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The Soul’s Resonance: Deepening Faith through Benedictine Contemplative Prayer

In the perpetual motion of our daily lives, where the digital hum and societal expectations often dictate our rhythms, there exists a profound yearning for serenity. This pursuit of tranquility isn’t a mere escape but a deep human need to connect with something greater than ourselves, to find a still point in a turning world. Enter the ancient practice of contemplative prayer — a cornerstone of the Benedictine spiritual tradition that offers a pathway to peace and a richer spiritual life.

Contemplative prayer is the quiet, deliberate seeking of communion with God. Far from being an idle escape, it’s an active journey of the soul, a sacred dialogue that beckons us to listen more than we speak. In the Benedictine tradition, this form of prayer is not a luxury but a necessary discipline, akin to a spiritual lung that breathes in God’s presence and exhales the chaos of the external world.

The Benedictines, following the Rule of St. Benedict, have long held that to work is to pray (Ora et Labora), but equally, to pray is to find the essence of peace. This prayerful peace is not a passive state but an engaged, purposeful calm that seeks God in the silence beyond words. It is a form of prayer that asks us to halt our own narratives and listen to the divine story unfolding within us.

In this Benedictine approach, contemplative prayer begins with the understanding that we are entering a sacred space and time, leaving behind the cacophony of our everyday concerns. It’s an invitation to quiet the mind, still the heart, and prepare the soul to receive the whispers of the divine. This is a space where prayer transcends words and becomes a loving gaze upon the Almighty.

As we embark on this journey together, let’s explore the transformative power of Benedictine contemplative prayer. We’ll delve into its history, its practice, and its profound ability to bring about inner stillness. Whether you’re a seasoned practitioner or new to the spiritual disciplines, there is a place for you in the hallowed silence that this form of prayer offers. Join me as we step into the serene embrace of contemplative prayer and discover the depth of its peace in our fast-paced world.

A Historical Tapestry: The Benedictine Legacy of Contemplation

The roots of Benedictine contemplative practice stretch deep into the fertile soil of history, tracing back to the early monastics of the Christian tradition. These spiritual forebears, seeking solace in the deserts of Egypt and Syria, laid the foundations upon which St. Benedict would later build. Their lives were a tapestry woven with threads of silence, solitude, and prayer — a tapestry that has been handed down through the centuries.

St. Benedict, in the 6th century, distilled these monastic ideals into his Rule, a guide for communal monastic life that emphasizes balance, moderation, and the importance of both work and prayer. The Rule of St. Benedict became the blueprint for Western monasticism and its contemplative practices, shaping a legacy that endures to this day.

This legacy is marked by a profound evolution, as the practice of contemplative prayer adapted to the changing landscapes of society and the church. From the cloistered cells of medieval monasteries to the bustling streets of modern cities, Benedictine contemplation has been a constant presence, a wellspring of spiritual depth for both monks and laypersons alike.

For the layperson, the accessibility of Benedictine contemplative prayer lies in its simplicity and adaptability. It is not confined to the walls of a monastery; rather, it is a portable sanctuary, a spiritual practice that can be woven into the fabric of everyday life. The Benedictine ethos invites laypeople to find the sacred in the ordinary, to practice the presence of God in every moment and action, from the mundane to the magnificent.

The Benedictine tradition offers a variety of entry points into contemplative practice, such as the Liturgy of the Hours, Lectio Divina, or the silent, meditative prayer known as “the work of God.” These practices serve as conduits to the divine, avenues through which laypersons can encounter the depths of contemplation that monks have experienced for centuries.

As we trace the lineage of Benedictine contemplation, we witness a history not of stasis, but of a living, breathing tradition. It is a practice that has both shaped and been shaped by those who walk its path. This historical tapestry, rich with the legacy of saints and scholars, continues to offer a transformative journey into the heart of prayer, inviting all who seek to draw near to the heart of God.

Learn more about about the Benedictine tradition in ‘History of the Benedictine Order: A Journey Through Time and Tradition.’

