Why contemplative prayer? A long, loving look at the real


Dawn Ruth Nelson, dp.ruthnelson@verizon.net
Pastor, Methacton Mennonite Church

Prayer is not just talking to and petitioning God. It’s also listening to and waiting on God. I spent many years living in a Catholic context trying to promote the peace of Christ in Ireland and my prayer was changed by that mission encounter. Among these Catholic Christians, there was just an assumption that deep service to God requires deep meditation and connection to God in prayer. Action was not the opposite of contemplation. Instead there was a deep joining of the two through contemplative prayer that was very intriguing and nurturing for me as a missionary.

Shortly after coming back to the United States, I remember being at a meeting where a hard decision had to be made and the leader suggested we spend some time in individual prayer. Immediately the room erupted into a noise so loud I wondered if God would be able to get a word in edgewise. It was jolting to move from one form of prayer that I’d been learning, back into a context where prayer was assumed to be about our words.

Contemplative prayer is prayer that is less word-oriented, less busy–it seems to me counter-cultural–in that regard, in our busy, noisy culture. This form of prayer is more like receiving from God, more like “waiting for God.” It can begin with slow meditative reading of small portions of the Bible. It needs silence and slowing down the pace of our lives, to notice what is around us. One person has called this form of prayer “a long loving look at the real.”

More recently, I have also been encountering the charismatic emphasis on prophecy, on “words from the Lord” and expectant, fervent prayer for healing and direction. In fact, my first experience of having a “prophetic word” spoken to me confirmed so clearly what I have heard from God in my contemplative prayer and in spiritual direction (and nowhere else), that I knew it had to be from God. It was clear it was the same Spirit guiding both forms of spirituality.

Richard Foster, author of Celebration of Discipline has written much about the various streams of spirituality in the church – he has identified six key streams. Foster believes these six are all necessary for a balanced life of faith, and that all six were practiced by Jesus. They are: the prayer-filled life (contemplative), the virtuous life (holiness), the spirit-empowered life (charismatic), the compassionate life (social justice), the Word-centered life (evangelical), and the sacramental life (incarnational). Perhaps recognizing that we need to live within all of these streams will unify our teaching and practice of prayer.

In the May 5, 1987
issue of the Gospel Herald a committee on Spirituality in the Mennonite Church also identified six streams influencing our church. These are slightly different from Foster’s but perhaps include some he did not include. They were: Anabaptist, evangelical, relational, charismatic, feminist and contemplative. Let’s begin to talk about how some of these have influenced us as people and as churches. The article concludes with seven basic understandings of Christian spirituality in a Mennonite mode, by which to determine the usefulness of the various streams of spirituality:

“1) Christian spirituality is rooted in God’s initiating grace through Jesus Christ and issues in new life. 2) Christian spirituality is nurtured in and realized in solitude, in the community of faith, and through life in the world. 3) Christian spirituality recognizes and confronts the reality of evil, both personal and corporate. 4) Christian spirituality as discipleship includes being in Christ (the relational) and following Christ (the ethical). 5) Christian spirituality is expressed uniquely in each person and faith community. 6) Christian spirituality is both costly and celebrative. 7) Christian spirituality is renewed through worship and in the hope of the fulfillment of God’s reign” (307, Gospel Herald, May 5, 1987).

prayer-room.jpgIn my encounter with the contemplative tradition and more recently, by attending Franconia Conference prayer intercessors meetings and hosting an Alpha course at our church (see www.alphausa.org), I have been exposed to many gifts and practices of the spirit with which I was not familiar – silence, spiritual direction, tongues, prophecy. But so far it is all producing the same fruits – a reliance on God and the Spirit of Jesus. If tensions arise because some people are more charismatic and others are more contemplative I have found it helpful to “test the spirits,” asking: Is the Spirit saying similar things or moving in similar directions through these different spiritualities? Is the Spirit I am encountering consistent with the Spirit of Jesus? Is it consistent with the biblical New Testament witness? If so, let’s rejoice instead of dividing into “camps” and let’s learn from each other! Let’s rejoice that through many voices and forms, God is still speaking to us today!