Thursday, June 7, 2012
Contemplative Prayer (PART II - The History)
The scriptures are riddled with instances of people seeking God with all of their beings. They often removed themselves from the hecticness of their daily grind, their tribe, and their work, to seek God’s face, God’s will, and to understand God more intimately. In the Old Testament we are introduced to the practice of Sabbath rest or Shabbot. This word literally means, “to stop.” God set in motion a day for us to re-center, to stop, to be still, and to listen – and it was good!
The Old Testament uses the words hāgâ, which means to sigh or murmur, but also to meditate, and sîḥâ, which means to muse, or rehearse in one's mind. We see throughout the Psalms (specifically Psalm 1, 4, 5, 7, 19, 32, 39, 42, 43, 46, 49, 63, 130, 137, and 139) this contemplative-meditation taking place. The book of Joshua also reminds us the importance of contemplative prayer (Joshua 1:8). God’s people are seeking Him in contemplative prayer, and God is showing them His way. Nations and tribes are thus transformed into the people of God. They become His exemplary to the entirety of humanity. And surely their participation in contemplative prayer plays a vital role in this unfolding.
In the New Testament we can simply look to Jesus as our clearest example of one who embraces the practice of contemplative prayer to become one with His Father. Jesus is often found in the garden alone praying. Before his capture and execution, Jesus is recorded to have spent time alone in the garden of Gethsemane in stillness and prayer. He advocates a practice that leads toward Trinity.
I will not leave you alone; I am coming back to you. In a little while the world will see me no longer, but you will see me; because I live you too will live. When that day comes you will know that I am in my Father and you in me and I in you. (John 14: 18-20)
I have told you these things while I am still with you; but the advocate, the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send in my name; will teach you everything and remind you of all that I have told you. (John 14: 25-26)
We find in Jesus, a contemplative prayer life that brings Him closer to the Father through the Holy Spirit, and he couples it with a promise that as we too seek the Father in contemplation, that “the advocate” will join us. Finally Jesus tells us that, “Anyone who dwells in me, as I dwell in him, bears much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:4). If I am to bear fruit, I must dwell with my Creator.
The practice of contemplative prayer continued to flourish throughout the early church. But nearing the time of Descartes, in the seventeenth century, it began to wane. Once the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle propped up the belief that “knowledge became an instrument for controlling nature in order to produce the effects we want,” it gradually disappeared (Allen 1997, 104). This change led to a theoretical and technological belief that nature was controllable, manipulative, and that through hard work, study, and understanding, man was in complete control of all areas of humanity (Allen 1997, 104-105).