By Fr Daniel Hobbs:
I was dropping my son Jack off at school one day when he was in Grade 2. When we arrived at the school, he was in the back rustling through his things and putting on his school bag when we had the following conversation.
Jack: “Hey, Dad. Did you know that God’s heart was so big that it just exploded!”
Me: “Did it, mate? Wow!”
Jack: “Yep! Just blew up!” (with hands thrown in the air as he said this)
“Yep, and each piece of God’s heart became us – became me, you, Mummy and everyone in the world.”
Me: “That’s amazing, mate! How do you know that?”
Jack: “Don’t know! Just do”.
Me: “Well that sounds awesome buddy.”
As he stepped out of the car, Jack added, “And all God wants, Daddy, is for all those pieces of the heart to come back together again.”
Yet, I was the one in the family with a degree in theology and a back-to-front collar.
In the pure simplicity of a child’s way of perceiving, something universal, something profound was captured so beautifully.
This is the value of contemplative prayer, of living a contemplative life.
All too often we get caught up in the busyness of daily life. Responsibilities and obligations demand our attention. All too often we are governed, unconsciously, by our own biases, preferences and desires. We see the world like a racehorse wearing blinkers, unaware of the wider world and hence unable to see our place in it or the impact our choices have on others. This directly shapes our participation in our communities and the wider world. For example, we slip easily into tribal behaviour, thinking the group or organisation we belong to is better than the rest – that only we have the answers, that only our way of life is worthy of pursuit, that those different from us are somehow lesser than us.
In neuroscience this is called ‘negative bias’, an evolutionary cousin to the ‘fight or flight’ response. Both developed to protect humanity at very different times in human history. While this is biological, these days it is mostly unhelpful. Unless, of course, like our ancient ancestors, we are ever faced with a family of saber-toothed tigers.
Contemplative prayer frees us from this blinkered worldview. It takes time and practice, but contemplative prayer is a way of life that opens our hearts and minds to the glorious wonder of all of God’s creation and the life-giving Holy Spirit within. The contemplative sees with the heart of God, searching always to experience the world as God sees the world. The contemplative participates in the world the way Jesus participated in the world – gently, lovingly, inclusively and holistically.
My wife, a clinical psychologist, tells me that contemplative prayer, like meditation and mindfulness, actually changes the brain. Contemplative prayer gradually re-wires the brain by changing neural pathways. This is possible because of neuro-plasticity – the brain’s capacity to be changed and shaped like the muscles of the body in exercise.
It is from this place of prayerful peace, a place of wholeness and healing, that we are invited into the practices of Jesus, both human and divine. Jesus often removed himself from daily busyness to sit still and silent in solitude. In this intentional practice, Jesus experienced God’s presence. Jesus sought deeper union with the divine, the eternal reality of reconciled wholeness between Creator and creation.
Through the cross, Jesus also revealed to us God’s eternal vision for a reconciled creation and invites us into his “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5.18). We celebrate this divine union every time we celebrate the sacraments of our church. It is why St Francis of Assisi spoke so lovingly of “gazing” upon the cross as a contemplative practice of thanksgiving and hope.
So, contemplative prayer is not just taking time out. Contemplative prayer is not an excuse to hide from the world. Contemplative prayer is an intentional practice of transformative Christian living. Through a contemplative heart we see and seek a world made whole by God and experience this wholeness ourselves because of Jesus’ revelatory act on the cross. From this place of wholeness, we embark upon the “ministry of reconciliation” in our daily lives at home, at work, in community and in church.
We really are “pieces of the heart”. God really does love each of us that much. And once we become aware of our place in God’s creation and experience God’s unconditional love, we can’t help but work to bring “those pieces of the heart back together again”.
That is the value of contemplative prayer – “out of the mouths of babes”.