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Praying in a Contemplative Manner

In order to reach the finish line, you must know where it lies. Photo from Pixabay.

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.

Connie Rossini

More on infused contemplation

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.

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The place of silence in prayer

This post is a response to a recent discussion in my Facebook group Authentic Contemplative Prayer about silence. What is the place of silence in mental prayer? The answer is too complex for Facebook comments. Let’s try to tackle it here.

Silencing distractions

Every time we pray, whether vocal or mental prayer, we should gently try to set aside distractions. We do this by taking a few moments to transition from secular pursuits to prayer. How? Here are some suggestions:

  • Breathe slowly and deeply while focusing the mind on God.
  • Read a short passage from a favorite spiritual book.
  • Slowly recite a vocal prayer.
  • Imagine yourself entering God’s presence and giving Him your distractions.

These are all means of recollecting our thoughts so that we are ready to be receptive to the Holy Spirit.

Notice, we do not just sit in silence once we have recollected ourselves — unless we are in one of the two situations described below.

The prayer of simple gaze

The prayer of simple gaze, also called the prayer of simplicity or acquired recollection, is a simplification of meditation. We start with reading Scripture or looking at sacred art or some other matter that moves the mind and the heart toward God.

People who have practiced mental prayer for a long time no longer need a lot of reflection and other intellectual activity before the heart feels drawn to the Lord. Instead, they feel drawn toward sitting silently in His presence. Usually, after a few minutes they will experience distractions. At that point, they should return to their meditation material. If they feel drawn toward silence again, they should again follow that impulse for as long as the mind and heart are occupied with God.

Many people experience the prayer of simple gaze while at Adoration. When The Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ is before us in sacramental form, elaborate meditation is sometimes unnecessary. Gazing at the Eucharist takes the place of reading the Scriptures. Meditation may be so simple and brief that we do not even realize that the movement of the heart toward God is a result of the senses encountering God in a mysterious way. This too is the prayer of simple gaze. When our minds become distracted, we take up the Scriptures or another book, or begin reflecting on the Blessed Sacrament, or other truths of the faith. We may or may not be led back into silence.

Infused contemplation

John of the Cross cautions that until God gives us the gift of infused contemplation, we should continue to practice meditation, even if the prayer of simple gaze is our daily experience. He writes:

“At the proper time one should abandon this imaginative meditation so that the journey to God may not be hindered, but so that there is no regression, one should not abandon it before the due time… as long as one can make discursive meditation and draw out satisfaction, one must not abandon this method.”

The Ascent of Mt. Carmel, Book 2, Ch. 13.

Notice the word “must.” John of the Cross is the Mystical Doctor of the Church — the number-one expert on this subject, so-designated by the Church. Completely abandoning meditation when one begins experiencing the prayer of simple gaze is misguided. It can lead to self-indulgence in prayer and attachment to consolations.

More troubling are practices like centering prayer that teach people to purposely set aside all thoughts. Spiritual “regression,” if not shipwreck of one’s relationship with God, can result.

Be still and know?

Finally, one of the most often misquoted verses I see regarding prayer is Psalm 46:10, “Be still, and know that I am God.” This verse is not instructing us on how to pray, but on how to react to crises. Here is the whole Psalm, so you can understand the context:

God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear though the earth should change,
    though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
    though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
    the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of her, she shall not be moved;
    God will help her right early.
The nations rage, the kingdoms totter;
    he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Come, behold the works of the Lord,
    how he has wrought desolations in the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
    he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear,
    he burns the chariots with fire!
10 “Be still, and know that I am God.
    I am exalted among the nations,
    I am exalted in the earth!”
11 The Lord of hosts is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our refuge.

The Bible never instructs us to pray by sitting silently and “listening to God.” I cannot think of any saints who instruct us to do so either. (If readers have any quotes from the saints on this matter, please share them.) “Listening to God” without the use of Scripture as a guide often results in listening to our own imaginings. It can also be used by evil spirits (although I would think this is rarer). It cultivates a taste for and attachment to extraordinary phenomena like visions and locutions.

I don’t at all want to discourage you from including silence in prayer, but it should be kept in its proper place. This is one of many areas in which a spiritual director can help you discern what kind of silence God is calling you to at a given time.

