The road up to Kentucky’s Abbey of Gethsemani isn’t paved. It’s rocky and a bit overgrown at times, but at its end is a beautiful wood and stone sanctuary that looks as if it should be nestled somewhere up in the Swiss Alps. Contemplative prayer is a lot like that. It can be difficult to travel, and there’s always the chance that we might lose our footing, but once we get to the end of the road, we realize it’s all been worth it.
If there is a banner verse at the heart of contemplative prayer, it is Psalm 46:10 — “Be still, and know that I am God.” Be still, and know that I am God. Last week, we defined theology as knowing God relationally and intimately, and we said that the primary way of doing this is through prayer. Before his untimely death in 1968, Thomas Merton, a former monk at Gethsemani, spent a lot of time helping folks just like us understand and practice contemplative prayer. He says, “At the center of our being is a point of nothingness, which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God.”
This “nothingness” at the center of our being isn’t a hollowness or a void. It’s our fundamental openness to God. The Apostle Paul describes it in Colossians 3 as the person we are “in Christ, hidden in God.” Jesus tells us in his Sermon on the Mount that living in this center of our being is what it means to be “poor in spirit.” In the same way, Merton explains that, when we reach that “point of nothingness,” we find ourselves able to put aside everything we grew up imagining ourselves to be. We are stripped down, laid bare, with nothing to protect us. But this is good! In our silent stillness, walls come crashing down and our vain attempts to control life fall away. After that, what’s left is God.
When I first learned about prayer, I learned it using the acronym ACTS — adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication. These are all necessary, wonderful forms of prayer, but like we said last week, we need to add to them another. Whereas each of these four “ACTS” of praying puts us in the driver’s seat, where our focus is on our thinking and speaking, contemplative prayer puts God in the driver’s seat. It tells us to rest in the very presence of God, our one Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. St. Teresa of Avila once described it as a “close sharing between friends.” Contemplative prayer is how we get alone with the God who loves us just the way we are.
I think this is especially hard to do today. If the road to Gethsemani is a bit rocky and overgrown at times, the road to the silent stillness of our hearts is accosted by demons. Just consider the things in your life that keep you from allowing yourself to settle down and just be with God. For me, it’s busyness; I’m always going. It’s anxiety; I’m always worried about the next thing. It can even be my focus on other good things, like those ACTS ways of praying! A lot of times, though, the demons on our road are the almost imperceptible pulls of a culture that has made consumption our real god. It’s all about us. Contemplative prayer tries to strip all of that — all of us! — away so that we can finally find God. I pray you can do that today.