Can You Recognize the Signs of a Spiritual Breakdown?

We have a 2002 Subaru Outback that burns through oil. Maybe it leaks oil. Maybe it does both. No one really knows. A mechanic told me the engine from that year was really, really bad.

To make things worse, the dip stick is extremely unreliable, so I’m always just guessing how much oil to add.

All of that is to say, when we used to drive that car daily, I had to keep a really close eye on the oil—among several other things.

It’s my understanding that cars generally have an “oil” light that comes on when it gets low. In our case, we were on a road trip with that Subaru, cruising up a hill on an Interstate, when the light came on and then we instantly heard an alarming crunch in the front of the car.

That was it for our engine.

Besides a useful dip stick and an engine that kept oil inside of it, I also could have really used a warning light BEFORE running out of oil completely.

It turned out that we had driven through a lot of mountains in western Maryland and West Virginia, and we had burned through all of the oil I put in at the start of the trip.

While we could replace that engine with a used one, I often think of the warning signs I see in my life before I burn out or hit rock bottom mentally or spiritually.

Do I have a functioning “warning” light for the times when I’m in emotional, mental, or spiritual trouble and in need of a pause for restoration?

As I’ve explored what spiritual health looks like for me, I have learned that I am at my best when I do at least 3 things every day:

Journal

Pray

Read scripture

These aren’t major revelations or secrets, right? That’s a pretty standard list of daily practices for a Christian. I could list things like exercising daily, getting 7-8 hours of sleep, reading spiritual books and attending church, but those three in my list above form the foundation.

If those three practices aren’t a regular part of my day, I can almost certainly expect to start feeling distant from God, out of sorts, or just kind of lost. Each practice plays a vital role in keeping my head in a good place and helping me to remain aware of God’s presence.

Since it’s so important, I have a schedule each day, and I fit my spiritual routine into it.

Here’s the thing, schedules change, life gets crazy, and the routine sometimes falls to pieces.

We had some pretty disruptive changes to our schedule over the past month, and my routine suffered.

Over the years, I’ve learned to watch for some warning signs that all may not be well. Here is what I look for:

Is My Journal Empty?

When I open my journal, I can know things are difficult or stressful if I don’t have any entries for the past day… or week.

During one really tough stretch, I would show up for church, open my journal to jot down some ideas during the sermon, and start right below my notes from the previous Sunday. That’s a whole week without reflection!

I use my journal for a wide range of ideas, reflections, prayers, meeting notes, and whatever else. It’s a place to get thoughts out of my  head, and if my journal is empty, that means my head is likely full of stuff I haven’t fully processed. That is usually not good for my mental health.

Journaling also makes it much easier to pray since a head full of thoughts can lead to a busy mind that will struggle to pray.

Have I Moved My Bookmark?

I use The Divine Hours to read, reflect, and pray through scripture daily. Each day offers a series of readings based on the day of the week and the time of day. It’s a very handy way to read a variety of scripture on a consistent basis.

But when my schedule falls to pieces or life gets chaotic, I may catch myself flipping past a few days in order to find that day’s reading. If I haven’t been keeping up with scripture reading, my bookmark will be off by a few days.

Having grown up in a Christian subculture that attached a lot of guilt and obligation to Bible reading, I’ve really had to rethink WHY I read the Bible. I prioritize devotional reading or using scripture to guide my prayers.

When I open up the morning scripture reading, I take a prayerful posture and ask God to guide me. I’m not looking for answers, prooftexts, or a duty I can check off in my list of spiritual things.

If I’m not guided by the words of scripture and the Spirit’s inspiration through those words, then who knows what will influence me. There are plenty of alternatives!

I shouldn’t be surprised that my head often ends up in an unhealthy place if my daily scripture reading slides.

Do I Have Enough Time to Pray Daily?

There isn’t an easy way to visibly track how often I pray, but generally I aim to land in the 20-30 minutes range for dedicated prayer. Of course there are plenty of opportunities to be prayerful and mindful of God throughout my day, but I benefit the most from focused, distraction free prayer time if possible.

