The Radical Practice of Contemplation – Br. Keith Nelson

Br. Keith Nelson

Galatians 2:19-20
Matthew 6:5-6

Marina Abramovic has spent many hours of her life completely motionless, silent, and fasting. She has endured voluntary poverty and physical pain for the sake of her vocation. She is not a nun or a mountaintop hermit, but a performance artist – sometimes called the “grandmother of performance art.” Born in Yugoslavia in 1946, her childhood was shaped by the Eastern Orthodox spirituality of her grandmother and the intense, communist discipline of her distant parents. Her performance pieces, most of them ephemeral or time-based, explore the limits of the human body and the mind. All of them challenge our cherished definitions of art. In 2010, Abramovic performed a piece at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, entitled “The Artist is Present,” part of a retrospective of her forty years of work. For this, she sat motionless and silent in the center of the Museum’s atrium surrounded by four bright lights. An empty chair stood opposite the artist, in which anyone who cared to was invited to sit and engage in a silent, mutual gaze with her. Abramovic was present in this way for three months, six days a week, for 7.5 hours a day. While the curator of the museum advised her to be prepared to face a frequently empty chair, her simple offer to be unflinchingly present touched a collective nerve and awakened a widespread hunger. That chair would be occupied by a total of 1,545 people, many of whom lined up before the museum opened or slept on the pavement to get a spot in line. People smiled uncontrollably, laughed or silently wept. Each face was met with the same gentle, mysterious, steady gaze, in a physical environment that framed each encounter as a moment of art enfolding a moment of life. Of the piece, Abramovic said, “The hardest thing is to do something which is so close to nothing that it demands all of you, because there is no story anymore to tell, no object to hide behind. There’s nothing – just your own, pure presence.” 

In a very public and very radical way, Marina Abramovic became a temporary, creative embodiment of the somewhat elusive dimension of life we call contemplation.

The topic in our preaching series this evening is the radical practice of contemplation. In a Christian context, contemplation slowly purifies our perception, and it purifies our presence – our loving availability to God, to others, and to ourselves. With time, it enables God’s grace to soak us through, deep down to the hidden roots of our humanity. Followed to the end, the path of contemplation is a radical, life-long act of resistance, and one of the highest acts of service we can offer our fellow creatures and our world.

Contemplation is a simple, receptive, intuitive awareness of God. It is a form of wordless, imageless, non-discursive prayer that has profoundly influenced the monastic tradition of the Church, both East and West. In this classical sense it has little to do with our modern word “contemplation” understood primarily as the pondering of deep and significant thoughts. The use of the discursive mind – the mind that reasons and imagines, plans and remembers – is reserved for other kinds of prayer. Sometimes called meditative prayer or “mental prayer,” these more active forms of Christian practice can exert a dynamic and complementary energy alongside contemplative prayer, somewhat like the relationship between physical exercise and sleep. But a significant strand in the monastic tradition suggests that, over time, the tendency is for all prayer to move from the effortful attention of self-reflexive prayer to God toward an increasingly effortless, unifying intention of self-identification with God: with the Christ who prays our prayer in and through us. Christ becomes our praying as we pray our lives. According to this ancient tradition, discursive prayer continues as before but is more deeply marked by moments of thin, radiant transparency, infused with the flavor of silence from which all words and concepts arise and to which they all return. In the ancient and Medieval world, this was understood as a natural and organic progression for all Christians who truly desired to pray. But since the fifteenth century, various historical causes have produced a Western Church, both Catholic and Protestant, that is much more heavily weighted in the direction of the discursive, linear, and analytical mind, a divorce between academic and spiritual theology, and a resulting obsession with rarified and exotic “mystical” experience, understood as inaccessible to ordinary Christians.

