The great masters of prayer have compared the spiritual life to an ocean. On the surface life may be roiled by wind and tides. Yet beneath the surface, even amid a stormy sea, the water is calm. The pursuit of happiness is anchored in those depths.
You don't have to be a spiritual master to know that deep contentment and inner peace do not arise from our circumstances. If they did, all the healthy, rich, and beautiful people in the world would be blissfully content. And yet, we know this is not the case.
Deep contentment and inner peace arise from anchoring one's soul in the depths of God, that is, by learning how to embody the divine admonition in Psalm 46:10: "Be still, and know that I am God."
Contemplative prayer (sometimes called centering prayer) has its basis in this divine admonition. Contemplative prayer is a silent resting in God, an attempt to find oneself centered or grounded in the unchanging reality and eternal love of God. Though we are always grounded in God ("in God, we live and move and have our being") our awareness of this truth fluctuates. The disciplined practice of contemplative prayer is meant to increase our consciousness of this great truth and stabilize our experience of it - that we may not simply believe but "know."
Surprisingly, the priority is not so much on the experience of outer quiet as it is on inner peace. Psalm 46 speaks of a very dangerous and threatening world - a world that screams danger. And yet, in the midst of great turmoil, we are called to "Be still, and know that I am God." God calls us to stop, cease striving, quiet down and rest in God.
Why can we rest in God? Because "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble" (Psalm 46:1). This theme is repeated two more times in the refrain, "The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge" (Psalm 46:7, 11).
Trouble in the City of Man
Psalm 46 speaks in emphatic terms of the two great threats that endanger us: natural disasters and cultural conflicts. In the ancient world, the chaotic sea threatened earth's security and the nations were a threat to corporate life.
The psalmist pictures the worst natural disaster possible. The very foundations of creation crumble into the churning, raging waters of the sea: "though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult" (Psalm 46:2-3). In the ancient world, the mountains symbolized the pillars of the earth and water symbolized chaos. Thus, "Verses 2-3 are as close as the psalmist can come to a literal description of the world's falling apart."
But this is not the end of the threats. The rise of political turmoil - "the nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter" (Psalm 46:6) - and the destructive power of war (reflected in the bows, spears, and shields of Psalm 46:9) remain perpetual threats in the City of Man. The dangers are even greater in our technological society: "Our implements of destruction are no longer just bows and spears and shields. We have tanks and submarines and nuclear warheads and 'smart bombs' and patriot missiles."
We live in very threatening times. The psalmist does not naively whitewash the facts. The earth is a violent place. The dangers and threats to human life are manifold. And there is absolutely no way to escape the dangers. In spite of all our efforts, natural disasters, political turmoil, and military conflict remain the backdrop for human existence.
Prayer is not going to get us out of this conflict. We cannot "pray our way" out of this world. Religion is not meant to blind us to the realities of human suffering or the real threat of natural and cultural evils, but rather, remind us that in the midst of countless threats there is an underlying and eternal reality that upholds, protects, and carries us.
The City of God
The deeper reality of God's eternal presence is pictured as a transcendent city in the midst of the City of Man. From this city flow waters, not of chaos and destruction, but of life and joy: "There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High" (Psalm 46:4).
A healing and life-giving stream issues from the cosmic mountain of God's dwelling. "God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns" (Psalm 46:4). The holy habitation of the Most High God is found in the midst of the secular city. And God's presence in the midst of the city means that the Lord of Hosts is with us to protect and to deliver from that which threatens our flourishing.
The City of God and the Temple represent a transcendent reality with a local expression. The Most High is the source of life for the city of God. For the Jewish people, Jerusalem and its Temple represented the place of God's dwelling in the midst of God's people. But the psalm "does not invite trust in a place but in a Presence who wills to dwell with people." At the outset of the psalm, attention is drawn to God and not to the city itself.
God's presence in the world is the guarantee that ultimately God's will will be done in the earth. And God's will is for the complete end of all human conflict. God essentially says, "Cease your warring! Stop your attacks! Leave off your vain attempts to subject history to your power. There is but one power exalted over the earth and nations. Only one is God--the one whose work is the destruction of weapons and whose help is the refuge of those who recognize that he is God."
