Inviting in God’s Presence through Practicing Contemplative Prayer and Meditation
by David Tillman – December 2012
This paper was written for “The Emerging Church Movement and New Ecclesiology” class at United Theological Seminary, New Brighton, MN
We start the Lord’s Prayer by saying, “Our Father who art in Heaven.” In the song “Surely the Presence of the Lord is in This Place,” we sing that the Lord’s presence is in “This Place,” with us as we worship.
In church, many pray to a God who is other than us and also welcome in God’s presence amongst us. Contemplative prayer enlivens our awareness of God’s presence and mystery, to bring God’s love, grace, and guidance into our active lives, for transformation to greater wholeness.
First, I will look at what is contemplative prayer and how it is different than other forms of prayer. Second, that practicing contemplative prayer is counter-cultural. Third, I will explore how contemplative prayer can bring God’s presence into our lives and church.
There are four types of prayers: conversational, uplifting, intercession, and contemplative. Conversational prayers are prayers for supplications or requests. They are prayers for asking God for healing or forgiveness. An example would be Reinhold Niebuhr’s serenity prayer, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things that I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”  Conversational prayer can also be about getting honest with ourselves and being authentic.
Uplifting prayers are of gratitude, thanksgiving, faith, agreement, or dedication. They are prayers that nurture and expand our awareness. An example is the Prayer of St. Francis, “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace; where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy.” 
An intercessory prayer is an act of saying a prayer for another. In one’s prayer of lovingly caring for the person, our mind and spirit reach out to God, with the hope that our love will be transmitted to the person. An example is James Dillet Freeman’s Prayer for Protection, “The light of God surrounds you, the love of God enfolds you, the power of God protects you; the presence of God watches over you, wherever you are, God is.” 
The contemplative prayer also called centering prayer or meditation, is used to quiet the mind and body to be present with God. In the silence, there is a letting go of the business of the day and surrendering oneself to God’s will. It is a prayer of letting go of our past, which we cannot change, and setting aside our thoughts of the future, which has yet to come. It is being in the sacredness of the present moment. Buddhists focus is on “being in the moment,” which is all we really ever have at any given moment of one’s life. An example is “Where I sit is holy, holy is the ground. Forest, mountain, river. Listen to the sound of Great Spirit circle, all around.”  It is an act of seeing the sacredness of creation and setting one’s attention to listen to God, as we understand God, to be present and active in our mind and life.
Contemplative prayer often uses a word to help the mind quiet down. This word, in a Christian context, may be Jesus, Lord, Abba, love, mercy, stillness, faith, trust, Shalom, or Amen, to name a few. In the silence of contemplative prayer, a person may quietly and effortlessly repeat the word to allow the mind to settle down. When one notices other thoughts, one effortlessly brings attention back to the word. It does not matter what the experience is, it is only the act of effortlessly letting go of God’s will that needs to be done.
Who are we praying to? There are many names to who we address our prayers: God, Jesus Christ, Creator, Father, Mother, Yahweh, Allah, Great Spirit, higher power, and many others. As a child, growing up in the Christian faith, I thought I was praying to God who was an old, white-bearded man, who lived in heaven just above the clouds and out of sight. I now think of God as energy or creative source instead of a person or being. In this paper, I will use the word “God” for whom we direct our prayers, knowing that there are many names for God.
God can be understood in several ways. For atheists, they do not believe in a God. Some believe that God is within everything and is infinite; which is called pantheism. Others believe that God is within all of creation and separate from God’s creation; which is called panentheism.
How do we know God? We know God through the breath of life, which God gives and sustains for each of us. Through our consciousness, that of our thinking mind. Through our heart, that brings nourishment and life to our mind and body. Through our senses, to see, hear, smell, touch, and taste God’s creation at work. Our interactions with others and life’s experiences; helps us know God through the eyes and relationships with others. Through living in God’s creation; being a witness to the sacredness of life. Through being a loved child of God, created in God’s image.
Why do we pray? Henri. J.M Nouwen tells us, “The original meaning of the word ‘theology’ was ‘union with God in prayer.’”  We pray to get a response from God. We pray to ask God for help, forgiveness, and guidance. We pray and sing to give praise and thanks to God. During contemplative prayer, in silence, we listen to God.
The Bible tells us about prayer. “But I call upon God, and the Lord will save me. Evening and morning and at noon I utter my complaint and moan, and he will hear my voice” (Psalms 55: 16-17, NRSV). This is calling out in prayer to a God who will hear our voice. “Regard your servant’s prayer and his plea, O Lord my God, heeding the cry and prayer that your servant prays to you today” (I Kings 8:28, NRSV). A crying out, a prayerful plea to a God who is someone other, separate from those who pray.
