What is Contemplative Prayer?

by Jeff Imbach

Contemplative prayer has been described in many different ways. Here are some of them. I think each has something to contribute to our understanding of what is happening in contemplative prayer.

Opening Our Hearts To God

In his wonderful book, Opening to God, Fr. Thomas Green says that prayer is not something that we can achieve. He says that even the classic definition of prayer in the Catholic catechism, “lifting our hearts to God” is too achievement oriented. It already assumes that we can lift our hearts. Sometimes we can’t! Prayer, Green says, begins with simply opening our hearts – becoming receptive to the action of God in our lives.

Waiting On God

There is a significant tradition that links contemplative prayer with the word “wait.” It is one of the great words that occurs over and over in the Psalms. We are invited to wait for God, to go light with our daytimers and our goals, and let God call the shots as to when and how things will unfold. Waiting could be seen as opening for a long period of time.

In Jeremiah’s excruciating lament over the destruction of the temple he speaks of the terrible end of all that he had known about how to worship God and be in relationship with God. He says that everything failed. Prayer seems like bouncing words off a brass ceiling. It would have been overwhelmingly despairing, Jeremiah says, except for one thing: God’s faithful love continues new every morning even though everything has fallen apart. He says he remembers the awful affliction and the bitterness of his plight and his soul goes into nose dive. Yet – and that is the big shift – “I call this to mind,” he says, “and therefore I have hope. Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”

Then Jeremiah ends with a powerful conclusion from the conflict and hope of his soul. He says that when things are broken to the point of despair, the only way forward is to “wait” for God. He says, “I say to myself, ‘The LORD is my portion; therefore I will wait for him…it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD.’

Listening For God

The notion of listening adds something responsive to our understanding of contemplative prayer and waiting. It is not simply waiting like we might wait for the bus to come while we are engrossed in reading a novel. We might wait for the computer to fire up by brushing our teeth but that is not true waiting.   Waiting includes an attentiveness of our hearts and minds. We are watching to see and where God is lovingly present to us and what God is doing in our experience. We can’t make anything happen, but we can at least watch for it.

Attentive Listening also implies that we are seeking to avoid the things that keep us from noticing. We learn a relaxed attentiveness. That is we learn to be ready and responsive without straining or striving.

In his book, Sadhana, Anthony De Mello provides an exercise in which he invites us to practice learning how to relax into our meditation and at the same time to be attentive. We take time to relax from head to toe and then begin to pay attention to every sensation of our skin, the chair, the temperature, and all. It creates a sense of being very relaxed and very aware at the same time.

In our culture, it is hard to listen. There is too much noise, too much distraction and too much demand. It takes intentional time and space to listen and to pay attention to the signs of the Spirit’s presence and action in our lives.

Gazing upon God

We take a further step with this description. We gaze on God in the sense that we begin to see the experience of our lives in the light of God’s tender love embracing us, permeating both us and the circumstances we find ourselves in.

Gazing on God implies a huge transition that is at the heart of our spiritual quest. It implies a focus to our listening. It means that we begin to move away from being oriented on ourselves to being oriented to what God’s loving perspective and action might be. That is, we begin to move from focusing on our thoughts, our words, our feelings, our experiences and how we are processing them and our interpretations of our lives. This allows a new possibility to open up in front of us. The reality that God might be doing something beyond what we can “ask or imagine.”

This passage is at the heart of contemplative living. As we turn our attention to God, we see that God has already been turned in our direction. We offer our desire and love to God and only to discover that God has been gazing at us intently with incredible longing and compassion and goodness all along.

In the words of Mother Julian, near the end of her beautiful revelation, “[God] wants us to set our hearts on our passing over, that is to say from the pain which we feel to the bliss which we trust.”


Now we understand why the heart of contemplation is receiving. We begin to receive the loving presence of God and the activity of God in our own selves. We let go of our concerns about how much and how well we are doing and learn the art of living out of what is given to us by God.

One author has made the point that receiving is the hardest thing for a Christian to do. We are programmed both by our culture and by our church experience to produce, to give, to do. To take a receptive stance seems too passive, or too empty.

Yet, as we begin to move away from our addiction to achievement and toward a more gentle receptivity we begin to experience the reality of God’s love. We begin to recognize that we do not have to produce an identity, we are already given an identity as the beloved sons and daughters of God. We don’t have to be so overly responsible, or so defensive. We can live openly and freely. In the words of The Message, by Eugene Peterson, we can learn the unforced rhythms of grace.


  1. Thank you, so helpful! I especially resonate with our addiction to achievement and trying to make an identity and how God is trying to move us away from those things and challenging me to go light with my schedule. These are very challenging concepts but so inviting at the same time!

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