The climax of Psalm 46 is God's direct speech to those of us who simultaneously dwell in the City of Man and the City of God: "Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth" (Psalm 46:10). The imperative is not praise as usual, but the acknowledgement of God as our sovereign protector. "Be still" is "a command to allow God to be God, to do his work of abolishing the weapons of war." We are commanded to "'Stop!' or 'Throw down your weapons!' In other words, depend on God instead of on yourselves."
To take refuge in God is to live in dependence upon God alone--God is the only necessity of life! And this approach to life is founded on the fundamental conviction that God is sovereign, that God is in control-- not the wicked nor the enemies nor the nations that so often threaten the life of the psalmist (see 2:1-3,11; 7:1; 11 :l-2; 25:1920; 31:19-20; etc.)...
Even in the "worst-case scenario," which we may be able to imagine more readily than any other generation in human history (Nuclear holocaust? Depletion of the ozone layer? etc.), God will prevail. We humans, by the assertion of our sovereignty, may be able to destroy the environment; and we may even be able to destroy human life. But we will not be able to destroy God nor ultimately thwart God's purposes.
There is a God in whom we can rest: "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult" (Psalm 46:1-3).
In fearful times and threatening circumstances we can rest in God without fear. Prayer is not an escape from reality, but an immersion in ultimate reality.
Getting Beyond the Buzz
Immersion in ultimately reality is behind the divine admonition: "Be still, and know that I am God." "Be still" can be translated "Stop," "Cease striving," or "Quiet down." The rest that God calls us to is not primarily outward but, more importantly, inward quiet - soul quiet. "Know" is not limited to intellectual beliefs but to personal experience. Put together, the call is to rest in the depths of one's being in confidence, assurance, and security of God's presence, no matter how great the storms of life rage around us. Put simply: it is to possess an inner quiet in a tumultuous world.
This may be one of the most difficult disciplines we will ever attempt. "Confessing what we should believe is easy; bringing our hearts to feel that confessed security is monumental." How often are we truly still? Quiet in body and serene in soul?
The call to inner stillness is tough in our modern world. We live in the most frenetic culture ever. Our radios and tv's blare. Our cell phones and pagers interrupt. In this midst of all this hubbub and buzz we easily forget that there is another world: "A world of silence and serenity. A world of deep peace and soulfulness. A world of quiet healing, where our wounds are repaired and life grows over the broken places. A world of holiness and order, of mystery and transcendence. A world with God at its center."
To know this deep stillness we must go below the surface - deep into our faith, our God, and (because we are seeking to quiet our soul in God's presence) our very self. This is a terrifying prospect. To be truly alone with ourselves and with God is to face an inner restlessness.
As soon as we are alone, without people to talk with, books to read, TV to watch, or phone calls to make, an inner chaos opens up in us. This chaos can be so disturbing and so confusing that we can hardly wait to get busy again. Entering a private room and shutting the door, therefore, does not mean that we immediately shut out all our inner doubts, anxieties, fears, bad memories, unresolved conflicts, angry feelings, and impulsive desires. On the contrary, when we have removed our outer distractions, we often find that our inner distractions manifest themselves to us in full force. We often use the outer distractions to shield ourselves from the interior noises. It is thus not surprising that we have a difficult time being alone. The confrontation with our inner conflicts can be too painful for us to endure.
This makes the discipline of solitude all the more important.
We are afraid of our own company. We are afraid that instead of a cultivated inner life we may have to face inner restlessness, anxiety, boredom, and unhappiness. Fearful of fully facing ourselves in the depths of our soul, we multiply distractions in order to keep from facing the truth about ourselves.
Our endless occupation with distractions frees us from having to deal with our restless souls. And there is no end to the amount of distractions.
One need not be a king to command an infinite range of distractions, all available at the push of a button. Computers, the Internet, CDs, DVDs, home entertainment systems, palm-size PlayStations--they are ubiquitous, all offering an effective defense against the prospect of solitude and silence.
There is nothing wrong with any of these thing unless they are pursued as a defense against facing ourselves. Sometimes, they may not simply be harmless fun, but rather, a way to numb ourselves to reality - distractions that disguise our true condition.
We need to learn to still our mind as well as our body - to relax, let things go, to withdraw in order to find ourselves in God. We need
a real time of withdrawal from all the things of the world. A time when we let go of work, refrain from taking up some nervous activity, abandon the efforts to think or talk our way into God's presence...a time when everything about us is still, like a lake on a calm day when you can see the surrounding landscape like a mirror.
