People are receiving the Christian understanding of prayer as “contemplation” in a number of ways. There are some like Concerned Nazarenes and Lighthouse Trails that think it has absolutely no place in the future of the people of God. Others from a variety of traditions think otherwise--Thomas Merton, Richard Rohr, Robert Benson, Richard Foster, etc. (at least those are some of my favorite contemporaries). There is of course the whole mystic tradition in Christianity--Evagrius Ponticus, Benedict, John of the Cross, Thomas a Kempis, and Brother Lawrence, to name a few.
I am discouraged by those who cannot see the value of this part of the Christian tradition. I hope someday that they will change there minds. I have less contact with the people involved with Lighthouse Trails than with Concerned Nazarenes. I have deep roots and ties with the Church of the Nazarene and am saddened by the apparent naivety of what they have to say, especially when it seems that the contemplative tradition sounds so much like what Nazarenes and Wesleyans have said about holiness.
Here are a couple of quotes from Thomas Merton that I think are really really good. He emphasizes grace as that which transforms us, something that holiness folk have always talked about but seldom really practiced, save for a few. We talk a lot about receiving the grace of God in such a way that love takes control of our lives in a way that it never had before. And we say that only God can do this. But it seems that we really still try and do this by abiding by a particular form of Christian spirituality that “we” have deemed appropriate. Thus, holiness is about a certain kind of Christianity. Thus, it is at this point where Christians battle over which theology is better than the other rather than conversing about how different theologies can help us pray. We might be surprised to discover that different theological reflections can be in service to one another as they help us practice silence and stillness so that we might encounter God and live lives of love.
Merton suggest that emptiness from all “forms”, all religious “schemes”, all of our “ways” is the goal. True emptiness is a stillness from our efforts to attain stilllness/emptiness. The goal of prayer for the Christian is total emptiness of all our ways so that we can truly encounter God and His way. The practice of prayer is a patient waiting. It is learning true stillness, true silence, true darkness. It is releasing our selves from our own self-deceptions, which is always a terrifying place to be. It is a place where we have let our guard down, where we have said, “it cannot be my way,” where we are truly vulnerable. But it is here where we are always truly able to have faith.
But enough of my take. Here’s Merton.
"The contemplative way is, in fact, not a way. Christ alone is the way, and he is invisible. The 'desert' of contemplation is simply a metaphor to explain the state of emptiness which we experience when we have left all way, forgotten ourselves and taken the invisible Christ as our way."
“In other words, the true contemplative is not the one who prepares his mind for a particular message that he wants or expects to hear, but who remains empty because he knows that he can never expect or anticipate the word that will transform his darkness into light.”
“An emptiness that is deliberately cultivated, for the sake of fulfilling a personal spiritual ambition, is not empty at all: it is full of itself.”This next quote seems to be a possible point of connection between those holiness folk who fear “contemplation” and those who don’t.
“The character of emptiness, at least, for a Christian contemplative, is pure love, pure freedom. Love that is free of everything, not determined by any thing, or held down by any special relationship. It is love for love’s sake. It is a sharing, through the Holy Spirit, in the infinite charity of God. And so when Jesus told his disciples to love, he told them to love as universally as the Father who sends his rain alike on the just and the unjust. ‘Be ye perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect.’ This purity, freedom and indeterminateness of love is the very essence of Christianity, it is to this above all that monastic prayer aspires.”