The Mystery of Contemplative Prayer: Why Do We Sit?


The more one lets go, the stronger the presence of the spirit becomes.
The Ultimate Mystery becomes the Ultimate Presence.
—Fr. Thomas Keating

In a world obsessed with having and doing at an ever faster pace, why in the world would you devote thirty minutes a week to sitting silently in a room with two or three others? On the face of things it seems to go against reason and logic.

Just this morning I heard a snippet of a story on National Public Radio about Americans and our hesitancy to take our vacation days. It seems we fear that if we are not present and working at a breakneck pace all the time, the boss will give the plum assignments to others and we may be left behind. Even worse, we fear that our jobs may not be there when we return. Consequently, the story concludes, many Americans confess, that by the time they do take their vacation days, they are usually too exhausted to travel anywhere for a real vacation. Instead they spend the time just trying to recharge their batteries sufficiently to return to the hectic pace that exhausted them in the first place.

The speed at which many of us move through our lives causes us to stay constantly on the surface of our lives. Fr. Richard Rohr calls us “circumference people.” We are so busy doing and having that we lack the ability to sink into our center – the place where our Christ consciousness resides. When this happens we are at risk of losing our connection to ultimate purpose. We can easily forget how our work is connected to the Great Work of bringing about the Kingdom or shalom –the place where peace and justice dwell.

When I stay obsessed with my story – my triumphs and successes – my fears and failures – I lose my ability to remember the much bigger story of Christianity. My story is important but only as I am aware of my membership in the Mystical Body of Christ.

So I sit not only to find myself but also to awaken my sense of compassion for others. Fr. Keating puts it this way: “Once we begin our spiritual journey, there is no longer merely private prayer. Our prayer becomes a participation in the groanings of the Spirit for all the intentions and needs of the human family.”

While the language of Kingdom, Mystical Body of Christ, and contemplative prayer might be unique to Christianity the concept is not. All the major wisdom traditions urge us to spend time in silence where we can slowly become aware of the Divine Presence and the part our own stories play in the unfolding of creation.

I’ll cite just one example from the Buddhist tradition. According to Genpo Merzel Roshi, “Since zazen (sitting meditation) is our practice, we can always offer it to the world and all beings. Every time we sit we can offer up the merit and positive energy we generate…And when we offer the merit of our sitting to all sentient beings… we become transformers of negative into positive for the sake of all beings.”

Looked at from this perspective sitting meditation or centering prayer becomes a very efficient use of our time. We are not just sitting for our own peace of mind and spirit – though that can be a fruit of this prayer – but we are sitting to heal and soothe the pains of the world. This is the deep mystery of contemplation and it is ultimately why we sit.

The Seton Cove offers three morning contemplative prayer groups as well as a morning and evening Zen meditation group. Please join us for one or more of these sitting meditation groups. No registration is necessary.