The trouble with contemplative prayer…

Artist’s impression of contemplative prayer…

A few months ago, at one of my regular curate review meetings, someone asked me about my ‘spirituality’ and asked me what sort of thing I did – “such as contemplative prayer”. Up until a few years ago I’d never heard of contemplative prayer, but when I was at college I did a course on spirituality and this was one of the topics we covered. Then, yesterday, Ian Paul posted a piece on his blog about whether mindfulness is Christian. One of the things mentioned in the blog was – that’s right – contemplative prayer.

On that course in spirituality I mentioned, I had to write an essay about contemplative prayer and I thought it might be worth sharing a few things I learned while I was researching it. If you want my summarised version, it’s this: contemplative prayer is not Scriptural, potentially harmful, and I believe Christians should avoid it. Here’s why.

1. What is contemplative prayer?

Contemplative prayer, as I discovered, is virtually impossible to define – and it is utterly impossible to define concisely. This is what one writer says about it (from the Dictionary of Christian Spirituality):

What is desired is the opportunity simply to express to God one’s loving, hoping, trusting, thanking, in as few words as possible. These few words tend to be repeated many times … A time comes when a deeper desire is revealed to the person praying. What began as fragmentarily verbalized loving or thanking becomes more than anything else an offering, though without this self-giving being mentally considered or understood

Do you get that? Contemplative Prayer (hereafter CP) is about moving from external things (such as words) to the heart or soul of a person. The goal is clear. In the words of Richard Foster: “To this question the old writers answer with one voice: union with God”. Everything about CP is meant to move towards union with God.

There are certain characteristics which writers on CP usually mention:

1. Spiritual maturity. CP is something which everyone says is not for the novice. In fact Richard Foster goes as far as to say, “These are people who long ago walked away from the world, the flesh and the devil”. The idea is that we are all climbing up a ladder towards union with God, and you can only begin CP once you have climbed a certain way up that ladder.

2. Moving beyond words. CP is something which words are simply insufficient for. Thomas Merton wrote,”The purpose of monastic prayer [including Contemplation] … is to prepare the way so that God’s action may develop this ‘faculty for the supernatural,’ this capacity for inner illumination by faith and by the light of wisdom, in the loving contemplation of God … It is true that one may profit by learning such methods of meditation, but one must also know when to leave them and go beyond [my emphasis] to a simpler, more primitive, more ‘obscure’ and more receptive form of prayer.” CP is seen as ‘going beyond’ normal forms of prayer – this is highly significant.

In particular, this is often justified by appealing to God’s fundamental unknowability – that logic and reason alone are not enough for us to know God. There must be something more – in order for us to truly know Him we must leave words behind.

3. Moving towards the heart. CP seeks to affect not the outward person but the inward person: right to the very soul, our inner being. Because our heart does not use words, words are virtually useless in that context: the catechism of the Roman Catholic Church says “Words in this kind of prayer are not speeches; they are like kindling that feeds the fire of love [my emphasis]. In this silence, unbearable to the ‘outer’ man, the Father speaks to us his incarnate Word, who suffered, died, and rose; in this silence the Spirit of adoption enables us to share in the prayer of Jesus”. So some words may be useful to begin CP, but once you’ve moved into the silence – then God can really speak to you in a way He never could using actual words. The hope is that God will speak directly to the heart of the one praying.

A Biblical response

1. Spiritual maturity

The idea of moving towards ‘union with God’ is something that derives from neo-Platonic philosophy than from the Bible. Theologian Louis Berkhof put it like this: “Every sinner who is regenerated is directly connected with Christ and receives his life from Him.” See e.g. Jesus’ words in John 15:4 – “Remain in me, as I also remain in you.” Once someone is united to Christ by faith, no prayer is more or less effectual and no type of prayer should be excluded from them. We do grow in maturity as Christians as we walk in step with the Spirit – however the moment a sinner repents and believes in the gospel, they are united to Christ by faith.

