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Exploring the Mystery of Contemplative Prayer

by Carl McColman

Saint Augustine once mused, “What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. But if I wish to explain it to one who asks, I do not know.” This basic idea – that it is possible to know something, yet impossible to put it into words – could just as easily be applied to contemplative prayer. It is a prayer meant to be experienced, not just talked about.

Contemplation seeks communion with God through silence. It is prayer that seeks to apply the wisdom found at various points in the Bible: “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10); “For God alone my soul waits in silence” (Psalm 62:10); “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him” (Habakkuk 2:20). How can we comprehend prayer that takes us beyond words? 

We can start with etymology. Contemplation comes from a Latin word that implies gazing or beholding. To contemplate something is to observe it, watch it, ponder it. Someone once described it this way: “I look at God and God looks at me.” It’s a mutual gazing in a state of wordless love.

Yet how can we truly behold the God who “is a God who hides himself” (Isaiah 45:15)? For centuries Christians have wrestled with this question, and the most common answer has been to grasp for metaphors that acknowledge this hiddenness: God is behind a cloud of unknowing, or in a dark night of the soul. God is a God of mystery.

The Still Small Voice is the Sound of Sheer Silence: Contemplative Prayer for Beginners retreat (November 10-14) won’t unravel God’s mystery, or reduce contemplation to soundbites. But it will introduce you to the history of this centuries-old spiritual practice, along with down-to-earth ways to integrate the beauty of silent prayer into your devotional life today. Best of all, we won’t just talk about contemplation – we’ll take time each day to gently ease into the silence where we seek to “be still and know.” No prior experience with contemplation is required (although this retreat works well as a “refresher course” for those familiar with contemplation).

Editir's note: We are (always!) grateful to Carl for his thoughtful and informative writing. You can read more from Carl at the links below: