My first awakening to the spiritual life and to the life of prayer occurred when I was twenty years old. I had finished college, and I decided to hitchhike from the Bay Area in California to Alaska. I was on a quest—for what I wasn’t too sure. I cared deeply about the world, about the problems of the day, and yet my involvement with politics and other secular approaches to these problems always left me feeling vaguely dissatisfied. They never seemed to quite get at the heart of the matter.
At the time I knew nothing about contemplative prayer. For me prayer meant reading the lines in the church bulletin or speaking a formula at meals. So it was unusual that as I got ready for my trip, I found myself sliding a book on contemplation into my backpack.
Later, as I read this book by the side of the road in the vast wilderness of the Yukon and beyond, I suddenly realized that here was something that reached down into the core of our dilemma as human beings. Here was something that struck a blow at the evil separating us from one another and preventing us from loving our brothers and sisters. That something was this different kind of prayer—a deep conversation with God beginning with communion and leading to transformation.
Today I still feel deeply convicted about the value of contemplative prayer. And it is this passion and vision, first kindled many years ago, that inspires this book. We are creatures who are lost and confused, trapped in the maze of our own little view of the world, and the only way out of that maze is the lifeline God offers us. Yet often we cannot even see that salvation—the solution to our estrangement from the divine—is right under our noses. Prayer opens our eyes. Prayer illuminates our minds, enabling the love of God to permeate all that we do.
This book is truly about life with God: a life in which the awareness and consciousness of God sweep us off our feet the way a lover would. It is about taking on the mind of Christ, a process that is a journey, the journey of prayer. When we sit down and begin to pray, we enter into a new land, a land of many surprises, many challenges, and many rewards. Even though we enter this land immediately as we begin to pray, we must cross it; we have not reached the destination at the outset.
Just as I did, many people start with the understanding that prayer is nothing more than speaking formulas or appealing to God for help. I hope you will begin to encounter something much more rich and profound as you read this book. For my desire is that you read not only to obtain information or to learn a prayer technique but also to pray. At first you might read simply to understand the literal meaning of sentences as with prayers in a church bulletin. But perhaps soon you will find yourself drawn into the process in such a way that you begin to relate to something deeper than words on a page. Through your reading and reflecting, you feel called and compelled to relate directly to God.
This type of deeper prayer doesn’t happen right away; it takes time to adjust to this new way of being with God. After I returned from my trip, I began to spend time in silence, trying to undertake this new way of praying. Most of the time, all I got for my efforts was a sore back and numb legs. However, slowly but surely, something began to happen. I began to be aware that I was not alone in my prayer, that this thing called contemplation truly led to an encounter with the living Jesus.
The slow transformation in our experience of praying is the journey, and the vehicles for this journey are the practices described in this book. In addition, each chapter features a historical figure (or figures) associated with the prayer practice. These prayers used, created, or have made the disciplines available to us. And we need them, for our journey is both solitary and communal. It is our path and it is the path of the church. The figures in this book are traveling companions. They are people who have walked “the Way” (the original name of Christianity) before us; when we enter into prayer, we who seek Christ today stand on their shoulders, hoping to see the risen Jesus as he goes before us down the dusty roads of this broken world.
Throughout the book I quote from writings by these historical figures and other sources that reveal these ancient journeys to us. The citations are noted in parentheses, simply giving the short title of the book and the page number of the reference. You will find the complete bibliographic listings for these sources in the References section.
The Practice of Prayer
But why “practice” prayer? People often ask this question. They insist that they pray all the time, not just at some specified hour of the day. People resist putting a set time for prayer in their Day-Timer.
As Paul tells us, prayer without ceasing (1 Thess. 5:17) is the goal of the spiritual life, and we will meet one person, the pilgrim (chapter 3), who took this goal very seriously. However, given the reality of our human condition, we delude ourselves if we believe we can be aware of God at every moment without any sort of practice. Such a feat would be comparable to competing in the Olympics without ever training or practicing a sport.
A prayer practice is just that: practice. It is taking time to learn how to listen for God. It is taking time to see the hand of God at work in our lives. We need to take this time because this listening, this seeing are difficult tasks. I once introduced a time of silent prayer at a prayer service by saying, “Let us take some time to listen to God.” One woman who was struggling with various concerns said, “I listen and all I hear is the fan on the ceiling.” God’s voice is often very soft.
Prayer practice is the art of setting aside our own individual desires to seek the desire that God has placed on our heart. It is becoming aware of the distractions of our minds and then letting them go, and as we repeat the disciplines over time, we become more skilled at seeing God in all that we do.
Sensing God’s Presence
What does “seeing God” or “hearing God’s voice” actually mean? This is an important question. First of all, I am not talking about seeing apparitions or hearing an actual voice in our head (although neither of these possibilities is out of the question). I am referring to any experience that gives us a hint of something “other” than ourselves at work in the universe.
As we shall see in the following chapters, each of these prayer practices gives us the opportunity to experience this sense of “other” in different ways. We can hear God through a feeling, a thought, a picture, an action, a person, total silence. Yet because all these voices may not be “of God,” we need to practice discerning God’s voice through the repetition of prayer!
God may first appear as a momentary flicker in our consciousness, a shadow that flits almost imperceptibly across the backdrop of our thoughts. Then we may have a thought that we think is “of God,” but we are not sure. Slowly, after many hours, days, weeks, even years, we begin to know with greater certainty when we do “hear God’s voice” (although if we ever feel absolutely sure, we are probably wrong).
In conjunction with an increased sense of God’s presence, our practice begins to bear fruit in our work, our play, our family, and our relationships. We begin to move freely with the Spirit as we notice God moment to moment. The prayer practice is not the goal but the means to the spiritual life. The historical figures you’ll read about here created the practices and integrated them into their faith lives with this aim.
In view of that last statement, a word of caution is in order. We may be tempted to believe that these prayer practices were invented at a single point in time, that one certified holy person created each practice and put it into use in the church. This is simply not the case. Every one of the practices in this book has been prayed in some form since people first began to search for God.
People have always used scripture, silence, creativity, symbol, body, and reflection to seek the signs of the divine in their everyday lives. In fact, all of us already use these things, but most of the time we are not conscious of this process of seeking. All a particular form of prayer does is to organize, mark, and make intentional the search for God, which is already under way in each and every one of us. Prayer is nothing more than conversation with a partner whose presence is elusive—God isn’t here in material form, so we use all the resources at our disposal to enter into this conversation.
About the Author
Daniel Wolpert is the cofounder of the Minnesota Institute of Contemplation and Healing (MICAH). He worked as a research scientist, psychologist, spiritual director, farmer, teacher, and construction worker before earning his Master of Divinity degree at San Francisco Theological Seminary (SFTS). Over the past forty years he has taught in the fields of psychology and spiritual formation. He is also the author of Leading a Life with God: The Practice of Spiritual Leadership and Creation’s Wisdom: Spiritual Practice and Climate Change.