Contemplative Essay Definition

The Way of Mediation and Contemplation

by Teresa Tillson

"A certain brother went to Abba Moses in Scete, and asked him for a good word. And the elder said to him: Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything."

Wisdom of the Desert, by Thomas Merton



What is contemplative prayer? It is easier to say what it is not. According to Cistercian monk, Thomas Keating, it is not a technique, a relaxation exercise, self-hypnosis, charismatic or psychic gifts or a paranormal phenomenon. Nor is it the felt experience of God. All these things may be present, but they are not in themselves contemplative prayer. Contemplative prayer is a relationship with God. One of the most common metaphors for contemplative prayer is of the lover or friend. God desires our simple presence more than any action or service we might give. The Lutherans call this being saved by Grace. One of my teachers, Sr. Ellen Stephen of the Episcopal Order of St. Helena (Benedictine), says that prayer is a gift to God. "Honey, I brought you a present. It is my behind in this chair." Relationship with the divine lover and cultivating the capacity to love others persons was, and is, the reason for undertaking the discipline of prayer. Increasing the capacity to love and healing the inability to love is not assumed to happen quickly, or without cooperation on our part. Prayer is a discipline, undertaken as one would undertake to learn to play the piano. Practice is the key.

Christian contemplative prayer dates back at least to the 4th through 6th centuries when the early Desert Fathers and Mothers were active in Egypt, Palestine, and Syria. If a single scripture text can be said to sum the philosophy of these early teachers is was Jesus' teaching that the sum of the Law was to "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and your neighbor as your self." At the time of the Reformation contemplative prayer declined or disappeared among Protestants, and went into long decline in the Catholic countries. Under the influence of rationalism, the mystic direct experience of God became suspect. By the 19th century the contemplative prayer tradition had almost disappeared except among the cloistered Catholic religious orders, and it was marginalized even there. Christian contemplative practice began to revive among the Benedictines and other monastic orders. During the mid-20th century interest in contemplative practices increased, with the most popular writer on the subject being the Cistercian monk Thomas Merton. Nonetheless meditation was more generally associated with eastern traditions such as Zen and yoga, and many who wished to explore the contemplative life turned to Eastern teachers who were beginning to establish themselves in the West.

Jesus taught no specific method, but did regularly withdraw to be alone with God. The fruits of prayer described by Paul the Apostle are love, joy peace, patience, generosity, faithfulness, kindness, gentleness, self-control, and purity. (Galatians 5:22-23). According to Thomas Keating, the fruits of centering prayer are freedom from self-centered motivation, action in service to others, a sense of interconnectedness with all creation, dis-identification with our self-image, healing of fear, conviction of our basic goodness, and capacity for union with God.

Lectio Divina

Lectio divina, translated as sacred reading, was likely brought to the Western Christian Church from the desert fathers of Egypt, Syria, and Palestine in the early fifth century. It was recommended for both lay persons and monastics in the early Christian centuries. Lectio divina is closely associated with the St. Benedict and Benedictine spirituality, and is highly recommended today by the Benedictines and Cistercians. Many later forms of Christian prayer are based on lectio.

Lectio divina, as it is traditionally taught, has four parts or elements:

The Method

  1. Choose a scripture or other sacred reading
  2. Sit comfortably, but not too comfortably, back straight, chest open so the breath is free and open.
  3. Read the passage slowly. Savor each phrase. What word phrase or idea speaks to you?
  4. Read the passage again. Where does this passage touch your life? What do you see, hear, touch, or remember?
  5. Read the passage a third time. Listen quietly.
  6. Note insights, reflections, and personal response to the reading in your journal.
  7. Follow the steps in order or go back and forth between them as you feel moved.
  8. Finish by waiting for a few moments in silence.

Suitable subjects for Lectio include:

  1. Psalms
  2. The Lord's prayer
  3. All scripture
  4. The daily office lectionary
  5. Devotional readings. The sayings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, Merton's Seeds of Contemplation or No Man is an Island, the writings of Kathleen Norris, Roberta Bondi, Brother Lawrence, Thomas Kelly, are all suitable. Try also Zen and the Art of Archery, Peace Pilgrim, and works by Thich Naht Hahan.


Centering Prayer

Centering Prayer is a method of prayer, which prepares us to receive the gift of God's presence. It emphasizes prayer as a personal relationship with God. At the same time, it is a discipline to foster and serve this relationship by a regular, daily practice of prayer. Centering Prayer is drawn from ancient prayer practices of the Christian contemplative heritage, notably the Fathers and Mothers of the Desert, Lectio Divina, (praying the scriptures), The Cloud of Unknowing, St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila.. It was distilled into a simple method of prayer in the 1970's by three Trappists (this is another name for Cistercians, a subset of the Benedictines) monks, Fr. William Meninger, Fr. Basil Pennington and Abbot Thomas Keating at the Trappist St. Joseph's Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts. The following method of Centering Prayer is drawn from the writings of Father Thomas Keating. (This description of centering prayer is found on the centering prayer web site.)