Lectio Divina: The Pulse of Benedictine Spirituality

At the heart of Benedictine spirituality pulses the practice of Lectio Divina, a sacred reading that has been likened to feasting on the Word. It is a methodical approach that invites one to savor Scripture slowly, absorbing its meanings and implications for one’s life. This spiritual exercise is divided into four stages: reading (lectio), meditation (meditatio), prayer (oratio), and contemplation (contemplatio). Each stage leads deeper into the presence of God, allowing the soul to resonate with the divine rhythm.

Lectio (Reading)

  • Approach the text with reverence, as if on holy ground.
  • Read slowly, attentively, and listen for the “still small voice” of a phrase or word that speaks to you.

Meditatio (Meditation)

  • Ponder the text, rolling it over in your heart and mind.
  • Ask, “What is God saying to me through this word or phrase? What am I to learn?”

Oratio (Prayer)

  • Respond to the text in prayer.
  • This is a dialogue with God, where the soul’s stirrings are expressed in personal prayer.

Contemplatio (Contemplation)

  • Rest in the presence of God that the word has ushered you into.
  • This is a wordless, quiet resting in God’s presence, beyond thoughts and emotions.

Practical Guidance for Daily Life

Incorporating Lectio Divina into your daily routine need not be daunting. Here’s how you can weave this spiritual practice into the fabric of your everyday:

  • Begin with Intention: Set aside a regular time and place that’s conducive to quiet and reflection.
  • Choose a Text: Start with a short passage from Scripture or a spiritual reading that resonates with you.
  • Prepare Your Heart: Take a few deep breaths, invite the Holy Spirit to guide you, and approach the reading with openness.
  • Engage with Each Stage: Don’t rush. Allow yourself to naturally progress from reading to contemplation.
  • Be Patient: Some days might feel more ‘fruitful’ than others, but each session is a step on your spiritual journey.
  • Reflect and Act: Consider keeping a journal of insights and inspirations to apply them to your life.

Through Lectio Divina, you are invited to listen with the “ear of your heart” — a phrase from the Prologue of St. Benedict’s Rule. It is in this listening that you may find the Word becoming a lamp unto your feet and a light unto your path, guiding you through the intricacies of daily life.

Contemplative prayer: Lection Divina
The first two movements of Lectio divina: Lectio (read) and Meditatio (meditate) – Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 1. Photo-Monique, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Mystical Wisdom: The Cloud of Unknowing and Centering Prayer

The mystical text known as “The Cloud of Unknowing” is a cornerstone of Western spiritual literature, authored by an anonymous 14th-century mystic. This pivotal work delves into the profound realms of experiencing God beyond the senses and intellect, inviting the soul into a direct encounter with the divine mystery. It emphasizes the importance of intention and love over knowledge when it comes to divine union, a concept that resonates deeply with the practice of centering prayer.

The Influence of “The Cloud of Unknowing”

  • Teaches the relinquishment of the desire to understand God intellectually.
  • Encourages approaching God with a “cloud of forgetting,” placing all thoughts and desires beneath a cloud of oblivion.
  • Promotes a deep form of prayer focused on the intent to be with God and God alone.

Principles of Centering Prayer

Centering prayer, influenced by the teachings of “The Cloud of Unknowing,” is a method of silent prayer that prepares one to experience God’s presence within. It’s grounded in the following principles:

  1. Consent to God’s Presence: Acknowledge and consent to God’s presence and action within.
  2. Rest in God: Let go of your own thoughts and emotions to rest in God.
  3. Return Gently: When engaged with your thoughts, gently return to your sacred word, symbolizing your intention to be with God.

Practice of Centering Prayer

  • Choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within.
  • Sit comfortably and close your eyes, settling briefly and silently introduce the sacred word.
  • When you become aware of thoughts, return ever-so-gently to the sacred word without judgment.
  • At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes.

Quotes and Excerpts from “The Cloud of Unknowing”

“For He can well be loved, but He cannot be thought. By love He can be grasped and held, but by thought neither grasped nor held.”

“And if ever thou shalt see Him or feel Him, as it may be here, it must always be in this cloud and this darkness.”

