pathways of prayer
Week 5 - The contemplative path
Thanks be to thee, my Lord Jesus Christ,
For all the benefits thou hast won for me,
For all the pains and insults thou hast borne for me.
O most merciful Redeemer, Friend and Brother,
May I know thee more clearly,
Love thee more dearly,
And follow thee more nearly;
Day by day. Amen.
Richard of Chichester (c.1197-1253)
Our opening parable describes our relationship with God in terms of a journey.
Some journeys are exciting, with plenty of noise and activity.
But perhaps you prefer a quieter journey.
Although quieter isn't necessarily easier.
The Contemplative Path takes us through the rigors of contemplation.
Throughout the centuries, men and women have taken time out of their busy lives to think and reflect on God through silence and meditation. For a small number of individuals this has meant leaving their past lives behind and dedicating themselves to contemplation. For many more however, the Path of Contemplation is one that is woven into the business of daily life.
Contemplation is not just for the 'professionals' - monks and nuns - we can all benefit from the wisdom of the Desert Fathers, as the current renewal of interest in monastic spirituality would seem to suggest. In what follows we will reflect on the value of being still, with tips on meditation practice and information about retreats.
St Antony, popularly known as the first monk, was inspired by the story of the rich young man to sell all his possessions and withdraw from worldly life in order to live out the teachings of Jesus as fully as possible. Ever since the third century, a steady stream of men and women have turned their backs on the world in order to devote the whole of life to seeking God.
Although most people are unable (and probably unwilling) to make such radical sacrifices and commitments, almost all of us are likely at some point to experience the desire to take time out from our busy schedules in order to think and reflect on our lives. In Christian terms this would be understood as a call to seek God, a call most clearly expressed in the lines of the psalm: "Be still and know that I am God." According to the monastic tradition, we come to this knowledge in the silence of our own hearts.
Making Space at Home and at Work
Finding the time and space for contemplative practice is easier said than done these days, especially with all the demands of work and the responsibilities of family life to attend to. Nevertheless, if one wishes to meditate, it is best to try and set aside a regular time - such as first thing in the morning or before bed - to sit quietly and think of God. There are a variety of techniques, most of which recommend concentration on the breath and/or repetition of a particular word or phrase, to help us cultivate attentive stillness. By being present - to ourselves and each other - we make ourselves present to what is, and ultimately therefore, to God. Time is a precious commodity, but even a few minutes a day will be time well spent.
Making a retreat
There are many different kinds of retreats from 'quiet days' that offer just a few hours of guided quiet and prayer, to rigorously guided retreats over many days. Some retreat houses offer imaginative ways to explore the contemplative path through art in the form of painting and prayer retreats. Other possibilities may include sculpture, poetry writing, music, drama and dance, as well as those focused on meditation techniques.
There are an abundance of books on spirituality, many specifically focussing on the contemplative tradition. The following represents a small selection of recent titles:
- Martin Laird, Into the Silent Land, Darton, Longman and Todd, 2006.
- Benedicta Ward (Tr), The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks, Penguin books, 2003.
- Rowan Williams, Silence and Honey Cakes: The wisdom of the desert, Lion Books, 2003.
- Esther de Waal, Living with Contradiction, Canterbury Press, 2003.
Into Great Silence is a documentary feature film - now available on DVD - which focuses on the life of a Carthusian Monastery.
There are hundreds of retreat houses and religious communities, providing a range of options from short quiet days to longer guided retreats. The Retreat Association publishes a comprehensive listing.
Explore 'Centering Prayer'
Worth Abbey (BBC2s The Monastery)
The next path takes us along the Charismatic Path