Am I Doing Authentic Contemplative Prayer Right?

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.

 

 

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How Thomas Keating Gently Introduced Me to Centering Prayer

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When I first learned to how to pray with the centering prayer method taught by Thomas Keating, I had no shortage of obstacles to overcome. My thoughts ran all over the place.

  • I thought that I was a failure at prayer.
  • I worried that I was somehow cut off from God’s grace or mercy.
  • I felt guilty that I didn’t pray enough.
  • I felt bad that nothing seemed to happen when I did pray.
  • And I thought that I had too many thoughts.

As things turned out, the last point was very much true, but Thomas Keating introduced a word that helped me cut through the rest of the noise in my mind. Throughout his books, Keating encourages us to “gently” return to the sacred word as a sign of our intention to be present for God.

Growing up in the rough and tumble, wild at heart male evangelical subculture, I didn’t use the word “gentle” a lot. There was a lot of language about commitment, obligation, effort, and dedication. While there is always a place for discipline and commitment, I had completely missed out on the gentle grace of God calling me to a place of rest and silence, trusting that God is near and making the first move toward me out of love.

My resistance to the gentleness of returning to God with the intention of the sacred word betrayed a belief that I deserved to suffer, to cower in shame, to bear the brunt of my failures alone. The sacrificial life of Jesus, his resurrection to new life, and his presence through the Holy Spirit can be lost while immersing myself in shame and fear.

Establishing a routine of contemplative prayer and making it stick as a habit can feel like work and effort, sometimes a lot of both! Yet, the practice of prayer is so deeply infused with God’s grace and love that the word gentle is one of the most fitting descriptors.

Have I imagined a gentle God?

Could I conceive of God asking me to be gentle with myself?

So often I imagine that I deserve punishment, to make things somehow harder as misled act of repentance.

As Keating reminds me to gently return to a sacred word, such as beloved, mercy, grace, or Jesus, there is space to trust in God’s mercy and power. I can let go of what I think I ought to do in order to receive what God has already done.

 

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How Habits Can Help Us Pray

I stumbled into the practice of the best practices of habit formation backward as I began to make more space in my life for prayer. I found the connections between spiritual practices and habit formation after the fact, reading books like The Power of Habit and Atomic Habits when certain prayer habits had already taken root in my life.

As I read these books on habit formation, I couldn’t help thinking that I really could have used them as I was getting started with a more regular prayer schedule. As a disclaimer, it would be a mistake to reduce spirituality to a simple habit-based schedule, nor do I limit my prayer to certain times or practices.

One of the reasons I struggled to make space for prayer was my lack of habits to add order to my life. Habits aren’t the silver bullet for prayer or other spiritual practices, but they offer a useful place to make space for prayer on a smaller scale than say a more rigid monastic community.

Here are a few ways that habits can help you make more space for prayer.

Set a Time and a Space to Pray

This is nothing new or revolutionary, as Christians have been praying at set times for centuries, to say nothing of the Jewish roots of Christianity. A set time for prayer in a specific place makes it significantly easier to pray since my body now seems to almost know instinctively what will happen next at specific times and places.

Begin Small and Grow in Prayer

I began to pray in silence for just a few minutes. That grew to five minutes, and then over time I experimented with ten, twenty, and even thirty minutes. Habits are more likely to stick if you can start small, keep consistent, and then increase the time for the habit.

It helped that I invested time in learning how to pray, such as the practice of centering prayer where a simple word offers a way to refocus my intention to be present for God.

I used to think of myself as a failure if I couldn’t pray for a long time, but James Clear emphasizes in Atomic Habits that it’s far more important to keep a streak going for a habit than to skip it if I can’t do it perfectly. If I only pray in silence for a few minutes one day, that at least maintains the routine of praying daily and makes it easier to begin again the next day, hopefully adding more time.

Give Yourself a Prompt to Pray

A prompt is a reminder or cue that helps me remember what I intend to do. For instance, I leave my running clothes out in the morning as a reminder to run–that also makes it easy to choose to run.

Leaving my prayer book out helps me remember to pray each morning, while driving my car in the morning also helps me remember to spend some time sitting in silence. The “prompt” is as simple as turning my car on and then sitting in silence for 5-10 minutes. It took discipline to make prayer a habit in the car each morning, but now, it is far more automatic and requires less willpower.

Make It Easy to Pray

Closely related to the prompts or cues pray, making it easy to pray ensures that I remove any barriers or distractions. For instance, I don’t have to look for my prayer book because it’s already out. I don’t have to force myself to choose a time to pray because I have chosen some simple cues.

