It should likewise be emphasized that cultivating a contemplative practice, such as using a prayer word, the breath, sitting in stillness, is not to reduce prayer to a technique. Techniques imply a certain control and focus on a determined outcome. Contemplative practice is a skill, a discipline that facilitates a process that is out of one’s direct control, but it does not have the capacity to determine an outcome. A gardener for example, does not actually grow plants. The gardener practices finely honed skills, such as cultivating soil, watering, feeding, weeding, pruning. But there is nothing the gardener can do to make the plants grow. However, if the gardener does not do what a gardener is supposed to do, the plants are not as likely to flourish. In fact they might not grow at all. In the same way sailor exercises considerable skill in sailing a boat. But nothing the sailor does can produce the wind that moves the boat. Yet without the sailing skills that harness the wind, the boat will move aimlessly. Gardening and sailing involve skills of receptivity. The skills are necessary but by themselves insufficient. And so it is with contemplative practice and the spiritual life generally.

Contemplation is sheer gift. There is nothing we can do to bring forth its flowering, but there are important skills, without which it will be unlikely to flower. It is this sort of harmonious synergy between human effort and divine grace that leads St. Augustine to comment, “So while God made you without you, he doesn’t justify you without you.” St. Teresa of Avila captures the same sense when she writes, “Beloved, there is much we can do to open ourselves to receiving his favors.” God is always Self-giving; it is a question of removing the obstacles that make it difficult to receive this Self-gift. This receptivity is what contemplative practice cultivates.

Martin Laird. Into the Silent Land. A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation, Oxford University Press, 2006. 53-54.

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