“Lift up your heart to God with a humble impulse of love; and mean Himself, and none of his goods.”

The essence of centering prayer is not about achieving a spiritual high or intellectual understanding but is about surrendering to the love of God. It is a journey from the mind to the heart, a transition from thinking to being with God. This path isn’t about acquiring something but is about being present and open to the divine reality that is always within us.

Through the mystical wisdom of “The Cloud of Unknowing” and the practice of centering prayer, we are invited to explore the depths of our being and the vastness of God’s love. It is in the silent communion of centering prayer that the soul may find itself enveloped in the loving presence of God, beyond the reach of words and the grasp of understanding.

Contemplative prayer: The Cloud of Unknowing
The Cloud of Unknowing, XV Century. the “Cloud author”, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Embracing Simplicity: The Essence of Contemplative Prayer

Contemplative prayer is the essence of simplicity in spiritual practice. It isn’t about complexity of thought or elaborateness of ritual; it’s about the simple, profound act of being present to God. At its core, contemplative prayer is characterized by a gentle and loving attention to the divine presence, a serene communion that goes beyond words and thoughts into the silence of God’s love.

Fundamental Characteristics of Contemplative Prayer

  • Presence: More than a practice, it is the presence to Presence, a being with God who is always with us.
  • Silence: Embracing silence as the language of God, where words are unnecessary.
  • Simplicity: Letting go of all complications of thought and emotion, to dwell in the simplicity of divine love.
  • Surrender: An act of the will to consent to God’s presence and action within.

The Role of Love and Will in Contemplation

Love is the currency of contemplation; it is the love for God that draws the soul into a deeper relationship. This love is not an emotion but a movement of the will towards the ultimate good. Contemplative prayer is an expression of the deepest desire of the human will – to be united with God, who is love itself.

The will plays a pivotal role in contemplation. It is the will that chooses to turn towards God in prayer, to remain in his presence despite distractions, and to return to that presence when the mind wanders. The strength of contemplative prayer lies not in the intensity of feeling but in the persistence of the will to remain with God.

Cultivating a ‘Gentle Stirring of Love’ Towards God

  • Begin with Desire: Acknowledge your desire for God’s presence; let it be the starting point of your prayer.
  • Choose a Sacred Word: Use a word that signifies your intent to be with God and return to it as a gentle nudge to your heart whenever you get distracted.
  • Practice Regularity: Set aside regular times for prayer, allowing it to become a rhythm in your life.
  • Seek Solitude: Find a quiet place where you can be alone with God, free from interruption.
  • Embrace Spiritual Reading: Engage with texts that draw your heart towards God, like the Psalms or other devotional writings.
  • Live Mindfully: Carry the essence of contemplation into your daily life by performing each task with love and attention.

In the simplicity of contemplative prayer, there is a profound depth and richness to be discovered. It is in the gentle stirring of love towards God that the soul finds its true resting place, a haven of peace in the midst of the world’s noise. Contemplative prayer is the soul’s homecoming to God, where it is embraced by the simple, all-encompassing love of the divine.

The Transformative Journey: Contemplative Prayer’s Unique Impact

Contemplative prayer is not merely a retreat from the world; it is a transformative journey that enriches both the individual and the community. It’s a pilgrimage of the soul that gradually reshapes us from the inside out, influencing every aspect of our being.

Imagine a garden where each plant and flower depends on the silent, unseen nourishment drawn from deep within the earth. Contemplative prayer is like that nourishment, silently feeding the soul, which in turn beautifies the world with virtues just as the garden displays its beauty in flowers and fruit.

The Broader Spiritual Benefits of Contemplative Prayer

  • Inner Peace: Cultivating a practice of contemplative prayer often leads to a profound inner peace, a stillness that can withstand the tumult of external circumstances.
  • Increased Awareness: It heightens our awareness of the divine in all things, helping us to see the sacred in the ordinary.
  • Spiritual Clarity: Through regular engagement with silence, we gain clarity and insight, discerning what truly matters.
  • Compassionate Sensitivity: As we draw closer to the heart of God, we become more deeply attuned to the needs of others, growing in compassion and empathy.

