The Languages of Contemplation

One of the beautiful things about contemplation is that it is an experience or a state of being that can be approached from many different directions. While some forms of contemplation are best known (silence, contemplative reading), other forms feel more peripheral. Yet, each person will thrive best when practicing the “languages of contemplation” that are the best fit for their personality and interests. This could be through contemplative walks or chant-singing or praying with a rosary or doing yoga. This term we will be exploring the various languages of contemplation and hoping that everyone can connect with those which are most life-giving for them. If you scroll down the page, you will see a wide diversity of contemplative practices introduced.

(Note: the blog below begins with posts from Term Two; if you scroll down you will see the posts from Term One)

singing in the Munich campground - Europe 2010

Week Eleven – Taizé Singing

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This week we spent around twenty minutes singing five Taizé songs together – three in Latin and two in English.

For many people the name “Taizé” simply evokes a certain style of meditative singing, though some are aware that Taizé is in fact an ecumenical monastic community in France, from which singing originated.

The Taizé Community is an ecumenical monastic order in the small village of Taizé, in Burgundy, eastern France. It is composed of more than one hundred brothers, from Protestant and Catholic traditions, who originate from about thirty countries across the world. The community was founded in 1940 by Brother Roger Schutz, a Swiss Protestant, to help people going through the ordeal of the Second World War. The small village of Taizé, where he settled, was quite close to the demarcation line dividing France in two and was well situated for sheltering refugees fleeing the war, including Jews. Over the years, the Taizé Community has become one of the world’s most important sites of Christian pilgrimage. Over 100,000 young people from around the world make pilgrimages to Taizé each year for prayer, Bible study, sharing, and communal work. Through the community’s ecumenical outlook, they are encouraged to live in the spirit of kindness, simplicity and reconciliation.

The SSU Europe trip of 2014 visited Taizé for a couple of nights, as did the walking pilgrimage group led by Joel Mason and Katie Gorrie in 2013, and these SSU visitors enjoyed participating in the common prayer meetings, which happen three times a day and consist mostly of singing. The songs are short and simple – often based on Scripture, and written in Latin or a variety of other languages – and are repeated many times so as to become meditative. This creates a contemplative space, allows the meaning of the words to sink more deeply into the singers, and also leads to a beautiful experience of human voices uniting together in song across languages, nationalities and faith traditions – an icon of the beauty of God in our diversity and unity.

Here is a link to one of the songs we sang. (The picture in the video shows the large meeting room at Taizé, with the brothers dressed in white at the front.)

street art in Colombia - Esperanza (Hope)

Week Ten – Contemplation and Activism

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This week Walter shared some of the characteristics that he has seen as characteristic of those writers and activists who have based their service or their activism on a contemplative foundation:

  1. The foundation of the active vocation is in our awareness of the presence of God in our lives – and the invitation to flow outward and join in that love.
  2. Empathic and Compassionate discernment that includes love toward all – the oppressed and the oppressors. The work must grow out of compassion and empathy and not out of intellectual analysis alone – otherwise it tends to reek of self-righteousness.
  3. Regular rhythm of lament – solidarity & co-suffering. Activism can’t be chosen as an avoidance of lament or it will be an act of denial.
  4. Persistent, non-violent and hopeful action that is not tied to results. It envisions a new, just shalom but does not require the reward of success. (But ineffective results are considered in discernment)
  5. The unity and inter-connectedness of all activism and service. Peacework, care for the poor, care for Creation, relational healing etc. are all one work.

What is the relation of [contemplation] to action? Simply this. He who attempts to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening his own self-understanding, freedom, integrity, and capacity to love, will not have anything to give others. He will communicate to them nothing but the contagion of his own obsessions, his aggressiveness, his ego-centered ambitions, his delusions about ends and means, his doctrinaire prejudices and ideas. There is nothing more tragic in the modern world than the misuse of power and action. —Thomas Merton

This was followed by an introduction to “Welcoming Prayer”:


When you have an overly emotional experience in daily life, take a moment to be still and silent and follow these steps.

