Contemplative prayer and contemporary worship

Posted on November 19, 2011


A recent conversation with our pastor, Andrew Rollinson, about those spiritual practices which I find useful/generative/satisfying/whatever the right word is, brought to mind a blog post from Vicky Beeching which noted that she, as a leading worship leader in the contemporary evangelical style, finds broadly contemplative practices of spirituality most nourishing for her personal spirituality. I had indicated to Andrew that charismatic worship and contemplative prayer were the two places where I most regularly experience connection to God and personal transformation by God. This in turn brought to mind an argument I gestured at in a footnote of a paper on contemporary worship (a paper that is currently under review by a journal), and had intended to develop more fully.

Let me assume (without a lengthy footnote exploring the present academic discussion…) that the study of (Christian) ‘spirituality’ is fundamentally a discussion and interrogation of the ways in which (Christian) people find personally-meaningful connection with the awesome reality that is the triune God. On this basis, spirituality cannot be reduced to technique – there are, simply, no practices we can engage in which will guarantee God’s response – but it can be analysed in terms of discipline – there are many practices we engage in which seem, for at least some practitioners, to tend to promote (an awareness of) divine response. (Parentheses to duck the question of whether practices in fact lead to divine response, or whether God always responds, but our practices aid our awareness of that.) On this basis, it seems to me that the basic orientation of charismatic spirituality, expressed in traditions of contemporary worship, is remarkably similar to the basic orientation of contemplative spirituality.

I am aware of (some of) the many schools of traditional contemplative spirituality, and thus of the danger of generalising; for the sake of a blog post, however, I generalise. Many historical Christian traditions of spirituality school their disciples in practices of lengthy attentiveness, with words, images, or objects providing a helpful focus for this attentiveness. Somehow (and it is variously theorised) such lengthy attentiveness results in an awareness of God’s presence, and an experience of divine activity towards one’s own soul, that is held to be either the goal of the practice of prayer, or at least a substantial good to be achieved by the practice of prayer.

The endless repetition of the ‘Jesus Prayer’ commended in the anonymous Russian Way of the Pilgrim; the practice of lectio Divina; meditation on object or phrase, be it candle, host, rock, or fragment of liturgy; even exercises directing mental focus to particular parts of the body – all seem to suggest that sustained attention or focus somehow allows openness to God’s life and activity. (I am aware of criticisms of this analysis in, e.g., Turner’s Darkness of God; to the extent that they highlight that the modern obsession with felt experience can eclipse the reality of divine action, I wholeheartedly agree with them; but I do not think that this changes my argument here very much.)

The fundamental mode of charismatic spirituality, the extended time of worship, functions in exactly the same way, it seems to me. Through the repetition of songs and the extended time of singing, the worshipper is enabled to leave behind whatever baggage she brought with her into the meeting and to become focused in serious and transformative ways on God’s presence and action. Again, sustained attention or focus somehow allows openness to God’s life and activity.

The two traditions are surprisingly congruent; it should be no surprise that some of us – like me – find nourishment in both.

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