I believe the heart of contemplative prayer is receiving love from God.
It is less about what we give to Him, do for Him, or think for Him; it is at its heart about learning to receive love.
To me one of the most beautiful pictures of contemplative prayer is a baby, or young child, being held tenderly and affectionately by a loving father or mother.
This seems to go some of the way to explain it in picture form, but perhaps an even more perfect picture is a weaned child at its mother’s breast, fed, still and content.
Psalm 131 is probably the perfect picture of this:
'My heart is not proud, O Lord,
My eyes are not haughty;
I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me.
But I have stilled and quieted my soul;
Like a weaned child with its mother,
Like a weaned child is my soul within me.
O Israel put your hope in the Lord both now and forever more.'
It’s a beautiful picture of love and receiving love.
For me, for the first 7 or so years after I came to the Lord, prayer felt much more like a work. Something you had to do to get close to God.
Quite often it felt a bit like digging. You started digging at the beginning of the prayer time, and hopefully by the time you finished you had dug yourself out of the pit you had made. Sometimes it was a bit better than this – you got just above the surface… and then other times, it seemed like you dug a hole, and were completely covered and stuck in the hole by the end of the time! Perhaps I exaggerate, for there were times when I remember the presence of God coming into the room, and singing and dancing before Him. But there was a lot of striving to ‘get somewhere’ in there as well.
Something changed when in December 2002, I had a dramatic experience of freedom. I remember coming back to my room, lying on my bed, and saying Abba from my heart and feeling like a newborn baby.
Soon after this, I was reading an article from Toronto that a friend had lent me, and it was talking about just receiving the Father’s approval in prayer rather than striving or working for it, and I felt the Lord speak. He said, 'I want you to spend an hour a day just resting in my presence, not doing anything, just letting me affirm you'.
And so I began this process of trying to sit still for an hour. I would put a restful CD on and just lie on my bed. For the first months, I remember I was getting up every 5 or 10 minutes to get a glass of water or go to the toilet - any reason to get up and not sit still. But the presence of the Lord began to come in a way I had not known before, and I began to feel His closeness, and hear Him speaking words of love and affirmation over me. I didn't have to do anything to earn it - He was simply loving me because He loves me, and He was beginning to pour this love into my heart.
Over time this increased a desire to spend more time in prayer.
This grew to a desire to take a day a week resting in his presence, and then over time I began to desire to go away on retreats to have enough time to listen to Him, be still with Him and receive from Him.
Learning to let love into your heart takes time to learn. There can be so much resistance in us to letting someone love us and be with us simply for the sake of loving us, and not for anything we can do for them. God is like that – He just loves, He can’t help it – it’s who He is!!
Contemplative prayer, in my definition, is learning to let the love that is around you all the time into your heart. It is a dwelling in love… For some this comes through sitting in stillness, and for others it comes through walking up a mountain. There is no one way to be loved by God. For some it takes hours of prayer to learn to be loved, and for others it is a simple moment of revelation of the love that is at the core of all that is. However it comes the result is the same: a revelation of God’s love for us at every moment, and eyes to see the love of God in all things.
There is no one way to be with God, for there are so many ways to spend time with a person; so many ways to spend time being loved by them; so many ways to spend time loving them; and so many ways to spend time dwelling in deep communion and oneness with them.
But I think a quick mentioning of solitude, silence and stillness as three really helpful elements to making inner and outer space to be in a deep love relationship will be helpful.
Everybody needs some time alone. Being alone can be painful, and not everyone will want to spend days and weeks alone, but to never be able to take periods alone, is not likely to be healthy for finding a sense of self, outside of what others think of you.
Luke tells us, ‘Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed’ (Luke 5:16)
And Mark tells us in detail, ‘Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. Simon and his companions went to look for him, and when they found him, they exclaimed: “Everyone is looking for you”’ (Mark 1:35-37).