Connie Rossini

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Appearance on EWTN

This past Monday, Dan Burke and I appeared live on At Home with Jim and Joy on EWTN. We discussed our book The Contemplative Rosary, what contemplation is, and how you can pray the Rosary better. If you missed the show, please enjoy the replay.

We also taped a week’s worth of appearances with Johnette Benkovic on Women of Grace. They will air later this spring. As soon as I know the exact dates, I will pass the information on to you.

I hope you are having a blessed Lent!

All glory and honor to God.

Connie Rossini


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Normal and Extraordinary Means of Holiness

The Agony in the Garden by Trevisani. Complete surrender to God follows Jesus’ example.

In my Facebook Group Authentic Contemplative Prayer some discussions recycle every few weeks. One is whether we need a spiritual director. Another is whether contemplation is necessary for holiness. Misunderstandings on these topics have the same root. They rest on a misunderstanding of norms versus extraordinary workings of grace.

St. Therese and spiritual direction

For example, when I teach that everyone should look for a spiritual director, I inevitably receive this objection: St. Therese did not have a spiritual director, and she reached the heights of holiness at age 24. The statement is true, but people draw false conclusions from it.

Here are some things that are missing from the argument:

  • St. Therese was a Carmelite nun with a regular confessor.
  • She opened her heart to many confessors, but only one understood her.
  • He was unable to direct her permanently, because he was sent to Canada as a missionary.
  • You are not St. Therese.

On the last point, I am not (just) being cheeky. You may be as holy as St. Therese for all I know (though you’ll forgive me if I doubt it, because you must be very humble if you are that advanced).  But your life circumstances are different from hers. As one example, how many of us were raised by saints?

As Therese’s parents, Saints Louis and Zelie Martin were her first spiritual directors. They taught her to love Jesus. They taught her obedience to authority. They taught her to love, to embrace suffering, to put God before all else. However wonderful our parents, few of them would match Therese’s.

In other words, God did not leave her to figure everything out on her own. Neither does He with most of us.

Is it necessary?

In a recent Facebook exchange, a friend argued that spiritual directors are not “required,” because no Church document says we “must” have them. So, it’s perfectly fine not to.

This misunderstanding goes beyond the one above to include a second: conflating what is required for salvation with what is the norm for attaining holiness. The Church does not insist that we become canonized (or canonizable) saints, so She does not require the means. She only requires what is necessary for our entrance into Heaven. Yet, she urges us to embrace those “extra” things that are normally required for holiness.

When Pope John Paul II addressed the question of how lay people should discern their vocation, he wrote:

To be able to discover the actual will of the Lord in our lives always involves the following: a receptive listening to the Word of God and the Church, fervent and constant prayer, recourse to a wise and loving spiritual guide, and a faithful discernment of the gifts and talents given by God, as well as the diverse social and historic situations in which one lives.” (Christifidelis laici, no. 58)

In other words, we cannot discern God’s will about the big questions in life without some kind of spiritual direction. We might be able to go to Heaven without such a guide, but we also might err in some fundamental areas. Why would you want to take that chance?

Not the Norm

To say that one does not need to have a spiritual director because St. Therese did not have one, is like saying one is called to be a Carmelite nun because she was called to be one. Very few people (and only single women) are called to be Carmelite nuns. Likewise, very few people reach the heights of sanctity (or even grow beyond beginning stages) without some sort of spiritual direction.

Therese only lived to age 24. Most of us will live 50 years longer than that. Should we give up looking for a spiritual director and go decades without one?

Most saints have had spiritual directors at some point in their lives. Sometimes they had bad or mediocre ones, but most who persevered in seeking a good director were eventually rewarded with one. This is true of priests, religious, and lay people.

We should follow the norm, not assume ourselves to be the exception.

What about contemplation?

Let’s look briefly then at the other topic. Is contemplation the normal means to sanctity?

Every few weeks someone will post on Facebook that “there are many saints who were not contemplatives.” I don’t know where people get this idea. I suspect they misunderstand what a contemplative is. Sometimes they think that I am insisting a person must share my personal spirituality in order to be holy, and see me as being proud and judgmental when I insist on the need for contemplation. If contemplation is the normal means to sanctity, however, then most saints have been contemplatives. (We can exclude some martyrs and perhaps a few isolated others.)

