What Is Contemplative Prayer?

Contemplative prayer is a type of prayer that I have practiced for close to 10 years with great joy and fruitfulness. In fact, I would venture to say that contemplative prayer has been the single most transformative element of my spiritual journey in the past decade. I would not be the person I am today without the work of contemplative prayer in my life.

Contemplative prayer has deep roots in our Christian heritage and tradition, but it is not commonly known or practiced today in contemporary circles. I find, therefore, that explaining contemplative prayer is not always easy; lack of familiarity with the phrase and with the practice evokes confusion, insecurity, and sometimes even concern. This is one reason I share my own experiences with prayer on this website: so that by seeing one pilgrim’s journey deeper into prayer, the prayer lives of others can perhaps also be helped along.

I will share more about the practice of contemplative prayer as we go along, but for now it might be most helpful to begin by way of analogy. And in that case, the most helpful analogy I can offer is the following:

Contemplative prayer is like my cat Diva.



I met Diva almost four years ago, shortly after Kirk and I had begun dating. He had rescued her as a kitten from a shelter. She was matted, wet, and starving when they found her abandoned outside a performing arts center, and he brought her home shortly after she arrived at the shelter. Six years later, when Kirk was getting ready to introduce me to Diva and her brother Solomon, he warned me that she’d retained her skittishness and would likely run and hide when I walked into the room.

But instead, Diva came right up to me. She stayed by my side most of that first evening and sniffed at my feet and legs with great curiosity. In the months that followed, she would let me pick her up and carry her around the house, when her historical routine had been to scramble away from close human contact. And when we began to share a house together, Diva took up the habit of sitting near me wherever I was in the house — either next to me on a chair, on the floor next to my desk as I worked, or on the bed as I read a book or worked on my computer. She began sitting next to me in these places for hours without moving, barely blinking her eyes or moving her gaze from beholding my face, waiting patiently and attentively for the moment I would turn and look at her, smile at her, talk to her, and rub my hand on her head or her ears.

Diva’s regular posture of waiting, adoration, and complete trust remind me not only of how I am to come before God in prayer, but also how worthy our Lord is of this kind of trust. Diva’s eyes, when she looks at me, are completely clear and invested and desiring of my affection and attention. She believes that I love her and want to be with her and care for her. This transformation is incredible, given her shaky, lonely start in this world that rendered her vulnerable and distrustful of most human beings. Somehow, she felt safe with me, and the fruit of that safety was the handing over of her complete trust. When she sits with me, I know there is nowhere else she would rather be.

Contemplative prayer is like my cat Diva.

In this kind of prayer, we are choosing to be with Jesus because there is no other place we would rather be. We are training our eyes upon him in adoration instead of looking at our own feet. We trust completely in his own eyes of love looking back at us because we believe he holds us and sees us with great care, instead of fearing that he doesn’t see us or doesn’t hear us or doesn’t care what we have to say. In contemplative prayer, we are waiting to hear what he has to say to us back, believing that he has a word, and tuning out the noise in our own heads that keeps us from being completely present to the Jesus we love.

And in the same way Diva jumps up and follows me from room to room when I move around the house, we follow Jesus from room to room in our own lives, eagerly traipsing with him wherever he may lead, just because we want to be near him wherever he is and because we trust that he’ll lead us where he wants us to go, sharing that same tenderness, peace, and presence with others.