I sit in silence when I turn the car on in the morning, or I open my prayer book before I begin my work in the morning. It’s not hard to pray at these times, and while these aren’t the only times I pray, I have set moments throughout the day where I make it as easy as possible to choose prayer.

I’ve already made the choice to make space for prayer, so it’s not major decision each time I think of praying.

Consider Your Motivation to Pray

My motivation for prayer called for deeper scrutiny than I had imagined. I share in Flee, Be Silent, Pray: Ancient Prayers for Anxious Christians, that I had prayed because of fear, duty, guilt, and obligation. I imagined that God was disappointed in me because I was such a slacker who never prayed enough.

I hadn‘t considered that God was already present and loving, accepting me as I am and craving an intimate relationship with me.

Moreover, the simplicity of the Christian contemplative prayer tradition pulled me away from a performance mindset where I tried to demonstrate my piety or commitment. While silence or centering prayer aren’t the only ways I pray, they have been the most healing for me as I learn to turn to God in faith, waiting patiently in silence for the Lord.

While habits aren’t essential for making space to pray, they can make it significantly to find space each day for prayer. I have found that the best habit formation practices have a lot in common with the schedules of monks and nuns, and it seems that they may have a thing ten to teach us about making space for prayer and work.

If you aren’t sure where to begin with prayer, it may help to rethink your spiritual practices as habits that can start small and grow over time.

 

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My New Book Release: The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up Contemplation

When prayer is not tidy, prayer is difficult.

When prayer is tidy, prayer is simple.

What more do you need to know about prayer?

Unfortunately, a lot. That’s why my next book uses the time-honored Christian tradition of ripping off a popular book concept and sprinkling a bit of faith into it:

The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up Contemplation

There can be no better use of a cleaning method than applying it to prayer. Prayer should spark joy and bring order to chaos, not leaving your mind cluttered and confused, as if your soul is in some kind of “dark night.”

Christians today don’t need to clutter their minds by reciting more prayers, to pray with more emotion (the handkerchiefs and tissues with all of that crying!), or to burn messy incense and candles.

Christians need only tidy up their prayers with silence and a commitment to solving their problems by purchasing something trendy.

We need tidy spirituality.

I call my tidy spiritual approach the PRAY-ED method. It’s quite simple, yet so complex that you’ll need to buy my book, watch my upcoming television show, and hire me as a consultant to personally simplify your prayer life.

Here are the basic steps of the PRAY-ED method for truly tidy, biblical prayer:

  1. See the clutter of your prayer life.
    Clutter could be what you do, say, or own. It could be in your head or in your home. Clutter is everywhere, even in prayer.
  2. Decide what stays, and what goes.
    Do you really need to say the Our Father every day? Aren’t those candles burning a bit unevenly? I bet that icon on your wall is crooked. Does anyone need a Bible quite that large? I have bad news about your shelf of prayer books and Bible translations.
  3. Purge everything except for silence.
    Celebrate the role of prayer clutter in your journey and then ship it all off to the next church rummage sale.
  4. Stay silent.
    Silence is the only tidy, uncluttered prayer you will ever need. (And besides, a lot of Christians voted for Trump. They need some space to think that one over.)

It’s as simple, yet COMPLEX, as See, Decide, Purge, Silence.

What’s next after your perfectly restorative, heavily hyped preparation for silent prayer?

Besides hiring me to be your personal PRAY-ED consultant, post about it on social media, of course!

  • Take a selfie in a perfect prayer pose!
  • Set up shots of your uncluttered prayer space.
  • Tell all of your friends about the PRAY-ED method for prayer.

Most importantly, click the link below to learn more about all of the special goodies I’m going to include with this book if you order it right now. These aren’t physical goodies. They’re digital goodies, which means they’re technically not “goodies,” but I assure you that they are at least good.

CLICK HERE TO LEARN MORE

Can you help me promote it?

 

 

[Wait, was this an April Fool’s Day joke?]

Yes. It’s a prank. I do write books about contemplative prayer, and in fact, it’s no joke that the revised and expanded edition of Flee, Be Silent, Pray is on sale for $1.99!

Author Sarah Bessey commented about it in her newsletter: “5 stars. Ed is such a great writer and this book is a gift at this moment in time.”

Each year I try to write some kind of parody of myself and the Christian subculture for April Fools Day. I aim to be as over the top as possible. As our family slowly tries to tidy ourselves after the birth of our daughter last May, I couldn’t help noticing how tidying is the trend of the moment for many.

Since it’s inevitable that someone in the Christian subculture seems to come up with a Christian version or response of every popular trend in pop-culture, tidying up contemplation, a minimalist prayer practice you could say, was too good to resist.

