Remember the analogy from previous posts of prayer as a race? A runner who does not know where the finish line lies is unlikely to win the race. Similarly, a Christian who does not understand the goal of prayer is not likely to attain it. Prayer is meant to draw us into an intimate communion with Christ that transforms our whole life. We begin fostering this communion by praying well and trying to follow God’s will. God completes it by drawing us into a deeper union than our efforts alone could ever yield. He does this through the prayer called infused contemplation.
The Carmelite saints who are the pre-eminent teachers on prayer (Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross) reserve the word contemplation to this “infused,” poured-in-by-God, type of prayer. God normally saves this gift for those who have been praying faithfully and practicing virtue for many years, to the point of overcoming deliberate sin. It is a long, slow process to prepare ourselves to meet God. When we have done all that we can to prepare ourselves for him, he comes to us, because he desires union with us even more than we desire union with him.
Beginners in prayer should not expect to experience contemplation quickly. Prayer is not a sprint. It is a marathon. But we can start praying in a contemplative manner today. Praying in a contemplative manner involves praying with loving attention to God.
Love, not methods
This is what we have been practicing, using the sign of the cross. Last time, we learned to make the sign of the cross slowly and reverently, thinking about the Holy Trinity or the Crucifixion as we do so. Practicing vocal prayer with reverent attention is the beginning of the race toward contemplation.
Some people erroneously believe that all they need to grow in prayer is the right method. They seek a secret, a formula that will make them contemplatives. Prayer growth is not a matter of method, however. It is a matter of love. Only love can unite us with Jesus. The more we love him, both during our prayer time and outside of it, the closer we will come to him. It’s that simple.
We don’t need a mantra. We don’t need to empty our minds or turn away from pious thoughts. We don’t need the latest fad prayer “discovered” in the Bible or other ancient text.
We need to love.
Every time we say a prayer, no matter how short or simple, we should interiorly cast a loving glance at Jesus. Our minds tend to run all over during prayer, because we have not formed good habits.
It is easier to focus on God for ten seconds than for ten minutes. That is why we started practicing reverent prayer with the sign of the cross. Once we have formed the habit of praying the sign of the cross well, we can try praying one Hail Mary with loving attention. Then perhaps one Our Father. Then the Creed or a somewhat longer prayer.
Spiritual writers often talk about the need for silence and solitude in prayer. It is possible to pray in a noisy, crowded subway (I have done it many times!) but it is not optimal. Seeking a place to be alone in the quiet minimizes exterior distractions. Living our lives in accordance with God’s will helps minimize interior noise and distractions.
But the most important element of prayer is love. Love will do the work necessary to be united with the beloved. Love will persevere. And love makes even the simplest prayer rewarding.
Pray in such a way as to prepare for the pure gift of infused contemplation. Pray in a contemplative manner. Pray with loving attention.
Are You Living a Contemplative Life?
This article was originally published in The Catholic Voice, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Omaha. This is the third in a series that I am posting from past newspaper columns, every other Tuesday. I have 3 years’ worth of columns to share with you! I wrote these columns in a logical order, so that they could serve as a written course on mental prayer. For more in-depth study, follow the links to read blog posts that you may have missed or forgotten. If you have not subscribed to my blog, do so now so that you don’t miss a post.