Prayer: A Primer on the Path to Union
Prayer can be classified in more ways than we can count. From one point of view, we are either praying with the Church in liturgical prayer, or praying more generally in a group, or praying alone. From another point of view, we are praying either vocally or mentally. From still another vantage point, we may be reading pre-composed prayers, saying rote prayers, speaking naturally to God, or even simply listening.
Then within mental prayer, there is the distinction between mediation, in which we actively reflect on some topic, theme or text in prayer; and contemplation, which is always initiated by God, and by which He brings us into a deeper and more direct experience of His Being. For the practice of meditation, there are many different techniques. For example, the Jesuit approach is to take a passage from the Gospels and imagine ourselves as one of the characters in the scene. My own approach is to read some spiritual text slowly and carefully, exercising my mind in the task of understanding it more deeply and seeing its myriad connections with my own spiritual life, my own relationship with God.
Contemplation is another matter entirely, and there is widespread misunderstanding about it. The essence of contemplation is God’s action, not our own. In one sense, we engage in a sort of contemplative prayer when we attempt to empty our minds and simply become aware of the presence of God, but there is a difference between this and contemplation proper. We practice the presence of God by trying to make ourselves continually aware of God’s presence not only when we are at prayer but also as a habit of our daily lives. But contemplation proper does not happen until God discloses Himself to us in a special way, drawing us more directly into the mystery of Himself.
Some spiritual directors prescribe a process, for beginners, of emptying the mind to prepare for what they see as God’s inevitable action in contemplation. Certainly, if we signal our desire to be filled with God, He may initiate the desired connection and disclose Himself more directly to us in prayer. But on the whole I favor those spiritual guides who, more in keeping with the Catholic spiritual tradition, warn beginners of the dangers of leaving the mind empty for very long, lest it become filled with ideas proposed by evil spirits or our own auto-suggestions; or lest it simply be empty and unfruitful.
These more cautious directors suggest pausing in spiritual reading or meditation to enable God to take charge, but if the sense of God’s presence does not strengthen, we should move on with our more active meditative prayer. The same is true if the sense of God increases and then later diminishes: time to move on. The point here is that we cannot control contemplation; it cannot be forced. But as we will see below, after the long practice of meditation, God will often invite the soul, if not to full contemplation, at least to a more passive and restful form of prayer.
Progress in Prayer
When we are learning to pray, we generally start by memorizing some tried and true prayers and learning to say them well. Next we learn to talk a little to God in our own words. Typically we also go to Mass and learn to participate in the official prayers of the Church. Then we begin reading the prayers and spiritual reflections of others, in order to help us to pray longer and more fruitfully. Finally, we learn to put ourselves in God’s presence, to share our concerns with him, to rest in Him, to listen in our hearts to the promptings of His Spirit. We set aside time for prayer and, if we are wise and have the opportunity, we pray also at set times before the Blessed Sacrament.
In all this we must stay faithful to the sacraments of the Church, and we must be guided by her teachings, for we would be exceedingly foolish if we were to attempt to chart a course subjectively in prayer while ignoring the objective and certain aids Our Lord has given us to help us on our way. Moreover, as we move from stage to stage, we do not abandon any of the earlier forms, for these all serve to keep us anchored in the Truth, minimizing the possibility that we will end up, in effect, praying and listening to ourselves, or to deceiving spirits. No matter how advanced in prayer we become, we may or may not experience full contemplation. But everyone will gain facility in prayer and also see themselves growing spiritually through an ingrained habit of prayer.
Stages in Meditation
Most people will find it progressively easier to meditate fruitfully with time. Paradoxically, however, after even more time (perhaps years or even decades), many who persevere in meditation will gradually find it growing more difficult again. This may seem surprising, and I am not referring to a period of increased distractions, or to the difficulties that beset us in prayer when there are other serious problems with our spiritual life. But in many or even most souls, an increasing difficulty in meditating after a long period of success is a sign that God is calling the soul to a less mentally active, and therefore more spiritually receptive, form of prayer.
Whereas before we might have been put off by placing ourselves in the presence of God with “nothing to do”, now we find ourselves comfortable simply resting in the Lord, communicating heart to heart (so to speak), rather than keeping our minds so busy. Again, this is not true contemplation, though it might in some cases be a prelude to it, especially for those in religious life who spend many hours of the day in prayer, and for whom the experience of contemplation is strongly related to the nature of their vocations.
Very often, as I indicated earlier, these periods of rest will occur rather naturally (if I may abuse the term) during one’s normal program of spiritual reading. Thus we remain anchored in some spiritual text, but linger at intervals in the presence of God, as the Spirit moves us to do. This is quite typically a stage to which Our Lord draws us after we have gone as far as we can through the activity of our own minds. Sometimes conscientious souls will retard their progress at this stage by not recognizing it for what it is, and instead fighting it in a further effort to meditate more actively, fearing that to relax that effort is the same as failing to persevere in prayer.
