The lessons of a contemplative prayer workshop

A generous parishioner has given a significant amount of money to my local benefice to be used to develop spirituality in the four congregations. He named such things as meditation, retreats and spiritual direction when he gave the money. This indicated to me that he wanted help to be given in practical ways to enable people to enter more deeply into contemplative silence, rather than learning how to lead the intercessions better on a Sunday morning (though these would also benefit from attention).

The organising committee’s first even was a lecture by Canon Jeremy Davies on T.S. Eliot’s The Journey of the Magi. Forty-five people came, exceeding expectations.

After repeated nudging, I was asked to lead a workshop on Saturday with the focus on contemplative prayer and silence. It turned out to be quite a challenging event. I’d prepared a sheet of notes outlining the ground I wanted to cover – vision of God; vision of ourselves; vision of Christ-like life; contemplative prayer and silence; breathing; with a check list of elements of a spiritually healthy life to conclude. It was an ambitious agenda! We barely addressed the first of the five sections. There was no commitment to further workshops, although I knew that if the benefice wants to take deepening in prayer seriously, more focused attention on the how of prayer will be needed. I already have enough material for at least four more workshops. (I’ll post the notes at the end of the blog)

We began with five minutes of silence, with the simple invitation to breath slowly and deeply down into the belly, noticing when we become distracted and gently bringing ourselves back to the breath. Two hours later we ended with another five minutes of silence, this time imaging that as we breathe we are taking into our bellies infinite, nourishing, goodness and love. The silence this time was more profound. There was a strong desire to meet again, several times, to continue the exploration and conversation and discover together how to deep in silence and contemplative prayer.

After the opening silence I outlined briefly my faith story, describing some of the people and places that had deepened and enriched my faith, my commitment to silence and contemplation, my experience as a priest in the church, my reason for going forward to ordination (if you can’t beat them, join them), and some of the experiences which fill me with frustration and, at times, despair.

I introduced the first of the five sections - the vision of God – and explained that for me God is infinite, intimate, unconditional love. (In a subsequent blog, I’ll write about John D. Caputo’s book The Folly of God: A Theology of the Unconditional in which he proposes a scandal, a fool’s logic, the foolish nonsense of the unconditional. John’s reflections on the unconditional helped me understand what happened at Saturday’s workshop.)

Talking about my despair and frustration with the church and describing God as infinite, intimate, unconditional love opened something of a can of worms. I knew there were tensions and challenges in the benefice. On Saturday afternoon I felt as if I had taken the lid off, if not for the first time, then for a very long time, depths of frustration and anger. I’d invited the group to interrupt and question and contribute their own ideas, and they did! The tensions surfaced.

Some felt I was being hyper-critical of ‘the church’ and projected blame onto me. The priest caring for the benefice during the interregnum was sitting close to my right, and I tried carefully to distinguish between what I was saying about the church generically and what I experienced locally. I tried to suggest that the church is a complex institution with many systemic problems that it doesn’t really know how to deal with. It’s also true that I find local practice deeply frustrating and annoying at times – most priests participate in worship led by others with a critical eye.

After the workshop I reflected that those present were finding it difficult to listen to each other and respond to what other people were saying. There was, not surprisingly, a very wide spectrum of faith and prayer experience present. I think they are quite unaware of how wide the spectrum is and instead of being able to hear each other, projected criticisms onto me. That’s in part what priests are for – a reflective channel for frustration and projection.

There is a proper risk when you set out to create a genuinely open, safe space where people are invited to engage freely and openly. And of course, there’s great value in creating safe, open space, especially in a benefice where such space seems to be a rare commodity.

Some of those present believe that if we inject sufficient enthusiasm, energy and conviction and go around the parish telling people about Jesus and God, this will be naturally rewarded with a growth in the numbers coming to church – success will be achieved.

I immediately think about what any who might be so inspired will find when they arrive in church. There is a really beautiful fourteenth century building, an excellent choir, bell ringers, liturgical richness, a new organ costing over £100,000, and above all people who are a mixed bag – normal congregation! It has taken nearly three years for me to establish any depth of encounter and conversation with more than less than a handful of people.

That’s the positive, and it is indeed a congregation with a rich tradition and a commitment to maintaining the tradition. That’s also the downside, of course. Most time and energy is given to this. What those who might be drawn to the church will not find is a coherent, intelligent unfolding of the mystery of the God who loves unconditionally. The unconditional love of God is far too risky and dangerous. Nor will they find any silence in the course of a Sunday morning service, not as part of the intercessions nor after communion. They will not find a congregation which is self-reflective and which has a developed understanding of itself and what message it might have for the wider community.

