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quarta-feira, 4 de dezembro de 2019

Five Elements of a Daily Contemplative Practice — and Four Principles for Cultivating Your Practice


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Recently a reader of this blog posted this question:
Just curious Carl — what does your typical schedule look like? How do you put it all together?
I think the larger question here is how can anyone — not just me — cultivate a daily contemplative practice. So I’ll answer the question, but then I want to reflect on the question of a regular practice in general.

"Silence is praise."
“Silence is praise.”

Forgive me for humbly declining to directly answer your question. If I describe my practice, some people will say “Gee, I never could do that” and others will say “Is that all he does?!?” My point is that it’s probably not very helpful to compare notes with another person’s spiritual discipline — unless that person is your spiritual director (or directee), soul friend, or otherwise in a covenant relationship with you. So rather than giving you a detailed laundry list (“I sit in silence for 30 minutes every morning, before reciting morning prayer and engaging in lectio divina, etc. etc.”), I’d rather offer two bits of general advice:
First, a look at what I think are the five essential elements of a daily contemplative practice — that I think everyone, from beginners to seasoned practitioners, need to be incorporating into their lives;
And then, four principles that I think are important for all of us to keep in mind, especially as we seek to navigate a daily contemplative practice over the long haul.

Five Essential Elements of a Daily Contemplative Practice

Last month I wrote about Seven Ingredients for Cultivating a Truly Mystical Life. If you haven’t read that post, I’d encourage you to go check it out — what I’m about to say is in large measure simply a restatement, but aimed specifically at my reader’s question of “how do we put it all together” in terms of a typical contemplative practice.
  1. Every day give God some intentional time of silence. It doesn’t have to be 20 minutes of centering prayer (although that’s very good), or an hour in front of the Blessed Sacrament (also good). How much time you give each day, and whether you are spending that time sitting, walking a labyrinth, or simply gazing at the sunset, is really between you and God. But I have two suggestions: first, do it every day. Make it as non-negotiable as brushing your teeth or washing your face. And second, make it a truly silent time. Turn off all your devices. And be intentional about finding your interior silence — that vast, luminous place between your thoughts and feelings.
  2. Every day touch base with the sacred scripture of your faith tradition.  For Christians it’s the Bible, but other faiths have their own holy book(s). Get to know them. Read them meditatively — and prayerfully. If you’re not familiar with the practice of lectio divina, learn about it — and make it part of your life. Chances are you’ll also have to explore how to read your ancient text(s) intelligently and critically — but that doesn’t have to be in opposition to reading prayerfully. Learn to do both. And eventually, you’ll want to expand beyond the “official” sacred text (like the Bible) to also explore supplemental sacred writings — such as the writings of the great mystics.
  3. Every day engage in a structured format for devotional, honest, meaningful prayer. Simply “praying from the heart” is beautiful and I commend it — but it often doesn’t last over the long haul. Like tomato plants need a stake and fertilizer to reach their full potential, aspiring contemplatives need the structured support of a prayer resource like the Divine Office to truly establish a lifelong, daily habit of intimate prayer. You don’t have to pray the entire Daily Office, and I think it’s okay to experiment. Don’t get caught up in the silly notion that words printed in a book are “meaningless” — just recite the printed words — and notice what’s going on in your heart. That’s where you’re praying — whether it’s a prayer of love, devotion, anger, boredom, impatience, awe, or silliness.
  4. Anchor your daily spiritual practice in your most important relationships. This doesn’t mean you have to find someone to pray with you every morning or that you need a buddy to walk the labyrinth (maybe you do, and maybe not: listen to your heart). But even the most austere hermit relied on others to make their spirituality real through compassion and service. This could be as simple as your family, neighbors, co-workers. It could also mean your neighborhood church, or the homeless shelter where you volunteer twice a month. Once again, the particulars will vary from person to person — but what’s important is that you have people in your life to love, to serve, and to enjoy. That’s what makes contemplation real.
  5. Finally, make every day matter in terms of appropriate care for your health and wellness. The history of mysticism is replete with folks who do hardcore fasting, extreme self-denial, asceticism without limits — and again and again, the message is that such acts of self-flagellation tend to be motivated by the ego rather than by deep contemplative love. God loves you, which means you don’t have to punish yourself to be a good contemplative. What we do need to do is to make sure we’re leading a balanced and healthy life. Get enough sleep. Get appropriate amounts of exercise and relaxation. Eat a balanced and healthy diet. Work on letting go of your harmful addictions, and visit your healthcare providers regularly. Contemplative is holistic: so make it a daily practice to take good care of yourself.
Granted, these give things will look differently for everyone. Some of us may be acting heroically if we simply take two minutes a day for silence, recite one Bible verse, a single prayer, work on losing weight, and strive to be kind to the stranger at the bus stop. Another person may take two hours for deep contemplation followed by an hour of lectio and prayer, before heading out to teach English to Syrian refugees (after an hour at the gym). Don’t compare yourself to the other person. If you do, you’ll be tempted to feel bad or proud, and neither of those are helpful. Talk to God and listen to your heart — and decide what commitments you need, and want, to make.
Now, let me be vulnerably honest here: my practice fluctuates. Some days are better than others. I have more of an artist’s temperament than a monk’s, which means that even on my best days I chafe against structure (that’s part of why I know I need it!). Those of us who do not live in a cloister need to work out what our personal daily practice looks like, and we don’t have the benefit of ten or fifty fellow nuns or monks who will help us to be disciplined day in or day out. It’s hard to maintain a contemplative practice, so we all have to learn to find the balance between a clear commitment and a willingness to forgive ourselves, over and over again, for failing to live up to that commitment — without abandoning it.
I often hear from people who feel discouraged because they cannot seem to establish a daily contemplative practice, but the reality is that they lead busy lives with several children, a job that involves regular travel, and various commitments including church and volunteer efforts. God is present in all of this! So I think we need to be careful not to assume that only monks know how to be contemplatives, and if our lives don’t have a “monastic” feel to them then we must be doing it wrong. I don’t believe God calls us all to be monks; God call us all to be human. And it’s in our humanity that we find the seeds of our contemplative vocation.

