Carl McColman: Five Ideas that Shape Contemplative Prayer


I recently listened to the audiobook version of Chris Anderson's TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking. If your work in any way involves public speaking, I heartily encourage you to give it a listen. Chris is a humble and charming enough speaker in his own right, but fortified with tips and tricks, the do's and don't's, from the best speakers to give talks at TED Conferences over the years, the book provides an excellent survey of what really makes a speech effective.

And one of the most important takeaways from this book: the key to an effective talk is the idea that forms its heart and foundation. Indeed, that principle appears in TED's tagline: "Ideas Worth Spreading."

In other words: don't build your speech or talk around whatever it is you are trying to sell, or an overview of your organization, or inspiration-for-inspiration's sake. Those kinds of strategies typically result in a talk that is mediocre at best, and at worst can truly backfire. The key is to find the idea that motivates or inspires you (as the speaker), and then build your entire presentation around how you can best articulate, explain, and share this idea with your audience.

Needless to say, this has me thinking. Obviously this is a blog post, not a speech - but it seems that the best blogs are like the best TED talks: they communicate ideas. So I've been pondering: what are the ideas that form the foundation of contemplative spirituality? Or, perhaps I should more humbly say, what are the ideas that shape my understanding of contemplation, the understandings that undergird this blog? I thought I'd write about a few. Perhaps you'll come up with an idea or two of your own.

For Christians, contemplative spirituality rests on the idea that God loves us and wants a relationship with us. We cannot over-emphasize that contemplative prayer begins with God, and rests on the human desire and longing for God. We can get caught up in silence, or the breath, or dealing with distractions, or seeking serenity, or interfaith dialogue, so forth and so on: there are many elements that contribute to a meaningful contemplative spirituality. But if it doesn't begin with, and take us back to, God - the God of limitless love and mercy, who seeks to cherish us and transform our hearts to conform with the Divine Will, then it's out of joint. Contemplation means contemplating something: and for Christians, that "something" is the God who loves us.

The Heart of Christian contemplation is prayer. Therefore, contemplation is, at heart, a relational spirituality.  We can agree that contemplation is all about God, but we can get so caught up in the concept or idea of God, that we lose sight of the God who seeks to love us, to enter into meaningful relationship with us. Yes, I said ideas matter, following the advice of the TED Talks book. But when it comes to spirituality, we run the risk of substituting an idea or concept about God for the genuine, life-transfiguring encounter with God. I'm avoiding the word "experience" because, like ideas, sometimes our experiences get in the way too. God is bigger than an idea and bigger than an experience, no matter how mystical or wondrous it might be. Sometimes - perhaps most of the time, to hear the mystics tell it - we encounter God in darkness, in unknowing, in mystery. It's not something we can figure out. But it is real, and we know it's real by the difference it makes in our lives. God is more than an idea or a feeling. God is God, and God calls us to a new life.

Contemplation is not something you achieve, it is something you receive.  Many books, teachers, websites, etc. devoted to contemplation typically emphasize what we need to do in order to embrace a contemplative spirituality (my writing is no exception). And certainly, there is a saying attributed to Woody Allen, that eighty or ninety percent of life is just showing up: so when we learn to be silent, or pray the Jesus prayer, or walk a labyrinth, and so forth, we're fostering ways to help us to show up. In effect, we are saying to God, "I'm here." But it's really important to let go of expectations that contemplative prayer is all about mastering the right method or technique. Since it's relational, it's much more about being available to receive God's presence, no matter how hidden or mysterious that presence might be. Any sense of serenity, or union, or effortless silence, or whatever else might arise during contemplative practice: that all happens at a level deeper than our own engineering. It's simply a gift. Of course, that makes the opposite true as well: when our prayer time is bogged down in distractions, or troubled be a sense of God's seeming absence, or frenetic with anxiety or worry or pain or itching (!), that's gift too. To be contemplative means to receive it all with gratitude and equanimity.

Contemplative prayer is a profoundly solitary act, yet it belongs in the context of faith community.  Jesus instructs us to go into our inner room and pray in secret; likewise, contemplation is a profoundly solitary way of praying. But Jesus also said that wherever two or three are gathered in his name, he is present. So contemplation also belongs in community. I would argue that we could take that a step further, and consider that Christian community requires contemplation. This is why the most successful and long-lasting experiment in Christian community - monasticism - is built around contemplative practice. And also why I keep insisting that contemplatives need to be involved in Christian community (of some form), and that churches, parishes, and other forms of Christian community all need to make room for, and support, contemplative practice as an integral part of their community life.

Silence is essential to contemplative practice - and the lack of silence is the single biggest threat to contemplative prayer.  I have written elsewhere about the importance of silence to the Christian life; and I believe the reason why silence is so essential is because exterior silence (quiet, the absence of noise, talking, etc.) is an important means for discovering interior silence - which is always present to us beneath our distracting thoughts, feelings, imaginations. It is by learning to rest in that interior silence that we most truly make ourselves available for the gift of contemplation: but to the extent that we fill up our lives with noise - or spend our days immersed in an increasingly noisy culture - we undermine our capacity to patiently and gently listen to (and for) that interior silence.

So there are five ideas that, I believe, show up again and again in this blog (and my books and retreats, etc.). But what other ideas about contemplation, contemplative practice, contemplative spirituality, contemplative prayer, matter to you? Please let me know (reach out to me via social media, or leave a comment below).

From Carl's blog at