But dedicated prayer time isn’t guaranteed each day. A kid may wake up early, a work project has a tight deadline, I miss an alarm, or who knows what else can spring up.

I do my best to stay honest about prayer. Am I getting at least 20 minutes? It’s not a magic number that guarantees some kind of spiritual epiphany. It’s just a way to keep myself from getting lazy or cutting corners.

Over the years, I’ve found that if I can set aside 20 minutes for prayer, it’s usually a breeze to hit 30 minutes. Of course, stretching my prayer time that long can start to take away time from my morning exercise routine!

What Are Your Warning Signs?

I’m certain that my three essential daily practices aren’t the only ones or that they aren’t unique to me.

I’d love to know which daily practices you rely on to be both mentally and spiritually healthy. If the comments are closed (they close after 2 weeks to prevent spam), you can always drop me a line on my contact page or share this post on social media along with your own list of essential practices.

Training Ourselves to Be Present for the Sacred Already Around Us

What if we spent our time seeking the sacred, being present for the holy?

We wouldn’t have to travel anywhere. We wouldn’t have to overhaul our routines. We would only have to add activities that bring space for thought and awareness of the present moment.

Where is the sacred found? Some may travel to a sacred space to find the sacred, but such spaces help us detach from distractions rather than bringing us closer to God. Jesus spoke of the indwelling Spirit and the Kingdom of God being within or among us.

We could say that the sacred is found among us in the present moment.

If we want to find the sacred, then what prevents us from seeking it? What blocks our path toward what what is deeper and more valuable?

This is the pearl of great price, the most valuable thing we could imagine. We spend our lives making cost/benefit analysis for our choices and practices. What do we gain, what do we lose, and is that trade off worthwhile?

My sense is that the sacred presence of God and the resulting presence of God’s Kingdom is found when we are able to be focused and stable in the present moment.

We may repent of the past and cast dreams and visions into the future, but we can only rely on God’s grace to cover what we have done and rest in God’s care for what’s coming tomorrow. We can’t change the past, and we can’t control the future. Our faith addresses these two areas where we exert no control.

Yet, the sacred now is where God’s dynamic energy is present, and preserving our attention to this moment will pay off in personal, spiritual, and relational ways. My faith in the present rests in God’s presence that I can easily miss.

Any of my fears about God abandoning me or my own sin making me unworthy have given way to the assurances of Jesus that he is present, he knows his own people, and nothing can separate us from the love of God.

The disconnect I often find in my own life from God’s sacred presence is my attention. Training myself to be present, to be still, and to be receptive to God’s presence changes my approach to spiritual practices.

If the sacred is already present, I’m not trying to summon God, to prove myself worthy, or to do the right thing in order to make God show up. ​My practice becomes a process of training myself to chase distractions from my mind and to be present for God in the moment.

This training to be present in the moment involves everything from the chores I do, the moments I wait in line at the store, and the ways I spend my free time.

Taking a run, painting a picture, or building something out of wood becomes part of the practice of prayer as I train my mind to be still, to release thoughts, and to be present for whatever God may have for me in the present moment.

My creative projects by themselves can draw glory to God, but they also become a formative experience that trains me in the ways of being present in the moment. The more I am present in the moment, rather than dreading the future or lamenting the past, the more I can enter into prayer with a clear mind that is receptive to the sacred that is already there.

Can You Really Pray for an Hour Each Day?

The great spiritual writer and priest Henrí Nouwen once visited Mother Teresa and asked her what he should do to live out his vocation as a priest, she replied:

“Spend one hour a day in adoration of your Lord and never do anything you know is wrong, and you will be alright.”

My first reaction was something like, “Oh, that sounds super simple. Got it.”

Then, I started looking at my calendar. “AN HOUR??? REALLY?”

And then I started thinking about the low points in my days, the times when anger burns, and the moments when apathy and sloth make it very easy to resist what could help me the most.

With a few moments of reflection, the words of Mother Theresa started sounding like a reach for me.

While we could argue about the merits of her advice and the fact that she gave it to a priest rather than a married guy with a job and three kids, let’s assume for a moment that she’s right on the money about what we all need each day. Besides, it’s easy to assume that only “religious professionals” have the time for spiritual practices.

