Probably most of us, if we think of contemplative prayer at all, regard it as something that is beyond us and practiced only by a few contemplative monks and nuns whose whole lives are devoted to prayer. Yet I have heard respected and experienced spiritual guides say that contemplation is often given to those you would least expect—to harassed mothers and people who think they can’t pray, to children, to the sick and dying, to people with no head learning about prayer or Scripture or theology. God sometimes seems to speak, heart to heart, in this mysterious way, to the untaught and unpracticed. None of us should imagine that the ways of contemplative prayer are closed to us, because God is always infinitely larger than our expectations.
I suggest that creation itself gives us a gateway. In every moment of our lives, a silent, invisible miracle of exchange is taking place. We breathe out the air that our bodies no longer need, which is mainly carbon dioxide, a waste product for us but the very thing that the green leaves on the trees and plants need to produce their own energy. So they receive our carbon dioxide and, through the process of photosynthesis, produce not only their own life energy, but also oxygen—a waste product for them, but the very thing we need to live. Whenever I stop my busyness for a few moments to look around me, I am amazed at this arrangement, and it makes me think of prayer.
So perhaps a good way to open our hearts up to the gift of contemplation is simply to become still, and, quite literally, to breathe out our waste—all that clogs us and deadens us—and to breathe in God’s renewing life, as we breathe in the fresh oxygen that the plants have made for us. This simple, deliberate breathing exercise can become something like what the French peasant was doing as he looked at God and God looked at him. We are becoming aware of the mysterious exchange of life between ourselves and God. And there is no reason that any period of quiet might not become prayer of this kind.
There may be other creatures who can help you cross the threshold of contemplation. If there is a baby in the family, try simply holding her in your arms as she sleeps and letting God hold both of you in his. Nothing more. No deep thoughts. No search for meaning. Just be there.
A cat (if you are not allergic to them!) can also be a great aid to prayer. My own cat loves to sleep round my neck. At first I found this disturbing, but when he has settled into a particular hollow (perhaps where he can feel my pulse), he will lie there, quite still, just purring deeply, until he falls asleep and the purring ceases. When he does this, I let myself find a hollow close to God’s pulse, and let my own prayer become just a sleepy purr and then the silence of content. Or you might discover prayer on a park bench. The other day I was in Hyde Park, and I spent a few minutes listening to the deep-throated cooing of the pigeons. I wanted to join them, because, in their way, they were engaged in contemplative prayer, simply expressing, in this peaceful murmur, the song of their beings.
In your own home, prayer awaits you in the opening of a flower, the rising of your bread dough, or the steady, imperceptible development of a child. Spend time in silence, aware of the wonder that is being unfolded in your cakes and your children, your houseplants or your garden. For this is the essence of contemplative prayer—simple awareness, allowing God to be God, without trying to put the limitations of shape or meaning around him.
Contemplation, like all prayer, is pure gift, and not anything we can achieve. It happens when prayer becomes, wholly and utterly, the flow of God’s grace, transforming the land it flows through, like Ezekiel’s stream. Or it happens when we lose consciousness of our own part in it and become simply receptors and carriers of grace. It happens when we realize that our transformation depends on nothing but God's grace and love, and, like the chrysalis, let go of all activity to try to achieve our own redemption.
When we try to describe it, we fail, for it lies beyond the world of words. We can open our hearts to it by the practice of awareness, but we cannot bring it about, any more than we can force a flower to open or an egg to hatch. And in our silent, trustful waiting, we are acknowledging that God is God, the source and the destination, the means and the end of all our prayer, whatever form it may take.