“I can sit for hours just thinking about the love of God,” she said.
I at first assumed she was talking about some kind of theological rumination, puzzling over the paradoxes and dimensions of Scriptural descriptions of God’s love. But no. She meant, literally, that she could become drawn up and consumed in the simple statement, “God is love.” She could sit in God’s presence, feeling that love and losing herself in it.
It was one of my first encounters with a true Contemplative: one who loves God through mindful adoration. Gary Thomas, in his book Sacred Pathways, describes Contemplative worship as “a form of ‘hand-holding prayer’ in which the Christian rests in God’s presence.” It is sitting at the feet of Jesus as Mary of Bethany did in Luke 10. It is the kind of experience David longs for in Psalm 27:4:
One thing I ask from the Lord,
this only do I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to gaze on the beauty of the Lord
and to seek him in his temple.
One of the historical prayers of Contemplatives from the time of the Desert Fathers is known as the Jesus Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, be merciful to me, a sinner. At first glance this prayer seems simplistic. But deeper thought will reveal that a great deal of New Testament theology is contained in this simple prayer, about the nature of God as revealed in Jesus, our own nature, and the touchstone of our relationship with him. Not only is it deep in content; it is a dynamic prayer, involving intense adoration of Jesus as Lord and God, humility and submission before him, and open reception to his great mercy and grace that will transform our lives. That’s a lot to contemplate! Plus, there are fresh aspects of application of this prayer each day as we seek his mercy anew.
Mindfulness is a popular concept these days. It has been co-opted by Eastern religions and New Age spiritualists, but Christian Contemplatives have been practicing mindfulness for centuries. Acts of Contemplation make the worshipper mindful of the Person of God in the Now, aware of his eternally-dwelling Presence around him/her. These acts are more about Being than about Doing, but they also transform the smallest thing the worshipper does, mindful of God’s presence and for his glory, into a profound act. Brother Lawrence in The Practice of the Presence of God, records this kind of mindfulness: ““We can do little things for God; I turn the cake that is frying on the pan for the love of Him, and that done, if there is nothing else to call me, I prostrate myself in worship before Him, Who has given me grace to work; afterwards I rise happier than a king. It is enough for me to pick but a straw from the ground for the love of God.”
As you probably picked up from the beginning of this article, I did not at first understand this Pathway. My own worship of God tended to be more cerebral; the idea of contemplating a statement like “God is love” for an hour seemed impossible to me! (I might even have been suspicious of it as an example of the kind of vain repetition Jesus warned us about in Matthew 6:7. Obviously I didn’t realize that meditation is not about a repetitive formula.) In spite of this, I decided as I continued to study the Pathways that I wanted to lean in to this one that seemed far from me.
One way I first began to use it was with a breathing prayer. I was having trouble at the time with waking up in the middle of the night in a state of high anxiety. I had heard that a slow, three-beat breathing pattern—two beats out, one beat in—might help me to become calm and to fall back asleep. So I added to this three words: Faith – Hope – Love. In this, I was affirming my faith and hope in God as I breathed out, and breathing in his love in the midst of my anxiety. For me, this was not a “vain repetition,” but a mindful pattern in which I tried to rest in the God who was far above my fears.
I also learned to enjoy the music of the Taizé Community, located in eastern France. Each week, thousands of visitors from all over Europe (most young; many seekers) come to Taizé to find God’s presence. They have developed very simple songs with lovely harmonies that are sung multiple times and in multiple languages, to encourage the worshipper to dwell on one aspect of God in a similar way to the Jesus Prayer. (You can learn more about their approach to meditative singing here.)
Another thing I have discovered about the Contemplative Pathway is that it must be the most versatile of all the Sacred Pathways. It mixes well with many other Pathways, as you can see in the following Contemplative practices:
- Night vigils in God’s presence might especially appeal to Ascetics, as may simple prayers like the Jesus Prayer.
- Lectio Divina, meditative reading of God’s Word while listening for how he speaks to one’s heart, is a good way for Intellectuals to access the Contemplative pathway.
- Using art as a gateway to contemplation is great for Sensates like me. I have found the Celtic-inspired artwork of Mary Fleeson very helpful for this, as seen in the two paintings on this page. (You can see and purchase more of her artwork here.)
- Liturgical prayer can often be contemplative—a great way for Traditionalists to meditate. I have used many prayers from the Book of Common Prayer in my own devotions, and have other prayers posted throughout my house to inspire me to mindfulness and meditation.
- Perhaps the most natural marriage of all is with the Naturalist Pathway, as creation becomes an arena for Contemplation.
Learning to become more mindful, and entering into adoration, have become an integral part of my life. While I will probably never naturally be like my Contemplative friend, I have learned that it is possible to cultivate a new Pathway, and to combine it with those more natural to me, to draw closer to the God we adore.
This is Part 3 of a series on Sacred Pathways. To read the introduction to this series, click here on “Finding your Worship Pathway.” Part 1 is on The Sensate Pathway, and Part 2 is on The Ascetic Pathway.