In the New Testament, we read Jesus teaching the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6: 5-16. Jesus tells his disciples to pray in quiet, in secret, to a God who knows their needs before they ask. This is a God who knows us, provides for us, and forgives us. In Philippians, we read, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4: 6-7, NRSV). We read in this verse about letting go of worry and connecting with God through prayer. A God, who transcends our understanding, through Jesus Christ, will provide for us. What pulls us away from prayer?
Consumerism and our need to produce, pull us away from prayer. Joyce Mercer states, “‘Consumerism’ refers to a way of life structured by and around various practices of consumption and accumulation…. Consumption becomes a way to achieve social solidarity—relational connections with others, even as it also marks identity and status.”  Our drive to consume is counter-cultural to prayer. To pay for what one consumes we need to center our lives around producing.
The protestant work ethic centers on the production of goods and services. Max Weber writes that our calling from God, or duty in life, is measured “in terms of the importance of the goods produced in it for the community……if God…. shows one of His elects a chance of profit, he must do it with purpose. Hence the faithful Christian must follow the call by taking advantage of the opportunity.” Our culture of consumption and production influences the church’s ecclesiology around producing, or “doing,” God’s work rather than “being” with God in prayer.
There is value to a church community to incorporate contemplative prayer into their spiritual practices to enliven the awareness of God’s presence and mystery, to bring God’s love, grace, and guidance for transformation to greater wholeness. Looking at contemplative prayer, as seen through Jürgen Moltmann, Thomas Merton, and my personal experience will give three different views and understandings to compare. It will be helpful to first look at the difference between contemplative prayer and meditation. Also to look at what is the nature of God?
Jürgen Moltmann defines the relationship between meditation and contemplation as:
“I would define meditation as being the loving, suffering, and participating knowledge of something; and contemplation as the reflective awareness of one’s own self in this meditation. The meditating person submerges himself in the object of his meditation. He is absorbed in the contemplation of it. He ‘forgets himself’. The object is submerged in him. In contemplation, he recollects himself once more. He becomes conscious of the changes in himself. He comes back to himself, having gone outside of himself and forgotten himself. In meditation, we become aware of the object. In the contemplation that is bound up with it we become aware of our awareness. Of course, there is no meditation without contemplation and no contemplation without meditation.” 
Moltmann’s comparison of meditation and contemplation will be helpful in comparing the nature and experience of contemplative prayer and meditation discussed later.
In our comparisons, it will be helpful to understand how pantheism and panentheism view the nature of God. Pantheism, as explained earlier, understands God is within everything and is infinite. Panentheism understands that God is within all of creation and separate from God’s creation.
Using the bubble diagram below is helpful to compare pantheism and panentheism. If we think of the mind as having similar qualities to a lake, we can break it down to see what is at the bottom of the lake, in the water, and at the surface of the water. This bubble diagram was used to explain Transcendental Meditation (TM).Emergence Church paper 2012 bubble diagram
In both diagrams, the bubbles represent the formation of a thought. A bubble starting at the bottom of the lake gets bigger as it rises to the surface. As the thought gets bigger it gets more concrete and finally breaks the surface of the lake and enters the realm of analysis, words, and emotions, and leads to actions. The source of thought, the bubble, is located at the bottom of the lake and is represented by the dotted or solid line. Using your imagination, God the creator would be located under the line, who gives rise to our thoughts and all of creation. God is also active within the world of our thoughts throughout the depths of the lake. At the surface of the lake, the thought is the most concrete, most defined.
The bubble diagram shows the only difference between pantheism and panentheism is the nature of the bottom line. In pantheism, the line is dotted, as God is within everything and is infinite. There is no distinction between God and God’s creation. God is at the active creative energy in our thoughts, words, emotions, actions, and within all of creation. Within the breath, word, and creation, God is. Everything is God.
In panentheism, God is still active in creation, yet God is also separate from creation. God is viewed as a being, or energy, which is not of this world. God’s presence is also active in the world. In the drawing for panentheism, the line is solid. This represents the God of creation, on the other side of the line, as also being separate from creation.
From the views of pantheism and panentheism, let us look at what might be happening during contemplative prayer and meditation. I will use contemplation, contemplative prayer, and meditation interchangeably, as was noted earlier, Moltmann sees the interconnectedness of contemplation and meditation.
Looking at the bubble diagram, in meditation a person may use a sacred word to help the mind to settle down and experience thought at a subtler level. One could also use the awareness of one’s breath to quiet the mind. As the mind begins to settle down, it experiences finer levels of thought. It is moving in the direction of the source of thought, that creative source of God on more subtle levels.
