Photo by: Madeleine Straubel ©
Many of us come to prayer thinking it’s about bringing God into line with our needs and desires and how we would run the world. As we grow in Spirit, however, we realize prayer is about bringing ourselves into line with God. Prayer changes us. Prayer brings us into God’s presence where we see everything more clearly and can make more conscious choices.
God is here, in everything we are and experience. Without invitation and practice, however, we are rarely aware of God’s presence. We may talk about inviting God to come to us, but we’re really creating space for our own awareness of the One who is already present to us and who longs to be known to us as we can and will receive that knowing. Our experiences of God will all be different. Use the words best expressing who God is to you and let the rest go.
Creating space to welcome Divine awareness is like sitting quietly in a clearing waiting for a rabbit to come and nuzzle our toes, or a chipmunk to climb into our lap for a nap, or for a bluebird to land on one shoulder. Most of the time we crash through life scaring away the timid, tender whisperings of Love and Life and Peace. We have to choose to be open. We have to say yes. We have to learn to wait patiently.
Contemplative prayer—like silence or meditation or centering prayer—undercuts what Thomas Keating calls our unconscious programs for happiness. These programs run like default software determining our behavior without our awareness. We think it’s just reality. Contemplative prayer increases our awareness of these default settings and allows us new choice in our lives. Having a basic contemplative practice is essential. Add any other ways of praying that are helpful. The more you are familiar with, the more readily one will pop up in a moment of need.
Most of the prayer exercises here are a form of contemplative prayer. They seek to bring us into the presence of the One who knows exactly what we each need this day. These forms include sacred reading (lectio divina), sacred seeing (visio divina), sacred hearing (audio divina), body prayer, journaling, and guided meditations. We learn in different ways—and God comes to us in many different ways—so each of these prayer forms will “work” better for some people than others. Pray as you can, not as you can’t.
Prayer journal. Many people find that written reflection after many of these prayer forms extends the prayer, as the body wisdom in our hands communicates what our minds don’t quite grasp. While you may not use it every time, it’s good to have one on hand.
Judging our practices. Don’t do it! While we occasionally have clear instantaneous “results” from time spent in prayer, deep change happens over time. What matters most is our commitment to putting our butts in the chair and seeking to be present and open to God, however that might look on a given day. People who commit to prayer or meditation in one or multiple ways find themselves becoming more loving, more patient, kinder, gentler, more generous, more self-controlled, more trusting, less fearful, less anxious, less angry, less confused, etc—but over time! Don’t judge yourself because your practice doesn’t feel like much today. Just do it.
The words of the prophets, the poetry of the psalms and the parables of Jesus invite us to use our imaginations to call into being new possibilities for our lives, both individual and corporate. Institutions through the ages have tried to squelch our imaginations as dangerous. The only danger they pose is to the powers that would limit and control us.
Thomas Kelly claims that imagination is “the gateway of reality to our hearts.” Oswald Chambers tells us we cannot intercede for others if our imaginations are starved. Indeed, when we do not use our imaginations to open our hearts and minds to God, we leave them vulnerable to being co-opted for the purposes of fear and manipulation.
Guided meditations invite the One who is Perfect Love to use our imaginations for Divine purposes. Many of the guided meditations here will use the written word (scripture) as a context through which to invite the Living Word to touch our lives. The purpose of these meditations is to provide a pathway into the presence of the Living God to learn, to be comforted, and to be challenged or nurtured as we each need.
We are all hard-wired differently. Some of us will have rich and vivid mental imagery (and may need to remember not to be distracted by detail!). Some of us may experience the meditation more in our bodies than in our mind’s eye. Some of us will only “sense” what is taking place.
We all have God-language with which are comfortable, but as in dreams, God can show up in these meditations in ways that surprise us. These mediations attempt to use language for the Divine that is consistent with a particular passage. However the Living One shows up, it is more important to follow that One than our words, if they differ. At the end of the meditation you are invited to rest in the presence of this One as long as you wish.