  1. Choose a sacred word as a symbol of your openness to being changed within. (Examples: Jesus, Abba, peace, grace, trust, love)
  2. Sit in moderate comfort, eyes closed, back straight, chest fully open.
  3. Settle briefly, and silently introduce the sacred word.
  4. When you become aware of thoughts, return gently to the sacred word
  5. At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes.
  6. Expect to experience distracting thoughts, including bodily and emotional feelings, perceptions, images, memories, reflections, insights, and commentaries. Remain detached from both pleasant and difficult distractions. They will go away. Expect casual thoughts, flashy ideas, psychic phenomena, reflection on the quality of your prayer, theological or psychic breakthroughs, and emotionally charged thoughts. Let them go gently past, and return to the sacred word.. Thoughts, even highly charged ones, are normal. Don't repress or become attracted. Simply return to the sacred word.

A Further Word on Thoughts

The intensity of their thoughts is the single biggest problem beginners in centering prayer experience. When you become quiet in prayer the first thing you are likely to notice is the how busy the mind remains. Ideas, observations, memories, and resistance compete persistently for your attention like undisciplined children. This is normal, though unnoticed in everyday life. Some find the interior noise overwhelming at first. Don't panic. Think of your thoughts as boats sailing along a deep river. Boats will sail into view, and they will sail past. Let them sail on; you do not need to be concerned with them. Even if some appear to be on fire, just let them go past. Instead let yourself sink down into the river, leaving the boats to sail unnoticed above. Another image I enjoy is of walking down an embankment toward a meadow, leaving a busy highway of cars (thoughts) behind and above. You can let the cars pass by. You do not need to get in and go down the road with any of them.

Above all do not try to control or stop your thoughts. Watch what happens in your mind when you command yourself not to think of a white bear. You will have the same lack of success if you try to stop your thoughts. Don't frustrate yourself by trying. Just let thoughts pass by. The quality of your prayer time is not measured by the quality or intensity of your thoughts or by how often your attention is captured by them. When your mind wanders, gently return to the sacred word.

Practice of Zazen

I have limited experience of Zen or other Buddhist practice, but here is a little background and some resources for those who wish to explore further. The following is the barest outline of Zen practice, and I urge those interested in this practice to seek out one of several Zen centers available in Minnesota.

Outwardly, the practice of Zazen (sitting meditation) and Christian contemplative practice have much in common. Thomas Merton found during his trip to Asia that, while those concerned with theology of Zen and Christianity could find little common ground, the actual practice of the monks was remarkably compatible. This has been my experience as well. The differences between Christian and Zen thought and practice emerge most clearly in the absence or unimportance of a deity in most (but not all) Buddhist thought.

Central to Zen practice is the practice of Zazen, or sitting meditation. Some teachers of Zen recommend the detached observation of the thoughts during Zazen. Others suggest counting the breath to 10, starting over when the attention wanders or when 10 is reached. Buddhist sects other than Zen teach meditation techniques that include chanting and visualization.

For those interested in practicing Zazen, I recommend the web site of the New Orleans Zen Center. See the resources page for meditation centers in Minnesota or elsewhere in the country.

Contemplative Walk or Action

Any action can be performed mindfully and contemplatively. Walking is particularly suitable, and is a good way to start. Any daily activity may be used; try washing the dishes, eating, or cleaning mindfully. Poet David Whyte says that doing one thing without hurry each day is the way to bring greater awareness into life. For a vivid description of this method, see Thich Naht Hahn's Peace is Every Step.

Format for a Wilderness Walk

  1. Walk mindfully, keeping your awareness on your immediate surroundings or on your own breath as you walk.
  2. Walk slowly, toe to heel, savoring each step as a gift.
  3. When your mind begins to wander, draw your awareness back to the present and what is happening now.
  4. As you walk allow creation to speak to you. Notice the trees, sky, flowers, birds, water, stones.
  5. Listen.


Prayer of Active Imagination, taught by St. Ignatius of Loyola

This practice actively uses the imagination and senses. For a full treatment of this method, see The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. The following adaptation is a much abbreviated form. The stories in Luke's gospel contain vivid images and are particularly suited to this method.