2. Moving beyond words

It is true that God is beyond our comprehension or imagination, God is beyond our capacity to express Him fully in human language. However, as Gerald Bray says, “The need to go beyond the limitations of the finite does not mean that the finite can be ignored or rejected. The fact that the human mind is inadequate to embrace the divine reality in all its fullness does not make its mental processes invalid or unreliable within the sphere for which it was created … God has accommodated himself to our limitations and made our relationship with him possible.” God is a speaking God. Jesus Christ has made God known – John 1:18, “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in the closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.”

To move beyond words is actually to denigrate the revelation of Himself which God has given us. The Bible is not a collection of thoughts about how people have thought about God – it is God’s word to humankind. In the words of 2 Timothy 3:16, “All Scripture is God-breathed”.

How do we know God better? As we understand His word better. How do we know God’s will better? As we understand His word better. How do we pray better? As we know more of God and His will: we do not pray to an unknown God, but our prayer is based on our knowledge of God and His purposes.

There was a discussion yesterday on Facebook about Ian Paul’s piece on mindfulness. I mentioned something about CP, and Ian suggested that there is a big Biblical theme about God being unknowable in the sense that our language is inadequate. He suggested that the Israelites at Mt Sinai was an example of that (the Israelites were told to stay away from the mountain, and only Moses could go into the cloud). However, it strikes me that this episode actually demonstrates the opposite: the unknowable God here was speaking – making Himself known. The issue was not Moses going up into the mountain, but with the people at the bottom who didn’t have God’s words who decided to make up a god for themselves… this is the problem with CP: without God’s words, without God’s revelation, it can easily turn into a form of idolatry.

3. Moving towards the heart

It is true that the heart is a fundamental theme in the Bible – for example Jesus’ famous words in Luke 6:45, “A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” The problem with us as human beings is indeed a heart problem.

However, the Biblical solution to the problem is not to go beyond words! The solution is to be transformed by the Word of God as the Holy Spirit works within us. Romans 12:2, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” How can our minds be renewed without words? The Bible does not address our hearts directly – only the Holy Spirit can do that – but God’s word accomplishes His work (Isaiah 55:10-11).

Christian meditation is not about moving beyond words but filling our minds with God’s word, as Psalm 1 demonstrates:

Blessed is the one
    who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
    or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
    and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
    which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither –
    whatever they do prospers.

Ultimately our heart problem is a problem which can only be solved by the Holy Spirit. But as we understand more of God’s word, as we see more of His purposes and plans for creation and for us, we see more of His will and become more and more conformed to the likeness of Christ.

The potential harm of contemplative prayer

At the start I said that I thought that CP was potentially harmful. The reason is that a kind of prayer which doesn’t focus on words – i.e. based on God’s truth – is in danger of constructing its own truth. When you start looking beyond the objective truths of the gospel to the subjectivity of your own emotional state and ‘inner being’, you can run into problems. For example, if someone has depression I’d say the road upwards was not in seeking to have ecstatic spiritual experiences (part of CP) or attempting to focus on one’s own emotions, but rather by looking at one’s objective status before God as a forgiven sinner who Christ died for.

If in CP you move beyond what God has given us in Scripture, you can end up moving towards your own imagination – and that is a dangerous place to be. God does not condemn idolatry for nothing. And we know that our struggle is not against flesh and blood but principalities and powers – Satan can disguise himself as an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:14) – we must be discerning and careful that anything spiritual going on in our lives is soundly grounded in the truth and not in something potentially deriving from the father of lies.

As Christians we are encouraged to look not to ourselves or our own emotional states but to the objective truth of what God has done for us in Christ. We are never promised particular experiences in Scripture. We are simply told that if we repent and believe in Christ Jesus we will receive forgiveness of sins and eternal life. That is something which is true regardless of how we feel, and it’s something we all need to focus on whether we’re feeling good or bad.

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