So much of my Christian spiritual formation has been hindered by a nagging question:
Am I doing this right?
I want to pray in ways that are authentic and sincere.
I want to be pray with the right techniques.
And these desires all lead to one overarching need when it comes to prayer: I want to guarantee a particular outcome from prayer. If I do this “right,” then authentic contemplative prayer guarantees a particular kind of encounter with God.
Everything hinged on the outcome and my belief that I could control it. If I just meant it a little bit more, prayed with a slightly better focus, examined my conscience a little more thoroughly, or practiced sitting in silence a little bit longer, then perhaps my prayer life would finally take off.
And by take off, I mean that it would yield RESULTS–stuff I can point at as evidence of God and of my own goodness. Of course the risk with such evidence of God and my own holiness is that I don’t really need all that much faith to pray and I will face the temptation to hold my own holy experiences over the mere novices that can hardly string a few minutes of prayer together.
Such an approach to “authentic” prayer is more like I’m taking myself off the rails.
Seeking a spiritual experience or “consolation” as an outcome from a time of prayer is a common trap that Christians face in their spiritual growth. Contemplative prayer teachers such as Thomas Merton and Martin Laird warn us that such examination or prayer is quite common. Thomas Keating notes that the thought of enjoying contemplative prayer can turn into a distraction that pulls us out of a moment of intimacy with God.
So, what does authentic contemplation look like?
Cynthia Bourgeault writes that it’s a returning, again and again, to a sacred word, image, or practice, such as breathing. It is a complete reliance on God who has given us everything need and dwells within us before we even had a chance to prove our piety and worthiness.
God’s grace is upon us while we pray, and so we can let go of our desire to prove ourselves or our techniques as authentic. We can only clear space in our schedules and our minds for what God provides.
You don’t have anything to prove to God. You can only receive what God gives. The pressure is off. The silence is an invitation, a moment to live by faith in the present love of God that has always been here for you through the work of Jesus the Son and the indwelling of the interceding Holy Spirit.