Its Role in Personal and Communal Spiritual Growth

In the personal realm, contemplative prayer acts as a refining fire, slowly transforming desires, motivations, and actions. It’s a conduit for grace, enabling personal conversion and growth. This inward change has a ripple effect, extending outward to communal life.

  • In the family, a person rooted in contemplative prayer brings a spirit of calm and understanding.
  • In the workplace, they contribute a sense of purpose and an ethos of service.
  • In the church or spiritual community, they become leaven, enriching the faith and devotion of others.

Communities grounded in contemplative practice exhibit a collective wisdom and discernment. They become places where the fruits of prayer manifest as acts of justice, charity, and peacemaking.

Consider a river, constantly flowing and ever-changing. On the surface, it may be turbulent, but in its depths, there is a profound stillness. Similarly, the effects of contemplative prayer may not always be visible on the surface of our lives, but deep within, a transformation is taking place, instilling a deep-seated peace that remains unshaken.

Through contemplative prayer, we embark on a transformative journey that reshapes our existence. It beckons us to discover a wellspring of peace and purpose, a stream of divine love that flows through the individual soul and into the lifeblood of the community. This journey is not a path walked in isolation, but a shared pilgrimage that weaves together the threads of our individual stories into a tapestry of spiritual communion.

Contemplative prayer: monk praying.
Young Monk Praying on the New Mount Carmel. Levelheaded333, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The path of contemplative prayer is not without its obstacles. Every seeker encounters challenges that can distract or discourage. However, understanding and addressing these struggles is part of the journey, leading to greater depth and focus in one’s prayer life.

Common Struggles in Contemplative Practice

  • Distractions: Thoughts about tasks, worries, or simply the day’s distractions can invade the silence.
  • Dryness: Periods where prayer feels empty or devoid of the sense of God’s presence.
  • Disconsolation: Emotional states such as sadness or anxiety that make concentration difficult.
  • Desolation: Spiritual dryness where one feels distant from divine comfort.

Techniques for Managing Distractions

To navigate these challenges, consider implementing the following techniques:

  • Setting Intentions: Begin each prayer time by setting an intention. This simple act of the will can remind you of the purpose of your prayer when distractions arise.
  • Sacred Space: Designate a physical space for prayer that signals to your mind and body that this is a place of quiet reflection.
  • Breath as Anchor: Use your breath as a focal point to return to when your mind wanders. Gentle, mindful breathing can anchor you in the present moment.
  • Gradual Progress: Don’t expect to dive into deep contemplation immediately. Allow yourself to gradually transition from active thought to silent prayer.
  • The Use of a Prayer Word: Choose a word that represents your desire for God and silently repeat it to draw your focus back when it strays.

Maintaining a Contemplative State

To cultivate and maintain a contemplative state, consider these practices:

  • Regular Practice: Just as muscles require regular exercise, the contemplative muscle needs consistent practice. Set aside a specific time each day for prayer.
  • Patience with Self: Be patient with yourself. Recognize that the ebb and flow of focus and distraction are part of the human condition.
  • Spiritual Reading: Engage with spiritual texts before your prayer time to orient your mind toward the sacred.
  • Journaling: After prayer, jot down any difficulties faced, along with any insights or feelings. This can provide clarity and a sense of progress.
  • Community Support: Share your experiences with a trusted spiritual director or prayer group. They can offer guidance and encouragement.

Contemplative prayer is a journey inward, navigating through the layers of the self to reach the divine presence within. As with any journey, there will be moments of clarity and periods of challenge. By adopting practical techniques and cultivating patience and persistence, you can navigate these inner challenges and enrich your focused prayer life.

Contemplation in Action: Integrating Prayer with Everyday Life

The true fruit of contemplative prayer is seen when it overflows into the day-to-day activities of life. Contemplation in action is about bridging the gap between quiet moments with God and the dynamic flow of daily routines. It is possible to maintain a contemplative stance amidst the hustle and bustle, treating each moment as an opportunity for prayer and each task as an offering to God.