I can think of one saint who was neither a contemplative nor a martyr. St. Dismas, otherwise known as the good thief, was saved and sanctified through his belief in Jesus. Dismas did not live a good life prior to meeting Jesus and he died before he could develop a life of prayer. He is not the norm. Deathbed conversions are not the norm for saints. They are very rare exceptions. Even many martyrs lived holy lives before giving them up for the Gospel.

How to be a saint

How does one become holy? By growing up spiritually. How does one grow spiritually? Through increasing intimacy with Christ. How does one become more intimate with Christ? Through the sacraments and personal prayer.

Contemplation is the way we experience intimacy with Christ. As He draws us closer to Himself, the increasing union transforms us. It is this transformation, initiated by God’s action, that enables us to act with heroic virtue. It makes us saints, if we submit to it.

In the purgative way (the beginning stage of the spiritual life), we try to align our wills as much as we can with God’s will. The problem is that we are so broken from Original Sin and personal sin, that we cannot even conceive the depth of that brokenness. We think ourselves almost perfect when we have barely begun to live for God. God Himself must enlighten us. When He does so, He also, because of our surrender to Him, heals us. We cannot see our need of this healing, let alone gain the healing itself, with common actual grace. God comes to our aid. This aid is contemplation.

Sometimes we mistakenly think that saints are saints because they are strong human beings. Not so! St. Therese spoke so often of her natural weakness. People of all temperaments and natural gifts (or the lack of them) have become and can become saints. Saints are saints because they surrendered completely to God, letting Him take over their sanctification. Realizing their inability to sanctify themselves, saints throw themselves on God’s mercy. They abandon themselves to Him. Then God begins the deep work they could never do. This is contemplation. This is the normal means to sanctity.

Don’t try to be extraordinary

In the spiritual life, we should not view ourselves as someone special. That is a trap. It has led many down the road to perdition through pride.

Similarly, we should not view ourselves as the exception to the norm. If you perseveringly seek a spiritual director and can’t find one, you entrust your spiritual life to God and keep looking. It’s up to God to decide if He wants to do extraordinary things for us. Maybe He wants us to persevere for just one more day, and we give up!

Do not fool yourself into thinking that being a contemplative is something extraordinary. It is normal (or, better, normative). Contemplation is only extraordinary in the sense that few give themselves to God so completely as to receive it, and that it requires a deeper infusion of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Do not despair if you think you have given all and you are still not experiencing contemplation. Perhaps the “all” you are lacking is trusting for one more day. Perhaps letting go of the “when” is the abandonment you still require.

But why am I telling you this? Go ask your spiritual director about it.

Connie Rossini

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Facts, faith, and contemplative knowledge

Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, author of The Three Ages of the Interior Life.

What is the relationship between knowledge and contemplation? How much should we concern ourselves with news events? How can we trust God when bad things happen? I have been meditating on all these questions and more lately, and would like to share my musings with you.

Growing in knowledge

Centering Prayer advocates such as Fr. Thomas Keating tend to downplay the knowledge of God. Fr. Keating calls receptivity “an attitude of waiting for the Ultimate Mystery. You don’t know what that is. But as your faith is purified, you don’t want to know” (Open Mind, Open Heart, 20th Anniversary Edition, p. 66). This is false. It’s like saying the more a man loves a woman, the less he desires to know about her. How absurd!

What actually happens when a man falls in love is this. He sees a woman and notes something attractive about her. She is beautiful, she is smart, et cetera. He wants to get to know her better. The two spend time together. As their intimacy grows, they share their life stories, their memories, their hopes, their fears. The man moves beyond desiring more facts about his beloved to desiring her self. He desires to know her intimately, literally to know her from the inside.

Facts now take second place. But they are not lost. If he ceases to care about the details of his wife’s life, in some sense he ceases loving her. Facts still matter, but different facts than struck him at first. Perhaps it was her gorgeous hair that first attracted him. Now they are old and her hair is gray and thinning. He loves her still. She was young and robust. Now her health is compromised. That does not change his love. He cares for her person, which is so much deeper than her appearance, her likes and dislikes, her talents. He has a deeper knowledge, a knowledge from experience, a knowledge of her essence. He knows and understands her much better, not less. He still cherishes everything about her, but the physical becomes less important to him.