The very good news is that the Church is recovering from that historical shift and the heart of contemplation is once again living and beating audibly within her. The mid-twentieth century re-awakening to contemplative prayer as the inheritance of all Christians has deeply impacted my own life story. My formative religious upbringing took place in the Bible Belt, as a Southern Baptist. As a teenager, disillusioned by the hypocrisy I observed in the cultural Christianity around me, as well as the seeming lack of transformative spiritual practices, I turned to Buddhism in college. I was hungry, and in that tradition I found a feast. I spent eight years as a serious practitioner of Tibetan Buddhist meditation, with the single-minded zeal characteristic of men in their early twenties. But I continued to study Christianity from a distance, maintaining a cautiously open heart toward the Jesus I had once loved as my Lord. I taught theology for two years at a Catholic high school. A framed photo of Thomas Merton and His Holiness the Dalai Lama, arm in arm, hung above my desk. While at Harvard Divinity School in 2006, I came in closer contact with the Episcopal Church. I studied Christian contemplative writings as more than an intellectual exercise, and discovered exciting hints of Christian contemplative renewal, including the 150-year-old Society of St. John the Evangelist. In hindsight, I realized that my Buddhist spiritual practice had prepared me, had awakened me, for an encounter with Christ and the Church that I could receive with my whole heart. It opened for me a path of practice that resonated with my deepest desire, and I took up the Christian contemplative discipline of centering prayer. I came home to Jesus, the “Guru” who had been with me from the beginning, and knew Him for the first time. And while the details of my story are personal, its basic contours are not all that unique among Christians of my generation.

Moments of contemplative encounter with God are incredibly common, however transient. Perhaps you have been caught off guard by an ineffable, absorbing sense of union between yourself and all that is. Or a gentle gap between thoughts, a suspended resting in God. Or an inner silence, a stillness and equipoise of body that signaled and reinforced a deeper stillness of spirit. Or a sense perception felt not merely with the eye or ear but with the entirety of your being. Or a moment of subtle insight that blossomed within you the moment you turned your attention away from the question or problem at hand. If any of these sound hauntingly familiar, you have tasted contemplation, which is always known to our discursive mind by its aftertaste, its afterglow, or its trailing fragrance. Because consciousness is invariably elided or suspended in contemplation proper, leaving only traces in the world of thought and language, it positively resists description in anything but the most gentle, most humble, and most provisional terms. So while this is a sermon – and not, as might be more fitting, a poem or a performance art piece – these words are offered in that spirit.

On one level, contemplation cannot be practiced: it is always a gift of sheer grace from God. On another level, the gift of contemplation is likely to come to those whose hearts have been diligently and faithfully repared by certain kinds of practice, what we call “contemplative prayer.” You may have discovered long ago, or are discovering now, a pre-disposition toward contemplative prayer, a confidence that your personal, spiritual temperament is such that you must pray in this way. But if that’s not you, I hope you’ll see that this way of prayer is a precious tool in the tool-belt of the Christian life.

We are all novices in the brave, new world of contemplation, whether we’re cultivating this way of prayer from scratch, deepening it, or re-committing ourselves to it. The following are a few concrete suggestions if you choose to explore this path.

In our prayer time, we can prepare ourselves by using a practice of single-minded attention or concentration, in which all of our energy is gathered toward one focal point. This point could be a single word or phrase from Scripture or tradition, repeated slowly and steadily. It could be our breath, a very physical reminder of the Holy Spirit, the breath of God breathing in us. It could be the simple, tactile sensation of our thumb and forefinger holding one bead of a rosary at a time. This is meditative prayer or “mental prayer” at the most simplified end of the spectrum. It can pass over into contemplative prayer at any moment, so when you feel in your heart or your gut that a mysterious force has taken over most of the effort you’ll probably find that the focal point to which you have been assiduously returning drops away. You can stop flapping your wings, and let the air current buoy you up. When you become aware again that your attention has been drawn elsewhere, simply resume this steady, unperturbed repetition.

Working with the attention in that way is the classic method taught to beginners in many schools of contemplation, or what Eastern religious traditions in the West call “meditation.” It is often considered preparation for a further practice, a deeper foray into what Cynthia Bourgeault has called “the intertidal zone of Love,” in which prayer becomes more and more of God and less and less of us. The crucial shift is from attention to intention.