Strategies for Practicing Contemplative Prayer Amid Daily Routines

  • Micro-practices: Integrate brief moments of prayer throughout the day. This could be a few seconds or minutes where you re-center your awareness on God’s presence.
  • The Practice of Presence: Endeavor to remain present in each activity, offering your full attention as a form of prayer.
  • Prayer Before Action: Before beginning a new task, take a moment to silently offer the work to come as a prayer to God.

Adapting Prayer to Different Environments

  • At Home: Create a small altar or dedicated space where you can pause for a moment of contemplation.
  • At Work: Use breaks or transition times between tasks to breathe deeply and recall your prayer intention.
  • In Nature: Allow the natural beauty to lead you into contemplation; let the environment remind you of the Creator.
  • In Transit: Use travel time for silent prayer or to listen to contemplative music or spiritual talks that direct your heart to God.

Lists of Tips for Integrating Prayer into Various Activities

  • Morning Routine:
    • Offer your first thoughts to God as a morning offering.
    • Read a short scripture or spiritual text to set the tone for the day.
  • Work Tasks:
    • Begin each work period with a moment of silence.
    • Dedicate the fruits of your labor to the service of God and others.
  • Meal Times:
    • Say grace with intention, truly reflecting on the gifts God has provided.
    • Eat mindfully, appreciating each bite as a gift and a metaphor for spiritual nourishment.
  • Evening Wind-down:
    • Reflect on the day’s events in the presence of God, practicing examen.
    • End the day with thanksgiving, regardless of its trials and triumphs.

Contemplation in action is an art that turns the canvas of our lives into a living prayer. It requires practice and intentionality but becomes more natural over time. By integrating prayer into the rhythms of everyday life, we allow the stillness and peace of our contemplative moments to permeate our actions, transforming both ourselves and the world around us.

Contemplation. Jeff P from Berkeley, CA, USA, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Conclusion: The Path to Divine Intimacy

As we draw the curtains on our exploration of contemplative prayer within the Benedictine tradition, we stand at the threshold of an invitation to divine intimacy. The enduring value of this ancient practice lies in its timeless ability to draw us into a deeper communion with God. It is a path that has been walked by countless seekers of truth and bearers of faith, each finding in the silence of prayer a profound connection to the divine.

The transformative power of contemplative prayer cannot be overstated. It is not simply a method or a technique; it is an opening of the heart to the presence of God. Those who commit to this journey often find their lives marked by a greater sense of peace, purpose, and compassion. It is a transformation that occurs gradually, subtly reshaping our inner landscape, molding us to be more like the Divine Beloved we seek.

Personal reflections on this journey speak of a sweet and quiet joy that arises from the regular practice of sitting in God’s presence. There is a newfound strength to face the challenges of life, a wellspring of grace that refreshes the soul, and a sense of being anchored in something eternal and unshakeable.

Let these reflections be an encouragement to you, dear reader, to step out on the path of contemplative prayer if you have not already done so. For those who are already on this path, let them be a reminder of the treasures that lie in the practice of stillness and attentiveness to God’s whisper.

Pursue this deeper relationship with the divine with the assurance that every effort made in the direction of God’s heart is met with an outpouring of grace. The door to divine intimacy is always open, and the gentle call to a life of contemplation is ever-present, whispering to us in the sacred silence of our being.

Remember that in the Benedictine way, there is no separation between life and prayer. The two are woven together into a beautiful tapestry of divine love and human response. As you continue to walk this path, may you find that every step taken in contemplative prayer is a step closer to the heart of God, and every moment spent in silence is a moment spent in the loving gaze of the One who calls us each by name.

Additional Resources

  • “The Rule of St. Benedict” – The foundational text for Benedictine monastic life, offering timeless wisdom for cultivating a spiritual life.
  • “The Cloud of Unknowing” – An anonymous work of Christian mysticism, focusing on contemplative prayer in relation to the unknowability of God.
  • “Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening” by Cynthia Bourgeault – A modern take on the practice of centering prayer, rooted in the Christian contemplative tradition.