If adoration and obedience will help most of us fulfill our vocations, then we just need to figure out how to make them both happen. And even if we want to debate with Mother Teresa, I don’t think more adoration and obedience would hurt anyone—especially since adoration could take so many different forms.

So, let’s consider for a moment what it could look like to set aside an hour of adoration for the Lord each day and not doing anything we know that’s wrong.

Where Do We Begin? Obedience?

I’ll be honest that when I first tested out this path for spiritual direction, I spent a lot of time focusing on my actions and thoughts. I tried to do what I knew to be right.

There are moments when we need a bit of willpower and some white knuckling to obey God’s commands. A few incidents with neighbors come to mind as moments when I had to intentionally act to forgive some who had done something wrong. I had to choose to let go of my anger in order to forgive as Jesus told me to forgive.

Forgiveness isn’t usually easy, but it is what a merciful and forgiving God asks of us. Yet, should obedience to God’s commands always come down to willpower and white knuckles?

I think that question helps us see how Mother Theresa’s two suggestions intersect rather than stand alone. In fact, that separated approach to obedience and adoration was a big mistake on my part.

An hour of adoration of a merciful and forgiving God will remind me of God’s great mercy for me. I’ll also allow God to shape and change me so that I conform to the work of the Holy Spirit in my life rather than making myself act correctly.

If I need some spiritual direction that will lead me away from willful sins, then I may benefit most from looking toward the God who can show me the path forward.

Adoration has a lot to do with obedience.

Can I Spend an Hour in Adoration of the Lord?

The thing I’ve learned about myself and spiritual practices is that I can’t let the ideal undermine the reality of life. I can’t let the perfect replace the possible.

Some days the kids wake up extra early or stay up super late. Some days the alarm isn’t set properly or we fall back asleep by mistake. Some days the unexpected happens or an interruption pulls us away from our worthy pursuits.

If we aren’t tucked away in a monastery, we have to accept that we probably don’t have as much control over our schedules as we would like. And even monks have sometimes complained about not having enough time to pray!

I have found that I do best with making space for adoration of the Lord in silence and in praying scripture by aiming for a rough schedule every day. It’s not perfect, but I generally know how I’m going to start each day. That helps a lot.

I also try to make some space in the middle and at the end of each day so that I can remain aware of God. It would be amazing if I could just make an hour available each day at the drop of a hat, but there are so many competing priorities and distractions each day. The best solution I can find at now is to make space for prayer and adoration before the day really gets going and to then find space for it as I do other things or as I take breaks throughout the day.

I don’t know if I’ve gotten close to an uninterrupted hour of adoration in a day, but I have found that it’s possible to at least spread this time out throughout a day.

As imperfect as that approach feels some days, I have noticed without fail that my ability to live in obedience to God always follows my ability to make space for silent adoration. If my adoration falters, then my obedience most likely follows that path shortly.

This is the mystery of the Christian life, both choosing to live in obedience to God while also placing ourselves in the care of the Holy Spirit to shape us and to guide. As my mind is reshaped by God’s work, my “work” of obedience becomes a joint venture in union with the Holy Spirit.

These days I try to spend a lot more time asking if I’m making time for adoration rather than if I’m living in obedience. If I am making time for adoration, the obedience often takes care of itself.

Photo by Agê Barros on Unsplash

Prayer Is Boring. But We Need Boredom… And Prayer

 

Considering that digital formation, often through our phones and social media, either fills our minds with thoughts or prevents us from facing our thoughts in silence, spiritual formation frees us from the constant chatter of our thoughts and trains us to let go of them.

Whether we are meditating on the life-giving words of Scripture or waiting in silence before God, spiritual formation relies on disengaging from the constant flow of chaotic ideas that create a reactive mind that struggles to focus on prayer. In addition, once we have stepped away from this stream of ideas, we also need to let go of the ones that we have fixated on.

