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As a Christian, I'm always learning how to be prayerful and attentive.
Contemplation has been a spiritual practice in the church for centuries, but what is it? Do I need special training or materials? Sometimes we make things more complicated than they are. God is waiting for us simply to engage, using whatever knowledge and desire we have.
I had some great examples of contemplation when I was growing up:
* Dad standing over his garden in silence, gazing at the rows or studying some bit of plant life in his hand.
* Mom bending over her journal late at night, taking long pauses during the writing.
I learned that a good life included small and regular seasons of quiet and thoughtfulness—and that a person didn't always have to be talking or doing something. This was good for me, a kid highly focused on achievement. Otherwise I would have run myself ragged and burnt out early.
Because I saw quiet thoughtfulness as a good thing, I naturally developed some contemplative practices of my own. I would go outdoors early on summer mornings to watch how the sun slowly lit up the clover. Or I would sit under the willow tree and just feel how soft and alive the earth was. Sometimes contemplation happened while I rode my bike, traveling the country roads around our little town just to notice the color of the soybean fields, or how the breeze smelled, or to linger at the place where a perfect spider web glittered with dewdrops.
What I remember most about those contemplative times is how purely happy I was. Even during long periods of a childhood illness and the stormy years of adolescence, the ability to stop and absorb the ordinary beauties of life maintained within me a core of gratefulness and hope.
We can say that contemplation is silence, thoughtfulness, meditation, prayer, or concentration. But for me, still, a chief attribute of contemplation is an open heart. When I walk into my day saying "yes" to God and to the world God has created, an act as mundane as riding the train to work is transformed into deep and joyous prayer.
I'm in the city now—not a bean field in sight. But still, the sun makes its way gradually and gloriously over the urban landscape. If I can cease busyness and still my overactive thoughts, I will feel that glory slip over me, too. And my heart will respond with gratitude. My will can more freely conform itself to what is holy and good. Contemplation allows me to notice how graced my life truly is.