Contemplating Contemplation


Been teaching on discernment and decision making so thought I would repost this, originally written in March 9, 2010

I have been thinking through spiritual formation as I am currently taking a class on that right now in seminary (or was when originally written). In a prior post I have compared the two views of Foster and Wesley regarding the spiritual disciplines and contemplative prayer. Here I hope to examine this mystical side of spiritual formation (SF) from a larger theological perspective.

What is Spiritual Formation?
Before I do that let me back up and define SF. Better yet let me let the main proponents define it. In a CT 2005 article that transcribed an interview with Dallas Willard and Richard Foster SF was defined as follows:

Spiritual formation is character formation. Everyone gets a spiritual formation. It’s like education. Everyone gets an education; it’s just a matter of which one you get.

Spiritual formation in a Christian tradition answers a specific human question: What kind of person am I going to be? It is the process of establishing the character of Christ in the person. That’s all it is. You are taking on the character of Christ in a process of discipleship to him under the direction of the Holy Spirit and the Word of God. It isn’t anything new, because Christians have been in this business forever. They haven’t always called it spiritual formation, but the term itself goes way back.

I don’t think many of us could disagree with the definition above. Certainly SF is the “the process of establishing the character of Christ in the person” and the Holy Spirit and the Word are instrumental. How these are involved and what that process looks like is a good question.

One we all should be thinking through as we seek to please the Lord and make the most of the life He has given us. However my goal in this post is not to tackle whether Christ like character requires a process or not  – I think that Scripture makes it clear that sanctification is a synergistic process. My goal in this post is not to tackle what that process is either. My goal is to examine one of the disciplines – contemplative prayer – and look at the many areas of theology that intersect.

What is Contemplative Prayer?
Why? Because this discipline is stressed as one of the foundational disciplines and is the school that we should all enroll in according to Foster in Celebration of Discipline. In the chapter on Contemplative Prayer in Foster’s book Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home (PFH) (161-163) we learn more about what this discipline is:

[this prayer is] traditionally called recollection. It means recollecting ourselves until we are unified or whole. Basil Penington uses the phrase centering prayer. Sue Monk Kidd calls it prayer of presence. The old Quakers uses the term centering down. They all refer to the same experience.

The idea is to let go of all competing distractions until we are truly present where we are. … [and] have made contact with that center which knows no distraction … we experience an inward attentiveness to divine motions. … Be silent and listen to God. Let your heart be in such a state of preparation that his Spirit may impress upon you such virtues as will please him. Let all within you listen to him. This silence of all outward and earthly affection and of human thoughts within us is essential if we are to hear his voice. (emphasis added)

Listening to God. That is certainly something every Christian should take serious. Jesus said if we were His friends we would obey Him (John 15:14). Jesus also said that My sheep know My voice and follow Me (John 10:4). Hearing God’s voice. I have to admit this has always been a difficult area for me to get my head around. What does it mean that we shall “hear His still small voice”? What does that sound like? What types of things can we expect to be told and how? Can we be sure it is His voice and not our own desires, ideas, or worse? As I have wrestled through this again in view of contemplative prayer I wrestled with different theological aspects that are involved with the idea of hearing God’s voice.

  • Our view of Scripture
  • Our view of the Holy Spirit
  • Our definition of prophecy
  • Continuation of the sign gifts

For details on these check out the next post…

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