Somehow "contemplation" seems to have become a dangerous word to some Christians who seem to be threatened by anything that seems "catholic" or outside of their evangelical practice/experience. Often the first response to anything "contemplative" or "meditative" is fear followed almost immediately by condemnation--usually with no true attempt at understanding what is meant by the terms in question.
I consider myself a "contemplative Christian." What I mean by this term is that I try to spend time in silence and solitude with God and His Word. Most Christians do this--often calling it "devotions" or "having a quiet time." I attempt to seek God in larger expanses of time, preferably for an entire day, and I'm hoping to spend several days in His Presence at a retreat center or a monastery/abbey this fall.
I was first introduced to the concept of contemplative prayer through a day retreat with College Avenue Baptist Church in which thirty people carpooled up the coast to the beautiful and peaceful Mission San Luis Rey, one of the original California Missions. My dear friend Johanna presented me with the retreat as a birthday gift--one of the most precious gifts I've ever been given. We gathered in a room within the retreat grounds of the mission and the concept of contemplative prayer was introduced.
We started with reading a few Psalms aloud, slowly and meditatively. Then we were given some guidelines for spending our day with God, including Scripture memorization, Scripture reading, praying Scripture, meditating on hymns/praise songs, writing prayers in journals, etc. We prayed together and then were let loose to wander or find a place to sit/pray in the beautiful grounds with one command: silence! We were not to talk until lunch--three hours in the future.
I seated myself on a wooden bench with a view of the rose garden and the green hills beyond, lovely and fresh with spring. I took out my journal and scribbled in it, increasingly illegibly, for over two hours, pouring out my heart to the Lord regarding a difficult issue going on in our church, and my own feelings and reactions and thoughts about it. When the lunch bell rang, I rose from the wooden bench a little stiffly but feeling decidedly lighter, sensing God's forgiveness toward myself and my forgiveness toward those involved, rather than the anger and judgment I had arrived with. God used those hours to mold and teach me as I surrendered myself to Him in written prayer.
We ate a simple lunch in the small mission dining room, chatting quietly with one another. As I knew no one at the retreat, I mostly listened to their conversations. After lunch we gathered again, prayed together, and were let loose again for three hours--the remainder of the afternoon.
I walked the Stations of the Cross along the back of the mission grounds, meditating on Jesus' path to the cross, His great love that empowered Him to do so, His grace and mercy, His human physical suffering, His spiritual suffering in taking every sin ever committed and ever would be committed onto Himself. I proceeded at times with tears welling, slowly walking the dirt path from one cross to the next, imagining myself among the crowds that day on the Via Dolorosa. Powerful.
I also spent time reading slowly and meditatively the small book we were each given at the beginning of the day: Intimacy with the Almighty by Charles Swindoll. I found much wisdom there, much that I would absorb and apply to my life in the weeks, months, even years to come. It's a lovely little book--so wise and practical and beautifully transparent.
At 5:00 PM, we gathered again in our room and shared how God had spoken to us that day. Many of the participants were in tears; I became tearful as well as I listened to and absorbed their stories of God's revelations to them. We finished the day with more Psalms read aloud and a quiet receiving of Communion.
I left the mission that afternoon a changed Christian.
I hungered for more days spent with God in this way, allowing the silence and the solitude to open doors of communication with God. We are so often too busy to stop, drop everything going on in our busy lives, and spend a day with God. I discovered the value of contemplation--of listening to God, prepared to hear from His Heart and apply His Wisdom to my life.
I attended the same day retreat the next spring, taking a friend from church along. A few years later I brought a local friend with me to have our own retreat: seated side by side in lawn chairs and picnic blankets, reading our Bibles and praying, writing in journals and singing softly under our breath, allowing the silence and relative solitude to bring us more fully into His Presence.
And in 2006 I led a weekend retreat for Lake Murray based on the day retreats I had attended at Mission San Luis Rey using materials from Swindoll and The Navigators, a missions organization based on college campuses which also focuses on the value of contemplative prayer. I also included a Biblical Stations of the Cross with Old Masters artwork accompanying each Scripture selection along the path hung on the outside of our meeting room. The retreat was helpful for many of the women who had never spent a day in prayer before. In fact, for several of the following retreats, we had an extended two-to-three hour "quiet time" built into the retreat schedule. And we've reused the Biblical Stations on Good Friday in the sanctuary of Lake Murray.
So this is how I became interested in contemplative prayer, and my goal is to spend several days doing exactly this: praying God's Word, meditating on Scripture, writing prayer, and being open to listening to God's direction for me. I find the Anglican Morning Prayer and Communion services provide me a glimpse of an experience I hope I can accomplish some time: spending several days in sweet Communion with our Lord.
The value of this practice, for me, lies in the quiet, the solitude, the opportunity to set aside my busy schedule and sometimes crazy life to sit at Christ's feet, as Mary did, listening to Him. We need a balance between being a Martha and being a Mary, between our responsibilities as women, wives, and mothers and taking the time to bask in God's Presence. The dishes and dusting can wait...at times. And we can spend time in fellowship with the Love of Our Life without fear of interruption, giving Him our undivided attention as He whispers His grace into our listening ears and waiting hearts.
Sitting at His feet,