Contemplative Spiritual Formation:
Going Deeper

by Gerald May, M.D.
Senior Fellow, Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation

In Christian contemplative tradition, the process of spiritual deepening — growth in love — happens through grace. This means it is not a matter of success or failure, not something that is earned or achieved. Instead, it comes as a gift and it happens in often hidden ways that are uniquely fitted for each person. The various spiritual practices and disciplines that are part of spiritual formation can be very helpful in claiming and responding to the deeper movements of God in our lives, and in developing more profound self-knowledge and sensitivity to the world around us. Although they do not have a direct cause-and-effect relationship to growth in love, they can help us become more appreciative and responsive to the deep current of the Divine Presence that always has been and always will be alive within and around us.

The first and most important way of exploring your spiritual life is to sincerely attend to your own prayer. Take sufficient quiet time to pray for God’s grace and guidance, for understanding, for a sense of direction, for clarity about your desire for God and God’s desire for you. Listen carefully, waiting openly for a sense of rightness about next steps. Let yourself be guided toward the disciplines, practices and resources that are called for in your life now.

Often we do not have a clear sense of guidance, and therefore need to proceed experimentally, remaining open to any sense of rightness or wrongness that may be given, and hoping to trust in God’s goodness and loving presence with us always and everywhere. Although each person will follow her or his own unique path of practice, all contemplative journeys are likely to include some aspects of the following foundational dimensions of spiritual formation:

Silence, Solitude, and Community

Silence: From extended silence in retreats through regular daily times of quiet prayer and meditation to frequent brief pauses in the middle of a busy day, silence allows us to remember who we are and what our deepest yearnings are for. In silence, we are free to be open to God’s presence more intimately and directly. In its largest sense, silence implies freedom from all kinds of noise, not only the noise of speaking but also that of thinking, worrying and busy, driven activity.

Solitude: Solitude is another kind of freedom — freedom from the host of habitual restraints and compulsions of social interaction. Times of solitude, however brief, allow a certain freedom from concerns about how others see us, freedom to be more fully who we are with God alone. In times of solitude, our prayer can be more openly authentic: peaceful and silent or raging and screaming, sad and plaintive or dancing and exuberant — whatever is really honest and natural at the time. Like silence, solitude allows us to perceive more clearly and respond more fully, to be ourselves as we are with God as God is.

Community: Thomas Merton once said that true spiritual community exists to protect the solitude of its members. Not only do we need the support and encouragement of other people for our spiritual practices; we also need their perspectives, their discernment, and sometimes their challenges. We need to hear their stories of faith and desire, and to see God’s presence in them and to know they see that presence in us. Moreover, we need the nourishing experience of silence and solitude with others, the power of shared desire, the grace of gathered openness to God.

The Practice of The Presence

All contemplative practices point toward the whole of life lived consciously and with a desire to appreciate God’s presence and to be open to God’s guidance. The most direct and holistic practice, then, is a moment-by-moment presence to God in all the daily situations of our lives: in work, leisure, relationship, no matter where we are or what is happening. Brother Lawrence, the 17th century French Carmelite friar, described four specific ways of practicing the presence.

First, he suggests “little interior glances,” simple moments of remembering, noticing, or just seeking God’s presence in the midst of whatever is going on.

Second, he speaks of repeating “a little phrase that Love inspires,” letting a word, phrase or image repeat itself quietly deep inside us as we go through our daily activities.

Third, he encourages the habit of “conversing everywhere with God,” entering all situations with a sense of relationship with God, a trust in Christ being with us.

Fourth, he prays for an open, all-embracing contemplative attitude in all times and places, what he calls “the loving gaze that finds God everywhere.”

Because God’s presence is always within and around us, what is often called “spiritual growth” or “the spiritual journey” is not a physical change or geographic movement. It is instead an opening of awareness and freeing of responsiveness, a growing realization of what already is, a deepening appreciation of the Holy One in whom we already abide. In this deepening and opening of our own presence to the ever-present Divine One, we trust that our feelings, words and actions will grow more truly loving of God and neighbor, and that our lives and the lives we touch will grow in Truth, Goodness and Beauty.

By Gerald May, M.D.
Senior Fellow, Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation

© Copyright 2001, Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation, Bethesda, Maryland. Reproduced by permission. Visit the Shalem website for more information on contemplative spirituality, and extension programs in personal spiritual formation.

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