During the workshop, someone talked about the reality of human tribes and the impossibility of escaping from the particular tribal sets – family, country, church, school, etc. – in which we find ourselves. It didn’t occur to me at the time to suggest that escaping from whatever tribes we find ourselves enclosed within is exactly one of the things Jesus provocatively tackled.

My local church, the diocese, the church nationally, is lost in its particular culture of awareness and understanding, limited by the vision of its particular set of tribal addictions, which are inevitably ‘normal’ to those so addicted. The Church of England’s cultural tropes are largely unexamined and in many ways, not particularly, and sometimes not even remotely Christian.

In these circumstances, of course people are going to project their anger and anxieties and frustrations onto people like me. They are going to defend the familiar, normative values of their tribe.

Whatever success the Reform and Renewal programme has, all my experience tells me the Church as an institution at local and national level has no idea of the gulf it faces, both in trying to engage a largely un-Churched population and a church-attending population which has a very limited awareness of depth and the basics, let alone the transformation of people’s conceptions of reality and the impossibility of a conditional God. Archbishop Justin says Jesus is the answer. I don’t know what he means – I don’t know what depth and values the name Jesus contains when he uses it. Yes, tell people about Jesus, the unconditional, uncomfortable one, the way, the truth and the life, life in all its fullness.

Spirituality workshop notes

Contemplative Prayer and Silence

1 Vision of God

  • Ideas and images of God and feelings about God
  • “God is infinite, intimate, unconditional love”
  • God is creator and uncreated
  • Infinite – beyond imagining, embracing the universe, beyond space and time
  • Intimate, infused in creation

2 Vision of ourselves

  • Created in the image of God
  • Unconditionally loved
  • In the core of our being and our bodies, heart, and soul: divine love, presence, energy, wisdom and truth
  • We are the gift of life and love
  • All our experience and knowledge is given and known through our mind, heart, feelings, guts, memory and intuition
  • God breathes through us and we are immersed in God

3 Vision of Christ-like life

  • “I have come that you may have life, life in all its fullness” John 10.10
  • “The glory of God is a human being fully alive” Irenaeus of Lyon, C2nd
  • Being a Christian is opening ourselves to the flow of life, the resources, the vision, the energy, the unconditional love, to become a human being fully alive, living life here and now to the full

4 Contemplative Prayer and silence

  • Prayer is the way in which we resource in our being this infinite, unconditional love which is innate to all life and consciously, in human life, the elusive, subtle source of life in all its fullness
  • Breathing is the most natural, instinctive, unconscious thing we do. Breathing provides us with oxygen which fuels the blood which provides us with energy and enriches our bodies
  • We learn to suppress ourselves and our potency and energy by suppressing our breathing – resulting in shallow breathing and loss of self-esteem

5 Breathing

  • Breathe in slowly and deeply, down below your diaphragm, the most powerful muscle in your body – brief pause – breathe out slowly – brief pause
  • Breathe in, imagining you are breathing in nourishing, enriching energy and life
  • Breathe out, letting nourishing goodness flow into all creation
  • Breathe down into your belly, nourishing and enriching energy and goodness
  • Focus on your diaphragm, focus of strength and power
  • Breathe into your heart and soul, love, tenderness, melting pain and tension
  • Breathe into your throat, seat for your voice and communication
  • Breathe into your third eye and mind, seat of wisdom, truth and light
  • Focus energy and breath in your crown chakra

Elements of a spiritually healthy life

Healthy life pattern and balance

Emotional – therapy
Physical – exercise
Food – diet, regular meals, nourishing food
Spiritual – presence, awareness, contemplation
Relational – partner, friends, colleagues, family...
Pleasure and leisure

Contemplative Body Work

Choose a place that is safe and familiar
Know which time of day is best for you and try and be consistent with your time
Use a timer or something to mark the time – an incense stick burning
Be undisturbed and ignore distractions
An upright and relaxed posture is important


Be in the present moment
Be aware of your breathing
Breathe slowly and deeply into your belly
Imagine energy being drawn into you and flowing through your whole body, to the tips of your fingers and toes
Allow your body to feel energised and alive, tingling

Qualities of God

Infinite and intimate
Infinite love, goodness, self-giving, creative, open, energy, flowing, evolving
Flowing through your body, every cell vibrant with the energy of God
Immersed in creation
God is woven through creation, history, evolution, the universe
Immersed, infused, enfolding, elusive, melting

Key words