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Contemplative Prayer

prayer 4

We all know that prayer is essential, but for many, prayer is the last thing that we do.  At times, prayer is seen as a last resort when all of our own efforts have failed.

This pervasive attitude, so rooted in our can-do American view of self-reliance, reminds me of a charming story about a little boy who began to ride his bicycle for the first time.

As he rode around the neighborhood, his mom watched proudly from the front porch of their house.  As the little boy rode past his house he yelled out, “Hey, mom, look no hands!”  As he rode by the second time, he yelled out, “Hey, mom, look no hands!”  Finally, as he rode by a third time, he yelled out, “Hey mom, look no teeth!”

Many times we turn to God only we have fallen flat on our face.

In his book Compassion, Henri Nouwen writes, “Prayer requires that we stand in God’s presence with open hands, naked and vulnerable, proclaiming to ourselves and to others that without God we can do nothing” (page 102).  He goes on to say that “prayer must be our first concern” (page 102).

A well organized and daily spiritual life is an essential part of the Christian way of life.  Prayer is a discipline and it requires personal discipline.  As I wrote in my book Get Serious! – A Survival Guide for Serious Catholics, “Discipline is essential.  You will not be able to live out a serious spiritual life without it” (page 31).

Nouwen explains that, “the discipline of prayer is the discipline by which we liberate the Spirit of God from entanglement in our impatient impulses.  It is the way by which we allow God’s spirit to move more freely” (Compassion, page 103).

He continues with these helpful insights: “The discipline of prayer makes us stop and listen, wait and look, taste and see, pay attention and be aware.  Although this may sound like advice to be passive, it actually demands much willpower and motivation.  We may consider the discipline of prayer a form of inner displacement.  The ordinary and proper response to our world is to turn on the radio, open the newspaper, go to another movie, talk to more people, or to look impatiently for new attractions and distractions.  To listen patiently to the voice of the Spirit in prayer is radical displacement which at first creates unusual discomfort.  We are so accustomed to our impatient way of life that we do not expect much from the moment.  Every attempt to ‘live it through’ or to ‘stay with it’ is so contrary to our usual habits that all our impulses rise up in protest.  But when discipline keeps us faithful, we slowly begin to sense that something so deep, so mysterious, and so creative is happening here and now that we are drawn toward it – not by our impulses but by the Holy Spirit” (Compassion, page 105).

It is true that prayer is not an easy enterprise.  The spiritual life will always be a battle.  There always will be obstacles that are necessary to overcome if we wish to live a life of prayer.

First of all, many people struggle with distractions when they pray.  I have always encouraged people to be patient when they are distracted. However, it is true that distractions are rather normal, especially for all those who are beginning to develop a prayer life.

Personal discipline, choosing a suitable place, using a good text when necessary and selecting a proper time for prayer are all important aspects when determined to overcome distractions in prayer.

Secondly, aridity is another major obstacle that people struggle to overcome.  However, it must be understood that spiritual dryness is a normal road of purification that the Lord uses in order to bring us to greater heights of the spiritual life.

The quality of prayer must not be measured by personal feelings.  Feelings come and go.  Our personal experience of God through prayer will fill us with peace and provide renewal and strength, but it is important that we leave consolations to the will of God.

Thirdly, many people become impatient with God because they want instant answers.  God is not a computer.  Our God is a loving Father who knows all of our needs.

Finally, probably the biggest obstacle is that most people are just too busy.  Too many people are like Martha, “anxious and worried about many things” (Luke 10: 41).  We leave prayer to the last moment of the day or when all of our own efforts fail.

As I wrote in my book Get Serious! – A Survival Guide for Serious Catholics, I honestly do not know what it takes for people to really want to pray.  Perhaps spiritual thirst is a gift.  However, we need to remember the words of Sacred Scripture.  “The nearer you go to God, the nearer he will come to you” (James 4:8).

Persist on praying no matter what.  Persevere in your daily prayer routine and let the Holy Spirit take it from there.  If you feel that your faith is weak, ask the Holy Spirit to deepen your faith.

A number of years ago, my spiritual director turned my spiritual life upside down. He introduced me to the gift of contemplative prayer.  I must admit that at first I was a bit hesitant to journey into this unknown way of praying, but upon my spiritual director’s gentle insistence, I made the decision to take him seriously.

It is a decision which has been one of the most important decisions of my more than twenty-six years as a Catholic priest.

Contemplative prayer is an immense gift that needs to be discovered.  Contemplative prayer is a gift for everyone.

Anyone today who affirms “I believe” is a survivor.

We have survived a modern history of wars, death camps, persecutions and terrorist attacks.  We have survived scandal after scandal and the disappointment of institutional collapses both in the Church and in society.

We have survived our dysfunctional families and a culture which is increasingly anti-Christian.

Contemplative prayer is essential for the times that we live in so that the gift of faith may be re-ignited and burn ever so brightly.

We may be tired of believing.

Contemplative prayer will renew us and allow us to believe anew.

So, what is contemplative prayer?

The Catechism of Catholic Church defines contemplative prayer with these words:  “Contemplative prayer is the prayer of the child of God, of the forgiven sinner who agrees to welcome the love by which he is loved and who wants to respond to it by loving even more.  But he knows that the love he is returning is poured out by the Spirit in his heart, for everything is grace from God.  Contemplative prayer is the poor and humble surrender to the loving will of the Father in ever deeper union with his beloved Son” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2712).

Contemplative prayer is not a method of prayer.  Instead, contemplative prayer is a free, unmerited gift of the Holy Spirit.  Any baptized Christian can receive this gift and every baptized Christian should ask for this gift.

“Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you.  For the one who asks always receives; the one who searches always finds; the one who knocks will always have the door opened to him” (Luke 11: 9-10).

Contemplative prayer?  Who me?  Isn’t that something for monks and cloistered nuns?

Contemplative prayer is for everyone.

But, speaking of the monastery, how would you like to have a spiritual life as described by John Cassian (c.350 – c.435)?  “It is not easy to know how and in what respects spiritual tenderness overwhelms the soul.  Often it is by an ineffable joy and by vehement aspirations that its presence is revealed.  So much so that the joy is rendered unbearable by its very intensity, and breaks out into cries that carry tidings of your inebriation as far as a neighboring cell.

Sometimes on the contrary, the whole soul descends and lies hidden in abysses of silence.  The suddenness of the light stupefies it and robs it of speech.  All its senses remain withdrawn in its inmost depths or completely suspended.  And it is by inarticulate groans that it tells God of its desire.  Sometimes, finally, it is so swollen with a sorrowful tenderness that only tears give it consolation.”

Older works of spirituality distinguished between acquired and infused contemplation.  Acquired contemplation considered the personal human actions that the individual can do during prayer time.  Infused contemplation was the name given to the moment when God takes over and all human intellectual activity ceases.

Modern authors no longer make this distinction.  Contemplative prayer is seen as a gift of the Holy Spirit.

“And in this way one comes to the sacred emptiness and detachment from thinking which characterizes the mystical state.  There may come a time when even the word Jesus is no longer necessary because a total unitive silence reigns in the heart; and here again one is in nakedness and darkness with no other light than that which burns in one’s heart” (William Johnston, S.J., The Inner Eye of Love, p. 95).

There are two methods of prayer that prepares and predisposes us to receive the gift of contemplative prayer.  The first, and most effective method is Centering Prayer and the second method is called Lectio Divina.  Let us consider both methods in the next chapter.

We began our considerations of the gift of contemplative prayer.  Let us continue our discussion by considering two methods of prayer that help prepare the soul to receive the gift of contemplative prayer.  The two most effective methods are centering prayer and lectio divina.

Regarding centering prayer, let us limit our discussion to centering prayer as understood by Fr. Thomas Keating and Fr. Basil Pennington. Both Keating and Pennington have done much work on the topic.  Other authors have written about centering prayer, but in order to properly understand centering prayer as a method of prayer and in order to answer the concerns that some people have regarding this topic, the scope of this discussion will be limited to the work of Keating and Pennington.

What then is centering prayer?

