The Three Doorways of Contemplative Prayer

If you’re anything like me and the people I know, then likely you’re feeling pretty exhausted these days: emotionally, physically, and spiritually. I can also confess, I’ve let some of my most important spiritual practices slip over the last couple of months. With the next couple of months in the US likely to continue to be stressful, now is a good time for us to put some practices in place to give us some form of rest.

One practice that gives me rest, though I often resist doing it, is contemplative prayer. Contemplative prayer has a long and important history in Christianity. Important enough that Maximus the Confessor (seventh century Byzantine monk) wrote that “God is breath”. St John of the Cross, a thousand years later, said, “The soul that is united and transformed in God breathes God in God with the same divine breathing with which God, while in her, breathes her in himself.”

But, how do we practice contemplative prayer, and what is it supposed to feel like? These are the most common questions I hear about contemplative prayer, and Martin Laird, of the Order of Saint Augustine, wrote fairly compelling answers to those questions in his book Into the Silent Land.

Laird tells us first to pick a word or phrase. The word could be “love”, “Maranatha”, “Jesus”, “God”, “peace”, or even a short phrase, like the Jesus prayer (“Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”). Then, we sit in silence for ten to thirty minutes repeating our word slowly with our breath. What happens next, Laird calls “The Three Doorways”. The Doorways each represent a change of what it feels like to be an embodied person sitting in this prayer practice. These Doorways are two way—one can, and will, pass through them each multiple times.

The First Doorway
The First Doorway is the experience of sitting and fidgeting and having a distracted mind. Even the most experienced practitioners of contemplative prayer spend significant time trying to cross the First Doorway. The mind will wander. We get bored. We spend time worrying about the kids, or politics, or anything else. Instead of thinking “I can’t meditate, my thoughts are always racing,” we can think “I am in the First Doorway, and this is the process.” The important part here is to notice when our minds have wandered, and to bring our attention back to our word. That’s it. That’s the job. And, building on Maximus the Confessor, this is an opportunity to return to God. Each time we return to our breath, we are returning to the Ground of All Being. As we practice this for ten to thirty minutes a day, over time, we get more skilled at noticing our mind wandering and returning to our breath, to the Divine. At some point, we feel comfort and ease at returning to our word, and our mind wanders less. At that point, we have crossed through the First Doorway into the Second.

The Second Doorway
The Second Doorway is where we get to start to feel the emotional and spiritual benefits of the contemplative practice. Our blood pressure might decline. Getting here often takes time, which is why now is a good time to start. Here our word is a deep part of our breathing in a way that feels natural instead of being an effort, like in the First Doorway. We still get distracted or have our minds wander, but for much shorter periods of time and far less frequently. Our minds become much more still and calm. The benefits of our practice become more apparent in our daily lives, and the word carries us through the day. This is an experience of the Divine being always with us. In our practice, we notice we are becoming less and less aware of the prayer word, and we might drop it all together and fall into a deep silence, the Third Doorway.

The Third Doorway
As Laird puts it, “crossing the threshold of the Third Doorway requires vigilant waiting in the silence of just being.” What we encounter on the other side is “the groundless ground that is the core of all being”. St Gregory of Nyssa calls it “luminary darkness”. It is an encounter that is difficult to describe or define. Some people practice for years without reaching the Third Doorway. Some cross the Third Doorway once and never again, but to reach it and cross it is a wonderful thing.

I hesitated to write this article, because I don’t want people to read this and add another thing-to-feel-bad-about-not-doing to their lives. If you cannot find the time, please, I completely understand. I write to myself as much as to any reader. Moving from the First Doorway into the Second Doorway, though, is work we can do now to help us in a future that looks to be one of continued stress for at least a few more months.

Dear readers, have grace for yourself in however you are coping right now. Judgment and shame only make things worse. And please, whether it is through contemplative prayer, or something else, find time to give yourself rest spiritually, emotionally, and physically.

Grace and Peace to you all.

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    • Bart Hennigan