It’s a mystery!

I have been mentored by a lot of contemplatives over the past ten years.

And just who is a contemplative? you may ask.

My granddaughter is, for one.  For the past five months, my one year-old granddaughter has lived only a half mile from my house.  This is a gift I do not take lightly.  After a hard day at work I sometimes call her parents up and say I have an hour in the afternoon or evening to play.   She has become my youngest contemplative mentor.

The two of us, grandmother and granddaughter, sometimes find ourselves sitting quietly on the porch swing.  A car goes by and she proudly says the word “car” acknowledging its presence.   She hears a bird, looks at me with her eyes wide and makes the sign for bird with her hand.  We walk to the railroad tracks and listen perhaps ten minutes for the sound of the train whistle in the distance, and then there is a long wait of ten minutes more before the gates start flashing and the locomotive goes rumbling by with a thrill.  On the other hand, she often notices and stops at sounds that I overlook.  We do a lot of careful listening together.

Most often contemplatives are known for practicing prayer, not so much by talking to God, but as listening to God. Often their times of prayer consist of sitting silently together, perhaps after hearing a word of scripture, waiting and alert to the presence of God.  The contemplative at prayer has learned to value spacious silence which, as Thomas Moore has said, is “not the absence of sound, but rather a shifting of attention toward the sounds that speak to the soul.”

Contemplative prayer pays attention to the present moment, the here and now—which, of course, is the only place where we can encounter God.  We can’t jump ahead in the future to hear what God will say or do a year from now.   Nor can we go back to the past either to fix it or bring it back.  God’s Spirit acts in us today.  God’s word reaches and speaks to us now.  Contemplative prayer brings us into God’s present presence.

My granddaughter is the best mentor for that.  She doesn’t care about what happened in the morning or worry about what will happen tomorrow afternoon.  She is totally and enthusiastically absorbed in the now with her grandmother.  She draws me in so that I too, when with her, cannot worry about the difficult meeting in the evening or dwell on that painful conversation of the morning.  I am totally in the present in her presence, simply enjoying her…like contemplative prayer is with God.

Another important aspect of contemplative prayer for me is that it can be playful.  There is a freedom to be creative, imaginative, move around, be spontaneous, draw, write a song, walk in God’s creation with the openness and wonder of a child.  No, contemplatives don’t just sit quietly all the time.  There is a freedom to be oneself as beloved child of God.

And my granddaughter and I do that playing thing together.  She and I have our own holy hilarity.  We build towers and crash them on the floor and roll in laughter.  We “wow” over the lights on the Christmas tree.  We are fascinated with colored leaves, tiny flowers, bees on the sidewalk and fish swimming in the lake.   We stick our feet in the cold river.  We chase bubbles before they burst on the grass. We slurp spaghetti noodles into our mouths and laugh. (Don’t tell her parents.)  With few words or with no words, our times together are full of play and delight in being together and we are content to be children of God.

There is indeed a variety of ways to pray, just as there is variety in communicating with anyone we love. I suppose many people often hear me pray as a pastor at their hospital bedside or see me pray formally in a written or sung prayer in worship or offer a table blessing at a fellowship meal.  But it is the contemplative side of prayer that nurtures and grounds me for the more public prayerful leadership that takes place.  The listening, the attention to the present, the playfulness and creativity springing from delight in God’s presence feeds my soul for the work I am called to do.

After all, Jesus did say, “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”  (Luke 18:17)

For an old pastor to be nurtured in her prayer life by the youngest of God’s beloved children has got be one of the great mysteries of faith.