This is akin to the knowledge of God that comes by faith.

The knowledge of faith

Contemplative knowledge is knowledge that comes by faith. It is true knowledge of God, deeper than the knowledge of facts about Him. Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange summarizes the teaching of John of the Cross in this way:

“St. John of the Cross tells us that obscure faith enlightens us. It is obscure because it makes us adhere to mysteries we do not see; but these mysteries, which are those of the inner life of God, greatly illumine our intellect, since they do not cease to express to us the goodness of God, who created us, raised us to the life of grace, sent His only Son to redeem us…” (The Three Ages of the Interior Life, Ch. 26).

He goes on to say about the knowledge of faith:

“It is very superior to the senses and to reason; it is the proximate means of union with God, whom it makes us know infallibly and supernaturally in obscurity.”

Fr. Thomas Keating implies that as we become contemplatives we know longer care whether God is a Trinity, whether Jesus came to save us, whether He is Love personified. That’s like saying the man at the height of his love no longer cares about his beloved’s hopes, fears, and desires, or the memories they share.

In contemplative knowledge, we know God Himself. We know Him from the inside, because we have been drawn up into His life. We know Him as a whole. Articles of Faith are part of that whole, but the whole is beyond them. The Articles of Faith can never express the fullness of the God we have come to know. Yet, those facts are still true, and we love them more than ever, because we love Him more than ever.

Vain curiosity

We need to distinguish between the Articles of Faith, however, and theology, especially theological speculation. Some of us are tempted toward inordinate curiosity. We want to learn all there is to know about God. So we read the Summa, and so on. Here is something we need to understand: Unless God calls you to be a theologian or teacher of theology, seeking intellectual knowledge about God can become a hindrance to spiritual growth.

Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange criticizes “heavy and stupid intellectual curiosity” (again paraphrasing John of the Cross). He calls it “a mania of collecting” that St. Thomas Aquinas attributed to spiritual sloth. It can lead to pride and folly. He writes:

“This type of work, instead of training the mind, smothers it, as too much wood smothers a fire. Under this jumble of accumulated knowledge, they can no longer see the light of the first principles, which alone could bring order out of all this material and lift up their souls even to God…”

All this knowledge can lead to blindness through pride. Do we really desire to know God better, or just to know facts about Him, facts with which we can correct others or pride ourselves in understanding?

St. Paul was one of the most learned men of his time, but his learning did not help him to recognize the Messiah. Later, he wrote, “When I came to you, brethren, I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:1-2).

It’s not that this knowledge of facts or speculation about God is bad. It’s that as far as union with Him is concerned, it’s useless. And to reach that union, we must let go of every useless thing. We need to come to the point where it no longer matters to us whether there will be animals in Heaven, for example. Or what happened to the lost tribes of Israel. Or even how God’s Providence and man’s free will interact.

How much more do we need to let go of current events or politics or scientific theories or history (unless, of course, God specifically calls us to such knowledge)!

Trust and tragedy

How can we trust God amid the daily suffering we bear, the tragedies in our families and friends or nation? How can we avoid being anxious or distraught when we choose to sin? The answer is the same: let go of focusing on the parts and focus on the whole.

Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange says:

“If we followed this rule, the consideration of details would no longer make us lose sight of the whole, as so often happens, just as trees seen too near hinder one from seeing the forest. Those who say that the problem of evil cannot be solved and find in it an occasion of sin, are absorbed in the woeful verification of certain painful details and lose the general view of the providential plan in which everything is ordained to the good of those who love the Lord.

“The excessively meticulous study of details makes us depreciate the first global view of things; when the latter is pure, however, it is already elevated and salutary. Thus when a Christian child sees the starry sky, he finds in it a splendid sign of the infinite grandeur of God. Later on, if he becomes absorbed in the scientific study of the different constellations, he may forget the view of the whole, to which the intellect must finally return the better to comprehend its loftiness and profundity. It has been said that if a little learning withdraws a person from religion, great learning brings him back to it.”