Many people find that taking time to journal immediately after a guided meditation will extend and deepen the prayer, often bringing wisdom missed as the conversation continues. You may want to journal some and then return to your awareness of Divine presence. If you do these meditations with others, sharing your experience can also be be helpful.
Silence is one way of creating space and inviting awareness. While many of us refer to meditation practices or time for focused verbal prayer as silence, for our purposes here, let’s talk about silence as opening spaces in our days for new awareness (which may include other, more specific practices). When we begin, we think we will actually experience God in these quiet moments—and sometimes we do! Often we spend silent time wrestling with internal noise. Don’t let that discourage you. The practice of opening internal space to God will bring many surprises. And we will begin seeing evidence of God’s presence throughout the day, if not in the dedicated time. Don’t judge and let go any expectations of what it will look or feel like.
What noise is around you? What control do you have over any of it? Quaker Thomas Kelly, writing in a time when radios and record players were not yet ubiquitous in homes, claimed that anyone, except maybe mothers of young children, could find 30 minutes a day to spend in silence. We can turn off radios and TVs and silence other devices. We can find time when children are asleep or on the daily commute or use those wakeful moments in the middle of the night. We can get up earlier or go to bed a little later.
Silence is like tilling a garden plot or setting up a bird feeder or pulling out a blank piece of paper. It is a space we open intentionally and is an invitation to something tentative and new and often timid. It is “being” time, not “doing” time, not “productive” time, though we will be amazed at how the quality of our doing will change as we allow, as we wait, as we invite and open our awareness in silence.
Meditation is focused silence. In meditation we practice letting go the noise in our heads or the chatter of our bodies. In mediation we might focus on our breathing, watching it go in and out and bringing our attention ever back as it strays into the future or past or into feeling states or thoughts. There are many meditative practices. Finding the “right” one is not nearly as important as a commitment to a practice. Find one that works for you and stay with it.
Thomas Keating claims that two 20 minute periods of centering prayer a day will unload the junk in the unconscious—over time. In centering prayer we let a sacred word arise and then, as we find ourselves attaching to thoughts or feelings, we drop the word into the silence to bring our awareness back into the present. We continue to use the word as our minds stray. Sitting for 20 minutes sometimes feels interminable and sometimes goes very quickly. Like with meditation, we notice the value over time, often when we realize we’re calmer and more present in our lives or when we do the practice than when we don’t. If you can only sit for 15 minutes this week, that’s helpful. If you can find five minutes/day, that’s a great start! You will build as you are able. Pray as you can, not as you can’t.
You can find more information at www.contemplativeoutreach.org. They can connect you with ongoing groups or retreats in your area. Praying with others often makes the practice easier.
We are not just spirits. Our whole selves play a part in coming to be present to God as we understand God. Praying with our bodies can open closed minds and hearts within us. Traditional body prayers include postures like folded, open or raised hands, kneeling or prostration. A friend once decided to pray lying face down and cruciform for a set period of time every day during Lent. He later told me this practice began as “Look how spiritual I am!” and quickly brought great humility as he took a physical position of humbling himself before his Creator. Those who do yoga or tai chi or other meditative physical practices know how these bring us into greater awareness and presence in our lives.
Lectio divina, the Latin for sacred reading, began as a way for non-literate monks to receive scripture in a transformative manner. They would stand and listen to someone read until they heard a word or phrase that stood out for them. They would take that word or phrase out into the day as a form of sacred food. There are four phases of this prayer.
- Reading (lectio): Here we will slowly read a text through twice in an audio post. You can also practice this with whatever you are reading. Listen for a word or phrase that has some energy for you. Sometimes we hear it as if it’s shouted or printed in bold. Other times it seems to shimmer and invite. Still other times we just choose the best we can. Usually one word or phrase will somehow stand out. Receiving that word or phrase is like taking a bite of food.