Fr. Keating writes: “Centering prayer brings us into the presence of God and fosters the contemplative attitude of listening and receptivity.  It is not contemplation in the strict sense, which in the Catholic tradition has always been regarded as a pure gift of the Spirit, but rather it is a preparation for contemplation by reducing the obstacles caused by the hyperactivity of our minds and of our lives” (Intimacy with God, p. 11).

Centering prayer is quite simple.  Rather than repeating a word over and over again like a “mantra,” Keating suggests taking one word to express our intention.  The word is not used to maintain attention.  Intention and attention: here lies the crux of the matter when understanding centering prayer from other methods of prayer.

The word that we choose is called the sacred word.  It can be any word that indicates our intention.  Examples are such words as Father, Lord, Jesus, Spirit, Abba and yes.

Again, the sacred word is not be repeated over and over again during your time of prayer.  Simply use the word when your mind becomes noisy with your thoughts.  The goal is to arrive at a mind that is silent.  This is totally different than “emptying the mind.”  There is nothing Buddhist, Hindu or New Age about a silent mind. 

Centering prayer is a name that Keating and Pennington applied to an ancient form of Christian prayer that is principally rooted in a 14th century work called The Cloud of Unknowing and in the works of Saint John of the Cross.  They came up with a new name for something quite ancient, because they wanted to attract a multitude of people, especially young people, who were leaving Catholicism in order to find mysticism in eastern religions.  Interestingly, Saint John of the Cross was accused of being Buddhist by his contemporaries.

Unfortunately, for some reason, the Catholic mystical tradition both from the west and from the east has been forgotten.  Perhaps, years ago, many thought that mysticism was reserved for consecrated men and women who lived in monasteries.

Thousands were starving for a profound way of praying that was already such a rich part of our Catholic Faith, but had been virtually unknown.

The Centering Prayer movement that Keating, Pennington and their community launched has revived a new interest in this beautiful form of prayer.

Centering prayer is one method for preparing the soul to receive the gift of contemplative prayer.  It is a method.  There are other methods.  But, I join others who make the argument that it is the best method for the modern soul to receive the gift of contemplative prayer from the Holy Spirit.

We live in a hyperactive world where we are immersed in noise.  We have abundant noise at home, in the car, at work and most of all, in our heads.

What we moderns need is the profound experience of silence.

Order, peace and joy will come to us through silence.  The world needs silence.

Father Murchadh O’ Madagain, a priest from Ireland, has written an excellent book which explores centering prayer and the writings of Father Keating.

He writes:  “This kind of prayer is in fact a very self-less and pure kind of prayer, since, if it is done properly, it is complete giving of oneself to God.  It does not seek anything for itself or involve judging how one is doing.  Rather it calls for a total letting go of everything, including our thoughts, in order to be present to God.  In this way it could be said to be a perfect response to the commandment, ‘You must love the Lord your God with all your hear, with all your soul and with all your strength’ (cf. Dt. 6: 5).  It is a total giving of oneself to God without asking for anything back” (Centering Prayer and the Healing of the Unconscious, p. 42).

We have considered centering prayer as one method that prepares the soul for the reception of the gift of contemplative prayer.  Another proven method of prayer is lectio divina.  Lectio divina are two Latin words that mean divine or sacred reading.

As we reflect upon the importance of contemplative prayer, let us always keep in mind that the protagonist in our prayer life is the Holy Spirit.  Yes, it is true that we participate in prayer with our human actions by actually setting aside time for daily prayer, but the one who calls us to pray and the one who prays within us, is the Holy Spirit.

“The Holy Spirit, whose anointing permeates our whole being, is the interior Master of Christian prayer.  He is the artisan of the living tradition of prayer.  To be sure, there are many paths of prayer as there are persons who pray, but it is the same Spirit acting in all and with all.  It is the communion of the Holy Spirit that Christian prayer is prayer in the Church” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2672).

Most people will use the Sacred Scriptures for lectio divina.  The method consists of simply taking up the Word of God and reading it slowly and cherishing its meaning and application for our daily lives.

Lectio divina serves as a method to prepare the soul to receive the gift of contemplative prayer because it allows us to focus our attention on the Word of God.

Centering prayer uses a sacred word as an expression or focal point of our intention, whereas lectio divina provides a text that helps us to focus our attention.

We live in a very hyperactive world.  It is hard to find silence.  Many people struggle with issues related to a lack of order and discipline.  Most people have been brought up on television, computers, cell phones and video games.  The mind wanders and distractions are plentiful.  Lectio divina is a proven method that helps discipline the mind so that the heart can be receptive to the Holy Spirit.

“Another problem with our hyperactive world is that few people believe you can be praying without doing something.  Most people feel it is necessary to be saying prayers or meditating on something.  The idea that just being in the presence of God is more powerful is quite foreign” (Murchadh O’ Madagain, Centering Prayer and the Healing of the Unconscious, p. 119).

In reality, lectio divina works well with centering prayer.  When we are tired and afflicted with problems, lectio divina can launch us into centering prayer, and when necessary, we can go back and forth from lectio divina to centering prayer.

I would argue that the goal should be to get to the point where we use only centering prayer as our launching pad into the amazing inner world of contemplative prayer.  But, even if we are profoundly spiritual people with a habitual life of prayer, there will be moments when lectio divina will be necessary, even if it is for a short period of time during our daily time set aside for prayer.  Tiredness, dryness and distractions are a part of anyone’s spiritual life.  We are human.

The Bible is the preferred source for lectio divina, but we can also use the writings of the Fathers of the Church and the saints, and wonderful works such as The Imitation of Christ, My Daily Bread and In Conversation with God.  The Liturgy of the Hours can be prayed slowly, pausing when one is moved by the Holy Spirit to do so.  Rather than simply reading the Office of Readings, it can be used as our material for lectio divina.

So, how do we do lectio divina?  Take the Scriptures from the liturgy of the day or focus on a favorite part of the Bible.  Read a word or few lines and then stop reading.  Close your eyes.  Don’t do any thinking.  Get out of the head and go into the heart.  Just be in the presence of the Holy Spirit. Remain in the silence or go back from the text to the silence.   Lectio divina is like soaking in a warm bath.

No matter what method we use, prayer is not an easy endeavor.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us prayer is a battle.  There are days when we are bombarded with distractions and there are days of spiritual dryness.  When these two things occur, lectio divina will be an excellent help.

When we use either centering prayer, lectio divina or even both methods, it is important not to continually repeat a word or phrase.  Be patient.  Do no measure your success by immediate results.  Be consistent in your practice of mental prayer.

When the gift of contemplative prayer does arrive, you will know it.  Contemplative prayer is an awesome experience.

Together we have explored contemplative prayer as a beautiful form of prayer which is a gift of the Holy Spirit.  We have also considered two methods of prayer that prepare us to receive the gift of contemplative prayer.

Let us now consider the personal requirements that we need.

The first thing that we need is openness to God.  God respects our freedom and he will not force our door open.  We need to open it and allow him to enter.  Let us recall a beautiful passage from the Sacred Scriptures: “Look, I am standing at the door, knocking.  If one of you hears me calling and opens the door, I will come in to share his meal, side by side with him” (Revelation 3: 20).

In the years leading up to my ordination to the priesthood, I did a lot of apostolic work in Spain.  People were always extremely friendly, but the ability to find someone who was interested to discuss our Catholic Faith was difficult.   I was always struck by the fact that unless there was an active presence of the Neocatechumenal Way, Opus Dei or the Cursillo, it was impossible to find anyone under forty years of age in a Sunday parish Mass.

Six months after my December, 1987 ordination to the priesthood, a new assignment brought me back to the United States.  One day when I had a little break, I decided to visit a local bookstore, and a new book caught my immediate attention.  The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom was featured as one of the new releases for the summer.  I saw the title and I instantly said to myself, “that’s not true.”

With great interest, I purchased the book and as the summer unfolded, I realized that Allan Bloom was right.  I was away from normal American life for ten years and the American mind did close.

Openness to God is the most fundamental characteristic that is needed in order for us to receive the gift of contemplative prayer.

The beginning of The Catechism of the Catholic Church provides two models of openness.  The first model is Abraham and the second model is Mary. These two spiritual giants show us how we are to respond to God.

