Blake Burleson, Ph.D., Talks about his Book on Contemplative Prayer

Blake Burleson, Ph.D.

Entempling: Baptist Wisdom for Contemplative Prayer — a new resource book of prayers and meditations of four centuries of Baptist theologians, writers, pastors, lay leaders and social advocates — has been edited and adapted by Blake Burleson, Ph.D., associate dean for undergraduate studies at Baylor University’s College of Arts & Sciences, and Michael Sciretti Jr., pastor of spiritual formation at Freemason Street Baptist Church in Norfolk, Va.

In one book review, Harvey Cox, Hollis Research Professor of Divinity at Harvard University, says that “The editors have plumbed a shimmering tradition and come up with a handful of spiritual jewels of various ages and hues. This book, which will find its place on many bedside tables, should be a helpful aid to persons of all denominations.”

Here are some questions about the book (Praxis Publishing, 2012), with responses from Burleson.

Q: Do you think learning that Baptists in the past used “contemplative worship” will come as a surprise to modern Baptists (and others), given some people’s stereotypes of fire-and-brimstone sermons, or, more recently, the introduction of a contemporary worship style/music?

A: I think so. Actually, I was surprised to discover so many refined jewels of inner wisdom among Baptists who tend to invest more in activism, mission and evangelism. But the more I thought about the fact that Baptist have always emphasized an unmediated experience with and relationship to the Divine Presence, the more it made sense.

Q: Some people may think of cloistered, contemplative monks when they think of meditative prayer, worship and study. If this something that will take practice for the average Christian in this era short attention spans and constant interruptions from cell phones, emails, etc.?

A: This, in fact, may be why there appears to be a growing hunger among Christians in America to engage in contemplative practices. As we’ve become more aware of our spiritual poverty and of the superficiality of some forms of communication, we are turning to forms of worship and prayer which have depth and not breadth.

Q: Can you tell about a well-known individual as well as an obscure Baptist who engaged in contemplative prayer?

A: Sure. The book includes contemplative wisdom from such famous Baptists as Martin Luther King Jr., Walter Rauschenbusch, John Bunyan, Harry Emerson Fosdick and Billy Graham. We found the more mature expressions of contemplative wisdom in lesser-knowns. One of my favorites is Muriel Lester (1183-1968). The British Lester was a social activist, reformer and non-conformist who as a female Baptist “pastor” devoted her life to the poor. Her devotional writings reflect those of a fiery activist with the heart of a contemplative developed through many years of practice.

Q: How is this kind of prayer different from what we often do – praise, thanks, requests, even the occasional “silent moment” a pastor suggests? Is contemplative worship stream-of-consciousness thoughts to God?

A: Jesus almost certainly practiced and taught a form of contemplative prayer. Matthew 6:6 is his foundation teaching for this practice: “Whenever you pray, come into your inner chamber, shut the door, and pray to your Father, the Hidden One. Your Father, who sees in the hidden place, will reward you.” I would suggest that contemplative prayer begins and ends in our “inner chamber” (usually translated “closet”) or our heart. This intimate form of prayer is not, however, a stream-of-consciousness thoughts, rather it is a cessation of thought. Many of our Baptist contemplatives speak of “quieting the mind” or of “letting thoughts go” in order to commune with the Divine Presence, a presence which is as close as the “beating of one’s own heart.”

Q: Do you think this kind of prayer could make for better “listening” to God? What if we don’t “hear” anything?

A: This is a good question. And, perhaps, some are not able to “hear” God from this portal. Paul, however, admonishes us to practice “prayer without ceasing.” Perhaps we don’t hear because we don’t truly stop to listen.

Q: What does the term “entempling” mean?

A: Our English word “contemplative” comes from the Latin con-templum. Thus, we can think of contemplative prayer as “en-templing,” or going within the inner temple of our own being. Paul reminds us: “You are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you.”

Q: Any tips for how to begin this and avoid getting distracted/antsy? Close your eyes? Light a candle? Could something like walking a labyrinth at a church fit into this?

A: “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” Seek out a Christian brother or sister who can teach you a method. Then try it for at least a month. There are many forms which have been practiced by Christians for centuries, but no one size fits all.

Q: What if this turns into a fad/trend?

A: For a practice to be sustainable, it is best if one is in a community which supports and nourishes one’s growth. So I would look for a community that has years of experience in the practice.

To interview Dr. Burleson, contact Terry Goodrich, 254-710-3321, or the Office of Media Communications at (254) 710-1961.