The thoughts lodged in our minds prevent us from perceiving ourselves and God’s presence clearly. The more we are engaged in stimulation and ideas, the less space we’ll have to thoughtfully review our days and to let go of what Martin Laird calls “afflictive thoughts.”

These thoughts can fill our minds to the point that we fail to realize God is present, or we remain boxed in by our illusions about ourselves or God. By sitting in silence, releasing our thoughts gently, and creating space for God, we can gain greater clarity through simple contemplative practices. Laird writes:

“Contemplative practice gradually dispels the illusion of separation from God. Through the medicine of grace, the eye of our heart is healed by the gradual removal of the lumber of mental clutter, ‘the plank in our eye’ that obscures the radiance of the heart. This radiance is a ray of God’s own light.”*

This letting go of thoughts is not a spectacular or brand-new, cutting-edge spiritual practice. This isn’t the sort of thing spiritual gurus do onstage to the applause of the crowd. It is an ancient spiritual practice of letting go of our thoughts and illusions that can blind us to the brilliance of God—even if the practice often feels quite unspectacular on most days.

Howard Thurman shares how the unspectacular waiting in silence, releasing each thought as it comes, is the kind of space that God can work with in our lives:

“It is in the waiting, brooding, lingering, tarrying timeless moments that the essence of the religious experience becomes most fruitful. It is here that I learn to listen, to swing wide the very doors of my being, to clean out the corners and the crevices of my life—so that when His Presence invades, I am free to enjoy His coming to Himself in me.”**

If smartphones and social media ensure that we never have to wait in boredom, that we can always find a source of stimulation, and that we never have to be alone with our thoughts, we are training ourselves to fail in spiritual formation. In fact, our devices are stealing an important element of a typical prayer experience.

Put bluntly, prayer is often quite simple and mundane, and even boring. It may include incredible encounters with God or moments of powerful transformation, but the day-in, day-out discipline of prayer is rarely exciting or even rewarding. Prayer even thrives in the boredom of its simple routines and practices.

 

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*Martin Laird, An Ocean of Light: Contemplation, Transformation, and Liberation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019), 58.

**Thurman, Essential Writings, 45.

I Can’t Talk My Way Out of Every Spiritual Crisis

Words don’t always make difficult situations better. I still haven’t been able to shut down my impulse to speak up when I should probably keep my mouth shut.

I’m the kind of person who always wants to help someone going through a tough time. And so I talk, I try to commiserate, and I do my best to think of something encouraging or helpful to say.

Maybe I’ve helped others sometimes, but plenty of other times I’ve felt like reaching into the air to grab the words and stomp them into oblivion before they land in the other person’s ears. I tend to overestimate the good that my words can do, and so I pressure myself to say something, anything, when sometimes I really just need to be present and remain available.

There’s a kind of theme that emerges in my own spiritual practices and in the stories I hear of others who practice contemplation. We want to talk our way out of a spiritual crisis, we want answers, we want definitive statements, we want the doctrine that unlocks the door that will alleviate our doubt, uncertainty, frustration, and pain.

I have imagined myself talking my way through difficult situations, as if my own chatter would somehow compel God to take notice and offer a solution once I reach a magical threshold of prayerful words. Perhaps there’s also a reverence threshold to my words where I try to sound like a prayer book… “Gracious, magnificent, and merciful God, bestow upon me, your servant, the full measure of your goodness…”

And yes, talking through our prayers can work and yes God can give us answers, but I can’t talk my way out of every spiritual crisis. And to be honest, I’m not sure that I would even want to be talked out of a crisis or given a magical solution to every issue in my life.

I imagine a parent holding a sobbing child without words, just offering presence and comfort. We wouldn’t criticize the parent for that kind of presence. There really is nothing to be said in the moment. The pain must be felt and the moment can only be resolved with presence.

There isn’t a physical God on earth to hold us quite so directly, and so I have overcompensated with words until they failed me. And when words failed and I couldn’t talk myself out of a spiritual crisis, I assumed that God had failed me.

But there is quite a lot more to God than the words we speak or the ideas scrolling through our minds. There is presence and comfort in silence, even if such a possibility appears counterintuitive or unlikely.