  1. Read the sacred text. (Luke 5:1-11)
    Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, "Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch." Simon answered, "Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet I you say so I will let down the nets." When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners I the other boat to come and help them. and they cam and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sifnufl man!" For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. They Jesus said to Simon, "Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people." When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.
  2. Use the five senses to explore the scene:
    1. What do you hear? (birds, water crowd, Jesus…)
    2. What do you touch? (oars, ropes, rocking boats, sun…)
    3. What do you smell? (water, fishing smells, boats, people…)
    4. What do you see? (water, Jesus, boat, crowds…)
    5. What do you taste? (What have you eaten today? How does the air taste?)
  3. Read the text again.
  4. Imagine you are washing your nets when you help Jesus escape from the pressing crowds. Didn't he look funny scrambling into the boat? Listen to him preach as you continue washing, though you fished all night and yearn for rest and sleep. Help in the boat as you row out to deep water. Do you think you will catch anything? Let down the nets, though you have fished all night and caught nothing. What jokes do you tell as you wait to pull the nets back in? What does the net feel like as you pull it back into the boat? What goes through you mind as you row back to shore in a boat so laden it is in danger of capsizing.
  5. Reflect on this experience and what it has to teach you in silence.
  6. What practical fruit do you draw from this experience? Ask Jesus what you should learn from this.
  7. What special grace do you need to amend your life?
  8. End with, "Our Father…"

General Guidelines for Contemplative Prayer of all kinds

  • Pick a quiet, comfortable place to pray and treat this place as sacred. Arrange a pillow or chair to sit on. Have a bible or other sacred reading at hand. Adorn your place with a plant, a candle, or other things that please you.
  • Keep a spiritual journal. Write down dreams, feelings, and impressions from your prayer time, and anything else that seems important in your life. Date your entries.
  • Sit up straight to make room for the breath. Breath naturally and slowly.
  • Pray regularly. Treat this time as you would an appointment with a valued friend. 20 minutes is a standard prayer period. This is about the amount of time the body and mind need to become receptive and able to listen. Doing this twice a day will boost your spiritual growth.
  • Focus on your relationship with God or on being receptive. Do not become attached to gifts such as visions or feelings of ecstasy and closeness to God. Neither be disturbed by trials such as aridity, loud thoughts, disruptive feelings, and the like. Both gifts and trials come and go. They are not a sign of how well your prayer is going, only that you are being changed. Look for the fruits of your prayer in everyday life, not in the prayer period itself.
  • Pick a practice that suits you and stick with it. Be prepared to move beyond that practice as you are called to do so.
  • Suspend the judging mind, but make room for the spirit to act within you. Expect to be transformed, but do not grasp after it. Rest and be intentional in your practice and the work will be done in you.
  • A spiritual friend is someone you can talk about your practice and spiritual life with. It is good to have companionship along the way. A good spiritual director may be hard to find, though they are more common now than they were 10 years ago. Seek such a person if you feel called to do so or your inner way becomes hard and you need direction. A good spiritual director is someone who has prayed for many years. Consider asking at your local Catholic Church for monks or nuns who are experienced in prayer or spiritual direction. Teachers from the Eastern traditions such as Buddhism may be helpful to you. Many are highly skilled. Remember above all, "if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives to all men generously and without reproaching, and it will be given him (James 1:5)
  • Be gentle with yourself. You are the temple of the Holy Spirit, and God is seeking you as eagerly as you are seeking God.



Bach, D. J., & Alexander, J. (2015). Contemplative Approaches to Reading and Writing: Cultivating Choice, Connectedness, and Wholeheartedness in the Critical Humanities. The Journal of Contemplative Inquiry, 2(1).

Barbezat, D. P., & Bush, M. (2014). Contemplative practices in higher education: Powerful methods to transform teaching and learning. John Wiley & Sons.

Corrigan, P. T. (2013). Attending to the Act of Reading: Critical Reading, Contemplative Reading, and Active Reading. Essays in Reader-Oriented Theory, Criticism, and Pedagogy, 63(2012), 146.

Haynes, D. (2010). Contemplative Practice: Views from the Religion Classroom and Artist’s Studio. In Arthur, R. J. (ed). Working Bibliography of Teaching and Learning Publications and Presentations related to the Work of the Wabash Center by Wabash Center Participants and Grant Recipients. Teaching Theology & Religion, 15(1), 72-83.

Lang, James. (2016). Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning. Jossey-Bass.

Shapiro, S. L., Brown, K. W., & Astin, J. A. (2008). Toward the integration of meditation into higher education: A review of research. The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. Retrieved from

Additional Reading

The following articles are recommended as foundational to an understanding of contemplative pedagogy:

Hart, T. (2004). Opening the contemplative mind in the classroom. Journal of transformative education, 2(1), 28-46.

Zajonc, A. (2013). Contemplative pedagogy: A quiet revolution in higher education. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 2013(134), 83-94.

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