Contemplative prayer - a silent resting in God - is the discipline that frees us from distractions and opens us to center ourselves in the presence and power of God. This is what contemplative prayer opens up to us: the possibility of really resting in God. Not doing anything but simply being with God. No prayer-list, no agenda, no study plan. In this way, we oppose our culture's focus on productivity and our own pride of self-importance. Contemplative prayer allow us to
Quit rushing through the streets long enough to become aware that there is more to life than you little self-help enterprises. When we are noisy and when we are hurried, we are incapable of intimacy--deep, complex, personal relationships... If God has a will for this world and we want to be in on it, we must be still long enough to find out what it is (for we certainly are not going to learn by watching the evening news).
In contemplative prayer we seek to focus only on God. In order to discipline one's mind, some people repeatedly say a simple word of phrase. Some use the Jesus prayer, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." Some simply say, "Jesus." Some use the word "Maranatha" which is translated, "Come, Lord Jesus." Some say the name of God, "Yahweh," in association with their breathing. Just say the word out loud and notice how it replicates and imitates the very sound of inhalation and exhalation. When distracting thoughts begin to intrude upon our seeking to rest in God's presence, the simple word or phrase helps to maintain focus.
Praising God, thanking God, confessing our sin, and petitioning God are all essential components of a healthy prayer life. But as in all good relationships, there is a dimension that goes beyond words. Prayer is also a silent resting in the presence of the Beloved. Contemplative prayer invites us to stop "chatting" so much. God calls us to solitude and silence - to rest in God's love. "The deepest level of communication is not communication but communion. It is wordless. It is beyond words, and beyond speech, and beyond concept" (Thomas Merton). Our most beautiful experiences are experiences that go beyond words: a gorgeous sunset, a calm lake, the tender touch of an infant, the gentle caress of two people in love. Long-winded descriptions of these experiences do not enhance our enjoyment of these blessings, but rather, ruin it. How much more basking in the love and life of God!
If the purpose of prayer is to know God then the deepest form of knowing is resting in the loving presence of God. For beginners, this may not seem efficient. We always feel that we must "do" something or "accomplish" something. Add to this the fact that we are, by nature, problem solvers. Letting go is not our thing. We are activists and not contemplatives. We want to save the world. We have a hard time trusting God to save the world. But what if we treated other relationships like this? God wants us not only to "do" God's will, but to remember who we are by "being" in God's presence, resting in God's loving care, trusting God to accomplish God's will - with or without us. We must always remember, our relationship with God is not a means to an end, but it is the very end itself.
In contemplation we do nothing. We release control (as if we had it in the first place). We seek to not only believe and do, but to be and know - experientially. We let go in order to find ourselves and our strength in the eternal presence and power of God.
We cannot have a rich and deep interior life if we live only on the surface. Like the ocean, the surface of our lives is riddled with dangers, threats, and endless tumult. In order to know deep contentment and inner peace, we must descend below the surface to where the water is always calm. Deep contentment and inner peace are anchored in these depths.
 Robert Ellsberg, The Saints' Guide to Happiness: Everyday Wisdom from the Lives of the Saints (New York: North Point Press, 2003), 78.
 J. Clinton McCann, A Theological Introduction to the Book of Psalms (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 1993), 137.
 McCann, Theological Introduction, 140.
 James L. Mays, Psalms: Interpretation Series (Louisville, Kentucky: John Knox Press, 1994), 185.
 In the New Testament, God's dwelling is manifest not in buildings made of stone but in the person of Jesus Christ (John 1:14). The Spirit of God, who dwells within us through Christ, is the source of living water that flows within our very being, for our bodies are the temple of God.
 Mays, Psalms, 184.
 Craig C. Broyles, Psalms: New International Biblical Commentary (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999), 210.
 McCann, Theological Introduction, 139.
 McCann, Theological Introduction, 140.
 Broyles, Psalms, 209.
 John Killinger, http://www.csec.org/csec/sermon/killinger_4903.htm
 Henri Nouwen, Seeds of Hope, 63-64.
 Ellsberg, Saints' Guide to Happiness, 65.
 Anne Robertson, http://www.annerobertson.com/BVOT/BeStillAndKnow.htm
 Eugene Peterson, Where Your Treasure Is: Psalms that Summon You from Self to Community (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1993), 80-81.
© Richard J. Vincent, 2009