Even in this space where I only have words, images, and white space, I can’t talk you out of a spiritual crisis. I can’t give you the magic next steps to spiritual prosperity. I can only say that words have failed me, but God has not. If you step into that silence and stillness, there is something else waiting for you there. I can’t tell you what it is or what it will feel like. Even if you do find it, words may fail you.

Perhaps we can find hope in the possibility that we don’t need more words to be present for God. In fact,  I typically find it most helpful to use fewer words.

 

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The Prayer of the Heart vs. Prayer as Mental Therapy

Silent, contemplative prayer has been calming  for my mind, but it’s not the same as going to therapy. I’m not a therapist, but I’ve spent enough time in a therapist’s office to know what kinds of practices can help calm my mind.

There are some ways that prayer and therapy can overlap, as both can lead us to simple phrases or insights that help us re-order our thoughts. As we let go of toxic thoughts, a prayer phrase or word can aid us on our journey. Throughout my time in therapy, I’ve also learned simple phrases to carry with me so that I can keep my mind grounded in reality rather than what I fear.

Yet, it has been a mistake for me to pursue prayer as merely an escape hatch from troubling thoughts. It can help me do that, but I have found that it also calls me to something deeper and far more expansive. I could argue that prayer is also far more costly since it takes me to the depths of my nothingness before the love and mercy of God.

When I’m caught up in anxiety, I can use the insight of therapy to reorder my thoughts around the reality of my situation. The same can happen with prayer, but that is often the incidental result of a deeper healing and presence.

Contemplative prayer has been described as the prayer of the heart. Teachers of prayer have spoken of this prayer as going into the heart and standing before God. They describe it as beholding God or consenting to God’s presence in your life. If God is already present with us, then it stands to reason that the only missing thing for prayer is our consent that leads to a deeper awareness of that reality.

On the other end of contemplative prayer, I have felt a similar reordering of my thoughts much like in therapy, but something else happens as well. Prayer takes us into the realm of mystery and love. Some refuse to put the details of these prayer experiences into words because they are too intimate and beyond the limits of what they can say.

I participate in both prayer and therapy because they are different. Yet, the deeper healing and love of prayer is hardly at odds with the ways therapy puts my mind at ease.

Many times it seems that I leave therapy with a clearer idea of what has gotten in the way of my prayers.

Yet, I don’t pray merely for it’s therapeutic benefits. There is a real cost to prayer that can empty us and lead us through challenging places. There can be a struggle. At times it may seem that God has remained far away, and confusion may loom over us for a season.

We go down into our hearts to pray not to feel better but so that we can love God and become aware of God’s love. There is an opportunity for transformation and renewal, but prayer isn’t just about feeling good.

Prayer gives me an opportunity to be shaped by God on God’s own terms, no matter what the cost may be. As I walk through that refining, I have found greater peace and have let go of the many afflictions haunting my mind.

Finishing a moment of prayer isn’t the same thing as leaving my therapist’s office with the hope that I got my money’s worth. But there both offer a moment to step away from patterns of thinking that can leave myself alienated from myself and from others. Perhaps the greatest difference is that such a movement away from alienating thoughts is often just the beginning for prayer.

 

 

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Is Contemplative Prayer Biblical?

contemplative prayer biblical

 

If a Bible loving Protestant, especially an evangelical, asks “Is contemplative prayer biblical?”, it’s likely that this person is already assured of the answer.

“Contemplative prayer” as a defined concept does not show up in the Bible, and the same goes for the methods that contemplative prayer teachers share today. There is nothing quite like centering prayer or specific instructions about how to pursue silence in the Bible.

If you can’t find contemplative prayer methods in the Bible, then it appears to be checkmate, right? Without chapter and verse, there is no Biblical basis for contemplative prayer… except that the teachers of contemplative prayer quote a lot of scripture.

What gives?

It’s true that there is no specific instruction about how to engage in contemplative prayer, but there is plenty in the Bible about praying in silence, waiting on the Lord, seeking God in the solitude of the wilderness, praying always, and praying in secret/silence. You could say that we know about as much about prayer as we know about being a pastor.