The basic invitation of intention-based practices, such as centering prayer, or the Eastern Orthodox “prayer of the heart,” is to gradually dispossess oneself of every conscious thought, for twenty or thirty minutes, once or twice a day. In centering prayer, we generate a clear intention of Love offered to God, from the core of our being. We choose a very simple symbol to represent our consent to God’s presence and action within us, such as a short word, the sensation of our breathing, or a very simple image upon which we may glance with our inner eye. We do not focus the attention continually on the symbol, but return to it very lightly only when we notice ourselves thinking, as a kind of life-preserver. Otherwise, we rest, letting all things be as they are, in God. We don’t resist, or retain, or react to any thought. We are guaranteed to have thoughts; they are not the enemy. The driving energy here is very, very gentle – so gentle that we may fall asleep, or be tempted to feel that we’re just wasting time. I often hear people say, “Yes, I tried praying like that a few times. I was really bad at it.” If that’s you, it may mean that contemplative prayer isn’t right for you, or that the greater clarity of an attention-based practice is a better fit. But it may also signify something else, something I have learned the hard way. There is an easy tendency to label prayer with the same value judgments that our culture conditions into us in virtually every domain of our life, including the label “failure.” But prayer – and contemplative prayer especially – is not about something we do well or poorly. It’s about bringing our whole-hearted intention and consenting to let God do the rest. On the days that I have been impatient to see immediate progress, or get a tangible packet of grace to make me feel good, or achieve something I could check off a spiritual “to do” list, God has systematically thwarted my agenda in prayer. For the aspiring contemplative, God frustrates every impulse toward instant gratification or divine approval-seeking by returning him to his intention: to gently let go of every thought or object of the attention, even those that seem really, truly worth thinking! The letting go that this requires helps us to understand Paul’s words on a new level: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” This letting go patterns the mind of Christ within us. The gentleness of that return, and the gentleness with ourselves that it engenders, has been both the greatest challenge and the greatest gift in my practice.

The writer Martin Laird describes Christian contemplative practice using the analogy of gardening: strictly speaking, a gardener does not grow plants. However, she does all she knows how in order to maximize the conditions under which plants will grow. Maggie Ross calls this the paradox of intention: we will certainly not arrive at contemplation by our own self-willed effort and may even undermine God’s work within us. Yet without resting in a deep, clear, and loving intention toward God, held gently in the heart, we have no anchor or ballast on the mind’s often stormy seas. To put it a third way, there is a maxim from the Sufi tradition: “A man will not catch a wild horse by running. But the man who is not running will not catch a wild horse.”

Contemplation presumes the ancient concept of synergy: the union of our gentle, persistent effort and God’s grace in a life-long, mutual partnership. Simple being in relationship with God is the heart of contemplative prayer. The progression of human romantic love – from acquaintance, to friendship, to courtship, to marriage – is a favorite image of many saints for the evolution of contemplative intimacy with God, the Bridegroom of the soul. We are drawn, irresistibly, into the silent reciprocity of the lover and the beloved, though not without great suffering and loss of self-identity as we let go of our many interior idols. In this silent love, God and the soul become absorbed in and available to one another. Words, concepts, even the sight of our Lover’s face are rendered entirely superfluous. Rather than preparing the soul for any discursive message or content discerned by the conscious mind, this silence itself is the message, communicating a Love deeper than any emotion or attachment. This silence, writes St. John of the Cross, is God’s “first language.”

Contemplation also presumes the foundational concept of the divine indwelling. God is “above all and through all and in all” writes St. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians. And in the book of Acts, we hear Paul teach that God is the one “in whom we live and move and have our being.” God is not a being external to us, not an object out there but the subject of all that is. God is Being itself – if you be, if you are, if you have been brought into existence, you are participating in God. We are not separate from God, from one another, or from the earth. But because we are materially distinct from one another, and because the ambient energy of sin clouds our sight, our felt experience of separation is often very real, with many layers and deep roots. Contemplative prayer slowly but steadily lifts the veils of our sense of separation.

This way of being that we call “contemplative” equips us with a fresh, vivid, and life-giving perspective on core tenets of Christian faith. It invites us to travel a path of joyful, disciplined freedom in the luminous company of the contemplative saints who have blazed the trail before us. In the inspiring and challenging words of T. S. Eliot, it holds before us the promise of holiness: “a condition of complete simplicity, costing not less than everything.” The women and men I have known who have sold all to seek this pearl of great price are the most joyful, sane, and authentic human beings I have encountered. The contemplative renewal of the church in our age has awakened fire where there has sometimes seemed only embers, but it has a long way to go. In a culture plagued by individualism, hyperactivity, and superficiality, contemplative transformation enables true individuality in true community; it inspires purposeful action balanced by deep rest and play; and it empowers ordinary people to do ordinary things with extraordinary depth, substance, and love. The kingdom of heaven promises nothing less.