- Reflection (meditatio): Begin saying the word or phrase over and over. Don’t get in your head and think about it. Say it over and over as if you’re chewing it. This repetition breaks down some of our attachment to our egocentric thinking processes and opens deeper possibilities of response. As we repeat the word or phrase, it will sometimes change—go with it and trust the process. As we keep chewing on the word or phrase slowly, we find the process begin to shift, as if we swallow finally.
- Response (oratio): After a while we will begin to find responses arising within us. Addressing these Godward helps open the space more. Let the responses begin to flow as they will. Here we begin digesting the Word.
- Rest (contemplatio): At some point the responses slow, and we merely rest in Divine presence. This ability to rest in awareness of God (however we may perceive that presence or whatever words we might use to describe it) is the goal. The whole process is transformative as we receive Divine food and energy for what is ours to be and do this day.
Many people find that journaling after such a prayer exercise extends the prayer. Pay attention as you read any text or hear song lyrics that may have energy or claim your attention. Start repeating that word or phrase over and over, maybe carrying it out into your day as you might slip a snack into a pocket. Say it over and over until it shifts and respond as you will. Receive this nurturing and transformative food.
Visio divina, Latin for sacred seeing, is lectio divina’s sibling. In Lectio, we slowly read over a passage to listen for what speaks to us. In visio we take a long, loving look at an image to see what emotions, thoughts or ideas it stirs within us.
- Take a few moments to prepare for prayer. Find a comfortable position where you can gaze at your image. Settle into God’s presence by connecting with your breath. Move your awareness from your head into your heart. Know that God can be known through many different forms and images. Be present. Be open.
- Allow your eyes to gaze gently on your image. Let them sweep the whole of the picture. Notice the shapes and the colors. Notice the lines and the details. Look for symbols. Notice if there is a place on the image where your eye is invited to linger. Are you called back again and again to a certain detail or color? Try not to think about it too much. Simply notice where your energy is drawn. Notice also where your eye is avoiding or passing over. What part inspires you? Where do you experience resistance?
- Open your imagination. What feelings or longings are evoked? What memories or hopes are stirred? Make room within your heart for whatever wants to emerge. Be here. Be present. Let go of judging or critiquing. Simply be, lingering here, opening your heart to whatever wants to rise.
- Slowly begin to notice what your seeing and feeling is revealing. What is the invitation in this moment of your life? What insights have you gained? Take a few moments to journal your thoughts.
- Let go. Rest. Enjoy a few moments of stillness in this space.
Many thanks to Monica Citty Hix for this description!
Audio divina, Latin for sacred listening, creates space for music or other sounds to be a doorway into prayer.
- Get comfortable, settle into stillness and rest in silence.
- Breathe in an awareness of God's presence, breathe out distractions and worries.
- Slowly allow your focus to move from your head down into your heart.
- See if you can visualize this movement of your attention and awareness shifting.
- Listen. Notice the sounds of the notes and the silences between them. Rest into the movement of the music.
- Be present to how it rises and falls in your body and imagination.
- Allow the music to fill you, breathing it in.
- Slowly become aware of any dominant sound or image or feeling calling to you in this initial experience.
- Allow a few moments of silence to follow, savoring any image or feeling rising up in you.
Many thanks to Monica Citty Hix for this description!
Many of us find keeping a journal to be a helpful practice for increasing awareness and presence in our lives. Many of us began journaling as a simple way of reflecting on our lives. Some of us use it as a form of processing out loud, sometimes addressing God or a wise part of ourselves or a teacher. Some of us keep dream journals, knowing much wisdom can come to us through them. Some of us keep gratitude journals. Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way suggests writing three pages of stream of consciousness without stopping first thing in the morning. A form of brain dumping, journaling can open new space for presence and awareness. We suggest writing in a prayer journal after these prayer exercises to extend the benefit.