“To obey (from the Latin ob-audire, to ‘hear or listen to’) in faith is to submit freely to the word that has been heard, because its truth is guaranteed by God, who is Truth itself.  Abraham is the model of such obedience offered us by Sacred Scripture.  The Virgin Mary is its most perfect embodiment” (n. 144).

Both Abraham and Mary entrusted themselves to God and they allowed him to lead them through the journey of life.  They did not know where they were going, and their only map and compass was their profound faith in God.  “Only faith can guarantee the blessings that we hope for, or prove the existence of the realities that at present remain unseen” (Hebrews 11: 1).

Contemplative prayer is only possible if we are totally open with God.

Through the gift of contemplative prayer, the Holy Spirit enters into the deep recesses of our soul.  Contemplative prayer is impossible if we are not willing to allow God to love us and to lead us along the journey of life.

Sin separates us from God.  Moreover, refusing to embrace the Magisterium of the Church and rejecting the Sacrament of Confession thrusts us into the abyss of twisted thinking, unfounded opinion and false ideologies.

Pride produces Pharisaical practices, whereas the fruits of the Holy Spirit blossom from a humble soul.  “What the Spirit brings is very different: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5: 22).

Announcing a special year of faith, Benedict XVI wrote: “The ‘door of faith’ (Acts 14:27) is always open for us, ushering us into the life of communion with God and offering entry into his Church. It is possible to cross that threshold when the word of God is proclaimed and the heart allows itself to be shaped by transforming grace” (Porta Fide, 1).

Complete openness to God: this is the first and most important quality necessary for contemplative prayer.  A posture of openness will break off our chains and allow us to turn away from the narcissistic fantasies of our modern culture and find peace in the light of truth.

The gospels continually display a two-sided equation: man’s search for God and God’s search for man.

Man’s search for God is expressed with these words of Jesus: “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock, and it will be open to you.  For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened” (Luke 11: 15).

Asking, seeking and knocking are three attributes of the person who is open to God and longing for communion with him.

Where shall the word be found, where shall the word

Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence.” – T.S. Elliot

In our last reflection we considered how essential it is for us to be open to God in order to receive the gift of contemplative prayer.

Another essential ingredient is silence.

Blessed Mother Theresa once said, “In the silence of the heart God speaks. If you face God in prayer and silence, God will speak to you. Then you will know that you are nothing.  It is only when you realize your nothingness, your emptiness, that God can fill you with Himself. Souls of prayer are souls of great silence.”

There are two types of silence: outward silence and inner silence.

We live in a very noisy world.

Traffic, honking horns, machines, slamming doors, boisterous people, blaring television sets and booming music are all frantic aspects of daily life for many people.

A number of years ago, as I made a visit to the Blessed Sacrament chapel at New York’s Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, a young business man came in from a noisy Fifth Avenue to make a visit as well.

I recall watching him as he devoutly knelt before the tabernacle, placing his briefcase next to the pew.  A deep sigh of relief, as if he was cherishing the profound silence of the moment, could be heard.

His visit was brief, but he found rest in the silence.

How can you cultivate external silence?  Order in your homes and order in your personal life is the first step.

Silence will be difficult without a daily schedule and knowing where things are kept.  How many times we become frantic just looking for car keys or a cell phone?

Turn off the television.  Why waste so much time listening to the radio in the car?  Cultivate silence by keeping long moments of silence at home and in the car.

Insist that there be periods of silence at home.  At a certain time each night the television needs to be turned off.  In the morning, there should be silence until everyone has had breakfast.

Think of your home as a small monastery where everyone follows a family schedule and moments of silence are kept by the entire family.

External silence is easy.  Internal silence is hard to maintain.

There is so much noise going on in our heads.  We worry about everything and the noise of our own uncertainties can drown out the presence of God in our souls.

Gaining interior silence is not any easy task.  It requires great discipline and a lot of patience.

During the day, if your mind is flooded with racing thoughts, go back to the sacred word that you use during your time of centering prayer.  Repeat the sacred word once.

Trust that the same Jesus that calmed the wind and the waves will also calm your mind as well.

I get really nervous when people say things like “God told me” or “I am waiting for God to tell me.”

We have to be very careful about “messages” from God.

There are moments in salvation history when God does speak to man.  We find examples of this throughout the Sacred Scriptures.

These moments recorded in the Bible are to be considered as extraordinary and not the ordinary way that God communicates with man.

It would be quite a mistake to enter into the journey of contemplative prayer with the intention of hearing something or seeing something.

The gift of contemplative prayer must never be confused with some form of Gnosticism.

Unfortunately, the world of spirituality today is filled with Gnostics.  Many seem to have their own direct line to God.

Within the gift of contemplative prayer, what does it mean to listen to God?

Once, a gentleman asked me this very question.  I thought of an answer that was quite daring to assert, but it got the point across.

I asked the man to consider three levels of intimacy with his wife.

First, there is a level of intimacy when he calls his wife on the phone from work.  Intimacy is present, of course, but there is no personal contact.

Secondly, I asked him to consider what I described as the next level of intimacy; i.e., when he speaks to his wife after dinner on the porch or in the living room.

This level of intimacy is certainly more personal.

Thirdly, the next level of intimacy, and the deepest level of intimacy with his spouse are the moments of marital intimacy.

All three levels involve personal intimacy, but the third level is certainly the highest level of intimacy between a husband and a wife.

Contemplative prayer is like the third level of intimacy and it is here where we can begin to grasp what it means to listen to God.

In marriage, a husband and a wife lie together in the naked embrace of love.  In contemplative prayer, two lovers join together also in a naked embrace of love.

“Listening in the biblical sense, like loving, has within itself its own reason for being.  That is, you do not need a reason or a purpose to listen.  You do not have to listen ‘in order that…’  You just listen!  You commune lovingly with your Beloved in naked abandonment – so abandoned in fact that the soul must let go all desire to see, to feel, to hear, to understand, to experience any – thing in prayer.  Listening is simply waiting upon God in himself in loving expectancy, in loving openness, without desiring any – thing” (Contemplation, Frances Kelly Nemeck, O.M.I. and Marie Theresa Coombs, Hermit, p. 41).

Saying prayers is like spouses speaking to each other on the phone or conversing after dinner.

The gift of contemplative prayer is the marital embrace between God, who loves us unconditionally and the beloved.

“God dwelling within the soul incites in it an insatiable thirsting for himself as he is in himself, and freely invites the soul to interpersonal communion with himself.  He calls us to come, to remain in rest and quietude, free from the burden and labor of all activity, lovingly attentive to him.  When this invitation is perceived in faith, those listening respond by letting God come forth within themselves. We let him well up in our being by remaining receptive to his transforming and consuming love” (Contemplation, p. 42-43).

To sit on rocks, to muse o’er flood and fell,
To slowly trace the forest’s shady scene,
Where things that own not man’s dominion dwell,
And mortal foot hath ne’er or rarely been;
To climb the trackless mountain all unseen,
With the wild flock that never needs a fold;
Alone o’er steeps and foaming falls to lean;
This is not solitude, ’tis but to hold
Converse with Nature’s charms, and view her stores unrolled.

But midst the crowd, the hurry, the shock of men,
To hear, to see, to feel and to possess,
And roam alone, the world’s tired denizen,
With none who bless us, none whom we can bless;
Minions of splendour shrinking from distress!
None that, with kindred consciousness endued,
If we were not, would seem to smile the less
Of all the flattered, followed, sought and sued;
This is to be alone; this, this is solitude!

Lord Byron (1788 – 1824), a famous British poet, gives us a glimpse into solitude.  Solitude is not that same as loneliness.  Loneliness can be rooted in isolation and self-pity.  Rather, times of solitude provide profound moments of encounter with God and with nature.

Moments of solitude are possible if we are capable of being alone.

Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862) once wrote: “I have never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude.”

Centering prayer, lectio divina and the gift of contemplative prayer all depend upon moments of solitude.  Prayer is only impossible if you consciously and for concrete periods of time leave behind your work and your apostolic endeavors.

Solitude renews us.  Short or long periods of solitude allow us to be more productive.