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  1. Suzanne Haraburd on January 18, 2023 at 09:36

    Br. Keith, You seem to know what my heart needs to hear. This sermon affirms a direction my life has taken that is so counter-cultural I am tempted to question it. Thank you!

  2. Michael Ricca on January 18, 2023 at 07:55

    Dear Br. Keith,

    Thank you for this insightful, generous, and inspiring talk – so full of the contemplative wisdom you describe. It hit me in the just the way I needed today, and unearthed some of the thinking (or non-thinking) I’ve been doing recently.

    With gratitude,

  3. JoAnne Bennett on March 21, 2022 at 19:02

    Thank you ????

  4. Carol Carlson on March 21, 2022 at 12:42

    What a perfect message for the first day of spring, with so many invitations to simply BE in its presence. Thanks, Br. Keith. Here’s one for you that is rooted, at least, in the contemplative spirit (those of us with ADD would never claim that we can attain the whole thing….)

    Glory be to thee, O Lord for putting
    me here, now, graciously, among the spring;
    and glory for the grey ground, and for setting
    the wind to coax it green again, and sing,
    busy, to itself, thy song. And glory,
    O Lord, for prodding buds and birds to re-
    awaken, open eyes, sing too. How weary
    we were of winter, Lord! Glory to thee!

  5. m. dion thompson on March 21, 2022 at 11:35

    Thank you for this beautiful meditation. I’m going to hold on to it for future reference as I continue my journey. God’s peace be with you.

  6. Sue on March 24, 2021 at 11:10

    Brother Keith, So very appreciative of this sermon, profound teaching it has been for me. Clarified for me some of my troubling thoughts. Silence is not silent and that’s what was I didn’t get. Thanks so much.

  7. Alexnder Gordon on March 23, 2021 at 14:43

    Br Keith Many thanks for a clear concise sermon. Sandy

  8. Jennifer Daly on March 23, 2021 at 07:35

    I know this was written years ago, but it helped/helps me so so much. It is quite an extraordinary articulation of some things I know deep in my heart.
    Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

  9. Sally Baynton on February 17, 2019 at 08:03

    This is, without a doubt, the clearest writing on Contemplation I have ever read. As one who practices contemplation daily, I am always amazed at how difficult it seems to be to explain it to others. I have all the “ammunition” I need now. You have made the words for me…Thank you so much!

  10. Jeanne DeFazio on February 16, 2019 at 09:50

    Wow: I. Especially happy about the Sufi tradition: “A man will not catch a wild horse by running. But the man who is not running will not catch a wild horse.”

    Contemplation presumes the ancient concept of synergy: the union of our gentle, persistent effort and God’s grace in a life-long, mutual partnership. Simple being in relationship with God is the heart of contemplative prayer. The progression of human romantic love – from acquaintance, to friendship, to courtship, to marriage – is a favorite image of many saints for the evolution of contemplative intimacy with God, the Bridegroom of the soul. We are drawn, irresistibly, into the silent reciprocity of the lover and the beloved, though not without great suffering and loss of self-identity as we let go of our many interior idols. In this silent love, God and the soul become absorbed in and available to one another. Words, concepts, even the sight of our Lover’s face are rendered entirely superfluous. Rather than preparing the soul for any discursive message or content discerned by the conscious mind, this silence itself is the message, communicating a Love deeper than any emotion or attachment. This silence, writes St. John of the Cross, is God’s “first language.”

    Thanks so much!

  11. Reed Saunders on February 16, 2019 at 05:58

    Dear Br. Keith and all the Brothers at SSJE,
    What a joyful addition to my life you all are. I don’t remember how I found you but your Daly meditations are so good and encourage me on my journey to God.
    I committed to my Christian faith about 10 years ago. I attended the Living School at the Center for Action and Contemplation and received deep and loving instruction from Richard Rohr, Jim Finley and Cynthia Borgeault; discovered Buddhism which has taught me much about presence to Divine Reality which I find wholly compatible with my faith.
    I will never arrive but the unfolding of God’s presence and grace is very real and humbling.

