Prayer is the ongoing exchange between us and God. This dialogue takes many different forms, the highest expression being the Mass. In the Mass, we hear the word of God and we respond to it.1 In fact, all forms of prayer involve listening to God’s word and responding to that word.
Everyone has an interior dialogue which narrates and colors the events of life.2 One aspect of praying with scripture is to bring God’s word into that interior dialogue and to listen to how that word moves us and inspires us. The ongoing interior dialogue is composed of thoughts, feelings, and desire. Meditation involves sifting through these thoughts, feelings, and desires.3 As we listen to God speaking through this interior dialogue, we learn to discern what is the genuine work of the Holy Spirit and what is not. Thus prayer and discernment are intimately connected.4
Meditative Prayer in General
The foundation of prayer is always an ongoing relationship with God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It can be described in terms of a friendship, a relationship of Lord to Master, or of Lover to Beloved. Understanding the symbolic nature of such kinds of relationships can help us in learning how to relate to and receive from our God. Prayer is not a separate activity, but rather a movement of the heart in which all of one’s daily experiences are drawn up into an unfolding mystery. In this being drawn up, all of the human person is transfigured by the light of Christ.
We can distinguish between private, meditative prayer and liturgical prayer. At the heart of meditative prayer is the desire to be with the one you love, of spending time with the Beloved in the solitude of the heart. Above all else, the practice of meditative prayer is to foster this abiding with our Lord in a disposition of docility and receptivity to the promptings of the Spirit. That being said, there are many ways of relating to our Lord, each of which will be considered separately. However, in practice the distinction may not always be as clear.
The Ascetical and Mystic Ways of Relating to God
The tradition distinguishes between two general categories of how we relate to God, ascetical and mystical. In ascetical prayer, we are given the grace to address God. This manner of approaching God is often determined through discernment and the deliberate effort of the believer. Although prayer is always initiated by God, in ascetical prayer the response of the believer is determined through specific intentions to approach the Lord in a particular way. The tradition distinguishes between four ways of relating to the Lord in ascetical prayer.
In the mystical ways of relating to our Lord, we are brought to a face to face encounter with God. This manner of approaching God is determined by the free gift of God. The activity of the believer is not to discern how to pray, but simply to receive the grace of contemplation. Mystical prayer is not an act of the will or a particular technique, but rather is a grace given by God. The gift of contemplation is often described as a wordless, imageless gaze of love between the believer and God. Through this gift, the heart rests. St. Teresa of Avila describes several ways that the soul relates to God in mystical prayer which will not be specifically addressed in this section.
Preparation for Prayer
To enter into the mystery of prayer, we must first gain sensitivity for the wordless, imageless presence of our Lord, a presence which goes beyond all sense experience. Through peering into the mystery of the Eucharist, the Lord trains us to attune our hearts to this presence by engendering in us the virtues of faith, hope, and love. These virtues act as a kind of intuition of the infinite ground of reality (i.e. God) who lies within and beyond all things. In time, we learn to recognize this presence and bring it into all aspects of our lives.
We must begin prayer by placing ourselves in that presence. At first, this may be simply an intellectual assent to the idea that God is with us.
The Four Ascetical Ways of Relating to the Lord
Periods of meditative prayer often fluctuate between these four ways of relating to our Lord. All the ways of relating to the Lord help open the heart up. Another way of putting this is that they help us move beyond the surface of things, and they open the intuitive mind to the promptings of the Spirit.
The first is vocal prayer. With vocal prayer we learn the vocabulary needed to penetrate deeper. Vocal prayer provides the inspiration needed to learn the language of the heart. One never moves beyond vocal prayer in the sense that one must constantly return to this source for nourishment and focus. The height of vocal prayer is the Our Father which is the pattern of all authentic prayer.
The second is discursive meditation. Generally speaking, there are two main categories. The first is imaginative prayer which was crystallized by St. Ignatius of Loyola. In this way of relating to our Lord, the believer uses images and other sense experiences in order to enter into Scripture and experience the consolation of the Spirit.
Another kind of discursive meditation is association. With association, a person uses words, concepts, and other more intellectual ways of knowing in order to open the heart to the Lord. This can involve pondering theology or other intellectual disciplines.