The subtle level of thoughts can be compared to subtler levels of matter. If we look at our finger, we see skin and a fingernail. The finger has shape, taste, smell, and the ability to move. Science tells us the matter we see is comprised of atoms. More refined are sub-atomic particles. The unified and quantum levels are even more refined. At each level of refinement, there is less distinction and more unity. For example, everyone has a distinctive fingerprint, and yet water, which is also part of the finger, has the same qualities and characteristics from one finger to another. The individual atoms that make up the water share even more unity and order with each other than the water droplet.
Using this example of the subtler levels of matter, imagine the subtler levels of thought. In contemplative prayer and meditation, we set our attention to being open to more subtle, finer levels of our own thoughts. The sacred word, or awareness of our breath, helps us let go of, or disrupt, our natural and constant flow of thoughts. The Buddhist calls this never-ending flow of thoughts, our “monkey mind.”
As our mind settles down in meditation, we begin to experience finer levels of our thoughts. If the finer levels of thoughts are more unified, as we see with finer levels of matter, then we are experiencing thoughts at finer and finer levels that share more unity and orderliness within God’s creation than distinction. Once a thought rises to the top of the lake and bursts into its most concrete thought-form. This gives rise to analysis, words, and emotions, and often leads to action. The more concrete the thought, the more it becomes very distinct and unique it becomes within creation.
During meditation, as the mind experiences subtler levels of thought, the body also settles down. In scientific studies done during the practice of Transcendental Meditation, it has been observed that the body gains a deep state of rest and at the same time the mind is very alert.  Living in a scientific world, it is helpful to document positive effects on the mind and body during meditation.
Shifting gears let us compare how Jürgen Moltmann, Thomas Merton, and my TM experience understand contemplative prayer and meditation. Moltmann says,
“Christian meditation is not transcendental meditation. It is meditation on an object. It is the innermost nature meditation passionis et mortis Christi – meditation of Christ’s passion and death: the stations of the cross, meditation on the passion. Good Friday mysticism….The observer is drawn into the open history of Christ. He does not apply Christ’s history to himself; he applies himself – refers himself – to Christ’s history. Then he discovers himself again in that history. He participates in it, finding himself accepted, reconciled, and liberated for God’s kingdom.” 
In the bubble diagram, Moltmann’s understanding of Christian meditation is to swim and dive down into the lake of the open history of Jesus Christ. His meditation requires a focus on Christ, to allow oneself to be drawn into discovering his or her place within Christ’s history. In this process one is accepted, reconciled, and liberated for God’s Kingdom. One receives Christ’s blessings, forgiveness, and transformation as a disciple of Christ in the world.
Thomas Merton has a different look at contemplation as he writes: “Contemplation is the highest expression of man’s intellectual and spiritual life. It is that life itself, fully awake, fully aware that it is alive. It I spiritual wonder. It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being. It is a gratitude for life, for awareness and for being. It is a vivid realization of the fact that life and being in us proceed from an invisible, transcendent and infinitely abundant source. Contemplation is, above all, awareness of the reality of the Source. It knows the Source, obscurely, inexplicably, but with a certitude that goes both beyond reason and beyond simple faith.” 
Merton tells us contemplation is life itself, the highest expression, a spiritual wonder, and spontaneous. It is gratitude and the realization of an invisible, transcendent, infinite source of life. Merton’s explanation of contemplation gives us hope as he shares a path to God that leads to an understanding that is beyond thinking and simple faith.
Merton states that “Christianity is not merely a doctrine or a system of beliefs; it is Christ living in us and uniting men to one another in His own Life and unity.”  He also tells us that “Our discovery of God is, in a way, God’s discovery of us…. we become contemplatives when God discovers Himself in us”  Merton is bringing to our attention there can be more to our relationship with God, than through our doctrines or belief systems. Through contemplation and contemplative life, we discover God and God discovers us, through a new awareness that goes beyond words and actions.
I have been practicing Transcendental Meditation (TM) for many years. TM was introduced to the United States starting in 1959, by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Maharishi integrated his eastern spiritual practice of meditation with western thought, by scientifically measuring and documenting the health benefits of practicing TM.
Using the bubble diagram, my experience during TM involves using a mantra. This mantra is a meaningless word to me and was given to me by a TM teacher when I learned the practice. As in contemplative prayer, my understanding is this mantra is a sacred word and used to allow the mind to settle down to experience finer levels of thought. In TM, I effortlessly repeat the mantra and I set my attention to allow the mantra to experience finer thought. At times while meditating, I will notice that I have been thinking about someone or something. When I notice this, I will effortlessly bring my attention back to the mantra.
