This sermon is based on chapter 4 of ‘Good and Beautiful and Kind’ by Rich Villodas.
Part of the reason why the world is fractured is how we pray. We need to pray the kind of prayer that transforms us in Christ. When our prayers primarily focus on what is happening out there, we can be misled into the believing the problem is rarely in here. The ultimate goal of prayer should be forming love in us, but for many prayer has come to mean sympathetic but helpless sentiment. Some prayers lead to compassionate life. Others lead to sentimentalised apathy. Prayer is about a new way of seeing and opening ourselves to the reality of God’s presence.
There are many ways to pray. One powerful way is contemplation that comes through solitude, silence and stillness and is modelled in the desert fathers. Villodas defines contemplative prayer as “the unhurried opening of oneself to God through silence, scripture and self-examination.”
The practice of contemplative prayer is based on three biblical concepts.
(1) God is closer to us than we are to ourselves – This was highlighted by Paul in Athens (Acts 17:26-27). Our prayers don’t bring God to us. They position us to grow in awareness of God’s nearness.
(2) Christ’s work on the cross opens the door to accessing God’s presence – Communion with God is a gift of grace that is most profoundly seen in Christ’s work on the cross. As Jesus dies, the temple curtain that blocked the access to God was torn in two (Matt 27:51).
(3) We are invited to dwell with and in God – Contemplative prayer is our yes to God’s yes to us. It is one of the ways we seek to abide in Christ (John 15).
One of the hindrances to love is the ‘false self’ – a constructed identity that tries to play God. In contemplative prayer, we trust ourselves to God and give the Holy Spirit space to reveal our inconsistencies. We see the need for this from the temptations that Jesus faced in the wilderness, where Satan presented him with the opportunities to show a self-serving appetite, self-oriented performance and self-obsessed power. In this encounter Jesus was confronted with the question of what type of Messiah he would be.
Contemplative prayer is a powerful part of renewing our minds and being an unanxious presence in the world. It is also a way of training the soul for silence and stewarding our words.
Contemplative prayer works the same for beginners and experts. Villodas shares his method for contemplative prayer that involves a regular practice of sitting with feet solidly on the floor, taking a few breaths and opening his palms. He sets a timer and then begins with a word or phrase to return his focus when distracted. He then reads scripture and meditates on it, writes in his journal, prays the Lord’s prayer and closes with another minute of silence.