So how, practically, does one do contemplative prayer?
- Simply sit with the Lord: make an act of faith that He is gazing on you with love, give Him complete permission to do w/ you what He wills.
- Make an act of faith at the beginning and end of your prayer time (make commitment to at least 15 minutes, half hour, hour, and don’t cut it short) that this is indeed prayer, and that God is at work
Most of prayer will consist of being repeatedly distracted, but then calling oneself back to quiet, loving attention to the Lord. Our imagination, writes St. Teresa, is like a wandering dog, sniffing at every tree and bush – so we have to “whistle” it back to attention. The heart of this prayer basically is the will: deciding to refocus and be with the Lord. It’s fine to use a brief, Christ-centered or Scriptural phrase to try to keep focused – e.g., “Jesus”, “Lord have mercy”, “I love You, Lord”. It can help to have a religious image – e.g., an icon or a crucifix – to help one focus. If Eucharistic adoration is available, that’s ideal – it provides not just a focal point, but the Real Presence.
The heart of my prayer these last 26 years or so has been contemplative prayer. But naturally, along with our contemplative prayer, we still need to intercede for people; read spiritual books, especially the Bible; praise, thank, and just generally converse with the Lord spontaneously; journal and stay open to His speaking to us (“listening prayer”); pray the Rosary and other Catholic devotions; and of course, attend Mass at least weekly, with frequent confession.To begin praying contemplatively does NOT mean to abandon Scripture, listening prayer, vocal prayer, liturgical prayer (especially the Mass), or spiritual reading – but we simply do those at a separate time during the day or week.
The fruits of contemplative prayer are broad and deep:
- God seems absent most of time in prayer, but the fruits of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control) more evident in one’s life outside of prayer – more Christlike character, deeper conformity to God’s will, greater desire for God’s glory.
- A deepened sense of God’s action and presence in the very ordinary things of life: everything in some sense speaks of God: a deep conviction that God is present always in all things.
- Knowledge, not based on thoughts, emotions, or sensations, that God is quietly but powerfully working during the prayer time, despite the dryness.
- A subtle sort of sweetness/peace/joy (St. John calls it “extremely delicate”) during prayer, at least at times.
- Seeking the Giver, not the gifts. He is the Lord, and I pray because He calls me to. Will experience consolation on occasions, but it’ll have nothing to do w/ my efforts – clearly a gift from the Lord.
The Scriptural bases of contemplative prayer can be summed up by: “How did the prayer giants of the Bible pray?” (Moses, Elijah, David, Paul, and Jesus Himself)
Moses Exodus 24:12-18. 40 days and nights on the mountain with the Lord: was Moses talking that whole time? Or sitting and gazing on the Lord’s presence?
Elijah and the still, small voice 1 Kings 19:11-13. The Lord’s presence requires attention and can by very subtle.
David and the other psalmists Ps 27: 4, 7-8 (about gazing on the Lord’s loveliness); Ps 42: 2-3 (As the deer longs for running streams, so my soul longs for you, my God…); Ps 63 (O God, you are my God, for you I long…through the night-watches I meditate on you): themes of longing, waiting, gazing, meditating echo throughout the Psalms, Israel’s prayer book. The recurrent theme of waiting for, hoping in the Lord throughout the psalms captures the spirit of contemplation. “Be still, and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10): this is the essence of contemplative prayer.
The Song of Solomon (The Song of Songs) is best understood in the light of contemplative prayer. The groom is the Lord, and the bride who passionately seeks Him whom her heart loves is the soul. It’s no accident that the great mystics – St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, and St. Therese of Lisieux – so frequently described their passionate love for the Lord in terms taken from the Song of Solomon.
St. Paul (2 Cor 3:17-18) “We, gazing on the Lord with unveiled faces, are transformed from glory to glory by the Lord, who is the Spirit”; 1 Thes 5:17 tells us to “pray without ceasing” – contemplative prayer, especially, fosters an ongoing, loving awareness of the Lord throughout ordinary life.
Jesus In Luke, especially, Jesus is always going off by himself to pray. In the gospels, He spent 40 days and nights fasting and praying in the desert. Just before walking on the water He spent all night in prayer (at least 9 hours). Was he talking that whole time? He certainly wasn’t reading the Bible! He must have been gazing at the Father who lovingly was gazing on him.
Finally, the Catholic Church has a rich tradition of contemplative prayer, going back at least to St. Anthony of the Desert in the first few centuries of the Church, echoing throughout the monastic movement, and shining out repeatedly in the lives of the saints and other giants of church renewal. Once one learns what contemplation is, one sees it everywhere. There are too many examples to enumerate.