In 1941, Thomas Merton wrote “My Argument with the Gestapo,” a novel featuring himself as the protagonist wandering in a bombed-out London. The novel finds young Merton asking himself what his place was in a world of chaos and tumult.
Seeking the answer, Merton entered the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemane in Kentucky just a few months later. He sought his place in the solitude and inner prayer in the cloister. Merton wrote constantly of his spiritual journey, producing numerous books, articles and journals from behind the walls of the abbey. In his solitude he became one of the leading spiritual writers of the 20th century and helped reintroduce the modern world to contemplative prayer.
Jim Finley was a young boy whose home life was dominated by a violent alcoholic father. His devout Catholic mother told him to pray to God for the strength to get through it. When his ninth grade religion class teacher mentioned Merton, Finley got a copy of “The Sign of Jonas,” Merton’s journal covering his early years at the abbey. On the first page Finley read the words, “As for me, I have but one desire, the desire for solitude. To be lost in the secret of God’s face.”
“Even though at 14 years old I did not know what that meant, something in me did. I said, ‘Me too, I want that too,’” said Finley. After high school graduation Finley followed Merton into the cloister of the abbey at Gethsemane, spending six years there as a monk.
“For three of those years, Thomas Merton was my spiritual director in his role as master of novices. It was a great grace in my life because I was drawn to the monastery by reading his books,” Finley said. “That’s where I really learned, there in the monastery with his guidance, how to live a contemplative life.”
Donna Ennis’ spiritual journey to contemplative prayer came about in a different way. “My sense of spirituality came from within; I was not raised in any religious practice,” she recalled. Ennis grew up in the natural beauty of Puget Sound, where experiencing the trees of the island, the moon, the sun sparkling on the water like diamonds all helped her in developing a very vivid inner life.
In her 40s, Ennis found herself awakening to a “deeper nature and a deeper purpose”. “That was certainly what happened to me when I came to a place where I needed to solve the unsolved parts of my life and figure out the places where I was being challenged and where I needed to grow,” she said. “It’s something that happens very vividly in us, and we can find books to support us along the pathway, but it’s experiential, you experience it.”
A month spent in a Benedictine monastery for a certification program led her to experience the real presence in the Eucharist, which led her to RCIA and entering the Catholic Church. After crossing paths with a Zen meditation teacher, Ennis found herself asking if something like that existed in the Catholic tradition. She found her answer in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. “Contemplative prayer is the simplest expression of the mystery of prayer.” (CCC 2713)
Both Ennis and Finley facilitate contemplative prayer groups in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Ennis facilitates a group at American Martyrs Church in Manhattan Beach, and Findley’s group meets at St. Monica Church in Santa Monica.
What is contemplative prayer?
“It is really a life of learning to be receptively open to God’s presence in our lives,” said Finley. “God is always present to us, but we’re not always present to God.”
Finley left the monastery, got married and became a teacher, but wanted to continue to develop the habitual consciousness of God’s oneness in all things to sustain an inner peace and to share that peace with other people.
“I knew the only way for me to do that was for me to be faithful to some kind of daily practice of contemplative prayer. So that daily quiet time with God became my anchor, my basis out of which I tried to stay consistently someone who lives this way in daily life,” he said.
“Our faith tells us that God is all about us and within us. St. Augustine says that God is closer to us than we are to ourselves. Jesus says fear not, I am with you always,” Finley said. “This is why I think Catholics need to go to Mass on Sunday. It’s a chance to slow down enough to catch up with ourselves, to hear the Scriptures, to be in the community of faith and to be reminded of God’s presence in our lives.”
But Finley pointed out that if we are doing that once a week, giving God one hour a week, and the rest of the week we find ourselves caught up in the momentum of the challenges of daily life, then we don’t slow down enough to give ourselves a chance to be with God. God is with us and present to us, but we are not present to him.
Ennis wrote a book, “The Ground of God: Contemplative Prayer for the Contemporary Spirit,” relating how this ancient prayer practice is relevant in today’s world. “The spirit today is way different because of the incessant auditory and visual input, and we are disinclined to turn it off, disinclined to cut that part of our lives off; it’s irresistible, it’s very alluring, it’s very compelling,” she said. “There’s a powerful culture going on around us, and it gathers steam every day.”