The lay faithful need to incorporate regular moments of solitude into their busy lives.

Like monasteries and religious communities, families can build into the hustle and bustle of every day moments of solitude.  This can take place especially in the morning and at night when the television and the cell phones are turned off and conversations cease.

Where there is order, silence and solitude are possible.

Prayer, study and perhaps the development of an interesting hobby can be interwoven within the fabric of family life.

At the same time, larger moments of solitude can also be a part of your yearly routine.

A weekend silent retreat is an important aspect of the spiritual life.

There are many types of retreat experiences.  Finding something that will help you encounter God and reflect upon our own personal life is very healthy.

The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius Loyola would be my first recommendation.  This type of retreat can be done every year for a weekend or for even a longer period of time if possible.

Along with an annual retreat, monthly shorter retreats provide a time of respite and renewal.  A monthly retreat experience can be a directed morning or evening of recollection.

As the gift of contemplative prayer begins to orient your life, it is quite possible that you no longer find directed retreats to be helpful.  Instead, you thirst for the experience of total solitude where you are alone with God.

You may find it difficult to discover places of solitude, but they still do exist.

John Keats (1795 – 1821), another famous British poet once wrote:

O SOLITUDE! if I must with thee dwell,
Let it not be among the jumbled heap
Of murky buildings; climb with me the steep,-
Nature’s observatory – whence the dell,
Its flowery slopes, its river’s crystal swell,
May seem a span; let me thy vigils keep
’Mongst boughs pavillion’d, where the deer’s swift leap
Startles the wild bee from the fox-glove bell.
But though I’ll gladly trace these scenes with thee,
Yet the sweet converse of an innocent mind,
Whose words are images of thoughts refin’d,
Is my soul’s pleasure; and it sure must be
Almost the highest bliss of human-kind,
When to thy haunts two kindred spirits flee.

Contemplative prayer is an immense gift from the Holy Spirit.  We do not have to be a Saint Theresa of Avila or a Saint John of the Cross to receive this awesome gift.

Everyone can be a contemplative.

Moreover, everyone should ask for this gift.

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock, and it will be open to you.  For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened” (Luke 11: 15).

What is contemplative prayer?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that “Contemplative prayer is the prayer of the child of God, of the forgiven sinner who agrees to welcome the love by which he is loved and who wants to respond to it by loving even more.  But he knows that the love he is returning is poured out by the Spirit in his heart, for everything is grace from God.  Contemplative prayer is the poor and humble surrender to the loving will of the Father in ever deeper union with his beloved Son” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2712).

We have seen how centering prayer and lectio divina are two preferred methods of prayer that dispose our soul to receive the gift of contemplative prayer.

We have also considered the importance of openness to God, silence, stillness and solitude.  Let us now continue our discussion by considering the importance of breath.

Prayer and meditation in eastern religions place a lot of importance on breath.  We should not be reluctant in learning methods from other religions that can help us receive the gift of contemplative prayer.

But, the importance of breath is not only something emphasized by eastern religions.

Let us take a look at the importance of breath in the Bible.

“Then he breathed into his nostrils a breath of life, and thus man became a living being” (Genesis 2: 7).

“After saying this he breathed on them and said: ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.  For those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven; for those whose sins you retain, they are retained’” (John 20: 22-23).

“When Pentecost day came around, they had all met in one room, when suddenly they heard what sounded like a powerful wind from heaven, the noise of which filled the entire house in which they were sitting…” (Acts 2: 1).

“The Lord Yahweh says this to these bones:  I am now going to make the breath enter you, and you will live.  I shall put sinews on you, I shall make flesh grow on you, I shall cover you with skin and give you breath, and you will live; you will learn that I am Yahweh” (Ezekiel 37: 5-6).

“And after the fire there came the sound of a gentle breeze.  And when Elijah heard this, he covered his face with his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave” (1 Kings 19: 12-13).

My dear friends, we live in an extremely hyperactive world.  Moreover, many people live extremely isolated lives glued to some sort of screen.  Our senses of sight and hearing are bombarded by a very noisy technological world.

Focusing on our breath will quiet our mind, our heart and our senses.

Focusing on our breath when we pray will help bring calmness and silence to our minds and hearts.  Attention to our breath will allow us to slow down and be in touch with the rhythms and cycles of our own body.

Contemplative prayer is an immense gift of the Holy Spirit.  Contemplative prayer is God praying within us.  During this Year of Faith, I invite you to ask for this gift.

Be still, be silent, breathe and let God love you.

We are all human and we usually like to know how we are doing when it comes to any endeavor that we take great interest in.  What are the signs that the gift of contemplative prayer is actually taking place in your life?  In other words, what are the results that you should expect when this beautiful gift of the Holy Spirit begins?

The first thing that you will notice is a desire for more silence.  While driving your car, you may notice a yearning for solitude and so you will turn off the radio.  At home, you more than likely will prefer a climate of silence, preferring not to turn on your stereo.  You will also a notice that you are watching less television and spending more time in prayer.

The second thing that will become obvious is that time passes by quickly.  A week seems to go by like a day, and a month seems to go by like a week.
With the gift of contemplative prayer, the seemingly rapid flow of time may even cause you to be a bit confused.

Eternity is a mystery.  As mortals living in time and space, in the here and now, we cannot even begin to grasp the notion of eternity.  However, contemplative prayer provides us with a glimpse into this mystery and it allows us to participate in the eternal now, within time and space.

Thirdly, you will notice a greater capacity to love.  We will examine contemplative prayer and love with greater detail.  But, as we consider the signs of contemplative prayer, love is an essential dimension to this form of prayer.

“Contemplation is agape in its simplest and purest form.   Contemplation is none other than remaining loving one’s Beloved according to the request of Jesus himself: ‘Remain in me, as I remain in you’” (Contemplation, Frances Kelly Nemeck, O.M.I. and Marie Therese Coombs, Hermit).

Within this deeper experience of love, you will feel yourself unconditionally loved by God which will then give you a greater capacity to forgive everyone of everything and to serve others with tremendous joy and enthusiasm without seeking anything in return.

“We are to love, then, because he loved us first” (1 John 4: 19).

Another indication that the gift of contemplative prayer is beginning to take hold of your life is an increasing recognition of your inner poverty as a creature of God.  With humility you begin to embrace your own limitations, weaknesses and sinfulness.  With gratitude you know that God loves you unconditionally and always forgives you.

You begin to move away from making a daily examination of conscience.  You are so aware that God loves you unconditionally, that the slightest hint of failing to love God and everyone around you will compel you to make up for that lack of love by loving more and more each day.

“Contemplative prayer is the prayer of the child of God, of the forgiven sinner who agrees to welcome the love by which he is loved and who wants to respond to it by loving even more.  But he knows that the love he is returning is poured out by the Spirit in his heart, for everything is grace from God.  Contemplative prayer is the poor and humble surrender to the loving will of the Father in ever deeper union with his beloved Son” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2712).

Finally, another sign the gift of contemplative prayer has arrived is the indescribable peace that you will experience.  “Peace I bequeath to you, my own peace I give you, a peace the world cannot give, this is my gift to you” (John 14: 27).

The peace that the gift of contemplative prayer brings about will not only be present in the moments of tranquility, but most especially in the midst of intense struggle, darkness and persecution.

Seemingly our whole world may be turned upside down, but the gift of peace will endure.  Tears may roll down your cheeks, but you will cry out from your own cross: “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23: 34).

“Contemplation is the immediately transforming and directly consuming activity of God himself with the soul calling forth its voluntary undergoing of that transformation and purgation in love and faith.  It is a silent, imageless and loving communion with God himself which transcends all discursiveness.  Contemplation is none other than a secret, peaceful and loving infusion of God which, if the soul allows it to happen, enflames it in the spirit of love.  Most simply, contemplation is being loved by God himself from within oneself and loving him with all one’s being in return: Estarse amando al Amado – “Remembering loving one’s Beloved” (Contemplation by Frances Kelly Nemeck, O.M.I. and Marie Theresa Coombs, Hermit, pp. 39-40).