And when he comes back to it, he must then let his great learning go.

Every event of our lives, every event of history, is only one tree in the forest of God’s plan, which has been working itself out since the dawn of creation. We cannot hang on to the trees. If we dare to let go, dare to know nothing except Christ, He will raise us up to where we can see the whole forest. For the forest is within God, and in contemplation we come to know Him from the inside.

Connie Rossini

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Seeking God with John of the Cross


For the Feast of St. John of the Cross, I’d like to look at a common error in counterfeit contemplation such as Centering Prayer. New Age theologies do not see any separation between God and the soul. In fact, to many New Agers, God and the soul are the same thing. This error pops up in nearly every conversation I have with Centering Prayer practitioners. Here is a comment from a practitioner from an exchange on Leila Miller’s blog, Little Catholic Bubble:

“God is omnipresent. We cannot, not be in God’s presence. We are human and in our fallen nature we have difficulty having an awareness of God’s presence.”

The need for moral conversion

This is true, but misleading. One can be present in different ways. God is present in all that exists, yet morally speaking we can be separated from Him due to sin. In fact, since Adam’s sin, we are all (with two exceptions!) born this way, morally separated from God. Acknowledging that God is present everywhere is not enough for union with Him. We need a moral conversion, not just an awareness or consciousness.

Thankfully, both Teresa of Ávila and John of the Cross address this issue.

We must draw near to God

Here is St. John’s doctrine on “Seeking the Hidden God.”  This long quote comes from Union with God According to St. John of the Cross by Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen, OCD. Unfortunately, this wonderful book is now out of print. If you can find one secondhand, pick it up!

“For the soul desirous of union, it is not enough to know where one ought to go to seek God; it also wants to find Him. The soul responds to the Spirit with a new question:

“‘Granted that He whom I love is within me, why do I not feel Him and do not find Him?’

“There is a great difference between having God and being introduced into His company, and thus living with Him.

“‘God is in me,’ the soul says, ‘why does He not reveal His presence to me?’

“To this the Saint will reply by explaining to us a whole plan of conquest.  Listen to why the soul enamored of God and in whom He dwells does not feel Him:

“‘The reason for this is that He is hidden, and you do not hide yourself as He does so that you may find Him and feel Him. He who is looking for a hidden thing should secretly penetrate its hiding place, and when he finds it, he too is hidden as it is.’ (Spiritual Canticle I, 9)

“Yes, it is true, God is within us, but He is hidden, concealed under the cumulation of our too human preoccupations, all the obstacles to the fulfillment of personal plans for our own profit and gain, plans that we want to carry out without taking sufficient account of the divine will and of the rights of others. In our interior there is too often a whole world of tendencies, of influences, of very lively passions, that thrust us toward creatures and make us give them our heart. They make us place our hope in them and seek our comfort in the remembrance of them. So we live in this superficial world, which occupies us to such a point that it makes us forget that more profound life that we could live but do not live, that truly interior life where the soul could be in relation with its God, and could end by finding Him. The Lord waits for us, so to speak, in the depth of our soul, but we do not enter this depth, taken up as we are by ‘our affairs’ to which we give all our concern…

“‘Since therefore thy beloved Spouse (God) is the treasure hidden in the vineyard of your soul… it is necessary that you too, forgetting everything and withdrawing from all creatures, hide yourself, until you find Him in the intimate seclusion of your spirit. Here, with the door shut behind you, namely the will closed to everything, pray in secret to your Father, and then… in secret you will hear Him and love Him and enjoy Him… above all that the tongue and sense can understand.’ (Spiritual Canticle I, 9)”

God’s will or ours?

So there you have it. To find God in our souls, we must close our will to everything but Him. We must set aside our own plans and follow His plan. This is what it truly means to go into our room and close the door.

Silence is not enough. Awareness is not enough. Being physically alone is not enough. Setting aside all our thoughts and feelings during prayer gains us nothing.

What we need to set aside is our will, in so far as it is different from God’s will. If God wills for us is to meditate on Scripture, that’s what we should do. He will show us that His will for us has changed when He Himself begins to change our prayer. And this change will only take place when we have truly abandoned our will for God’s.

Have a blessed feast day!

Connie Rossini