  12. Jane on February 16, 2019 at 04:25

    Dear Brother Keith, thank you. God has given you such a gift to share. Thank you for the beauty and depth of your words; for their clarity and inspiration; the wisdom and teaching. I long to rest in God’s presence and find myself flitting here and there both in thought and movement. I think maybe I am nearer to Him and He to me than I realise in those fleeting moments you describe. ..When I lose myself in the beauty of the garden or countryside, by rivers and in fields or just enjoy the quiet of the house. . Your words and wisdom encourage me to try less, but they also give me ways forward to allow space for God to meet me. Thank you again.

  13. Joanne Wilson on December 9, 2017 at 11:25

    Thank you for your example of Marina Abramovic and what she said. That captures for me what i experience .I keep reminding myself that the desire to desire this counts and a divine invitation. I’ve always appreciated your sermons and now know why.

  14. S.R.E on December 8, 2017 at 10:47

    Hello Br. Keith,

    My journey has been somewhat similar to yours. I had a difficult childhood. My parents were not practicing — one a bitter Catholic, the other a mocking -of the goodie-two-shoeness of it) Presbyterian — but I got a haphazard Christian education through preschool, junior fellowship with a friend, bell choir, Vacation Bible School, etc.. By the time I hit high school, I had left it all behind. But I turned to Buddhism as a way to get myself through mothering small children. For my 40th birthday, my husband gave me a retreat in the States (at Barre). Suddenly, in the silence, all I could think of was Jesus. He was there with me the entire week. I left the retreat determined to re-discover Christianity. Six months later I was derailed by cancer. I was too young in my faith to feel any support from it, so I returned to my Dharma talks. But I kept fighting for Jesus, for some reason. I cycled through Cynthia Bourgeault, Thomas Keating, Richard Rohr and others. Ten years later here I am. I’ve read everything there is to read about Centering Prayer, but I’m about as good at it (with the discipline of it) as I was with Buddhist meditation, when I was wholly distracted by visions of Jesus while sitting at Barre!

  15. SusanMarie on December 8, 2017 at 08:45

    Centering Prayer has been part of my (nearly) daily life for about 4+ years. I have read many things about it and tried hard to understand. Much of what is written is either over my head or so simplistic that it fails to give me the true picture of what real centering prayer IS. This sermon is exquisite in it’s description, clarity, deep understanding…”knowing”. When reading it I felt almost as if I was joining you in centering prayer! You made it so clear that centering prayer isn’t something you DO, but rather something you allow/receive/experience. There is no success or failure. And surely all of us who “practice” centering prayer know that any judgment of the time spent in this type of prayer is useless and not at all helpful. And even though I’ve used the word twice here, there is no “understanding” centering prayer. It is experiential. Having said that, I “know” more today than I did yesterday. My centering prayer experience after reading your sermon this morning was different than ever before. Words are hard here. I won’t say “better”, I won’t say I “understand”…I think it’s a new sense of knowing deep within myself a connection I haven’t experienced before on that level. Really, really lovely; well thought out and beautifully written. What a blessing.

  16. Linda on December 8, 2017 at 06:43

    I have often said that the ten years I spent practicing and studying Buddhism help me be a better Christian. Thank you for your words.

  17. Pamela Forbes on September 29, 2017 at 14:01

    Your piece came into my inbox, and my life, at the exact right moment. I am a new practitioner of centering prayer, and a lifelong Episcopalian. In roaming around the available books on centering prayer, starting with Cynthia Bourgeault, I came across a few which seemed way beyond me, and a bit frightening.

    I’m a type A personality, a lawyer much given to linear thinking, and for whom trust is difficult. Your talk renewed my faith that the transformation God is making in me, and the surrender it requires, take me precisely where I need to be.

    Thank you, immesurably.

  18. gwedhen nicholas on December 10, 2016 at 01:42

    Oh Br Keith, you have caught the essence of Celtic spirituality. Thank you for putting it so succinctly.

    • Charlotte B. Brown on December 8, 2017 at 08:30

      Beautifully articulated message! I am sharing it with other members of my family, Thank you for the clarity of the content and your very personal perspective on a topic so near and dear to my heart. My twenty years of a Centering Prayer practice have been transformative, yet I feel my journey is only just beginning. Gratitude Br Keith! And gratitude to all the Brothers at SSJE. My day is always a better one when I begin it with one of your thoughtful and inspirational sermons.

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