Contemplative prayer is a quieting, a stillness, being present. “We meet God in silent surrender, empty-handed and open-hearted, trusting in the subtle and transforming presence of God who knows all of our needs even before we do,” Ennis wrote. “We let go of the concerns of our hearts: all the people, places and things of our active life insomuch as we are able. We open our hearts to God, trusting that perhaps it is so that God wants to get a word in edgewise into our very active lives.”
Ennis described contemplative prayer as a way to “seek and sustain balance” by building up a “ground of God” within ourselves. “The mistake we make is when we let exterior opinions and circumstances guide us. Because God does not speak to us in nouns and verbs we need to be very careful listeners. The lessons are much more subtle than if God did speak to us using nouns and verbs and those lessons can be perceived only in silence.”
Finley described fleeting moments where God’s presence, his oneness with us, is sensed: in the intimacy of marriage, a moment of parents cherishing their child, awareness of how much an aging parent means to us.
“In the light of this, we wonder if there can be a way to learn to live in a more daily abiding awareness of the depths of what I fleetingly glimpsed. If instead of just leaving it up to chance, where I’m every so often touched with this sense of God’s presence, what if I could develop the habit for an underlying sense of God’s oneness with me in every moment of my life, the peace that surpasses understanding?” he asked.
A way to do this would be to be faithful to a quiet time with God, Finley said. “It would be a time set aside where there’d be no agenda but love alone. Like, ‘Here I am Lord. Here I am Lord, your servant is listening.’ So if I set aside some time each day to open my heart to what matters most, ‘Seek thee first the kingdom of God and everything else will be given to you,’ which is to be loving, and me giving myself to God who has given me every moment of my life,” he added.
An image many think of if they think of contemplative prayer may be a solitary monk living in a cave in the desert wilderness praying. Ennis labeled herself as a contemplative urban hermit. Some aspects of the practice of the ancient desert fathers can be translated to our lives, to our times.
“In our early history, the desert fathers gave new life and vitality to the whole Church returning by way of prayer to the mystical roots of the Body of Christ. They became advocates of silence and prayer,” she wrote. She poses the question whether they were rebellious in not passively accepting the cultural disarray of their times, or whether they were seekers after wisdom and truth.
One of the problems pointed out by Ennis is that we are “shaped by the world in which we live,” and we can feel led to a disordered life akin to the disorder of our culture rather than to the life of grace God intends for us. We then tend to feel out of balance.
So in the sense that the desert monks were countercultural, we need to be also. And we are, according to Ennis, when we choose to spend our time with God, whether that be a few moments, an hour or “all of our days in silent surrender to our God who loves us through each new breath and with every beat of our heart.”
How does one begin?
Finley suggested we start out with something very doable so as not to get discouraged. “Start out with 10 minutes, just a little moment of quiet time to pause and slow down to open myself to the awareness of God present in my life right now,” he said. He also suggested doing simple things: turning off the TV an hour early, special time with our spouse or child, spending a half hour after Mass quietly reflecting alone in our room, getting up at first light to pray or reflect while sitting with a cup of coffee.
He suggested quietly asking God to be present in our lives, to be aware of how he is present in our lives today. He related it to a person who begins working out. At first it is hard and they are out of shape, but once they get a taste of it and begin to get in shape, they can’t do without it. “And just quietly learn to start being faithful to it — and in a very simple way.”
He quoted Thomas Merton, who said, “If you wait for the world to politely step aside for you to live a more interior life, you’ll never do it.”
“You have to make the decision and add to that the freedom that you are going to set aside some time each day for this kind of quiet prayer,” Finley said.
He offered a routine that begins with Lectio Divina, taking a short text or Scripture that is beautiful or consoling, and quietly taking in the words and letting them resonate in a sustained receptivity. This leads to a discursive meditation, allowing the word that God speaks to come into our hearts. “It’s like having a dialogue with a friend, like an intimate other. You and God are engaging in this dialogue,” he said.
“This leads to prayer, and prayer comes from the heart. Lord I can’t do this without you. I cannot do this unless the Spirit within me inspires me and guides me, so help me to be more deeply aware of your love in my life so that my love gives me the courage to be present in my life,” he said.
“That’s going to lead to contemplation. When you are sitting with God in this prayerful, loving exchange you’re going to find what St. Teresa of Ávila called the prayer of quiet. She said there’s a moment where you try not to say anything, you try not to ask for anything and try to rest wordlessly in the presence. It’s like people in a relationship. You’re talking back and forth to each other and in certain moments you become silent and you just look at each other. That loving wordless being is contemplation,” Finley said.