Just as centering prayer and lectio divina are proven methods that predispose the soul to receive, from the Holy Spirit, the awesome gift of contemplative prayer, so is our immersion into God’s creation.

“When I see your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and stars that you set in place— What is man that you are mindful of him, and a son of man that you care for him?  Yet you have made him little less than a god, crowned him with glory and honor” (Psalm 8: 4-6).

Finding silence and solitude in the mountains, the woods and along the ocean provide a backdrop for a profound experience of God.

A brief or prolonged period of silence and solitude within nature is very healthy.  Most of us live hyperactive lives filled with noise and endless deadlines.

Taking the time to turn off the computer and the cell phone, and to delve into nature will help us find the serenity and the peace that we long for.

“But ask the animals, and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you; ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of every human being” (Job 12: 7-10).

Finding God in nature will renew us so that we can fulfill the duties of our own particular calling with renewed energy and enthusiasm.

A number of years ago while a group of us were praying the Rosary in front of the local abortion clinic, a young woman carrying an infant approached us.  “My baby is alive today because of all of you.” 

She went on to tell us that because of our constant presence, she decided not to enter the clinic and to give birth to her child.

Immediately, I asked her if she is a Catholic and if she would like to have her baby baptized.  She smiled and said, “Yes, of course.”

The baptism took place at one of the Sunday Masses at my previous parish.  The ladies of the parish went into action and organized a large reception for the mother and her newly baptized baby.

I was given the immense privilege of being the only man who was allowed to visit the gathering.  When I entered the parish hall, I could feel the love, the joy and the peace that permeated the group.  The laughter was contagious.

Suddenly, I thought to myself, “This is it.  This is the agape of the primitive Church.  These ladies really get it.”

How amazing it was to encounter the Church of communion rather than so many lifeless faces that occupy numerous pews on Sunday and the outmoded institutional structures that impede growth and evangelization.

Time flies by like a flash, but it was many years ago when I entered the seminary after finishing four years of college.

One day during spiritual reading in the chapel, the seminarian that was designated to read to us that day began to announce the title of the new book that we were to listen to: “Agape in the New Testament.”

We all looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders and wondered to ourselves what on earth is the gap in the New Testament?  Was there something missing in the Bible that we did not know about?

Agape: this is the very essence of the New Testament.  The Greek word agape is translated into English as love, but love does not really do justice for our modern ears so confused as to what love really is.

The agape (pronounced a-ga-pay) of Christianity is a three dimensional reality: 1) God’s love for us; 2) our love for God; and 3) our love for one another.

This of course reminds us of three well known passages from the Sacred Scriptures.

“We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4: 19). “The way we may be sure that we know him is to keep his commandments” (1 John 2: 3).  “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen (1 John 4: 20).

So, what does all of this have to do with contemplative prayer?

“The most intense response of a person to this charism of love [agape] is contemplative prayer.  Contemplating is loving!” (Contemplation, Frances Kelly Nemeck, OMI and Marie Theresa Coombs, Hermit p. 144).

In reality, the agape of Christianity is the indwelling of God in the soul.  Agape is is the soul loving the interior presence of God.  “Agape is God in one person loving God in another” (Nemeck and Coombs, p. 144).

We can then begin to understand why Saint Paul urges us to seek the gift of agape: “But I shall show you a still more excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12: 31).

Contemplating is loving.  And why is this so?  Let us once again turn to Nemeck and Coombs: “Put very briefly then, contemplation is God’s supreme gift (charisma) which enables the soul to love him beyond all words and all thoughts, beyond all specific acts, interior or exterior.  It is just remaining loving God, and all creation in him, with the very love of God himself” (p. 145).

But what about service, ministry and the apostolate?

With great ease we could all make a long list of the serious problems that afflict the world.  We could talk without difficulty about violence, war, terrorism, poverty, corruption, scandals and the rapid decline of moral values. 

Attempting to resolve even a small dimension of any one these on-going challenges, we could certainly excuse ourselves from any form of prayer, affirming that we simply did not have the time to waste time.

When we consider the pressing needs of the existing moment, it is a big temptation to consider prayer, especially contemplative prayer, as something useless.  It would be easy to fall into a state of activism and to allow our spiritual life to suffer or to abandon it all together.

Is there a conflict between contemplative prayer and apostolic activity?

Let us recall a quote that I mentioned in my last article: “The most intense response of a person to this charism of love [agape] is contemplative prayer.  Contemplating is loving!” (Contemplation, Frances Kelly Nemeck, OMI and Marie Theresa Coombs, Hermit p. 144).

These words from Nemeck and Coombs really caught my attention when I read them.  How can we understand what they are saying?

Illustrations always make a point really clear, and what helps me to understand these words is the beautiful example of Saint Therese of Lisieux.  Saint Therese is a very popular and a very well-known saint, so there is no need for us to spend time talking about her history.  The link that has been included will give sufficient biographical background for those who may want to know more about her.

Instead, I would like to focus on two very important aspects of her life during her time as a young Carmelite nun.  Keep in mind that as a Carmelite, Therese was a cloistered religious, never leaving the convent.

The first thing that we need to consider is an amazing section from her autobiography.  Her words have inspired millions of people over the years.  Let us take a look at the text and see how it perfectly illustrates the meaning of the quote from Nemeck and Coombs.

Therese is someone who is exploding with profound love.

In her reflection she writes, “To be Your Spouse, to be a Carmelite, and by my union with You to be the Mother of souls, should not this suffice me?  And yet it is not so.  No doubt, these three privileges sum up my true vocation: Carmelite, Spouse, Mother, and yet I feel within me other vocations.

I feel the vocation of the warrior, the priest, the apostle, the doctor, the martyr.  Finally, I feel the need and the desire of carrying out the most heroic deeds for You, O Jesus.  I feel within my soul the courage of the crusader, the papal guard, and I would want to die on the field of battle in defense of the Church.”

After describing the deep desires that she has for these other callings, she then focuses on Saint Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians.

“I finally had rest.  Considering the mystical body of the Church, I had not recognized myself in any of the members described by Saint Paul, or rather I desired to see myself in them all.  Charity gave me the key to my vocation.  I understood that if the Church has a body composed of different members, the most necessary and most noble of all could not be lacking to it, and so I understood that the Church had a heart and that this heart was burning with love.  I understood that it was love alone that made the Church’s members act, and if love ever became extinct, apostles would not preach the Gospel and martyrs would not shed their blood.  I understood that love comprised all vocations, that love was everything, that it embraced all times and places…in a word, that it was eternal!”

She then concludes with words that perfectly illustrate the point made by Nemeck and Coombs in their book about contemplative prayer.

“Then, in the excess of my delirious joy, I cried out: O Jesus, my love…my vocation, at last I have found it…my vocation is love!”

Nemeck and Coombs explain the relationship between contemplative prayer and apostolic activity by explaining that contemplation is ministry because “the most intense response of a person to this charism of love [agape] is contemplative prayer.”

Contemplation is ministry because “this simple act of love which so characterizes contemplation is not just a private gift.  The love of god, in its contemplative expression, not only transforms the individual soul, but in and through the soul, in a mysterious way, it also transforms the Church, the world” ((Contemplation, Frances Kelly Nemeck, OMI and Marie Theresa Coombs, Hermit p. 145).

This then will help us understand a second aspect of the example of Therese of Lisieux.  From her love, rooted in contemplative prayer, springs forth an intense zeal for the salvation of souls.

Within the walls of her monastery, she becomes aware of the up-coming execution of a convicted criminal by the name of Henri Pranzini who was convicted for the murder of two women and a child.  He was sentenced to be executed by the guillotine.

For a period of time she focuses in on the salvation of his soul through her daily life of prayer and penance because, according to the news reports that became aware of, he showed no sign of repentance.

On September 1, 1887, as the executioner was about to put the convicted criminal’s head on the block, Pranzini took the crucifix a priest had offered to him and kissed it three times.

Therese wept and was overwhelmed with joy that her prayer had been answered.

Finally, it is interesting to remember that Saint Therese of Lisieux and Saint Francis of Xavier are co-patron saints of the missionary work of the Catholic Church.

