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What is contemplative prayer?

Anna Krestyn - published on 01/21/13

Prayer in general, whether verbal or interior, is the active expression of one’s relationship with God, who desires to dwell in the heart of every human person. Contemplative prayer is the simplest form of this relationship.
Contemporary descriptions of contemplation are offered across a gamut of spiritual traditions and exercises, from simply living a quiet life to a Zen-like emptiness of all thought.  But the tradition of the Catholic Church teaches that contemplation is a mysterious gaze of faith fixed on Christ. It is a pure gift, not obtainable through the work of our natural faculties except insofar as we dispose ourselves toward the gift through the attention of our heart. It is the natural fruit of a life of Christian prayer, which is at the heart of the Christian life. 

Many people today are confused about “contemplation”. Under this broad heading, a variety of activities are named – some people lead quiet, reflective lives, and consider it contemplation. Others consider a focused life of prayer or the spiritual consolations at the beginning of a more serious prayer life as contemplation. Still others are unable to engage in more intellectual forms of prayer and think of the prayer they are capable of experiencing as contemplation, while some lean toward a negation of all thought and feeling and call that contemplation. But then there are those who experience the contemplation of the mystics, such as those penned by St. John of the Cross.

Contemplative prayer, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church outlines by quoting St. Teresa of Ávila – one of the Church’s masters in the school of contemplation – is “‘nothing else than a close sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us.’ Contemplative prayer seeks him ‘whom my soul loves.’ It is Jesus, and in him, the Father. We seek him, because to desire him is always the beginning of love, and we seek him in that pure faith which causes us to be born of him and to live in him” (CCC 2709).

This definition gets at the heart of what prayer is in its essence: a relationship with Jesus Christ. In each of the three traditional Christian forms of prayer – vocal, meditative, and contemplative – this relationship is the source of the prayer.

In vocal prayer, which is the prayer most correspondent to our human nature because by it “our prayer takes flesh” (CCC 2700), it is still “most important that the heart should be present to him to whom we are speaking in prayer: whether or not our prayer is heard depends not on the number of words, but on the fervor of our souls” (CCC 2700).

The emphasis on the heart’s attention to God as the criterion of effective prayer applies also to meditative prayer, that prayer by which we seek to understand better the mysteries of God: 

Meditation is above all a quest. The mind seeks to understand the why and how of the Christian life, in order to adhere and respond to what the Lord is asking. The required attentiveness is difficult to sustain. We are usually helped by books, and Christians do not want for them: the Sacred Scriptures, particularly the Gospels, holy icons, liturgical texts of the day or season, writings of the spiritual fathers, works of spirituality, the great book of creation, and that of history the page on which the "today" of God is written…. Meditation engages thought, imagination, emotion, and desire. This mobilization of faculties is necessary in order to deepen our convictions of faith, prompt the conversion of our heart, and strengthen our will to follow Christ (CCC 2705, 2708).
Contemplative prayer is “the simplest expression of the mystery of prayer” (CCC 2713). It is union with God in the depths of our souls, where he purifies our vision so that we can pierce reality:

Contemplation is a gaze of faith, fixed on Jesus. "I look at him and he looks at me": this is what a certain peasant of Ars in the time of his holy curé used to say while praying before the tabernacle. This focus on Jesus is a renunciation of self. His gaze purifies our heart; the light of the countenance of Jesus illumines the eyes of our heart and teaches us to see everything in the light of his truth and his compassion for all men. Contemplation also turns its gaze on the mysteries of the life of Christ. Thus it learns the "interior knowledge of our Lord," the more to love him and follow him.

If prayer is a relationship with Jesus, then the three main forms of prayer are different ways of living out that relationship: vocal prayer is the act of speaking with him out loud, meditative prayer is thinking about him as a friend whom you wish to know better, and contemplative prayer is like sitting with him, delighting in his presence without the need for words.

