Contemplative Prayer and Lectio Divina: A Short Introduction

“We do not build the kingdom of God on earth by our own efforts (however assisted by grace); the most we can do through genuine prayer, is to make as much room as possible, in ourselves and in the world, for the kingdom of God, so that its energies can go to work. All that we can show our contemporaries of the reality of God springs from contemplation.” – Hans Urs von Balthasar, Prayer

I. Communicative, or “Thinking” prayer (Consciousness-centered Prayer) consists of

Prayers that make use of our conscious mind, such as adoration, thanksgiving, confession, petition. These kinds of prayers are intended to increase awareness of dependence on God and trust in God for everything. They also enable us to become agents who desire what God desire at the level of our thinking, doing, feeling and sensing (i.e., at the level of consciousness).

II. Non-Communicative, or Non-thinking Prayer (Unconsciousness-centered Prayer)

Evangelical Protestants have traditionally emphasized verbal prayer, preaching and singing as a means of encouraging a life-changing encounter with Christ. In the process, we have downplayed many of the practices that deal with the unconscious dimensions of the human personality. Slow, quiet, simple prayers, whether through meditation, contemplation, or simply listening to God, serve to open the unconscious self to God’s healing grace.

Awakening to our Authentic Self:

Why “open the unconscious self”? Because this is how we can grow free to live out of the authentic self as opposed to the small self.

  • The small self is what some might refer to as a social construct. By and large it is created externally and has a great deal to do with what others expect of you, what’s fashionable, and what is valued in the community.
  • So this “self” tends to be fashioned and controlled by (when we’re unaware of it) the world. And by “the world” we mean, expectations of others, demands of the culture, inner conflicts, insecurities, and deep wounds, habits… Sin and sins — all that is in the physical realm (the world of sense). As a rule, when the authentic self is unknown… the small self will be controlled (Burt Burleson).

Thomas Keating says that we will find the needs of the small self (or “false” self) in one of three areas:

  1. Needs for security and survival. (some would add pleasure here)
  2. Needs for esteem and affection.
  3. Needs for power and control.

Not coincidentally, these are the same three areas in which Jesus is tempted by Satan in the gospels before beginning his public ministry. Once we have identified with our small self “thinking,” and are blind to the way these three desires entice us, we will have no choice but to be swept up into the mainstream current of these felt needs.

Contemplative Prayer equips us to Resist this Current:

  • In quiet, contemplative, or non-communicative prayer, we are forced to stop trying to control things. We stop asking God to do stuff. This stillness and silence, in which we wait before God, is pregnant with presence (Betty Talbert). Prayers with words or images reduce our awareness of God to what our conscious (read thinking) minds can conceive, which is infinitely less than God is.
  • Contemplative prayer is a gateway to the non-ego-driven life. The ego reigns supreme in most of our everyday endeavors that are constantly focused on analyzing, doing, or emoting something. With practice, contemplative prayer slowly brings us into union and participation with the Divine Life — that is, it sanctifies us. Communicative or thinking prayer is simply not as effective at accomplishing this.
  • Contemplative, non-thinking prayer also frees us from the tyranny of being controlled by time, and allows us instead to simply be. In practicing what is a completely non-performative form of prayer, we’re trying neither to come up with nor read the right words. This creates a safer place for honesty and growth.

In many ways, Contemplative prayer comes after we know God as a Parent who knows everything about us, and yet still chooses to be our permanent Caretaker. Protestants have stressed that, though we are undeserving sinners, we are nonetheless loved unconditionally by God through Christ. The parallel promise of Contemplative prayer is the discovery that, though we are not control, but we are nonetheless safe in God through Christ.

Contemplative prayer is not, however, 1) a relaxation exercise (though over time, it should lead to peace, rest and reduced anxiety), 2) a charismatic gift, or 3) a para-psychological experience.

A Few Types of Contemplative Prayer practices are:

  • The Jesus Prayer, which comes from Scripture and the Fathers of the Eastern Orthodox Church: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
  • Lectio Divina, which began in the Western monastic tradition, and is a four-part process that starts with 1) reading Scripture and 2) meditating upon it with the mind. Then, 3) one responds with feelings and will to the Word one has heard. Finally, 4) one moves through the Word to rest in the presence of God. In this way, it is both apophatic and cataphatic. It also tends to appeal especially to Myers-Briggs types with SF, ST, and SJ personalities.
  • Centering prayer is a modern form of the fourteenth Century practiced outlined in the “Cloud of Unknowing” in which the Christian tries to reach out to God in silent love. It consists primarily in meditation on one focal word or phrase for extended time (5-20 min).

Lectio Divina: Preparation for Prayer

  1. Spend a few minutes in silence, clearing your mind and heart. Concentrate on releasing concerns of the day. (Sometimes it is good to make a list of concerns and problems during this period and promise yourself that you will deal with them later in the day).
  2. Spend a few moments being aware of your body. Ask yourself where you are uncomfortable. Be certain that you are allowing your chair to bear your full weight. Ask your body to relax as you concentrate on your breathing. Breathe in and out slowly ten times.

Examples of Verses that Encourage Silence and Centering Prayer before God:

“Be still and know that I am God!” Psalm 46:10a

“In the path of your judgments, Oh Lord, we wait for you; your name and your renown are the soul’s desire. My soul years for you in the night, my spirit within me earnestly seeks you.” Isaiah 26:8-9a

“One thing I asked of the Lord, that I will seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.” Psalm 27:4

Jesus answered him, “Those who live me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” John 14:23

“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” Philippians 3:10-11

“Listen to me in silence, O coastlands; let the peoples renew their strength.” Isaiah 41:1a

“For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge o the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” 2 Corinthians 4:6

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