As my mind experiences deeper, more refined levels of thought it will sometimes transcend, or go beyond thought, only to come back into thought. For me it is a place of “peace that passes no understanding” (Philippians 4:7). Whether I transcend, or even become aware that I have transcended, that is not my goal. It is rather to set aside time each day for quiet meditation, to be open to discovering God at deeper levels of thought. I have experienced that these deeper levels of thought and transcending thought, bring to me a greater awareness of God’s unity, that source from which all creation springs. Through my experience with meditation, and being in God’s creation, I have deep gratitude and awareness of God’s presence. For me, Christ is that expression of the fullness and wholeness of God’s word. Christ teaches us to set our face towards God. In my TM practice, in the silence, I set my attention toward God.
In comparing Moltmann, Merton, and my experience I first see the nature of God has some differences. Moltmann’s understanding of God comes from a panentheism point of view, “that panentheism will be fully realized only in the eschaton.” It is God the creator, who is separate from creation and at the same time, part of creation will be truly known at the eschaton, the end of this creation.
“Merton’s deep association with contemplative mysticism also resulted in his belief in panentheism, that God is in everything and that all men are united in God, and that within man is a pure spark of divinity.”  Merton says, “The presence of God in His world as its Creator depends on no one but Him. His presence in the world as Man depends, in some measure, upon men.” Thomas Merton had found a commonality between his Christian beliefs and the eastern spirituality of Buddhism. God is still separate, yet within each of us is a “pure spark of divinity.” 
Transcendental Meditation, as taught by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, comes from eastern spiritual thought. His teaching comes from a pantheistic point of view, that God is within everything and is infinite.  Maharishi tells us, “Like the air, God’s Grace is available to us. It is permeating every fiber of Being and the Being of the entire universe. When we take our attention to that Being, finer than the finest, then we establish ourselves on the level of God’s Grace. Immediately we just enjoy it. Life is Bliss!” 
When comparing Moltmann, Merton, and my experience of Transcendental Meditation, I can see a common thread of experiences in contemplation and meditation. Merton tells us through contemplation we come to “the invisible, transcendent and infinitely abundant source,” of God that goes beyond words and understanding. This is a similar experience when I practice TM, that experience of transcending beyond words and yet a knowingness of that infinite, abundant source.
When Moltmann describes Christian meditation, as stated above, it is about contemplating Christ’s history. However, in Moltmann’s explanation of the difference between contemplation and meditation, as also stated above, he tells us in the process “He forgets himself…. He comes back to himself, having gone outside of himself and forgotten himself.”  This forgetting, coming back, and having gone outside of oneself is very similar to what Thomas Merton says of experiencing the infinite, abundant source of life and the experience of transcending I have in TM.
Practicing meditation allows one to experience subtler, more refined, expressions of thought until one goes outside oneself or transcends thoughts. This provides a personal path to experience God’s presence on a more unified level. Having experienced God at finer, more unified levels, one brings this experience and awareness back into our daily lives. Our lives become more enlivened with God’s presence on deeper levels. As more and more people practice meditation, God’s presence becomes transformative into greater clarity, which is to do God’s work in the church and the world.
I see an opportunity for the emergent church to include more contemplative prayer and meditation in its ecclesiology. Including more contemplative prayer and meditation expands God’s presence and guidance in the church and enlivens the faith community to live from that more unified expression of God’s presence.
Who leads the church? Daniel Harrell states, “At my first council meeting I was asked, ‘what do you want us to do?’ I came back and asked, ‘What does God want us to do and how are we going to do it?’”  Jürgen Moltmann states, “But Christ is his church’s foundation, its power, and its hope….It is only where Christ alone rules, and the church listens to his voice only, that the church arrives at its truth and becomes free and liberating power in the world.”  If God is leading the church according to Daniel, and only Christ alone rules according to Moltmann, how do we structure the church’s ecclesiology to hear from God and Christ?
While attending two Sunday church services at Solomon’s Porch in Minneapolis, MN, I did not see in their Sunday worship practices contemplative prayer or meditation. What I saw and heard was about the activity of the church, communion time to connect with Christ and each other, a dialectic bible exegesis sermon, songs about the human struggle on life’s journey, and communal spoken statements of faith and scripture. I did not see the time taken to connect with God in the silence of contemplative prayer or meditation.