Four Principles for Sustaining a Daily Contemplative Practice

Now, back to my reader’s question: How do I put it all together? Here are a few more thoughts. The elements (above) need these principles to help us sustain our ongoing practice. I hope that as I offer these reflections on my own contemplative practice, these thoughts might be helpful for you as you foster your unique way of responding to God’s love.
  1. Don’t overdo it. I know some people who pray the complete Daily Office, every day. If you are one of those persons, I admire you. But I’m not about to try to imitate you; at least not at this point in my life. When I have tried to pray multiple offices in a day, it’s always been a disaster. Moral of the story: your contemplative prayer practice needs to fit in with your overall life commitments. Be balanced and reasonable.
  2. Aim for a balanced diet. The key is to balance the five elements of contemplative living: intentional silence, lectio divina, structured prayers, engagement with your community, and a commitment to self-care (which includes eating well, proper exercise, enough sleep, and meaningful work). Your balance will look different from mine, but the important thing is, try to include all of these elements — if not every day, at least every week.
  3. Talk it over with a soul friend. Don’t try to design your daily practice all by yourself. Talk it over with a soul friend, a spiritual director, and/or teacher/mentor/pastor. Having another person’s perspective will help you to avoid the traps of trying to foster a daily spiritual practice. That person will also pray for you and check in with you to see how you’re doing, which is an excellent way to stay motivated. No, don’t compare your spiritual practice to mine (or anyone else’s) — but do share it with your spiritual companion, and listen with an open mind and heart to their prayerful feedback.
  4. Most of all, pray about it. A spiritual practice is always a means to an end — and the end is greater intimacy with God. If you are being compulsive about maintaining your self-imposed spiritual obligations, but not truly savoring your time given to God, well, it’s kind of missing the point, isn’t it? If I were your spiritual director, I would be much more interested in how your relationship with God is progressing, than in how many times over the month you manage to pray a complete Daily Office. Our practice is intended to express our love for God — so it’s always the love that matters most.
I hope this is helpful. Remember, this is not a contest or a race. It’s a relationship — between you and God. I hope you will find joy in that relationship as you seek to express your love on a daily basis.

We Document Almost Everything, but Should We Document Contemplative Prayer?

