The Busy Mom's Guide to Contemplative Prayer
She had twin toddlers, a rambunctious 3 year-old, and a weariness that hangs about those who suffer from a never-ending marathon of sleep deprived nights. Looking back, I owe her a heartfelt apology. She asked with absolute, exhausted sincerity, “But, how can I have a devotional life? My kids never nap at the same time. I get 45 minutes a day to everything I can’t when they’re awake… and most the time, I just want to sleep.” My naïve, child-less, twenty-something version of myself assured her it was possible. After all, I taught seminars on maintaining a sensational devotional life, so I was sure she simply wasn’t prioritizing her schedule properly: Surely bible reading was more important than laundry folding! However, the more I talked, the thicker the cloud of despair settling over her face. 20 years, 2 degrees, 1 extroverted girl and 1 ADHD poster-child later, I finally figured out what was wrong with that conversation: I was an idiot. I also figured out one other thing. You can have a vibrant devotional life after kids, but it will look entirely different.
If I could go back in time, I’d tell her all about Contemplative Prayer. Of course, I knew nothing of it then. It’s a history that’s been lost to modern Evangelical church. The practice dates back to Constantine’s rule in 300 AD, when he made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. Basically, each citizen had a choice: convert or die. The result was a unified empire, sustained by nominal, nationalistic faith. Disturbed that their faith in Jesus had been twisted into a mechanism to maintain Roman dominance, many believers fled to places of solitude in the desert and discovered new ways to engage God. Christian history calls these folk the Desert Mothers and Fathers. Some of the practices were really weird (like the guy who stood on a pillar for years), but some of the practices endure until today. It’s no wonder, given the modern political/religious environment, Contemplative Practices are making a resurgence.
No doubt, some of you know or have tried Contemplative Prayer, and you’re thinking: “Doesn’t it involve extended periods of silence and solitude? My idea of silence is that 5 second delay after my 8 year-old hits my 5 year-old in the head with a flying fidget spinner and she just hasn’t started screaming yet.” I want to assure you, contrary to all good sense, motherhood lends itself to certain forms of Contemplative Prayer. Thomas Merton said, “Meditation has no point and no reality unless it’s firmly rooted in life.” I think that’s why when I teach on Contemplative Prayer, it’s the moms with the insane carpool schedules (the ones who can breast feed and grocery shop at the same time) who glimpse its transformative power first, and it becomes their life-line, their retreat, their connection to God… transforming sandboxes into sanctuaries and tantrums into avenues of Divine grace. But, most of all, it transforms them.
Let me illustrate: As stated, my son has ADHD, plus he’s on the spectrum and hard of hearing. There are days he’s his adorable and brilliant self, but there are days I wish I had a store to return him to. So, let’s just say my decision to homeschool for the 1st time ever… in a run-down, tiny hotel room… without internet… on a 6 - week outreach trip to Cambodia… during the HOT season… may have erred more toward the side of insane than courageous. I thought: “How hard could 45 minutes of school work per day be?” (Insert deranged laughter.)
Somewhere around week 3, I feared I was losing it ways that would alert Social Services. We’d given up on reading (again) as he bounced from bed to bed… back and forth…. back and forth… intermittently emitting shrill noises to annoy his sister for the sheer entertainment factor of hearing her yell at him. Reward charts had lost their luster and punishments lost all threat. Even outright bribery proved impotent. So, I grabbed my bouncing baby boy by the shoulder and ushered him down to the lukewarm pool. Once we got there, he tackled me, and I got a bony elbow to the nose. Smoke may or may not have been steaming from my ears at this point. I pushed him away and sunk under the water (it was the only quiet space I could find) and swam away, desperately seeking sanity.
Now, let me back up… Everyday, before my husband left, I scampered down to the pool and swam for twenty minutes. As I swam, I practiced a form of Contemplative Prayer called Breath Prayer. With each stroke and breath, I silently prayed: “Be Still and Know that I Am God... Be Still and Know that I Am…. Be Still and Know…. Be Still… Be.”
So, as I retreated full-steam away from my progeny, muscles in my arms pulling through the quiet water, I automatically began to pray this Breath Prayer. “Be Still...” I wasn’t conscious of it. I didn’t try to do it. But, because of habitual practice, this Breath Prayer had ingrained itself into my muscle memory and was now a part of me… like breathing. Instantly, I felt the presence of God. My tears mixed with chlorinated water… tears of relief and intimate connection. God was with me. I was not alone in this. I was not by myself in Cambodia because I was more than myself; I am connected to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This horrible (yet so ordinary) moment became divine, and I knew I could choose, once again, to show love to my son. “When it comes to the presence and love of God, we are often like a ﬁsh swimming desperately through the ocean looking for water, unaware we are already in it and always immersed by it. What is lacking is our awareness.” - Dr. David G. Benner
Why is contemplative prayer transformational?
It trains us to be aware and present to God, to others and ourselves. These practices show us when we’ve forgotten we are in communion with God. These practices require observation of our moods, stress, peace, laughter… growing our self-awareness. They train us to do as Jesus did… “consider the lily of the field”… and rediscover the joy and wonder of childlike faith we busy adults - with our many-ness, muchness, hurriedness and noise - no longer have time to notice. This world is packed with moments God wants to share with us, and they often come in the form of clouds, flowers, giggles or the kid with the rough home life who always picks fights with ours. When this God-seeing gets coupled with obedience, you get a greater understanding of what Jesus meant by, “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing...” (John 5:19).
Now, let’s get psycho and neurological: Modern science shows us Contemplative Practices cooperate with how humans are designed to learn and develop. Moms already know that information, alone, does not cause learning. 1 + 1 = 2 means nothing written on a chalkboard. But… if you tell your kids the story of 1 lonely apple who finds a friend… while handing them a round, red apple to touch… followed by a 2nd sweet apple to taste… PRESTO! 1 + 1 was smelled! 1+1 was juicy! 1 + 1 captured imaginations! Then, you repeat this lesson until 1 +1 = 2 is instinctive and imbibed, not merely recalled.
You are not a brain on a stick. You will not be changed by information alone, even if you’re information is a weekly sermon, memory verses, or the latest and greatest Ted Talk. God, the Master teacher, always taught his people through story, senses, and body. He didn’t just toss the 10 Commandments at them and expect them to get it. From the naming of animals in the garden of Eden, to frankincense burning on tabernacle altars, to the honeyed taste of manna, to Jesus healing a blind man with dirt and spit, to baptism, to communion… God’s formula for transformation is to engage the body, the senses, the Story… rinse and repeat.
In his book Anatomy of Soul, Dr. Curt Thompson goes into great detail to show us how, engaged habitually, Contemplative Practices can rewire our neural pathways toward love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness and self-control. Good Contemplative Practices include our bodies and senses while soaking our imaginations in the love and presence of God. Good Contemplative Practices use Biblical symbols and imagery to ground our identity in the great and redemptive Story of God. Slowly, this form of prayer exposes the toxic, subconscious stories we all live in, unaware, rooting them out. Without realizing it, our inner-narratives are slowly transformed: “I am unloveable” is silenced by practices that bypass our brains, but seep into our bones… until, one day, love pops up in a surprising place, like the pool with your ADHD child. Like Moses at the burning bush, only wetter, it dawns on you that you’re witness to a miracle: Your inner-narrative has transformed: “I am one with Love.”
“Only contemplative prayer touches the deep unconscious, where all of our real hurts, motivations and deepest visions lie. …We must learn and practice this new mind or there will be no real change, no authentic encounter with ourselves, God or anybody else. Find your own practice and learn a new mind. Contemplation really is the change that changes everything.”
Getting Started with Breath Prayer
I’m aware not all of you have your own personal, chlorinated sanctuary… i.e. a pool. But, I can say with confidence that if you’re reading this you do have an even better tool, your breath. Your breath is a gateway into Contemplative Prayer. And, unlike a pool, your breath is always with you, always available, and no one has to see you in a bathing suit. Breath Prayer is a soul-changing practice, one many busy moms swear by, as it demands no more of your time or energy; it requires no quiet, nor solitude. In fact, it’s most transformational in the midst of your ordinary, daily routines.
What is Breath Prayer?
Breath Prayer is an ancient Christian prayer practice dating back to the sixth century. Known as the “Jesus Prayer”, early practitioners would repeat to the rhythm of their breath the phrase, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” Later it was shortened to, “Lord. Mercy.” But, Breath Prayer can be any truth of God you want to seep into your soul. “Be still. I Am.” OR “Father, I’m in your love.”