Matthew, Mark and Luke also tell us that He was led by the spirit into the desert (Matthew 4:1; Mark 1:12; Luke 4:1)
That wilderness place of solitude is a place of finding love, but in this there is a battle to try and make yourself something, rather than simply just to be the beloved child of God. But the wilderness place does enable you to embrace your true identity as the beloved.
Letting yourself be loved takes time, healing takes time, life takes time!! So many Western cultures struggle to grasp this. I wonder if some African and some ancient tribal cultures are able to grasp the reality that life takes time, a bit more easily than we in our instant cultures. It is part of loving yourself, not to rush yourself to receive God’s love all now, and get yourself all sorted out. Rather to give yourself time to breathe, time to heal, time to live. We all need the space and time that solitude provides. Not everyone needs as much of it, but everyone needs some of it.
Silence is such a help in learning to listen to God… and to listen to your own heart. Sometimes there can be such clamour above what is really going on inside. And this is the noise that sometimes drowns out the reality that love is really at the centre of the universe.
‘Be silent before the Sovereign God’ (Zephaniah 1:7)
‘For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence, for my hope is from him’ (Psalm 62:5), as one translation puts it.
We hear in Ecclesiastes, ‘God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few’ (Ecclesiastes 5:2), and we also hear, ‘There is a time for everything… a time to be silent and a time to speak’ (Ecclesiastes 3:1-7).
Revelation even tells us of a moment where there was Silence in heaven for half an hour (Revelation 8:1).
When we wait and allow the words to die down, a love can bubble up from inside. Sometimes the silence will also get us in touch with the pain in our own hearts, but ultimately this will be a very healing reality.
And over time we may be led into a depth where God seems silent, but His very silence is a mystery that leads us into deeper depths of love.
You can be alone, and you can stop speaking, but the mind can whirl around like a buzzing insect at times or like an uncontrollable wind.
I cannot think of anything more helpful for this than to be still with your body. This takes some learning, perhaps even more than being alone, and being silent, but there is a great benefit from stillness.
The body can carry stress, and so when we allow ourselves simply to sit still, that stress and tiredness begins to unwind from our systems.
‘Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him’ (Psalm 37:7)
‘Be still and know that I am God’ (Psalm 46:10).
Ezekiel had to learn stillness when he prophetically lay on his side for over a year! (Ezekiel 4:4-6). Don’t think many of us could or should do that, but it does put attempting to be still for 5 minutes into context!
Elijah found that God was not in the earthquake, wind or fire, but in the still small voice (1 Kings 19:11-13).
Inner stillness is ultimately a gift and can only really be given as a gift by the Holy Spirit in time. In fact it is more than outer solitude, silence and stillness that we need, but also an inner solitude, silence and stillness. There are lots of ways of using creativity to begin to bring this inner stillness to your being, and there are many ways of meditating on scripture to help here, as well as methods of prayer such as quietly repeating a scripture verse or a short prayer to still your heart and mind. All of these are worth looking into and some will help you more than others. But nothing beats simplicity. Why not simply try it: find a place alone, be as silent as you can be and be as still as you can be, and rest in love, let your God love you.
And who knows what might happen!
Solitude, silence and stillness are central aspects of contemplative prayer, and learning to receive love from God.
At heart though, it’s not about a list of ‘disciplines’ as spiritual writers often term it. It’s really about a baby who is unsettled being soothed and comforted by the presence of love. Picture if you will for a moment, that baby crying in the night. Somebody comes to the unsettled baby, picks him/her up and holds him/her close in his arms, and all the unsettledness ceases into stillness. We all need to be picked up and held, and we all have a need to be inwardly still, even if you are more at home with walking up mountains than sitting in prayer. God is into both and either, but we all have a need, one way or another to find a love which settles and calms the storm, and brings the stillness of a new day upon us. Contemplative prayer is ultimately more about something that happens to us, than about something that we do. Love comes to us in our need, love searches and finds us. Love picks us up and holds us close, and love stills us. ‘Like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me’. (Psalm 131:2)
 For a more in depth look at solitude, silence and stillness try Tony Horsfall’s Rhythms of Grace (Oxford: BRF, 2012).