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Rick Hamlin on the Practice of Contemplative Prayer

Guideposts executive editor Rick Hamlin explores the centuries-old practice of contemplative prayer, offering practical  tips that may help you enrich your own prayer life. 

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Hi, it’s Rick Hamlin and I’m going to talk today about contemplative prayer, or prayer in general.

First, let me talk a little bit about how I ended up writing an article for Mysterious Ways, that fabulous magazine, about contemplative prayer and specifically about an ancient book called The Cloud of Unknowing.

I was on the phone and a guy, a very earnest Christian from Atlanta, said that he was going to get some prayer help and that he wanted to learn how to meditate, so he was going to a Buddhist center for meditation, and I said, “Well, that’s really terrific. I’m sure you’ll learn a lot, but there’s also incredible Christian tradition, hundreds and hundreds of years of meditative prayer.” I would call it—it’s often called contemplative prayer—and it’s really a practice that I do.

So first, for any prayer practice, I would give you two really important bits of advice: Pick a time of day, and a place. And both are really important, because you want to do prayer at the same time every day, just a prayer practice. It will help you get in the practice each day.

A place is also important. I think because the external stimuli of the place will remind you, “Oh, yeah, this is where I pray.”

For me, it’s my sofa in the morning, first thing in the morning, the sofa in the TV room. You know, the cat comes around sometimes, but I sit there and I close my eyes. Now, I know some people can pray really beautifully with their eyes open, but for me it really helps—closing the eyes.

Also give yourself a set amount of time. Five minutes—five minutes to sit in silence is bliss, but it’s going to be hard. Five minutes can feel like a long time. You’ll want to add a little bit more time. Now how do you know the time has gone by? Well, you can go ahead and look at a clock; I usually have my phone sitting next to me on the sofa and I can check to see how long I’ve been sitting, if I think, Oh it’s time to let go. OK, close your eyes and then let go. To listen to God, you need to empty your mind.

So this is the process in contemplative prayer. It’s this process of emptying your mind a little bit at a time; you just let things go.

In meditation sometimes they use this image of catch and release, catch and release. The thought comes—and there are always going to be these thoughts streaming through your head. Catch the thought … then release it.

What I think happens in prayer, unlike meditation, is in prayer when you release the thought, you release them to God. So there are these distracting thoughts, then you release them to God. And then in your head, you hold an image of God. Or a word.

The author of Cloud of Unknowing suggests a single-syllable word. For me, the word I use sometimes—a lot—is “God.” I’ve also used “Christ” or “Jesus Christ,” giving myself just a word to keep staying focused on the challenge and the practice of contemplative prayer.

But this practice you will continue day in and day out. You’ll get better at it, too. Don’t be too self-critical. This is just your moment of prayer. Don’t say, “Oh my gosh, I didn’t do it very well!” or one woman said, “Every time I sat down, I kept on thinking different things; different things came into my mind.”

Each thought that came into your mind was a chance to reconnect with God. The thought, then you let it go, you give it back to God. And then you put the word “God,” “Christ,” the word “love” in your head, and it connects you back in prayer.

Not for nothing is it called the practice of prayer. It’s practice. It’s the one thing you can always do. Trying to do it is doing it. If you just say, “I’m trying to pray,” well, that’s it. That’s doing it.

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