Ennis offers two simple questions.
What on Earth is so commanding? “What in my daily life is commanding my attention away from my own personal truth?” she asked. What are things that are drawing us away from experiencing an interior prayer life, or as Ennis put it, why am I going that neurotic way? Why are we following what we are following daily and why does it command so much of our time, energy and focus?
Who is in command? “Ideally, we would like to say God is in command,” she said. “We can be stretched by the tensions of conformity or we can find our ultimate rest, release and spiritual liberation in contemplation of our God who brings new life.”
Some beginners may struggle with silence and stillness. “You wouldn’t necessarily start with silence; it is too intimate,” said Finley. “What you would do is start with the words that seem beautiful to you, that inspire you,” he said. He suggested taking a book or writing by a spiritual teacher — like Merton or Father Thomas Keating or Father Ronald Rolheiser — sitting with the writing, reading the first paragraph “like, oh, that’s beautiful, how have I experienced that? Or what would my life be like if I could be more aware of that?”
Ennis said that “Jesus did not over-instruct,” so contemplative prayer should remain simple. “We believe that through Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit, God is within our hearts. Given the presence of God, we have everything we need within us, and through contemplation we become naturally present to God’s grace,” she said.
Like Finley, Ennis suggested beginning with short, manageable time frames and grounding the prayer in a reading from Sacred Scripture. “We are gradually transformed from the inside out,” she said. “Over a period of time, we find that we are truly living the Word of God from our hearts out into our active lives.”
Don’t be discouraged by inner and outer distractions. Just acknowledge the interruptive thoughts, she said, neither accepting nor rejecting them. Ennis suggested using a simple word or phrase to bring the focus back to God, something short like, “Come Holy Spirit,” or “Jesus, have mercy.”
“Welcome the empty and open moments when they come. For prayer, empty is better than full,” she said. Ennis compared these moments to the space between the notes, or the rests in music. “The spaces between allow room for the Holy Spirit to live, move, breathe,” she said. “There’s an opening and an opportunity for us to come in, and through the course of the prayer we will find our place of belonging.”
Contemplative prayer in group settings
If contemplative prayer so far sounds like a solitary practice, which it can be, how does the practice work in the group settings offered by Ennis and Finley.
“Our individual prayer is important and it’s essential, but there is nothing like the support of a group to pray with on a regular basis. That’s the mystery. People coming together for a common purpose,” said Ennis.
“We’re not talking, we’re not sharing, that’s not what we do. I tell anyone who is interested in coming, ‘We’d love to have you, but you’ll probably be ignored,’” she added with a chuckle. “There’s a unique kind of bonding that happens when people come together in this way because we haven’t brought all of our things into it. We are there for a simple stream of thought connecting to God.”
Her group meets for an hour most Tuesday evenings and follows a formula of “read, pray, examine,” with Ennis herself doing very little other than creating an environment where not too many things are brought into it.
“There is a mystery in praying alone in solitude, but there is also the mystery of knowing that there’s kinship with people that are seeking this union. And there’s the gift of being together,” said Finley. “We draw strength from each other. I experience it as communal sincerity. We’ve all come together and in our presence we bear witness to each other.”
Finley’s group meets for an hour on most Thursday nights. “I think people are drawn to it because they are touched by the sincerity of it. Some people come and they start to cry; it is disarming, the communal sincerity of people sitting there in silence with them there in the Church,” he said.
“People are getting little nudges, something tugging inside and they can feel that something is missing and that maybe what they are looking for lies in this direction. And if that’s true, I would encourage them to pursue it by these contemplative groups,” he said.
Ennis’ book has a section of guidelines for small-group formation, and she stated that she is eager to offer help and support to anyone who wishes to start a parish group.
Shortly before his death, Merton was asked by the Holy See to contribute to a message to the world about contemplative prayer. He wrote:
“The contemplative has nothing to tell you except to reassure you and say that if you dare to penetrate your own silence and dare to advance without fear into the solitude of your own heart … then you will truly recover the light and the capacity to understand what is beyond words and beyond explanations because it is too close to be explained: it is the intimate union in the depths of your own heart, of God’s spirit and your own secret inmost self, so that you and he are in all truth one spirit.”
To learn more about contemplative prayer:
Donna Ennis’ book, “Ground of God: Contemplative Prayer for the Contemporary Spirit,” is available on Amazon.com.