Therese, a contemplative religious saving souls from within the four walls of her monastery and Francis Xavier, a Jesuit priest, saving souls in mission lands of the Church.

Is there a conflict between contemplative prayer and apostolic activity?

The beautiful example of Saint Therese of Lisieux demonstrates the both/and of Catholicism.  As a contemplative nun she discovers that her vocation is love precisely because the most intense response of a person to this charism of love is contemplation.  Moreover, her immersion into the gift of contemplative prayer nourishes her profound zeal for the salvation of souls.

The last century was a very bloody one, perhaps the bloodiest in all of recorded history.  For the Catholic Church, the last century produced the most martyrs since the beginning of the Church at Pentecost.  There was hope that this new century would be different, but despite all of the work that has been done for the promotion of peace and justice, on-going wars, conflicts and injustices continue around the globe. 

It is and has been a natural temptation to respond to man’s cruelty to man through acts of anger.  However, anger can never be the response of a disciple of Jesus Christ.

People who undertake great tasks for God and for humanity usually undergo moments of profound discouragement and frustration.  Contemplative prayer will free us from these things and it will liberate us from the overpowering anger that leads to violence.

Contemplative prayer will provide peace within the storm and it will also unleash enormous personal energy that enables individuals the ability to provide effective solutions to the problems of our times.

We can stand at an abortion clinic, not with anger, but with love.  We can promote peaceful solutions to the conflicts of the world.  We can fight against the long list of injustices that we experience, not with anger, but with lasting measures that provide for conversion and reform.

If corrupt intuitions do not change, the power of prayer will rise up new ones that will better serve the Gospel. 

I can recall the scene of a young nun from the Philippines, dressed in a beautiful white habit, kneeling before a tank during the 1986 popular revolt against the excesses of a corrupt government.  As she knelt before the tank in downtown Manila, she did respond with violence.  Instead, she knelt before the tank in prayer and in silent protest.

Sometimes, the only possible response to injustice, corruption and the abuse of institutional power is silence.

Jesus’ dialog with Pontius Pilot was brief and discreet.  His silence before Herod was majestic.

Contemplative prayer is man’s greatest response to God’s unconditional love.  It is through this existential experience of God’s love that we can love our enemy, forgive our enemy and pray for our enemy.

Olivier Clement writes, “Only so can crucified love, secretly victorious, triumph over the depth of hatred in us that we need to recognize, fight against, reduce and transform by grace” (The Roots of Christian Mysticism, p. 276).

The experience of God’s love through contemplative prayer removes anger from the soul and it launches the human person, by the power of the Spirit, into appropriate action that seeks change.

Models of action rooted in love and non-violence are many.  We can call to mind the example of Martin Luther King, Jr. and his non-violent approach to the struggle for civil rights.  We can look at Dorothy Day and her dedication to the poor.  We can also look to Archbishop Oscar Romeo and how he fought for social justice within the circumstances of a very challenging political situation.

Again, from Olivier Clement, “‘Agapeic’ love is not a sentimental whim or a physical attraction, both of which are doomed to fade away quickly, and anyway do not come at will.  No.  It is the awareness of God’s love for another person.  Only God can enable us to understand our neighbor according to the ‘feeling,’ the intuition of the ‘Spirit.’  Then we perceive in him an irreducible personal existence beyond limitations and errors, beyond even the disappointment we may have felt for a moment.  The other is in the image of God, not us” (The Roots of Christian Mysticism, pp. 278-279).

“How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank.

Here will we sit, and let the sounds of music

Creep in our ears, soft stillness, and the night

Become the touches of sweet harmony.” – William Shakespeare

Ours is a busy and noisy world.  We are always on the go.  Many of us have too many events on our calendar.  We rapidly move from the latest business deal to the next soccer game or music recital.  If we have a few moments to ourselves, we automatically check our email or our Facebook account.  For many people, email is not fast enough, we have to use text messaging in order to get an instant answer.

Lao Tzu, a Chinese philosopher (600 BC-531 BC) once wrote: “To the mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders.”

We have considered the importance of silence for the cultivation of contemplative prayer.  Let us now consider something related to silence which is stillness.

It is difficult to be still in our overly busy world.

It is easy to think that being still is a waste of time.  It is easy to think that we have to always be doing something.

Immersed in our American consumeristic society, we can be obsessed about productivity; that we have to be always doing something.

What does it mean to be still?

The dictionary tells us that stillness refers to being motionless, stationary, undisturbed, tranquil, silent and calm.  As a noun, stillness means the absence of motion.

The absence of motion; that’s a good way to look at this word and why it is so important for the reception of the gift of contemplative prayer.

We all need moments during our hectic day when there is an absence of motion, and not just when we are sleeping.

Saint Augustine once wrote: “There is this place of undisturbed quietness where love is not deserted; see how things pass away and give place to others; fix your dwelling firmly there.

Put your trust, my soul, in whatever it is you have received from him.  Entrust to him whatever comes to you; for you shall lose nothing.

Those parts of you that may have decayed, they too will receive a new flowering, and you shall find yourself healed.

All that you have seen ebbing away from you, there shall be restored, given fresh form, and renewed, bound ever more tightly to yourself.  Remain in the presence of God who alone stands fast and abides” (The Confessions, IV).

How can you begin to achieve stillness in your daily life?

Begin by putting into your daily routine twenty to thirty minutes every morning of centering prayer or lectio divina.  This is where we need to start.

“When you give yourself to prayer, if you are, as far as possible, free from all distraction, and if the verse comes suddenly to a halt on your tongue and immobilizes your soul in the silence, and if, independently of your will, this silence remains in you, be sure you have entered the peace you seek.

And again, if in every thought that arises in your soul, and in every remembrance and point of contemplation that come to you in this peace, you find tears filling your eyes and flowing with no effort down your cheeks, be sure that the wall before you is down.

And if you find from time to time your intellect has become immersed in your heart without your having foreseen it and apart from any regulation, and if it remains there for a moment, if after that, you feel your limbs seized, as it were, by a great weakness and peace reigns over your thoughts, if this state continues, be sure that the cloud had begun to cover your dwelling with its shadow” (Isaac of Nineveh, Ascetic Treatises, 12).

Prayer also is a discipline and the discipline of prayer will begin to bring stillness into your life.

Wake up earlier so that you can be immersed in total silence and be still. Turn off the cell phone, the email and the Facebook account.

Do this every day.

“Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46: 10).

“…a thorn in the flesh was given to me…” (2 Corinthians 12: 7)No one really knows what caused Saint Paul to struggle, but there was something that really bothered him.

He pleaded with the Lord that his difficulties be taken away, but Paul received an answer that he was not looking for: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12: 9).

We are all sinners.  We all have many weaknesses.  We all have limitations.

This is the human condition.

It takes a lot of humility to accept and embrace our own human poverty.

It takes a lot of courage to deal with it.

The gift of contemplative prayer provides us with an immense daily experience of peace and joy.

Contemplative prayer is also an intense time of prayer, and I am happy to see that the Catechism of the Catholic affirms this reality with these words: “Contemplative prayer is also the pre-eminently intense time of prayer.  In it the Father strengthens our inner being with power through his Spirit ‘that Christ may dwell in our hearts through faith’ and we may be ‘grounded in love’” (CCC 2714).

In the contemplative journey we experience on the one hand the embrace of the Holy Spirit and at the same time the inner awareness of our own inner poverty.

There is no notion in the writings of Saint Paul that his “thorn in the flesh” ever left him or was overcome.  Yet, within the struggle, he was able to experience a profound peace.

Saint Paul says, “And that is why I am quite content with my weaknesses, and with insults, hardships, persecutions and the agonies I go through for Christ’s sake.  For it is when I am weak that I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12: 10).

I am not suggesting that we give in to our sins, weaknesses and limitations.  Nevertheless, we need to accept our inner poverty.

There may be certain sins, weaknesses, limitations and tendencies that we may never overcome.

“I cannot understand my own behavior.  I fail to carry out the things I want to do, and I find myself doing the very things I hate” (Romans 7: 15).

Paul’s personal experience does not in any way negate human freedom.  But, it does affirm the human condition, our inner poverty and our need for the power of the Holy Spirit through the gift of contemplative prayer.

