Carl McColman: Five Elements of a Daily Contemplative Practice ”” and Four Principles for Cultivating Your Practice


Recently a reader of this blog posted this question:

Just curious Carl - what does your typical schedule look like? How do you put it all together?

I think the larger question here is how can anyone - not just me - cultivate a daily contemplative practice. So I'll answer the question, but then I want to reflect on the question of a regular practice in general.

Forgive me for humbly declining to directly answer your question. If I describe my practice, some people will say "Gee, I never could do that" and others will say "Is that all he does?!?" My point is that it's probably not very helpful to compare notes with another person's spiritual discipline - unless that person is your spiritual director (or directee), soul friend, or otherwise in a covenant relationship with you. So rather than giving you a detailed laundry list ("I sit in silence for 30 minutes every morning, before reciting morning prayer and engaging in lectio divina, etc. etc."), I'd rather offer two bits of general advice:

First, a look at what I think are the five essential elements of a daily contemplative practice - that I think everyone, from beginners to seasoned practitioners, need to be incorporating into their lives;

And then, four principles that I think are important for all of us to keep in mind, especially as we seek to navigate a daily contemplative practice over the long haul.

Five Essential Elements of a Daily Contemplative Practice

Last month I wrote about Seven Ingredients for Cultivating a Truly Mystical Life. If you haven't read that post, I'd encourage you to go check it out - what I'm about to say is in large measure simply a restatement, but aimed specifically at my reader's question of "how do we put it all together" in terms of a typical contemplative practice.

  1. Every day give God some intentional time of silence.  It doesn't have to be 20 minutes of centering prayer (although that's very good), or an hour in front of the Blessed Sacrament (also good). How much time you give each day, and whether you are spending that time sitting, walking a labyrinth, or simply gazing at the sunset, is really between you and God. But I have two suggestions: first, do it every day. Make it as non-negotiable as brushing your teeth or washing your face. And second, make it a truly silent time. Turn off all your devices. And be intentional about finding your interior silence - that vast, luminous place between your thoughts and feelings.
  2. Every day touch base with the sacred scripture of your faith tradition.   For Christians it's the Bible, but other faiths have their own holy book(s). Get to know them. Read them meditatively - and prayerfully. If you're not familiar with the practice of lectio divina, learn about it - and make it part of your life. Chances are you'll also have to explore how to read your ancient text(s) intelligently and critically - but that doesn't have to be in opposition to reading prayerfully. Learn to do both. And eventually, you'll want to expand beyond the "official" sacred text (like the Bible) to also explore supplemental sacred writings - such as the writings of the great mystics.
  3. Every day engage in a structured format for devotional, honest, meaningful prayer.  Simply "praying from the heart" is beautiful and I commend it - but it often doesn't last over the long haul. Like tomato plants need a stake and fertilizer to reach their full potential, aspiring contemplatives need the structured support of a prayer resource like the Divine Office to truly establish a lifelong, daily habit of intimate prayer. You don't have to pray the entire Daily Office, and I think it's okay to experiment. Don't get caught up in the silly notion that words printed in a book are "meaningless" - just recite the printed words - and notice what's going on in your heart. That's where you're praying - whether it's a prayer of love, devotion, anger, boredom, impatience, awe, or silliness.
  4. Anchor your daily spiritual practice in your most important relationships.  This doesn't mean you have to find someone to pray with you every morning or that you need a buddy to walk the labyrinth (maybe you do, and maybe not: listen to your heart). But even the most austere hermit relied on others to make their spirituality real through compassion and service. This could be as simple as your family, neighbors, co-workers. It could also mean your neighborhood church, or the homeless shelter where you volunteer twice a month. Once again, the particulars will vary from person to person - but what's important is that you have people in your life to love, to serve, and to enjoy. That's what makes contemplation real.
  5. Finally, make every day matter in terms of appropriate care for your health and wellness.  The history of mysticism is replete with folks who do hardcore fasting, extreme self-denial, asceticism without limits - and again and again, the message is that such acts of self-flagellation tend to be motivated by the ego rather than by deep contemplative love. God loves you, which means you don't have to punish yourself to be a good contemplative. What we do need to do is to make sure we're leading a balanced and healthy life. Get enough sleep. Get appropriate amounts of exercise and relaxation. Eat a balanced and healthy diet. Work on letting go of your harmful addictions, and visit your healthcare providers regularly. Contemplative is holistic: so make it a daily practice to take good care of yourself.

