By Charles Kiser
Elaine Heath, in her book The Mystic Way of Evangelism, recounts a time she took a group of her SMU students to visit the Missionaries of Charity in Dallas — a branch of the ministry started by Mother Teresa in Calcutta, India in 1950. The ministry was located in a little red brick building in an impoverished Latino neighborhood.
The students met a small Indian woman named Sister Salvinette, who served as their guide. She described the ministry of the Missionaries of Charity: every day the sisters would knock on doors in groups of two and ask their neighbors how they might pray for them. At first they were met with suspicion and hesitation. But over time, as they got to know their neighbors, the sisters discovered needs they could meet. Out of these visits grew a food distribution program. Every week the sisters and volunteers prepared about two hundred bags of groceries for families in need in their neighborhood.
The sisters’ philosophy of ministry was expressed through their own “five-finger exercise”: “You did it unto me,” echoing Jesus’s words in Matthew 25. Whoever they met, the sisters believed that the encounter provided the opportunity to meet and serve Jesus.
For all the sisters’ ministry activity in the neighborhood, Sister Salvinette insisted that their basic ministry was prayer. The sisters gathered four times a day for an hour to pray, usually in silence. Such rhythms for prayer were how they received the love they needed both for themselves and to share with their neighbors.
Sister Salvinette explained the power of prayer in their work: “We could never do what we do if we did not pray this way. It would be too hard.”
The Missionaries of Charity demonstrate the power of contemplative prayer — the kind of prayer usually practiced in silence. In silence we are disentangled from the attachments of ego. In silence we hear the voice of God say to us, just as God said to Jesus in his baptism: “You are my child. I love you. I’m pleased with you. You are enough.” In silence we commune with the Ground of our being; we experience the abundant, eternal kind of life, that of knowing God and Jesus in the Holy Spirit.
It’s no wonder, then, why Pete Scazerro, in his book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, suggests that contemplative practice is integral to emotional health. Silence and stillness helps to unwind the knots of anxiety within us as we encounter the Good Shepherd, under whose care we lack nothing. And of all the years for us to need anxiety knots to unwind, 2020 would be the year, wouldn’t it?
Our own emotional health and well being, however, is not the telos (end goal) of contemplative prayer. Contemplative prayer ultimately equips us to be present to others — both to be present to the Other (God), and to be present to God’s activity in and among our neighbors, so that we might participate in what God is doing.
To speak of the power of contemplative prayer is not to denigrate other forms of prayer, namely intercessory or petitionary prayer. Jesus said, after all, that God is like a good father who enjoys giving good gifts to his children, and that if we ask we will receive. But this is to suggest, however, that there is power in forms of prayer beyond what many might normally imagine when speaking of “the power of prayer.”
In fact, I believe contemplative prayer is the fundamental form of prayer because it anticipates and facilitates our union with God — the direction toward which the whole cosmos is headed. Contemplative prayer, to the extent it unwinds our anxieties and helps us to see how our ego is at work, subverts and even reshapes what we might otherwise think to request from God.
If you’re wondering how to begin in the practice of contemplative prayer, I’d suggest starting with five minutes a day. Set a timer, focus on your breathing, release your thoughts and emotions as they surface, and pay attention for God. If it feels like it’s not working, or like something should be happening that isn’t, then you’re probably actually doing it right!
The contemplative life is also meant for community rather than isolation. In other words, we’re better when we engage contemplative practices together — particularly because they are so difficult by ourselves. Find a friend or a small group who can share this commitment to contemplative prayer, even if you’re sitting in silence on your own and talking about it later. The church I’m part of has recently begun a time of shared silence in our worship gatherings as a way of supporting and equipping each other in contemplative prayer.
There are a number of good guides and resources for contemplative prayer. Here are a few in different mediums:
- Invitation to Silence and Solitude by Ruth Haley Barton
- Headspace (an app for your phone)
- Resting in the Loving Gaze of God, an imaginative prayer exercise on Youtube led by Chris Altrock
Sister Salvinette poses a question to all of us: What is God inviting us to do that we could not do if we did not pray in this way?