It is quite probable that the thorn in our own flesh may never disappear until the resurrection of the body.  However, the struggle, with God’s grace, will produce abundant fruits of wonderful virtues that will surround our weaknesses and tendencies.

We all experience storms in our lives.  We must not be surprised that this life is a continual struggle.  Temptation, failure, difficulties, trials and tribulations are a normal part of our earthly existence.  To seek an easy and comfortable life without the challenge of difficulties is not realistic.

Many times people think that God is unfair, so they stop going to church and stop praying altogether.  They seem to think that being religious is a ticket to a life free of any problems at all.

God never said that this life would be easy.  However, through his cross, Jesus gives meaning to suffering and his grace gives us the power to overcome the challenges of life.

When we forget God through self-sufficiency and independence, we sink, just like Peter did when he attempted to walk on water.   But, with God’s help, all things are possible.

“When the disciples saw him walking on the sea they were terrified.  ‘It is a ghost’, they said, and they cried out in fear.  At once Jesus spoke to them, ‘Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid” (Matthew 14: 26-27).

All too often we become completely discouraged when trials and tribulations batter the boat of life.  We become so blinded by the difficulty that we think that God has abandoned us.  “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.”  We need to see God in the middle of the storm.  It may take some time for the storm to disappear, but he is there, he is always present.  Only through the eyes of faith can we see the loving presence of God in the middle of the tempest.

“Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.  He said, ‘Come’.  Peter got out of the boat and began to walk toward Jesus” (Matthew 14: 28).

So many people are afraid to get out of the boat.  Past failures and present disappointments keep people frozen in time, unable to move on to a better life.  We must never be afraid of failure.  Success can only be achieved by taking risks. We must not focus on the past; instead we should look forward with hope to a new beginning.  We must place all of our confidence in Jesus and walk on water.

My dear friends, Jesus comes to you today and calls you by name.  He calls you to get out of the boat and to walk on water.

Who is this Jesus who calls you to walk on water? The Apostles know who he is:  “Truly, you are the Son of God” (Matthew 14: 33).

Turn to the Lord in prayer.  Through a daily encounter with the Lord, he will give you the faith that you need to walk on water.

“Same old, same old,” this is an expression that I hear often when I ask friends and acquaintances how their day is going.

However, if we were to begin our day with the gift of contemplative prayer, each day would be fresh, enthusiastic and exciting.

Jesus directs our gaze to this newness of life.  “No one puts a piece of unshrunken cloth on to an old cloak, because the patch pulls away from the cloak and the tear gets worse.  Nor do people put new wine into old wineskins; if they do, the skins burst, the wine runs out, and the skins are lost.  No; they put new wine into fresh skins and both are preserved” (Matthew 16-17).

Through the gift of contemplative prayer, the Holy Spirit leads us on an unknown adventure.  He calls us to let go and to trust.

Think of the great explorers of history.  People like Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan, Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin all left behind the comfort of what they knew and leaped into a world that discovered.

Pope Francis said: “Newness always makes us a bit fearful, because we feel more secure if we have everything under control, if we are the ones who build, program and plan our lives in accordance with our own ideas, our own comfort, our own preferences.

This is also the case when it comes to God.

Often we follow him, we accept him, but only up to a certain point.

It is hard to abandon ourselves to him with complete trust, allowing the Holy Spirit to be the soul and guide of our lives in our every decision.

We fear that God may force us to strike out on new paths and leave behind our all too narrow, closed and selfish horizons in order to become open to his own.

Yet throughout the history of salvation, whenever God reveals himself, he brings newness and change, and demands our complete trust: Noah, mocked by all, builds an ark and is saved; Abram leaves his land with only a promise in hand; Moses stands up to the might of Pharaoh and leads his people to freedom; the apostles, huddled fearfully in the Upper Room, go forth with courage to proclaim the Gospel.

This is not a question of novelty for novelty’s sake, the search for something new to relieve our boredom, as is so often the case in our own day.

The newness which God brings into our life is something that actually brings fulfillment, that gives true joy, true serenity, because God loves us and desires only our good.

Let us ask ourselves: Are we open to ‘God’s surprises?’ Or are we closed and fearful before the newness of the Holy Spirit?

Do we have the courage to strike out along the new paths which God’s newness sets before us, or do we resist, barricaded in transient structures which have lost their capacity for openness to what is new?”

I hope that everyone will reflect on these words of Pope Francis and put them into practice.

Enter into the world of contemplative prayer and your life will never again be the same.

Life is filled with many difficulties and challenges that cause us to worry. When we worry, we torment ourselves with disturbing thoughts.  According to the National Institutes of Health, one in three adults has occasional insomnia, and one in ten adults has chronic sleeplessness.  Experts are concerned about the ever increasing consumption of sleeping pills by many Americans.

The remedy for worry is for all of us to trust in God.

In the silence of our hearts, filled with faith, we experience the presence of God.  We contemplate him in the beauty of the sunrise, the power of the wind, the majesty of the ocean, the voice of the Scriptures, the presence of the Eucharist and each encounter with our neighbor.

Saint Augustine once said that God is closer to us than we are to ourselves.

We experience God through our life of prayer.  Prayer is a continual being in love because God is real.  God is personal.   No matter what might be going on in our lives, we must always pray and pray daily.  Prayer is the air that we breathe.

One of the greatest challenges that we encounter is our inability to be with God through prayer.  We can be caught up in the distractions of daily life that prevent us from really encountering God.         Our busy lives require refreshing times of prayer throughout the day.

A serious life of prayer is very important for the times in which we live. The traditional structures of support that have made our lives comfortable and easy in the past are longer present.  It is becoming increasingly difficult to live a Christian life in our present day culture.

It seems that God is moving us away from clinging to things, people and institutions.  He is calling us to detachment, to the desert, to the journey into the night of naked faith.  He is calling us to cling to him and only him.  This journey is difficult, frightening at times and even risky.  But, those who embark upon the journey will be transformed into living witnesses of the God of love.

However, without a serious spiritual life, anxiety and fear will overwhelm us. If we are a people who live truly spiritual lives, we will be filled with peace and joy no matter what may be going on around us. And this is so, because we will always be able to trust God.

Saint Teresa of Avila, the famous Spanish mystic, once wrote: “Let nothing trouble you.  Let nothing frighten you.  Everything passes.  God never changes.  Patience obtains all.  Whoever has God, wants for nothing.  God alone is enough.”

Saint Teresa provides us profound words of wisdom for our present times.  The staggering number of prescription drugs available for the many forms of uneasiness and tension illustrates that many of our contemporaries suffer deep inner turmoil.

It is true that we are experiencing profound challenges: wars, terrorism, the rapidly accelerating unraveling of moral decency in our society, an uncertain economy, concerns about where our country is headed, and the terrible wounds caused by the dismantling of family life.

Nevertheless, challenges such as these should remind us that we must always trust in God who is always with us.

Our lack of dependence upon God is rooted in a lack of trust.  Trust is rooted in faith which is a gift.  If your faith is weak, ask God to give you more faith.

Over and over again, I have been urging all of you to incorporate into your lives four practices that are so basic for anyone who wants to be a serious disciple: contemplative prayer, daily Mass or a prolonged visit before the Blessed Sacrament, daily Rosary and the frequent use of the Sacrament of Confession.

These four things will allow you to trust God and they will provide you with the interior peace that everyone seeks.

We all need moments of solitude.  Spending a quiet time before the Eucharist, reading the Scriptures during a peaceful moment at home, taking tranquil walks through the woods or along the beach all are necessary for our soul.

In order to be with God, we must develop the ability to be alone with ourselves.

Retreating, for a short period of time or a longer period of time from the noise of our daily activities is healthy for our spiritual, mental, emotional and physical health.

Contemplative prayer is a gift from the Holy Spirit.  This is the prayer of being with God.  It is the prayer of being in love.  Words, concepts and images disappear.  All that is left is silence; nothing.

Saint Augustine once wrote, “Indeed, Lord, to your eyes, the abyss of human consciousness is naked” (Confessions, 10.2.2).