We can list the limited details of serving as a pastor just as we could list the limited details of where and when to pray. If we made a list of how pastors go about serving today compared to the guidelines of the Bible, there is quite a bit that we could say doesn’t show up in the Bible–including just about all of the stuff in church leadership books that detail mission statements, vision statements, core values, and corporate leadership and HR guidelines.

I’m not listing those things to argue against them. Rather, within the biblical view of pastoring, we tend to expect the practical, day-to-day realities of pastoral ministry will require some innovation and problem solving on our own parts.

So, when we are instructed to pray in silence, to wait on the Lord in silence, to pray constantly, and to pray in secret, we are right to wonder exactly how to pray in this way.

What does it look like to pray in silence and solitude?

When we see that Jesus ventured off to solitary places, John the Baptist and Paul both sought God in wilderness solitude early in their ministries, and many key figures in the Old Testament experienced God in the wilderness, it’s only logical to ask how we should go about seeking God in these quiet, lonely places.

This is where a bit of church history can help us and show us how contemplative prayer intersects with the Bible.

The desert fathers and mothers sought to imitate the wilderness spirituality of Jesus and many other figures in the New Testament. They still ventured into cities to minister, wrote letters to the churches, and made themselves available to visitors, but they devoted the bulk of their time to prayer and work.

As these early Christians worked, they typically sought to make themselves available to God in silence, with some either breathing in a rhythm where they imagined the Holy Spirit filling them or praying the Jesus prayer which is based on the prayer of repentant tax collector (“The publican’s prayer”). Some used other ways to pray in silence, but over the years a simple breathing practice or prayer word/phrase stuck as the primary ways to pray in silence and solitude.

Most importantly, there is no dogmatic approach to a single way to pray. These Christians engaged in a variety of forms of prayer, giving thanks, making requests, and praying with prophetic insight. They didn’t demand only silent prayer, and different forms of silent prayer took shape over time as they learned to encounter God in the depths of their being.

This inner prayer that takes place in a heart that is still and receptive to God rather than reacting to thoughts and fears is often called contemplation or the prayer of the heart. While Jesus never described this precise outcome for silent prayer, he most certainly modeled this form of prayer and intersected with the biblical tradition that made space for silent prayer and waiting on God.

The teachers of contemplative prayer who pass down these traditions and practices for silent prayer that are grounded in biblical directives don’t pretend to teach centering prayer as the only way to pray in silence. Rather, it is a helpful way to be receptive and aware of God.

The point is to be silent, aware of God, and receptive to the Holy Spirit as directed by the Bible, but the details of the silence are up to us. While the traditions of the church are not the final word on these matters, there is a lot of wisdom in seeing which prayer practices have stood the test of time and proved their worth to Christians in a variety of settings over the years.

We are more than welcome to experiment with our own ways of being silent in solitude before God, but let’s not kid ourselves that our modern innovations are somehow superior or more biblical than the traditions passed down for generations. I’m personally most interested in doing what the historic church has found most helpful.

No one is going to argue about the Bible’s teaching to pray in silence and solitude, and so arguing over the details of how to do that strikes me as unhelpful. The teachers of contemplative prayer have literally based their prayer words and repetitive prayers on scripture, using simple phrases and words to let go of their troubling thoughts, to let scripture fill their minds, and to be fully present for God.

One final point bears keeping in mind here, and it’s a big one.

I have yet to read a critique of contemplative prayer from someone who had actually practiced it and had received spiritual direction from an experienced director. That critique may be out there, but regardless, the majority of the critiques I’ve heard and read are based purely on hearsay and conjecture without real first hand experience.

If you aren’t comfortable with a practice like centering prayer or sitting in silence isn’t helpful and life-giving for your soul, there is no one condemning you. I was once in your shoes, so I get it better than most.

Yet, I encourage you to consider that a large number of Christians throughout the history of the church have benefitted from contemplative prayer. Why would any Bible-believing Christian dismiss a practice like this based on modern conjecture and hearsay?

 

Learn more about contemplative prayer by checking out my related post: Is Contemplative Prayer Dangerous? 

