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What is Contemplative Prayer?

What is Contemplative Prayer?

What is prayer? What is contemplative prayer? How to connect in loving union with the present moment.
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Richard Rohr


Credit: Richard Rohr .

Recorded on the CAC grounds and shared during Reunion 2017.



Credit: Richard Rohr .

Extracted form the video interview above.


Credit: Richard Rohr .

Let me back this up with a little bit of history. I don't want to bore you with history, but I know for most people, the very word contemplation, they say, "Where did that come from?"

What happened is that our word "prayer," that Jesus uses a lot, the Bible uses a lot, had already been cheapened, trivialized, two centuries into Christianity, and it became a functional, problem-solving, practical thing. To pray meant to make announcements to God and tell God what you needed; it was a transactional thing.

So after 313, when we become the established religion of the Roman Empire, you've probably heard how these very sincere seekers went off to the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Cappadocia, which is Eastern Turkey, and that became the birth of what we now call monasticism. The reason it happened was because the main line of Christianity had become fast-food religion. Everybody was just Catholic because the whole kingdom was now Catholic, and you were Catholic because you were Italian, not because you met Jesus, and you Protestants discovered that about us. Thank you very much, because you're right.

But nevertheless, there was always a strain that wanted to go deeper and say, "What's Jesus really talking about?" So they started using another word for prayer, and that word is contemplation. It's lasted down till our time. So in the Catholic Church, we have contemplative monks who make that their whole life: contemplative orders. It's really a different form of consciousness. It's not saying prayers; it's living in constant unitive union with God and everything around you, so whatever you do is a prayer.

That's why Paul can twice say in his letters, "Pray always." He can't mean walking around saying the Our Father all day. And the very fact that in Luke's Gospel, they have to ask him, "Teach us a prayer like the disciples of John the Baptist have," we can assume he hadn't taught them a verbal prayer.

His form of prayer when he goes off to the desert is what we would call contemplative prayer, where you rewire this mind so that everything you do is connected in loving union with the moment, with whatever's right in front of you. That's contemplation.

Now, it takes practice. I'm not there yet. I've been practicing all my life. On my better days, I touch upon it. I can enjoy it for moments, but it's hard to maintain a contemplative mind 24 hours a day because you keep getting pulled into argument, emotion, feelings, hurts, agendas, all the rest. So you have to practice rewiring this. The normal way you and I are wired is dualistically, where you're presented with good or bad, gay or straight, black or white, good or false or true, and male or female. And then you're supposed to choose one of those. That's why America's so angry today, really. I'm not exaggerating that.

When that's the only mind you have and you have to make a false choice and make men better than women or women better than men, you're never happy because it isn't true. It's never true. It's a false truth, and then you ensconce yourself in it and have to defend it and have to defeat the other side and show why they're terrible. That's the non-contemplative mind.

Now, it's really only been the last 50 years. It was Thomas Merton, the monk in Kentucky, not far from you guys, who pulled back the veil and said, "Christianity doesn't teach contemplation any more." After the Reformation, we started fighting one another, and then the various Protestant denominations started fighting one another, you can't be contemplative any more. That was the death, the death of contemplation, because that's the triumph of dualistic thinking. Once you're fighting, you're dualistic.

Trust me on that, all right? You've got to choose sides. You've got to prove your opinion. Every debate society can't seek high truth. It settles for a low-level truth between these two debaters, and that's all we have left.

So if we don't rediscover the mystical, contemplative, non-dual mind ... And I use those three words interchangeably; they are the same thing. I don't see how we are any alternative to Western civilization.

I'm going to make that big of a statement. But I just see Christians largely having the same prejudices that everybody else does: that people look much more like their state than Jesus. And that's pretty evident right now in this country, that we reflect what part of The United States we're from, much more than having read the Scriptures.

Now, I've got a book coming out in a few weeks that's going to be called Just This. Just This, and it's just about 50 little exercises to help you to be present to just this: that little leaf there, sitting on the grass.

And honor God in that and be content with that and delight in that. That's contemplation. The best simple definition I can give you of contemplation is a long loving look at the Real: Real with a big R.

When you look at something long enough that you can love it and let it be reality for you, you're at the first door of contemplation. I don't have to judge it up or down. I don't have to analyze it in or out. I don't have to say, "Will that make me money?" It's just a leaf, and God created that leaf for some unbelievable reason. I don't know why, and I'm the first eye that's ever able to delight in it. That's Contemplation 101, and it sounds so simple. In fact, it is so simple that it's hard to teach. It's really hard to teach.

Then once you have that mind, then you'll know how to pray, and prayer of adoration and thanksgiving and joy will come before just asking for things. Not that there's anything wrong with asking for things, but when prayer becomes simply talking God into things and asking God for things, you know what stays center stage? The ego. It's all about what I want, what I need. Now, God is my personal servant that I can get to stop the hurricane in Texas. That doesn't create highly enlightened or loving people.

So that's why we teach here the contemplative mind. And then we send people back, hopefully as much more effective change agents, and they're going to be much longer-lasting because now I don't need to win. I don't need to have people agree with me. My truth is held within me, and I offer it if people want it, but if they don't, I know it's their loss. It's not mine. It's not mine. I can still enjoy it because again, it's the indwelling spirit. As Paul says in Romans 8, we do not know how to pray. We don't. The Spirit prays in us through groans unutterable, through feelings that we didn't even know we had, and thoughts.

I mean, my best sermons, I preach just when I give them. I didn't think about them ahead of time. You understand? They come just there, if and when I can remain in the flow. But the secret is always to stay in the flow, and then your gift comes naturally.


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