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There’s hardly a day that I don’t take a picture of my kids or something noteworthy in my surroundings. I can take as many shots as I like in order to capture a moment, save the best ones, and delete the rest.
There are plenty of times when I’ve captured a perfect expression from one of my kids, picked up the brilliant shades of red, pink, and purple in a sunset, or preserved an especially important moment for us to look back on in the years to come.
Yet, I often wonder how often I’m removing myself from participation in life when I shift into documentary mode. This is especially true when it comes to our kids. How often have I disengaged from them in order to take their picture? Are there times when I could have had a more meaningful interaction if I kept my smartphone in my pocket?
I confess that I’m quite contrary about the ways smartphones document everything from meals, to date nights, to shoes, to quirky selfie expressions. How often should we step back from a moment, an interaction, or the simple rhythm of daily life in order to put our documentary hats on?
I view myself relative to our culture as a documentary minimalist, and yet I often find myself asking how often I’m removing myself to document something rather than to be fully present for it. Documenting becomes a habit of sorts, a way of interacting with the world that wasn’t really possible until digital cameras, smartphones, and social media increased both the ease and the social opportunities for extensive photographing and sharing.
This tendency to document feeds into a common tendency among Christians who practice contemplative prayer to document or savor any notion of spiritual consolation or a spiritual experience.
Thomas Keating shared in Open Mind, Open Heart that we are always tempted to hang onto a spiritual experience as if we are taking a picture of it, preserving it for reference and consolation later. Rather than allowing ourselves to be present for God in silence, we run the risk of demanding spiritual experiences each time we pray, turning to our preserved memories if we can’t feel the way we want.
Martin Laird notes in An Ocean of Light that such spiritual experiences are mercifully few and far between lest we spend our time journaling about them and comparing them with each other.
Contemplation invites us into a practice that remains deceptively simple, merely being present for God without any demands for a particular feeling or consolation. This prayer invites us to trust in a pure faith that God is present and at work in us regardless of how we feel.
This may prove to be a disappointment at first, but it can also prove liberating. We only have to receive what God gives us, no more and no less.
There is no ideal outcome or result we have will ourselves to have.
There is no technique, trick, mindset, or chant that will make prayer more effective.
God is present based on grace and our prayers are rooted in the reception of that grace whether we know it or experience it in a particular way. There is nothing for us to capture in the moment because we are already being held by a loving God.

Thomas Merton Shares about Silent Contemplative Prayer vs. Our Reliance on Words

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merton contemplative prayer
“We thank [God] less by words than by the serene happiness of silent acceptance. It is our emptiness in the presence of His reality, our silence in the presence of His infinitely rich silence, our joy in the bosom of the serene darkness in which His light holds us absorbed, it is all this that praises Him.”
– Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation
What should I say to God?
That was one of the most pressing questions I face each day as I sought to prayer. I’m not sure if it was hard to find time to pray in the first place because I didn’t know what to say. Perhaps I struggled to find time for prayer because it seemed almost impossible or even fruitless at times.
Plagued by uncertainty and insecurity, I put so much pressure on myself to get prayer “right” by saying the “right words” to God in prayer.
If nothing happened, then it was on me. I simply hadn’t said the magic words to capture God’s attention or mercy.
I couldn’t tell you where this kind of prayer practice came from in the first place. My main theory is that my prayer life was more or less a void that lacked information about “how to pray” in the first place.
Without a clear idea of how to proceed with prayer, I filled in this blank slate with what I observed, what I heard, and what I reasoned on my own. Over time, I drifted away from grace and mercy, developing a more performative form of prayer where just about everything rested on me getting everything right–or more right than wrong.
Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation was like a slap in the face, shocking me out of this misconception of prayer. Through his teachings on silent prayer and silent contemplation in particular, I learned to trust more in God’s merciful presence than my own words.
I could even say that Merton gave me the language to characterize prayer as silence in the first place. Silence before God is prayer, but at one point in my life I would have denied that.
Since reading New Seeds of Contemplation, I’ve found that I can bring something to the practice of prayer, but the “success” of prayer has nothing to do with me. God is present regardless. My enjoyment of God’s presence may hinge on my ability to stop, but God is not dangling mercy to me based on my performance while praying.
Contemplative prayer can be restful, trusting in God alone while clearing away the clutter of our minds. That is the gift of prayer that we can receive by faith. I’ve found that prayer tends to involve saying fewer words, not more words.
And if I can sit in silence before God, I may have a much better idea of what to say when it’s time to make my requests known to God.

terça-feira, 3 de dezembro de 2019

The Path of Contemplative Spirituality

Via Mystica

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What is Christian Mysticism?

What is mysticism? What is contemplation? How are they connected, and how do they relate to Christianity?
Read this post to begin to explore this ancient path of spirituality.
Learn More

Why Mysticism Matters

What difference does mystical spirituality make? How can mysticism help you to grow spiritually, or to find a more meaningful inner life? What is the relationship between mysticism, holiness, and social justice?
Learn More

Embrace the Mystical Life

What do mystics do? What does it take to begin, or sustain, a contemplative practice? How can you integrate the mystical path into your busy life?
The wisdom of the mystics (ancient and modern) shows us the way.
Learn More

Want to learn more about Christian mysticism? You've come to the right place.

