By David Benner
Talk of transformation runs the risk of being dismissed as hyperbole. In terms of personal change, most of us know only the frustrations and extremely modest progress we have experienced in our spiritual and psychological self-improvement projects. Perhaps all you have ever known are small incremental steps forward followed by at least as many often bigger steps backward.
Maybe over a longer periodof your life you can see growth, but feel suspicious about calling it transformation. Even when you think of family members, friends or acquaintances it may still be hard to think of anyone you would describe as having undergone change of a magnitude to warrant such grand language.
If this is true in general, how much more unrealistic it must sound to speak of transformational prayer. It might seem like a pious thing to say but likely it is not very believable. However, I am convinced that truly opening ourselves to God has enormous potential for the transformation of our inner life, changes that can then ripple through us and into the world.
Because all true prayer involves opening ourselves to God, all prayer is capable of being the means of grace by which God does this work in us. But the prayer that gives God the most penetrating access to our depths is prayer that is offered in stillness. Prayer that includes a contemplative dimension has potential to reorganize our interior landscape in ways that we can not imagine – and all for the good!
I speak of a contemplative dimension to prayer to underscore the fact that contemplative prayer is not so much a type of prayer as something that should be a component of all prayer. It is the silence and space for stillness before God that supports genuine presence and openness to God.
A life of prayer that is exclusively built around attending, pondering or responding will not have the same transformational possibilities as a prayer life that also includes times for simply being with God. Sadly, therefore, it is this contemplative dimension that is most lacking from prayer. Communal prayer seldom leaves sufficient space for stillness before God in silence. Even liturgical prayer often leaves inadequate space for silence, and non-liturgical worship experiences are, of course, infamously devoid of silence.
Intentional times of personal prayer are often rushed and reduced to the basics of petitions, intercession, and possibly an expression or two of gratitude. All this is certainly worthy of being called prayer. But, lacking the contemplative dimension, it is not holistic prayer and it will not be transformational.
Speaking of prayer that includes this contemplative dimension, Thomas Keating describes it as “a process of interior transformation, a conversation initiated by God and leading, if we consent, to divine union.” The way we see ourselves, others, the world and God will change in this process. Our ability to perceive and relate to the divine presence will also change dramatically.
It will transform our heart and mind as an awareness of our being in relationship with God slowly comes to replace the ordinary background noise of thoughts.