  1. Focus, feel and sink into the feelings, emotions, thoughts, sensations and commentaries in your body.
  2. Welcome God in the feelings, emotions, thoughts, commentaries or sensations in your body by saying, “Welcome.”
  3. Let go by repeating the following sentences:
  • “I let go of the desire for security, affection, control.”
  • “I let go of the desire to change this feeling/sensation.”
reading while camping

Week Nine – Journaling

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Rachael shared a lifelong contemplative practice that has meant a great deal to her. In her introduction, she explained how it has felt so free and so much a gift to herself, that she did not see it as prayer. But in preparing her chat, she realised that her practice could very much be seen as a prayer – even though thoughts were often not expressed directly toward God. She prepared this handout to summarize her thoughts:

Download (PDF, 188KB)

contemplative reading by a hermitage in Perugia

Week Eight – Spiritual Reading

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Walter shared a form of contemplative reading that is somewhat related to lectio divina but a little closer to regular reading or study. This involves the unhurried reading of inspiring material that draws the reader into a place of receptivity and contemplative wonder. Here are some of the steps that were shared:

  1. Find something worthwhile to read that “awakens heart and mind” for you.
  2. If the author seems worthy, commit yourself to trying out the author’s way of thinking (like being an empathic listener). Don’t read resistantly. Open yourself. Wonder. Give your whole attention to what you are reading.
  3. Read contemplatively and “spaciously” – notice what is happening in that meeting place between your spirit and God’s spirit as you read. It is hard to read spaciously if you are hurried or read in a utilitarian way.
  4. If anything does “light up” as you read, then let your mind roam around in what is opening up for you. Don’t rush to get back to the book. For me, this kind of mind-wandering related to what a book is opening up to me is one of the deepest forms of prayer. (It leads to pondering questions like: What changes if this is true? How might this change how I think? Feel? Act? What part of me is resisting and why? God, what are you thinking? How does this make sense of other things?)
  5. If the ideas are worth it – be changed, and if possible do something right away to help it last – tell someone, write your new thoughts down, do something different, re-read the chapter that brought a response from you, write a quote on a FB post, etc.

Week Seven – Liturgy (in particular: when words become acts)

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This week we took a look at one particular aspect of liturgy – taking the words of a blessing prayer so seriously that praying it feels like an action, a vow. This is seen in the older versions of  St. Patrick’s Breastplate: “I bind unto myself today…”

So we looked at loricas and caims – two Celtic blessing prayers. A lorica is a “breastplate,” a protective blessing in which we devote ourselves to being surrounded by the spirit of Christ. A favourite version of this is the Northumbria community’s version of St. Patrick’s Breastplate:

Christ, as a light
Illumine and guide me.
Christ, as a shield
overshadow me.
Christ under me;
Christ over me;
Christ beside me
on my left and my right.
This day be within and without me,
lowly and meek, yet all-powerful.
Be in the heart of each to whom I speak;
in the mouth of each who speaks unto me.
This day be within and without me,
lowly and meek, yet all-powerful.
Christ as a light;
Christ as a shield;
Christ beside me
on my left and my right.


reflective face - detail of sculpture by Paul Day

Week Six – Reflection (the Examen)

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This week, Lorna shared the Ignatian practice of the Examen with us. She said:

The Examen is a way of reflecting on the events of our lives, to become more deeply aware of God’s love and participation in those events so that we can become freer to respond to this love.  It helps to begin with gratitude, and so we took some time to remember some of the ways we have most often, or most clearly experienced the love of God.

And here are the specific, practical suggestions for using the Examen:


Spend a few minutes quietly ‘under the gaze of God’, who knows and loves you.

Reflect briefly upon your life in the past day or so, asking God to bring to your memory one or two events that are important for you to notice.  Be attentive to how your heart is moved as events come to your awareness.

Linger/stay with one event, talking with God about what its meaning or significance might be for you at this time:

Is there a gift to celebrate and for which to give thanks?

–          a grace received or needed?
–          a new understanding about God, yourself, a situation…?
–          an invitation calling forth some response?

Talk with God openly and honestly about what has been touched in you during this awareness reflection.

If you are praying in a group setting, share briefly with the others something of your experience in this time.

sitting alone in Saxon Switzerland

Week Five – Silence & Solitude

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This week we spent time talking about Silence and Solitude as key elements of most contemplative practice, and why these are such powerful words and realities, often holding a deep invitation and resonance for us, even while they can also scare or repel us. As a group, we shared thoughts about this ambivalence, and about why we would bother pushing through any resistance we have to spending time alone and in quiet, concluding that the reason we often resist Silence and Solitude is the very reason we need them. Rachael brought the following poems, passages and quotes from through the ages to help shed some light on the difference between loneliness/isolation and solitude, and how one can be a gateway to the other; and on the deeper realities of self and God that can be found when we intentionally let go of our busyness and noise, and set aside all the words, thoughts and feelings we get attached to about our selves and God.

We ended our time by practicing doing just that with some silent Centering Prayer and then with the Blessing of Solitude by John O’Donohue.

Some readings from today:

“…The first step in spending time alone is to admit how afraid of it we are.