The overarching object of all prayer is union with God. It is absolutely vital to emphasize here that the one indispensable means to union is doing God’s will. But it is through prayer than we grow to know and love God more, to discern His will more clearly, and to gain the strength to do it. On the other hand, nothing prevents our union with God more effectively, or undermines it more quickly, than a refusal to seek and do His will. Thus union with God is always to be measured by our conformity with His will.
This includes His will as disclosed to us through the certain means He has provided, especially the teachings of His Church; anything in prayer which leads us to reject or ignore these teachings does not come from the Spirit of God, for God cannot contradict Himself. His Revelation and its proper interpretation by the authority He has established in the Church is necessarily certain, whereas our own insights in prayer are necessarily fallible and subject to correction. But of course, we must seek and follow God’s specific will for us in prayer as well, and it is one of prayer’s important purposes to discern that will. The main point here is that our progress in union with God is not on any account to be measured by the good feelings we happen to have while at prayer, or at any other time.
Such feelings, insofar as they come from God, are called consolations. Feelings of peace or joy or sweetness—when they are not purely natural (and not, please God, confused with that dangerous spiritual smugness which often accompanies a somewhat self-righteous piety)—are given by God when we need them for the good of our spiritual life. Thus beginners in prayer, when they make their first serious commitment to it, very generally experience such consolations as an encouragement to persevere. But the consolations will be withdrawn later, lest we learn to love the consolations and not the Consoler.
This is a significant point. Those who tend to emotional forms of piety need to be cautioned against attempting to stir up the emotions as a substitute for consolations, because both consolations and positive emotions are completely irrelevant to the actual quality of our prayer life. Deliberate immersion in them is a sign not of spiritual growth but of spiritual selfishness. The same is true of excessive attachment to any particular private devotion or liturgical celebration based on the pleasurable feelings which accompany it. This should not occasion surprise, for we are never more united to Christ than when we are with Him in His Passion.
Our Own Specific Purposes at Prayer
Now, while the overarching object of all prayer is union with God, we nonetheless very frequently come to prayer with our own specific and active purposes in view. These fall always into four categories: Contrition, Petition, Thanksgiving, and Praise. We approach God in prayer either to express sorrow at having offended Him, or to ask Him for help of various kinds, or to thank Him for favors already received, or to praise him for Who He is. We may at times simply try to listen at prayer, but this (hopefully!) is in essence a prayer of petition to discern God’s will.
A few words may be in order on three of these purposes. With respect to Petition, those who pray regularly find (or ought to find) that they become increasingly uncomfortable asking for worldly things for themselves, as we do when we are children. While bringing our concerns before God in prayer is good, it also tends to purify them, and we gradually grow to desire things only insofar as they will be for our spiritual good. Thus there is great wisdom in the firm advice of the late Fr. John Hardon, SJ with respect to our own needs. Only two forms of petitionary prayer need concern us, he said. When we are uncertain of God’s will, we pray for light. When we know what His will is, we pray for courage.
It may also be useful to distinguish between Thanksgiving and Praise. God deserves our thanks insofar as He has done something good for us. But He deserves our praise simply because of Who He is: The eternal, omniscient, all-powerful, omnipresent God, the One who is totally complete and perfect in Himself, the Supreme Good and the source of all goodness. The wonder of His being is, of course, manifested in His works, and because He chooses to do so much good to us through His mighty works, the distinction between thanksgiving and praise naturally tends to blur. Nonetheless, in a nutshell, we thank God for favors, and we praise Him—or give Him glory—simply because of the unequalled greatness of His very Being.
Glory, Love and Union
This giving of glory to God is the fundamental purpose of all created things simply because they are all infinitely less than God. God is all-good, and so the created order participates in this goodness, which means the fundamental structure of reality is inescapably moral. Giving glory to God is the right and proper acknowledgement of who we are and Who God is. Moreover, it is the only one of the four purposes of prayer that does not contain a hint, if not of selfishness exactly, then of self-interest.
Considering the importance of giving glory to God in all true religion, and in each person’s life, we are indeed fortunate that God has made us for Himself, and so we give Him the greatest glory of which we are capable by drawing into union with him. Through this union, God wills to extend his incomparable glory through all of creation. And so the right order built into all creation becomes at the same time the pure, overarching purpose of all prayer. Once again: Prayer is that habit of communication with God by which we gain both the wisdom and the strength to love Him at every moment of our lives, and so to draw into a complete and perfect Divine union, both now and forever.
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Sep. 09, 2011 7:24 PM ET USA
You have written an accurate and excellent paper on Contemplation with emphasis leading towards union with God. After my six years in religious life in years past, it struck me as the truth, and many should read it as there is indeed a lot of misinformation on this subject. As you say, just saying "Here I am, Lord" and then sitting back empty and devoid of thought is indeed dangerous. For someone in love with God, daily striving for perfection your article will be beneficial.