We live in an age when many people say, "I'd rather be spiritual than religious." But what if there were a path where you could integrate the best of both worlds — the best wisdom and practices of a truly life-transforming spirituality, combined with the rituals, practices, and ethical aspirations of religion at its best?
Welcome to the path of Christian mysticism.
Christian mysticism is a dimension of spirituality which stresses a teaching that goes all the way back to Christ himself: "The kingdom of God is within you" (Luke 17:21) — and, connected to that, even further back to the beautiful wisdom of the Psalms: "Be still and know that I am God" (Psalm 46:10).
Every century since the time of Christ has been blessed with people who truly embody that "reign of God" in their hearts, and who have left behind poetry, wisdom, and teachings to help ordinary Christians to find their own path to the presence of God within — the "via mystica."
The content on this website is designed to help you learn more about the mystics — and to apply their wisdom to your life.

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Try This Christian Prayer Practice During The Holidays


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 I regularly write about Christian living and prayer at this site and Patheos. In the past I have written for The High Calling, Christian TodayLeadership Journal (print), and Christianity Today (online). I’m especially interested in writing about practicing contemplative prayer as an alternative to effort-based religion and digital distraction.

The Christmas season can be disruptive to our daily schedules and practices, especially our spiritual practices. It can become especially hard to find time for prayer while on the road, visiting with relatives in full houses, cooking meals for family, and the eventual meal clean-up. Our individual holiday lists will vary, but most of us will experience disruption to our schedules and spiritual practices during this season.

What if an ancient Christian prayer practice dating back 1700 years could help you remain spiritually grounded while pursuing your many holiday tasks? Better yet, you can hold onto this prayer practice for the rest of the year once your daily routines turn back to normal.


Before Christian leaders had even agreed on which books to include in the biblical canon, monks throughout Egypt and Palestine were practising a simple way of praying as they worked with their hands each day. This early Christian prayer practice called "quies" (meaning "rest") helped each monk use the teachings of Scripture to rest more fully in God.
Thomas Merton wrote about this prayer: "Quies is a silent absorption aided by the soft repetition of a lone phrase of the Scriptures – the most popular being the prayer of the Publican: 'Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner!' In a shortened form this prayer became "Lord have mercy" (Kyrie eleison) – repeated interiorly hundreds of times a day until it became as spontaneous and instinctive as breathing" (The Wisdom of the Desert, New Directions, p. 22).
This practice of resting prayer isn't the same thing as chanting or reciting a mantra. Resting prayer or contemplative prayer uses scripture or a "sacred word" to help us let go of our distracting thoughts that keep us from being aware of God. If you can let go of your thoughts and remain present for God without a scripture verse or phrase, then there's no need to repeat it. The teachers of contemplative prayer, such as Thomas Keating, emphasise that we return to the word gently and only as needed.
Keep in mind, if you aren't used to stilling your mind before God, that this type of prayer may not be very restful at first! This is normal. Richard Rohr assures us that the first steps forward in this type of prayer can be difficult, if not excruciating. All our fears, anxieties, and distractions will immediately rise to the surface once you let your mind rest without distraction. This is part of the design of resting prayer – facing our anxious thoughts and then seeking God's loving presence. As you learn to rest in God's loving presence, your anxious thoughts will slip away.
What will go through your mind this holiday season while you drive through traffic, visit the store, cook meals, clean the house, or wash the dishes? Perhaps you could dwell on how busy you are, how much you're dreading certain conversations with relatives, or how much you're concerned about your bank account. Perhaps you could play a podcast, some music, or the news. However, what if you could begin to rest in God by faith?
"Lord have mercy," puts us in our place and reminds us that God's restoration is here for us today. The story of "righteous" tax collector shows us that God isn't turned off by our imperfections. No charade is necessary for God's mercy – only honesty. We are always in need of God's mercy, and so one of the purest ways we can pray is to rest in God's mercy day in, day out.
As you grow comfortable with this type of prayer, a particular scripture verse or phrase from scripture may stand out as more helpful. The specifics of the words you recite or meditate on are not as important as your intention to rest before God and to lay hold of his mercy.
If you struggle to settle down anxious thoughts or don't know where to begin with prayer during this busy season, this simple repetition of Scripture can help restore quiet and bring a greater awareness of God. Since the holidays may be one of the most challenging seasons to pray, you may especially see benefits if you stick with the quies longer than the holidays.

Ed Cyzewski (MDiv) is the author of Pray, Write, GrowA Christian Survival Guide, and The Contemplative Writer. He writes at and is on Twitter as @edcyzewski.