There may be all sorts of upheaval around us, but by being detached, but not aloof from the things of this world, we remain with and in the Lord.  It is with him that we will have inner peace.  “God alone is enough


Some basic questions answered by Fr. James

What is the difference between meditation and contemplative prayer?

Meditation is a prayer of the mind, whereas contemplation is a prayer of the heart.  When we meditate we consider certain eternal truths and apply them to our daily lives. For example, a very popular meditation is the Passion of Our Lord.  In the discursive/affective Ignatian method of meditation, the meditation can lead us to profound sentiments of love for God.  Thus meditation can launch us into a prayer of the heart and even be a launching pad into contemplation.  Excellent books for daily meditation are My Daily Bread and The Imitation of Christ.  An excellent Internet source for daily meditation is Sacred Space.   I do not recommend that you meditate in front of your computer. The website allows you to print out the meditation.

What is the difference between lectio divina and contemplative prayer?

Lectio divina is a very old form of mental prayer.  It is similar to the Ignatian discursive/affective method.  However, with lectio divina, the person always takes up a text such as a passage from the Bible.  The text is read slowly and then the person thinks about it and the practical applications for daily living.

What is the difference between contemplative prayer and centering prayer?

Contemplative prayer is a gift of the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit prays within us.  Centering prayer is a method of prayer that predisposes us to receive the gift of contemplative prayer.  Method for centering prayer.  

What exactly is contemplative prayer?

Contemplative prayer is the prayer of the heart.  The Catechism calls it a gaze.  It is the prayer of being in love.   It does not use a text and may use a word or a phrase as a way of entering into the prayer of silence and faith.  It is the prayer of the listening heart.  The goal of contemplative prayer is to enter into the presence of God where there are no words, concepts or images.

What steps can I take so that contemplative prayer can be a part of my daily life?

A personal decision must be made to live out a serious spiritual life.  A serious spiritual life is something personal which requires discipline, order and consistency.  A daily prayer life can be as follows: Morning Prayer (Liturgy of the Hours or from the Magnificat); Mental Prayer (Meditation, Lectio Divina or Contemplation); Mass; Rosary; Night Prayer (Liturgy of the Hours or from the Magnificat); monthly confession (or whenever necessary); annual retreat.  The daily habit of Mental Prayer through meditation and/or lectio divina should provide the necessary interior discipline to enter into daily contemplative prayer.  Discipline is needed for silence and solitude.  The help of a good confessor and/or a qualified spiritual director is a great gift from God for anyone who is serious about personal holiness.

How long should I dedicate each day to contemplative prayer?

20 – 30 minutes every morning is good.  Maybe you will be in a situation where this period of contemplative prayer could be repeated again in the afternoon or at night.  Perhaps your schedule and duties will permit you to extend your contemplative prayer time to an hour on the weekends and vacation time.

What resources do you recommend so that I can gain a deeper understanding of contemplative prayer?The works of Theresa of Avila and John of the Cross are the classic sources on prayer and the ascetical life.  However, these works are not easy to understand.  Sooner or later they should be read.  I highly recommend the following works.  I found these books to be extremely insightful and helpful.

The Spiritual Journey – Fr. Francis Kelly Nemeck

Contemplation – Fr. Francis Kelly Nemeck

Intimacy with God – Fr. Thomas Keating

Being in Love – Fr. William Johnston

Centering Prayer and the Healing of the Unconscious – Murchadh O’ Madagáin

What are the fruits of daily contemplative prayer?

I have found the spiritual benefits of daily contemplative prayer to be detachment, trust in God, peace, compassion, fortitude and chastity.  Daily contemplative prayer also reduces stress and has long-lasting benefits for our physical and emotional health.

What bodily postures should I use when I do contemplative prayer?

There are many postures for prayer.  Some people like to kneel, others like to sit, still others like to lie prostrate on the ground or even sit in the lotus position.  Posture is a personal decision.  Use whatever posture helps you to pray.  Personally, I find sitting in my easy chair a great way to pray each morning.

After everything is said and done, how should I actually do contemplative prayer?

This is a very good question.  The bottom line is this: I have come to the conclusion that there is no set way to do contemplative prayer.  Your contemplative prayer time is going to be a personal journey guided by the Holy Spirit.  However, here are some suggestions that may help you before you read the books that I have mentioned.

Before the Blessed Sacrament – sit or kneel.  Gaze into the Tabernacle or look into the Monstrance.  Be still.  Focus on your breathing.   Ask Mary to help you to prayer.  Pray to the Holy Spirit.  Then peacefully repeat a word or a phrase:  Jesus; Jesus I love you; Jesus I trust in You; Father; Father, into Your hands I commend my spirit, etc.  Don’t continue to repeat the word or the words over and over again.  Only use the word or the phrase when your mind begins to wander.  Focus your gaze on the Eucharist.  Be open to whatever Jesus is asking of you.

At home – sit or kneel.  Close your eyes.  Again, be still and focus on your breathing. Ask Mary to help you to pray.  Pray to the Holy Spirit.  As before, repeat a word or a phrase.  Do not repeat the word or words over and over again.  Remember to use the word only when your mind begins to wander.  Focus your gaze on the loving presence of God within you.   If you begin to feel embraced by God, be still and be silent.  Just allow the Holy Spirit to pray within you.

Aside from my daily experience of contemplative prayer, what should my spiritual life look like?

Level 1 – Morning Prayer (from the Magnificat magazine or from the Liturgy of the Hours); 20 – 30 minutes of meditation (use the Bible, My Daily Bread or the Imitation of Christ); Rosary; Night Prayer and Examination of Conscience; monthly confession or whenever necessary

Level 2 – Morning Prayer; 20 – 30 minutes of meditation or contemplative prayer; Mass; Rosary; Night Prayer and Examination of Conscience; monthly confession or whenever necessary

Level 3 – Morning Prayer; 30 – 60 minutes of meditation or contemplative prayer;  Mass; Rosary; Night Prayer; monthly confession or whenever necessary

Getting back to contemplative prayer, what does the experience of contemplative prayer look like if we could put that experience into words?  Here is an excellent description from Fr. Ignacio Larranaga:

Create interior emptiness, suspending the activity of the senses and emotions, putting out the memories of the past, untying yourself from worries about the future, isolating yourself or distancing yourself from the commotion outside of you and outside of this moment.  Do not think of anything; better yet, think nothing.

Remove yourself more and more from the senses, beyond all movement, beyond action, without “looking” at anything outside or inside yourself, not holding on to anything, without letting anything hold you, without focusing on anything…

Nothing outside of you, nothing outside of this moment.  Complete presence to yourself “to” yourself, a pure and naked attention.

Once you have gained this silence, placing yourself upon the platform of faith, open yourself to the Presence.

Simply remain open, attentive to the Other, like someone staring without thinking, like someone loving and feeling loved.

In this moment in which you have placed yourself in the orbit of faith, you should avoid forming an image of God.  Every image, every representation of God must vanish.  “Silence” God, stripping Him of everything that signifies location.  He is not near or far, above or below, before or after.  He is Being.  He is Presence, Pure and Loving and Enveloping and Penetrating and Omnipresent.  He is.

Forgot that you exist.  Never look at yourself.  Contemplation is fundamentally ex-stasis or going out.  Do not worry about whether “this” is God.  Do not disturb yourself with whether this is natural or comes from grace.

Do not try to understand or analyze what you are living.  There only exists aThou for who you are, in this moment, an open, loving and calm attention.  Do not say anything with your lips.  Do not say anything with your mind.  Look, and you are “looked at”.  Love and you are loved.  Pure Presence, in pure silence and pure faith, will fulfill the eternal covenant.

It is nothing.  It is Everything.

You are the receptacle.  God is the content.  Let yourself be filled.  You are the beach.  He is the sea.  Let yourself be flooded.  You are the land.  The Presence is the Sun.  Let yourself come to life.  Remain like this for a long time.  Then “return” to life, full of God.

What would be a good final thought for this discussion on contemplative prayer?

“Properly understood, contemplation shakes the universe, toples the powers of evil, builds a great society, and opens the doors that lead to eternal life”. – Fr. William Johnston, S.J.

Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith document on prayer