 

Read More about Contemplative Prayer…

Based on my own resistance to and experiences with contemplative prayer, I’ve written an introduction to this historic Christian practice. The book is titled:

Flee, Be Silent, Pray:
Ancient Prayers for Anxious Christians

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The Magic Silence Button for Meditation and Contemplative Prayer

There is no magic silence button for meditation and contemplative prayer. Sorry if my title is a bit misleading. But I do know about the next best thing: mindfulness paired with meditation–at least for me.

Consider my typical struggles with contemplative prayer…

I sit down to pray, and my feet are fidgeting, my mind wandering, and my chest is a bit anxious because I have all of the things to do, or I worry that I should be DOING something, anything else. I desperately want a magic silence button that will help me pray and meditate.

Absent such a button, I need to pay attention to my thoughts and soul BEFORE I pray. In other words, if I’m sitting down to pray and my mind is running all over the place, I’m making prayer difficult for myself.

That isn’t to say I should skip prayer if my mind is too busy. It’s still worthwhile to sit in silence before God and to meditate when my mind is unruly and my anxiety begins pulsing. Yet, I won’t see a big difference in my approach to prayer until I pay attention to my mind and soul prior to prayer.

Awareness of my thoughts prior to prayer may be one of the most important factors in my attentiveness to meditation or contemplation. It’s not a science for sure, but if I have a better handle on what’s going through my mind, I’m more likely to settle into prayer.

There is no magic silence button, but I can begin shifting my mind toward silence and awareness of God by dealing with my thoughts while I do the dishes, drive around town, go for a run, or wait in line at the store.

Another way to say this may be “praying constantly.” I’m developing a capacity to be aware of God by examining what’s on my mind, releasing my thoughts, and moving from the cycle of endless thoughts to the presence of God in the moment.

 

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But the Prayer Book Didn’t Teach Me to Pray Like That!

I have turned to different spiritual teachers and prayer books to teach myself how to pray, and I have often found myself starting out far below the bars they set.

If one teacher suggests praying for twenty minutes at a time, I’ve started with five.

If another teacher recommends two sessions of prayer daily, I’ve managed to at least get one.

If yet another tells me to pray sitting up straight in a simple chair, I’ve laid down on my yoga mat, letting out the nervous energy through my hands and feet.

My goal is never to stop where I am and call it good enough. Rather, I need a starting point, a place to get into the habit of daily prayer. Once my prayer habits are established, I can take the next step of actually working toward better posture, longer prayer sessions, and more frequent prayer.

But taking that first step? Or the second, third, or fourth steps after that can be challenging, if not dispiriting. I can fall so far short of my ideal that I can forget that prayer is a daily “practice” that also requires… practice.

Much like everyone thinks they can write well enough before seeing how a professional editor can whip a project into shape, we may overestimate our ability to settle into prayer, to slip into an awareness of God, or to trust our worries and cares with God rather than clinging to them with an unending swirl of thoughts. The letting go of our cares and the simple receptivity of prayer can take time to develop.

By assuming I could dive into prayer without a period of learning and adapting, I’ve set myself up for disappointment and disillusionment. I was lost in a maze of my own making, uncertain about what to do next because I just couldn’t manage to meet the expectations I’d set for prayer. I thought that I could hit the ground running, immediately putting prayer practices into place without a time of struggle or even failure.

I finally found my way forward by embracing each faltering step toward the goals of contemplative prayer teachers. I gradually built my way toward longer and more regular periods of prayer.

My mindset has shifted from focusing on results to focusing on the process. I still have the guidance of teachers and authors in mind, but I’m not drowning in guilt or shame either.

Of course there’s a risk of setting the bar too low. That’s the risk of grace after all. In my own past, the fear of “abusing” grace has pushed me too far toward the fear of letting God down or suffering God’s wrath and anger.

There is a lot of hope to be found in the promise that we are God’s beloved children imperfectly reaching for God, failing at times, but ultimately finding that we were being held all the while as we tried to find God in each daily moment of prayer.

 

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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.

 

 

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash