Have you ever sat by a campfire and just stared into the flames? It can be mesmerizing. The ocean shore, a river, the breeze playing on the surface of a lake; the movement of water, clouds, water lilies and birds all singing a relaxing song. Such times are examples of contemplative experience.
There is a book called “The Long Wandering Prayer” in which the author describes how he finally learned to contemplate. He goes for long walks, walking slowly and just “wandering” among the flowers or other attractions he encounters. His mind is wandering too. He is talking to God, but often with his feelings, not with complete and formed petitions. He gently returns his focus to God, but often finds God with him on the path.
Now, a monk in a medieval prayer cell discovers a similar type of prayer. It is more difficult, since his mind cannot flow and play easily and find beauty; but he does learn finally to see God. The beauty he ultimately experiences may just be in a ray of sunlight. John of the Cross gives many examples of hearing and seeing God in simple and common sights. These too are examples of contemplative experience.
The way to get started on a contemplative path is to start. Experience is the teacher. Persistence in going to the secret place is your traveling companion. The old concept of “a quiet time” is relevant here; only this time you really have to be quiet. Silence and solitude are what you need to start.
When any of us goes alone to a silent place and sits before God the first thing we will find is that as exterior noise is diminished, interior noise increases. I heard a man compare his experience of contemplation to a visit he once made to a Hindu temple in India. The temple was beautiful, but his attention was distracted by the hundreds of monkeys who were jumping and chattering all around him. He finally could focus on the temple and see it. That’s the way it is when you silence your environment; the monkeys come out.
So, sit before God, in silence and solitude and listen. Gently bring your attention back to God, and don’t sweat the monkeys.
Some people use techniques usually associated with eastern mysticism, such as a mantra, or Holy Word. For example, when bothered by internal distractions some people just quietly and gently say “Jesus” over and over. Others breathe “out” their distractions and “in” the Holy Spirit. Experiment according as your liberty of conscience allows.
At any rate, and with any method, or with no method at all you will eventually begin to hear in the silence. The silence, the still voice of God, eventually becomes a refuge for our soul. Start and endure and you too will be able to experience God contemplatively.
See also The Biblical Basis for Contemplation.