What opportunities are available for the emerging church, or for any faith community, that include in their ecclesiology a greater use of contemplative prayer and meditation? Mark Yaconelli states, “In the church, we love to debate God, defend God, protect or promote God. We talk to God, praise God, and even serve God. The one thing for which we have little time or patience is actually spending time with God.” 
Looking back at the bubble diagram, I understand what Yaconelli is saying is we spend all our time swimming on the top of the lake, using words to debate, defend, protect, or promote God. We also swim on the surface of the lake as we use words in our prayers, songs, and what we do in the world to serve God. We do not take time to swim in the depths of the lake, through contemplative prayer and meditation. In diving, in the lake of our mind, we experience those finer expressions of God’s presence in our thoughts.
We then bring our experience back into the world of words and actions, with a renewed awareness of who we are, a loved child of God. With our experience and understanding of God on more unified levels, we begin to see and interact with others from that place of unity, instead of diversity. We experience new ways of hearing God, from the silence, hearing more clearly our call as a disciple of Christ to do his work in God’s kingdom. Out of this silence, the work in the church becomes more grounded in the contemplative relationships each member is having with God, with Christ. Out of the silence, creates an opportunity for transformation to bring peace and wholeness. Out of the silence, God speaks from the depths of the whole lake. Starting at the bottom of the lake, the source of the bubble, the thought becomes more concrete as it grows in our consciousness and bursts on the top of the lake. A concrete thought to analyze, confirm in the written or spoken word and give rise to action.
For example, when we look at the internet, using the bubble diagram, we see so many people who were once swimming on the surface of their neighborhood lake, are now swimming on the surface of the larger ocean that connects us all. On the internet, we connect through words, that influence our thoughts and actions. With the threat of global warming, economic collapse, continued oppression, and injustice; the internet provides a common place to come together to discuss, discern and act on so many issues that impact everyone and everything on our planet.
Practicing contemplative prayer and meditation draws our attention and awareness toward God. Through this practice, we swim not only on the surface of the ocean but begin to explore the ocean depths. We experience our thoughts in the finer and more unified expressions of God. Having these ongoing contemplative experiences, we bring that depth of the ocean with us to the surface. On the surface of the ocean, our connection with each other and the world we live, in comes from a deeper, more powerful, expression of God, working through us. We have invited God to be more present in our daily lives. As we all are swimming in the same ocean of God’s creation, through meditation, our view of God through panentheism, pantheism, or any other view, becomes more unified. We see among others more commonalities and fewer differences than before.
Diana Butler Bass writes that a new spiritual awakening is about “belonging, behaving and believing”.  She shares the steps of becoming a member of a Christian church. In many churches the process is first having to believe what the church believes, then behave accordingly, and then you can belong to the church. She argues that in the new spiritual awakening this order has changed to first belonging, you are welcomed from the beginning, then behaving, and lastly believing. 
What does Diana Butler Bass’ order of belonging, behaving, and believing look like in meditation? In meditation, we turn our attention to God as a belonging child of God. Our behavior in meditation is to take a break from the active world of words and actions and in the quiet, silence, allow our attention to go towards God. We believe the meditation experience will draw us closer to God’s presence and from there we let go and let God. From our experience of meditation our connection with God, on a subtler level of thought, has the power to fill us with a greater sense of belonging to God’s creation. This greater sense of belonging can change how we behave outside of meditation. We can begin to think and act more from this expanded awareness of God’s presence in our lives. We can see and feel God’s presence more clearly.
By practicing contemplative prayer and meditation there are implications for the emergent church. By incorporating more contemplative prayer and meditation, in the practices of the church, we begin to see ourselves, our faith community, and all others from a more unified level of God. Through contemplative prayer and meditation, we know God more from the silence of unity, and welcome others of different faith traditions or no faith tradition from this level of unity.
Through contemplative prayer and meditation, our faith community serves as a counterbalance to the consumerism and production-orientated culture we live in. The church creates a space to just “be” with God, rather than to “do” as we continue to consume and produce.
Without contemplative prayer and meditation in the church, time is spent swimming on the top of the ocean, rather than diving down to experience God’s presence from deeper, more refined, levels of the ocean or creation. The activity of the church is led by our words and actions on the surface and misses out on listening to God’s justice, compassion, and wisdom from the silence of God’s presence.
Through contemplative prayer and meditation, we allow God’s presence to be more active in our lives. From taking time with God in silence, greater transformation to wholeness can take place for us, our faith communities, and the world. Our thoughts, words, and actions are more in accord to what God is calling us to do in the world for transformation to wholeness.
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 Diana Butler Bass, Christianity After Religion, The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening, (New York: HarperOne, 2012), 201.
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