top of page
  • Writer's pictureshelisloterbeek

Contemplative Prayer: an introduction

"This is how you pray continually, not by offering prayer in words, but by joining yourself to God through your whole way of life, so your life becomes a continues and uninterrupted prayer." -St. Basil the Great-

The interesting thing about contemplative prayer is that it's very simple, but is not be very easy. I suppose that's true about most spiritual practices. They require no props, they're not something that requires money, just time and attention.

DEFINED: For the linguists, the word contemplate comes from the latin word contemplum (con means together and templum means temple) - so being with God in the temple. (Which is you, you are the temple.) Contemplation has also been defined as a long, loving look at what is real. Or even a space where you experiencing gazing at God while experiencing God gazing at you.

There's really no difference between contemplative prayer and a contemplative life. They're one in the same. Prayer is not something we do, but who we are (see St. Basil's quote above). There's no goal to attain, just the gift of experience when your awareness is drawn away from doing things or a preoccupation with self and drawn to God.

You might be thinking that all of this sounds nice, but how the heck does it happen? We talk about being versus doing, but isn't a spiritual practice doing something?

It does take some "doing" but that doing is to prepare and quiet our bodies, minds and souls to be able to be attentive and aware. But the being is just being aware and attentive. Poet, Mary Oliver said "attention is the beginning of devotion."

So here are the HOW TO's of listening attentively:

Before you begin a word about judgment. This is also a practice in non-judgment. We do not judge the practice, ourselves, or our thoughts. There is no "doing it right" or "winning". If you find yourself striving to do it perfectly (which there is no such thing), take a moment to remind yourself and release whatever judgment you are feeling.

1. Be Still, Be Present, Be. For me, good listening only happens if I’m present. Our world can be super fast paced - even if you're not engaging with it. We must slow down our minds, bodies and souls. Take at least 3 reallllllly deep breaths - at least three - maybe more if you need them. You know if you need them. Author Madeleine L’Engle says “When I am constantly running there is no time for being. When there is no time for being there is no time for listening.”

Close your eyes. Maybe take another few deep breaths and quiet yourself. If there are thoughts or to-do’s running through your head, just let them come in one side and out the other. As they come up release them. They will still be there later. If you need a visual, imagine your thoughts as boats and let them float by. Perhaps a centering word can help release the thought and bring you back to the moment - I like to use the word "Jesus". It may take you several minutes until the thoughts and sometimes chaos calm down. The more frequently you practice the easier it becomes to let the thoughts go. Releasing the thoughts allows us to be present to what is in front of us. When you feel as though the thoughts have settled open your eyes.

2. Wide Gaze We’re trained to focus in on things, look at the details, but to gaze in a contemplative way is a bit counter-intuitive. After I’ve quieted myself and have come to a place where the to do’s have settled down, and my heart and mind are still I can, without judgment, see what is before me. Whether it’s an inward reflection, outward or sitting with another person being present is a gift. Let your gaze and hearing go wide or soft. Don’t focus in on any one thing. Try to let the thoughts go that try to get your attention. Ephesians 1:18 says “Open the eyes of their hearts, and let the light of Your truth flood in.” We’re taking the time to open the eyes of our heart, to open the ears of our heart to listen for the light of God’s truth.

3. Notice The next step kind of just melts right into the gazing. Perhaps you’ll gaze for just a moment, or for minutes on end. And perhaps it’s not immediate, maybe it takes a minute or two or several to see what is shining or standing out. Sometimes what it's NOT meant to be is easier to explain than what it is. It’s not the time to immediately dive into the meaning - not yet. It’s not time to judge why a thing or thought stands out. It’s not time to decide what is worthy of my attention. Perhaps I think the thought isn’t a good enough or surely there must be something better coming. Contemplative listening is taking in the whole of what is in front of you without judgment. Look at the details. Notice what stands out to you. Is it a color, a word, an image… The most difficult piece of this is doing it without judgment. As the judgments come up - release them.

4. Sit Now you get to sit with whatever has come forth. I would encourage you not to immediately try to make connections and form meaning as we so often try to do. Give whatever it is that has come forth time and space. Perhaps if it’s something within creation you’re looking and listening to you begin to notice other details. Ask questions of it. Does whatever you’re noticing have something to say? Be curious. Ask questions. Wonder. Ask the question "why?" God is moving in everything.

5. Gratitude In everything give thanks. Maybe it’s not out loud or maybe it is. Perhaps your response is in the form of a word, image, prayer or a song. Whatever it is, hold this time, this experience, this prayer, in gratitude.

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page