Being alone is a difficult discipline: a beautiful and difficult sense of being solitary is always the ground from which we step into a contemplative intimacy with the unknown, but the first portal of aloneness is often experienced as a gateway to alienation, grief and abandonment. To find our selves alone or to be left alone is an ever present, fearful and abiding human potentiality of which we are often unconsciously, and deeply afraid.

To be alone for any length of time is to shed an outer skin.”

  • from David Whyte’s,  Alone  


May you recognize in your life the presence, power and light of your soul.
May you realise that you are never alone, that your soul in its brightness and belonging connects you intimately with the rhythm of the universe.
May you have respect for your own individuality and difference.
May you realise that the shape of your soul is unique, that you have a special destiny here,
that behind the façade of your life there is something beautiful, good, and eternal happening.
May you learn to see yourself with the same delight, pride and expectation with which God sees you in every moment.

  • A Blessing of Solitude, by John O’Donohue


“Silence is God’s first language.” St. John of the Cross, 16th C

“Silence is the language of God, everything else is a poor translation.” Rumi, 13th C

“God [is] hidden within me. I find Him by hiding in the silence in which He is concealed.” Thomas Merton, 1948

“Silence is the gateway to the soul, and the soul is the gateway to God.” (Fr. Christopher Jamieson, Abbot of Worth Abbey, UK, in The Big Silence, 2010)

Dali painting

Week Four – Visio Divina and more

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This week Rachael introduced visio divina (“divine seeing” – contemplating images or nature to open ourselves to what we receive through them). She brought a folder full of images and we chose one and spent some minutes in silence asking ourselves questions like: Where do I see myself in this image? If you missed it, see an introduction to the practice here.

Walter also introduced why one reason for exploring different “languages” of contemplation is because different senses seem associated with different ways of processing in different people. For some people auditory input touches our heart while images bring out our analytical side; for others kinesthetic (participation/action) touches our heart, etc.

statue of St. Francis in San Damiano

Week Three – A Classical Rhythm of Contemplation

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This week Walter shared four latin words that have been used to describe a rhythm of contemplation for centuries:

Lectio – (lit. “reading”) – Receiving – when you catch a “glimpse,” something of what is heard or seen or read “hits home,” gets your attention as speaking to your spirit. Most typically, lectio divina practices this in relation to a short piece of writing (often Scripture), but the same sense of receiving can refer to any reading or listening or something in nature or any object of attention that speaks a word to the spirit.

Meditatio – (lit. “think or reflect on, meditate”) – Repetition – giving reflective attention to something until it is integrated, moves from the head to the heart – becomes real. Often this is literal repetition – holding a word or phrase through the day. Definitely more repetition than analysis.

Oratio – (lit. “prayer”) – Response – a response of the heart to the ‘word’ received and repeated. Less a response of many words and more a sense of consent, gratitude and love, but may also include a sense of asking for assistance related to the word.

Contemplatio – (lit. “time out,” assoc. with Gk. theoria “to see God”) – Union – a whole-being “yes,” fully entering into what has been received, deep and experienced integration.

(Based largely on Basil Pennington’s Centering Prayer)

We ended by practicing a lectio divina exercise based on Isaiah 30.15-18.

light through a window

Week Two – Kataphatic and Apophatic Approaches

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This week, after we shared different experiences with contemplation that we’ve had, Rachael introduced some of the labels given for different approaches: like the differences between kataphatic and apophatic approaches or between receptive and attentive approaches (see Keating’s diagram below).

Kataphatic refers to the positive or affirming value of thoughts, images and understandings that help us approach the Mystery, while apophatic refers to the negating approach that recognizes that the Presence of God is far beyond all of the words or thoughts that we can find. So apophatic approaches favour silence or “unknowing” that help to make sure that ideas and images and language, and their limitations, don’t get in the way of connecting with God.

We finished by practicing centering prayer again. Remember that in the last post there is a link to an introduction by Thomas Keating. Here is another video with a testimonial about the potential of centering prayer from Phileena Heuertz.

And here is the quote that I referred to stumbling on, right after talking about the same idea the previous week:

Like a wild animal, the soul is tough, resilient, resourceful, savvy, and self-sufficient: it knows how to survive in hard places…. Yet despite its toughness, the soul is also shy. Just like a wild animal, it seeks safety in the dense underbrush, especially when other people are around. If we want to see a wild animal, we know that the last thing we should do is go crashing through the woods yelling for it to come out. But if we will walk quietly into the woods, sit patiently at the base of a tree, breathe with the earth, and fade into our surroundings, the wild creature we seek might put in an appearance. We may see it only briefly and only out of the corner of an eye – but the sight is a gift we will always treasure as an end in itself.

And here is the diagram from Thomas Keating:

Chart of prayers ranging from receptive to attentive