This kind of prayer is a gift and not something we can make happen in the same that we can open our mouths and give voice to a prayer. When St. Teresa of Avila described prayer, especially contemplative prayer, she did not offer complex discourses but resorted to analogies to describe what is difficult to put into words. She wrote of the process of filling a bucket of water: it can be accomplished either by filing it from a well which takes much effort, or by simply allowing the bucket to rest at the source of the water, so that if flows in effortlessly.  Contemplation she likened to the direct filling from the source, a pure gift (The Interior Castle). Fr. Thomas Dubay writes that “in this second case, the rising of the water is quiet and peaceful; one does not know where it comes from or how it arises” (Fire Within, 86). This is infused contemplation,

… a divinely given, general, nonconceptual, loving awareness of God. There are no images, no concepts, no ideas, no visions. Sometimes this awareness of God takes the form of a loving attention, sometimes of a dry desire, sometimes of a strong thirsting. None of these experiences is the result of reading or reasoning—they are given, received.  The infusion is serene, purifying. It can be delicate and brief, or in advanced stages burning, powerful, absorbing, prolonged. Always it is transformative of the person, usually imperceptible and gradually but on occasion obviously and suddenly (86).
The condition proper to contemplative prayer is humility – the willingness to allow God to show us the truth about ourselves and to pour himself into our hearts. It can be described as being “worked on” by the action of God’s love coming to meet us as we bring ourselves to him in an attitude of receptivity. In the depths of our being, God is able to reshape a person to his image, bringing him to the fullness of his human nature.

It is not a passive exchange, however; it requires determination and an active attention: “Contemplative prayer is hearing the Word of God. Far from being passive, such attentiveness is the obedience of faith, the unconditional acceptance of a servant, and the loving commitment of a child. It participates in the ‘Yes’ of the Son become servant and the fiat of God's lowly handmaid” (CCC 2716). Mary, the Mother of God, embodied the contemplative attitude throughout her life. Her ‘yes’ to God was a humble receptivity – an active handing over of herself to the love of God.

Some methods of contemplation deviate from the Christian understanding and promote a practice of moving toward a mental state void of all thought – even thoughts of God – and entering into pure consciousness where the contention is that man himself becomes god. Among these methods are considered centering prayer, which became very popular among Christians in the late 20th century. Such methods are completely opposed to Christian teaching, and the Church has taken pains to distance itself from them. One of the Church’s most recent clarifications on this topic can be found in Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation. John Paul II also affirmed the value of contemplation in the tradition of John of the Cross and Teresa of Ávila “against some methods of prayer which are not inspired by the gospel and which in practice tend to set Christ aside in preference for a mental void which makes no sense in Christianity. Any method of prayer is valid insofar as it is inspired by Christ and leads to Christ, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (cf. John 14:6)” (Homilia Abulæ habita in honorem Sanctæ Teresiæ: AAS 75 (1983) 256-257).

For those who feel they do not know how to pray, contemplation may seem unreachable or they may doubt that they are called to it. It is also often thought that one must be well-schooled in the way of meditative prayer before one is ready to approach contemplative prayer.

This can be a point of confusion and discouragement for many who desire a more intense prayer life but feel at a loss, especially when they read the Church’s master of contemplative prayer, St. John of the Cross. St. John described many stages of contemplation, each deeper than the one before. He uses the analogy of a mountain — Mt. Carmel — and likens each stage of the soul’s contemplation to a part of the journey up the mountain. Perhaps many people do not reach or are not called to the highest stage of contemplation described by St. John, but this does not mean that it is impossible for us to experience it at all. In fact, sometimes those who find themselves easily distracted and have trouble with the discursive prayer of meditation find peace only in the loving presence of contemplation.  As the Catechism takes pains to assure, “[o]ne cannot always meditate, but one can always enter into inner prayer, independently of the conditions of health, work, or emotional state. The heart is the place of this quest and encounter, in poverty and in faith” (CCC 2710). 

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