In recent years, I’ve come to find the practice of contemplative prayer especially helpful. Sometimes it’s just simply being quiet in God’s presence for fifteen minutes. Sometimes it’s allowing a biblical phrase to be a place to which I keep bringing my attention back when I realize I’m being distracted.
There were times before I actually practiced contemplative prayer when I imagined that it was was supposed to be an uninterrupted oasis of calm and peace—a sort of a spa for the soul. My experience has not been like that. Instead, it is more like a good, hard season of exercise. It’s a discipline. It’s training. It’s good, hard work. And it does produce good fruit.
So I decided to actually take note of some of the distracting thoughts or emotions that surfaced in a recent experience of fifteen minutes being quiet in God’s presence. I thought it would be helpful to me, and maybe helpful to you.
I sat in my comfortable reading chair in my office with a tablet and pen in my lap. I set a simple timer with a bell sound to help me know when fifteen minutes had passed. I sought to simply be in God’s presence.
As is often the case, the moment I become still and silent, thoughts arise in my mind. The temptation is to let any one of them get hold of me to take me out of this prayerful offering. Here were the thoughts and feelings that arose:
- “I feel a little edgy physically. It’s hard to sit still right now.”
- “I wonder if those weeds in the front planter have died after I poured boiling water on them yesterday.”
- “I should really check email.”
- “There sure is a lot on my plate today. Can I afford to spend 15 minutes in quiet?”
- “I think I hear Gem out in the kitchen making her breakfast.”
- “I need to turn on my little white noise machine here in the library so the sounds out in the rest of the house won’t distract me.”
- “This isn’t really contemplative prayer when I’m taking all these notes.”
- “I should mow the lawn and trim the honeysuckle bushes today.”
- “I should uncover the patio furniture now that the threat of rain seems less likely.”
All of these thoughts surfaced within the first few minutes of the fifteen. It felt like a barrage of distracting thoughts and feelings. After a while, there were a few other thoughts that arose with a little more space between them.
- “I think I need to use the restroom.”
- I caught myself mentally rehearsing a conversation I hope to have with a potential major donor.
- “I should start reading that new book that came a couple of days ago.”
- Gem knocked and came in to tell me her plans had changed and that she needed a ride a bit later than we’d planned. I was tempted to feel derailed in my intention to offer these moments of silence.
So that’s the reality of one moment seeking to practice contemplative prayer. The practice—the discipline—is not to latch on to any of these thoughts. They nearly always arise when I sit still in silence in God’s presence. They are like insistent toddlers or anxious teens within me. The practice is to let them say what they want without distracting myself by taking on that agenda myself. There is a surface “me” that is anxious and fretting. There is a deeper “me” created in Christ that is more at peace and present.
So, the reason I practice this prayer in silence is to learn how not to latch onto every stray thought that runs through my mind in the course of a day. Distracting thoughts that arise do not have to distract me. There is a difference between involuntary distraction and distracting myself.
I do find, though, that when I keep practicing quiet prayer like this, I often come to the end of the time with a bit more peace and focus. I’ve been able to choose to keep my attention fixed on God with me. I’ve been able to make my little offering. And it helps me then remain in that same heart posture throughout my often busy, noisy day.
- Have you tried being quiet with God for a few minutes? What happened?
- If you aren’t as experienced in this practice, are you open to giving it a try? How many minutes might stretch you without over-stretching you?
- What happened as you were quiet? Were you able to let go of those distracting thoughts that arose? Or did you find yourself grabbing onto them for a while before realizing you’d done it?
If you’d like to read more on this practice, my two favorite books on the topic are by Martin Laird: Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation and A Sunlit Absence: Silence, Awareness and Contemplation.
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