we are able to draw strength from him, and increasingly silent prayer can become something we embrace rather than something we fear.
Psalm 46 says ‘be still and know that I am God’ and perhaps this encapsulates the essence of contemplative prayer and to conclude I’d like us to share in just a moment of silence…… to be aware of God’ presence with us in the stillness.