Granted, these give things will look differently for everyone. Some of us may be acting heroically if we simply take two minutes a day for silence, recite one Bible verse, a single prayer, work on losing weight, and strive to be kind to the stranger at the bus stop. Another person may take two hours for deep contemplation followed by an hour of lectio and prayer, before heading out to teach English to Syrian refugees (after an hour at the gym). Don't compare yourself to the other person. If you do, you'll be tempted to feel bad or proud, and neither of those are helpful. Talk to God and listen to your heart - and decide what commitments you need, and want, to make.

Now, let me be vulnerably honest here: my practice fluctuates. Some days are better than others. I have more of an artist's temperament than a monk's, which means that even on my best days I chafe against structure (that's part of why I know I need it!). Those of us who do not live in a cloister need to work out what our personal daily practice looks like, and we don't have the benefit of ten or fifty fellow nuns or monks who will help us to be disciplined day in or day out. It's hard to maintain a contemplative practice, so we all have to learn to find the balance between a clear commitment and a willingness to forgive ourselves, over and over again, for failing to live up to that commitment - without abandoning it.

I often hear from people who feel discouraged because they cannot seem to establish a daily contemplative practice, but the reality is that they lead busy lives with several children, a job that involves regular travel, and various commitments including church and volunteer efforts. God is present in all of this! So I think we need to be careful not to assume that only monks know how to be contemplatives, and if our lives don't have a "monastic" feel to them then we must be doing it wrong. I don't believe God calls us all to be monks; God call us all to be human. And it's in our humanity that we find the seeds of our contemplative vocation.


Four Principles for Sustaining a Daily Contemplative Practice

Now, back to my reader's question: How do I put it all together? Here are a few more thoughts. The elements (above) need these principles to help us sustain our ongoing practice. I hope that as I offer these reflections on my own contemplative practice, these thoughts might be helpful for you as you foster your unique way of responding to God's love.

  1. Don't overdo it.  I know some people who pray the complete Daily Office, every day. If you are one of those persons, I admire you. But I'm not about to try to imitate you; at least not at this point in my life. When I have tried to pray multiple offices in a day, it's always been a disaster. Moral of the story: your contemplative prayer practice needs to fit in with your overall life commitments. Be balanced and reasonable.
  2. Aim for a balanced diet.  The key is to balance the five elements of contemplative living: intentional silence, lectio divina, structured prayers, engagement with your community, and a commitment to self-care (which includes eating well, proper exercise, enough sleep, and meaningful work). Your balance will look different from mine, but the important thing is, try to include all of these elements - if not every day, at least every week.
  3. Talk it over with a soul friend.  Don't try to design your daily practice all by yourself. Talk it over with a soul friend, a spiritual director, and/or teacher/mentor/pastor. Having another person's perspective will help you to avoid the traps of trying to foster a daily spiritual practice. That person will also pray for you and check in with you to see how you're doing, which is an excellent way to stay motivated. No, don't compare your spiritual practice to mine (or anyone else's) - but do share it with your spiritual companion, and listen with an open mind and heart to their prayerful feedback.
  4. Most of all, pray about it.  A spiritual practice is always a means to an end - and the end is greater intimacy with God. If you are being compulsive about maintaining your self-imposed spiritual obligations, but not truly savoring your time given to God, well, it's kind of missing the point, isn't it? If I were your spiritual director, I would be much more interested in how your relationship with God is progressing, than in how many times over the month you manage to pray a complete Daily Office. Our practice is intended to express our love for God - so it's always the love that matters most.

I hope this is helpful. Remember, this is not a contest or a race. It's a relationship - between you and God. I hope you will find joy in that relationship as you seek to express your love on a daily basis.