Breath prayer is not glamourous. Angels won’t burst out of your sink. However, practiced faithfully, it’s life changing. The key is that it must always begin with awareness... like the day it occurred to me that I silently scream at my whole family whenever I clean the house. Socks, in particular, have drained my inner peace. You see, I haven’t had matching socks since my daughter turned 13 and started stealing mine… one maddening cotton creation at a time. I spend a good 20 to 30 minutes alone in our laundry room every day with our Mt. Everest sized pile of odd socks and a semi-unconscious stream of ceaseless, flammable, irritated thoughts. One day, my husband wandered into my pity-party of unfolded laundry, chucking a pair of smelly shoes my direction, and I lost it. His eyes grew wide as if he was witnessing a stampeding Rhino rather than a small, blond woman holding a single (albeit accusatory) sock. I realized, this mundane, “thought-less”, routine in my life needed some serious redemption. The laundry was going to become the next place I habitually met with God.
The hardest part was simply remembering to practice Breath Prayer in there. At that time, my Breath Prayer was “I am alive in You.” I prayed this silently, inhaling and exhaling, while I imagined myself sitting with my Trinity family. I’ve found Breath Prayer is more impactful when I use my imagination. I call the image I hold in my head a Wordless Prayer. To help me remember, I eventually stuck a stick-figure drawing of my Wordless Prayer on the wall above my lonely sock mountain.
My imagination was engaged in the Story and symbols of God.
My body was engaged through breath and the folding of laundry.
My senses were engaged. (Who knew fabric softener could serve as incense?)
I became present (to God, to what I was doing, to my family).
I became aware of the presence of God with me in that laundry room.
It didn’t happen at once. It still doesn’t happen all the time, but I find it amazing how the most mundane and ordinary moments can become divine when done in the company of your Heavenly Family. Pretty soon, I had stick-figure reminders taped everywhere… on my broom... in my car… and I practiced God with me in the midst of dust and grid-lock. This life is filled with a thousand common and easily over-looked ways to commune with our Creator. Contemplative Practices wake us up to the Divine soaked life we already live inside. They do not teach us to escape the world, but rather to inhabit this life more abundantly.
Craft Your Own Breath Prayer:
- Write: What spiritual truth do you want to become a part of you? Write this truth in the form of a Breath Prayer - a simple, short phrase which can be expressed in one inhale and exhale. (Examples: “I am alive… in you.” Or, “Be… still.”)
- Imagine: What mental picture do you want to hold in your imagination as you practice your breath prayer? I call this Wordless Prayer. (Examples: The Trinity or God’s loving gaze, etc.)
- Redeem A Routine: What’s one routine you perform every day in need of redeeming? Maybe you know your chosen routine right away, or maybe, you want to spend a few days paying attention to your attitudes and emotions as you go about them. (Examples: Getting your kids ready for school. Walking into the office. Waking up to social media.)
- Practice: Spend a few minutes praying your Breath Prayer as you inhale and exhale while you hold your Wordless Prayer in your imagination. Do not rush. Feel the fullness of your breath. Give it your full awareness. Let go of all other thoughts.
- Commit: Breath Prayer is a transformative tool… if practiced until it becomes a near-effortless, bodily rhythm. Spiritual disciplines could, perhaps, be renamed spiritual rhythms, deﬁned more as an adopted beat by which you walk until that rhythm is like your heartbeat, simply a part of you. At first, the hardest part is simply to remember to do it, but you’ll know you’re on the right track when you find yourself practicing Breath Prayer in other arenas of life such as with your spouse or in stressful moments. (Give yourself 4 faithful weeks before this begins to happen.) You’ll know it’s taking root in your soul when you discover you’re growing in self-awareness and God-awareness.
- Rinse and Repeat.
Want to learn more?
Suggested Read: Soulful Spirituality: Becoming fully alive and deeply human - Dr. David Benner
Suggested Podcast – The Liturgists’ Weekly Meditations
Suggested App – Pray As You Go (Ignatian Spirituality daily meditations)
Tonya Stanfield has served as fulltime minister, teacher, speaker, writer and missionary for over 22 years. She’s been a wife for 25 and mom for 18. She founded 1 counter-human trafficking ministry and walked with her husband as he founded 1 ethno doxology ministry. All of this has caused her to live on 3 continents and travel to 51 countries. Somewhere along the way she acquired 2 unique kids, 2 fluffy dogs, and 1 Masters degree in Christian Spiritual Formation and Discipleship. To this moment, what excites her most is finding God in the unexpected places.