Blessings and Problems in Contemplative Prayer

At the end of my Building a Personal Prayer series, I suggested that my personal prayer does not have an ending because it has been my practice for that prayer to lead into contemplative silence.

I was originally taught to try to sit quietly even if I had a cramp in my leg or an itch on my nose. I was taught to breathe through it. And I was taught to let the thoughts of monkey-mind go, to send them out to play, and if they were inspiring thoughts that I was afraid of losing, they would come back to me later.

I remember leading an exercise about what to do with wandering thoughts where one of the participants imagined her thoughts riding off on a train. I saw myself watching from a 2nd floor window while my thoughts ran with the bulls!

But what I like about some of my more recent experiences, especially with Carl McColman, is the lack of emphasis on those things.

This is what currently works for me: I get up with the alarm, make some tea, take some medicine, arrange my meditation space complete with prayer shawl over my legs (in cold weather) and my feet on the bottom step of a small step ladder, tissues and cough drops within reach. I have a notebook and pen. When I am all settled and cozy, I begin the day’s meditation.

I sip my tea and take notes while the leader talks or, if I am on my own, while I read meditatively. When it is time for 30 minutes of silence to begin, I no longer drink tea, and the notebook and pen are laid aside. For the first ten minutes my mind can be a zoo of busy thoughts. Sometimes, as happened recently, I need to express some confession and sort through feelings from something that has happened before I can open myself in silence.

But usually it’s just ordinary thoughts, whether about what I want to write, insights from what the meditative time, or the day ahead, that intrude. I may start by praying my personal prayer, which evolved over a period of many months, but mostly I try to focus on God and use prayer phrases such as, “My Lord and my God!” or “I love you O Lord, my strength” or “I delight in you, O God, give me the desires of my heart” or one of many more that are usually from Scripture.

But – and this is important to me personally – if my ear itches, I scratch it; if my leg cramps, I move it; if I get hot, I reach and turn on the tiny fan that’s on my desk. I appreciate that I can do these things and return to my position without feeling that in some way I have failed to measure up or don’t deserve the blessings of silence. Silence and stillness are blessings to be received!

By the time the first 10-minute chime rings, I may be as close as I’m going to get to silent stillness. At least the first segment’s “settling in” has been done. One day I was breathing in God’s love and breathing out my need to control, but usually my focus is much less on me and much more on loving God! My breathing changes about this time. My mind may be still busy, focusing on God via the prayer phrase I’m using. However, with the changed breathing, the times of silence occur a bit more often.

I am wary of seeking the deep unitive experience that I have sometimes had in the past, and I appreciate McColman’s admonition to rest in the presence of God “whether felt or unfelt.” I also remember those saints and mystics who had profound experiences of God over a short period of time and spent twenty years unpacking them. If I don’t happen to get to the same level of experience now as in the past, I still have a lot to unpack.

I believe I live with more trust and peace in general, though at any moment I could be proved wrong about that! One day recently I wanted another ten minutes, so I adjusted the chime – briefly breaking the stillness – and continued. That has never happened before, and it felt good. I felt I was making up for the “settling in” of my first ten minutes.


About Nancy Smith

Nancy Smith has 20 years’ experience in technical writing and management in software companies. She also has more than 20 years in Christian ministry as an educator, course designer, retreat leader, spiritual director, pastor, and coach. A United Methodist Deacon, Smith has her M.Div. from Boston University. She is a graduate of the Guild for Spiritual Guidance, and is certified in Spiritual Direction and Retreat Leadership from Boston College.
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