The practice of meditating on scripture, frequently called Lectio Divina, is the foundation for discursive meditation. Lectio Divina can use either imagination or association. However, discursive meditation does not have to explicitly be Lectio Divina. What can be said, and is affirmed by the Church, is that all discursive meditation should be grounded and nourished by sacred scripture.
The third way of relating to the Lord is called affective prayer. This is often tied to sentiments and emotions stirred by discursive meditation. In this kind of prayer, we simply rest with the emotion and savor it. Often, the affections are stirred through invoking the theological virtues. We might say, “Lord I trust in you” or “Lord, I love you” or other phrases along these lines. This way of relating to the Lord recognizes that all that is needed for prayer is to stir the affections.
The fourth way of relating to the Lord is often called acquired contemplation in order to distinguish it from the gift of contemplation, or infused contemplation. In this way, acquired contemplation is a simplification of prayer, but is not properly speaking the grace of contemplation. In this way of relating to our Lord, the heart rests in a word, a phrase, or an image.
One way of practicing acquired contemplation is praying with the breath. Rhythmic breathing has been found to be of great emotional and physical benefit to people, and one can take the natural benefits and transfigure them in the light of Christ. The breath can be turned into a kind of symbol of prayer. On the inhalations, one can image receiving everything from the Lord (or simply rest in being receptive). On the exhalations, one can image giving everything to the Lord with abandonment and trust (or simply rest in pouring oneself out). This movement back and forth can be connected with phrases, all of which are intended to deepen our relationship with Jesus.
In the East, acquired contemplation often took the form of the Jesus prayer. The words of this prayer are simple: My Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner. It is also prayed in other forms as well such as “Jesus have mercy.” They often tied this prayer to breathing and the rhythm of the heart. A deep theology of prayer developed in connection with this powerful prayer.
Some Closing Thoughts on Ascetical Prayer
In all of these, these ways of relating must be understood in the context of relationship and discernment. Throughout, we must be attentive to the promptings of the Spirit, how He is moving our interior conversation and helping to expose the depths of the heart.
In prayer, there is a double revelation. In the silence, we learn who God is, and He at same time reveals Himself. We also learn who we are as the Spirit likewise reveals the depths of our hearts. Ultimately who we are is a mystery only fully realized in the indwelling of the Trinity. Thus, we learn to say with confidence that through grace, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” Discovering self is about discovering Christ within.
The Mystical Ways of Relating to Our Lord
Then there are the moments when God takes over. This is commonly referred to as infused contemplation, and much has been written about it. This kind of prayer cannot be attained by an act of the will, a technique, or anything we do on our own. It is pure gift and should be received with gratitude. In infused contemplation, the heart is overcome by the love of Christ and the faculties of the intellect and will are drawn out of themselves.
This gift can be an intense feeling of ecstasy or as simple as a cloud slowly passing by in the sky. In all instances, we are called to receive these “divine touches,” and let them strengthen us for the trials and sufferings of this world. As our Lord Jesus Christ said, “Come to me all you who labor, and I will give you rest.” In infused contemplation, the heart rests with the Beloved.
St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross each deal with infused contemplation and mystical prayer, and on that foundation a whole tradition of literature has developed over time.
In all of this, we must learn to be content with whatever the Lord does or does not give. In consolations and in desolations, we must listen to those powerful words of Job, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord.” Detachment is about the freedom to love, regardless of how we find ourselves in the present circumstances. In this way we learn to participate in the unconditional love of Jesus Christ, a love which endured the torments of the Cross. Ultimately, the many gifts the Lord bestows on us are to be used in service of Him and our neighbor. Prayer is the place of refreshment and nourishment in which I draw the vitality needed for the mission.
1. See Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) 1153
2. See Garrigou-Lagrange, Reginal. Three Ages of the Interior Life. http://www.christianperfection.info/
3. This is taken from material covered at the Institute for Priestly Formation a program that trains and supports Priests and Seminarians in Omaha, NE.
4. For more on discernment, see works byTimothy Gallagher http://www.discerninghearts.com/