See my full list of April Fools day prank book releases here.

Can Contemplative Prayer Help Address Racism, White Supremacy, and Hate?

What good is sitting in silence for 30 minutes of contemplative prayer every day going to do when there are racist groups in our communities?

It’s a fair question that I have pondered very often. I have a few responses:

Contemplation changes us into compassionate people.

Contemplation can help those in the grip of hate face their false selves—the false selves that drive so much of their hatred.

Contemplation re-centers us in God’s generative love for us and for other people.

Mind you, I’m saying that contemplation can “help” as one part of a larger action plan. I don’t want to oversell this here. Meditation and prayer have long been viewed as integral parts of Christian social justice work. Some groups make them essential aspects that members agree to incorporate into their daily lives.

When I have encountered hate speech or hateful events in the news, they can fuel a rage that goes beyond a productive righteous anger. As this burning rage takes hold, contemplative prayer provides a place to release my thoughts to God. Action is needed, but I won’t act from a productive perspective without a chance to disconnect from my anger and rage.

From a scientific perspective, mindfulness practices, which resemble contemplative prayer in many ways, help decrease our tendency to pursue conflict:

“Mindfulness studies show that practicing mindfulness for 8 to10 weeks changes the brain’s emotion regulation areas. The amygdala is a small, almond-shaped part of the midbrain that hijacks the brain into “fight, flight, freeze” mode in which we start to see our partners as threats to our wellbeing or autonomy and automatically shut down emotionally or start to attack them with angry words and deeds.”

Speaking in terms of what we hope for in the longer term, my pastor challenged us to think about conversion—we need members of these racist groups to be freed from their hateful ideology. It’s often true that the leaders of these hate groups are too far gone in many cases. However, a former hate group member turned advocate believes those who join these hate groups as the rank and file “foot soldiers” are often joining for reasons that are more complex than adopting a hateful ideology.

Christian Picciolini shared in an NPR interview:

“I believe that people become radicalized, or extremist, because they’re searching for three very fundamental human needs: identity, community and a sense of purpose… because there are so many marginalized young people, so many disenfranchised young people today with not a lot to believe in, with not a lot of hope, they tend to search for very simple black and white answers.”

Contemplation can’t answer all of that, but it can become a tool to escape the endless loop of anger and resentment that helps fuel the hatred of others.

Contemplation can provide a new identity as God’s beloved child.

Contemplation can provide a new mission to tell others about the love of God.

Keep in mind that Paul was a violent extremist who was killing and imprisoning Christians. After his conversion, he penned letters where he wished that his readers could experience the height, depth, and breadth of God’s love.

Those who are nurturing their anger and fabricated resentment of immigrants and ethnic minorities are going to need a new community to offer them hope and a path forward. It would be tragic if white supremacists and racists only redirected their anger into a bitter and defensive fundamentalism. Many evangelical churches can provide activity to redirect them, but they tend to lack the spiritual resources and direction for those who need to directly encounter God’s loving presence. Contemplative prayer within a church community setting can offer the inner spiritual experience of transformation that is often so badly needed.

We need churches that speak of God as a loving father/parent and emphasize the loving relationship of the trinity in their belief statements. I participated in prison ministry off and on before we moved and had kids, and I was always struck by how the men were impacted by an encounter with God as a loving father.

I will always defer to experts like Christian Picciolini to offer a path forward amid white supremacy. Contemplation is no substitute for direct action, holding racists accountable, legal advocacy, and other measures that will stop their agenda. It wouldn’t hurt if police departments like the one in Charlottesville, VA were a little more proactive when racist groups start beating people up.

Again, I can’t emphasize enough that contemplation is but one part of a larger action plan. I also haven’t addressed the vital work of learning about our history of racism and white supremacy in America or amplifying and joining the activists who are doing the hard work on the ground each day.

Those targeted by racism and working to eradicate it need our prayers and support now more than ever. However, as a white man, I am also very aware that I have a role to play in offering racists an off ramp away from radicalization. I hope and pray that contemplation can offer them a path away from the fear and hatred that drives their movements.

The Monday Merton: Relieving Spiritual Baggage

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In a moment of reflection on the joyful eagerness of the novices of his abbey, Thomas Merton made the following observation:

“We get so much in our own way and try to carry so much useless baggage in the spiritual life. And how difficult it is to help them without unconsciously adding much more useless badge to the load they already carry, instead of relieving them of it (which is what I try to do).”
– Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

What if the adding or relieving of spiritual baggage serves as the mark of authentic spiritual wisdom and guidance?

 

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