Anyone who has attempted to engage in apologetics knows that the head is no good if the heart isn’t right. The most brilliant intellectual arguments for the faith usually fall flat if the arguer’s spiritual life isn’t in order. Prayer is the way God has given us to become closer to him, which makes our actions and our words by nature evangelical. A life lived close to God through prayer is the best argument possible for the faith.
Many people who think about prayer assume that it means reciting formulas. They sometimes also assume that growing in prayer means multiplying vocal prayers, even though Jesus told us not to babble away in many words (Matt. 6:7). Then there are those whose prayer is limited to blurting out frightened petitions when they are in trouble.
Set prayers such as the Our Father are important. But in this article I am going to explain the kind of prayer Scripture calls the “one thing,” the most important activity of all the things we humans do in life: “gazing on the beauty of the Lord,” as Psalm 27 puts it. Those seven short words are a perfect definition of deep prayer.
We are not talking about some sort of awareness brought about by techniques such Hindu transcendental meditation or Buddhist satori. These are merely human efforts, well-meaning but devoid of the immense richness of intimacy with the real, triune God. Nor are we speaking of visions and revelations. They are not for everyone, whereas all of us—yes, you too—are called to the depths of contemplative communion with the ineffable God dwelling within us. The path for those who seek to live fully is meditation leading to contemplation.
I will explain briefly what meditation and contemplation are and how the first leads into the second. Please notice that meditation does not cause contemplation; it leads one to be ready to receive this gift of a deepening immersion in God. The Lord begins to give it when we are ready.
What is Christic meditation? There are several ways we may answer this question. One is to say that meditation is a prayerful reflection on important questions about our pilgrimage on earth plus an inner conversation with the Lord about those issues. Some of the crucial questions would be: Who am I? (An image of God himself—an adopted son or daughter of the Father completely dependent on the sustaining power of God.) Why am I? (A person destined for the eternal enthrallment of the beatific vision and the risen body.) Who is God? (Infinite, unending, purest power, love, joy, goodness, beauty.) On what path am I right now? (Eternal ecstasy or eternal disaster.) What shall I do about it? Do I think seriously about my eternity?
In meditation we ponder questions like these in a human manner: we provide input, often by spiritual reading; we reason about what we have read and speak interiorly with the Lord: adoring, loving, praising, thanking, asking, sorrowing—all done with inner thoughts and affections. It is significant that the very first two verses of the inspired book of prayer, the Psalter, proclaim “happy the man who meditates on the word of the Lord day and night” (Ps. 1:1–2). In other words, that person is wise, is in a good and healthy relationship with God.
Meditation is getting to know God with a growing intimacy. We do not simply listen to his word and read and study about him (good as these things are). We get to know a human beloved not by merely reading and studying but by being in the presence of and conversing with the person. Meditation is the early stage of a developing interpersonal intimacy.
Those in love long to spend time with their beloved. Meditation is time spent with the supreme Beloved. Even if right now you are not inclined to say you are in love with God, just act that way: Be faithful, simple, humble. If you do not feel much of anything, just say the words. Your will is with God, even if your feelings are not yet there. As you delve into Scripture, notice how biblical writers take it for granted that we are to be head over heels in love. This is logical: If a human beloved can be mightily attractive, endlessly more beautiful is our triune God?
Now, you may ask, how does one actually go about meditating? The first step is to select with determination (if we are not firm and resolute, most likely a serious prayer life will not happen) a suitable time and a quiet place. Anyone in love seeks favored occasions to be alone with the beloved; this is why Psalm 46 tells us to “be quiet and know” the Lord. This is why Jesus habitually goes off for lengthy periods of solitude to be absorbed in deep communion with the Father. Christ determined to have these favored times alone “long before dawn” and even through all the night (Mark 1:35; Luke 5:16, 6:12).This is why he tells ordinary married people and all others that when they pray they are to go to a quiet room in the house and pray in solitude. He declares that our solitary prayer is not to be spent in many vocal prayers but in meditative/contemplative communion (Matt. 6:6–7).
Once you are established in a quiet place, gather your inner self together in thoughts and affections. This preparation for meditation can be done by recalling for a few moments the divine omnipresence, or the holy name of Jesus, or the indwelling presence in your soul right now, or a vivid scene from Jesus’ passion, or the presence of the Blessed Sacrament if you are in church or chapel, or seeing some mystery of the Lord’s life through the eyes of his Mother.
Then the meditator provides input, usually reading a scene from the New Testament, or a few lines from Thomas á Kempis’s Imitation of Christ, or from the life of a saint, or a key passage from a spiritual reading book. Then you use your mind and imagination to think over what was read, reason about it, apply to your own circumstances, have an inner conversation with the Lord about it, and draw practical conclusions for living what you have pondered.
One observation may help the beginner avoid mistakes even in this simple manner of getting close to God. He should notice that, though it is carried on with divine grace, meditation involves ordinary activities: reading, imagining, thinking, conversing, concluding, resolving.
As one gets used to meditating, he will notice that these human operations become less multiple and complex, more simple, more deep and loving. This means one is getting more intimate the Lord. This interpersonal closeness will grow only if one remains generous in giving up selfishness, overcoming willed defects, living the gospel fully. If we cling knowingly to even venial faults, we are saying in action that we do not want God totally. Respecting our freedom, he will back off. The Lord forces himself on no one.
What happens next? If you remain faithful to daily meditation, and if you work sincerely on overcoming deficiencies you can control, something new will begin to happen: God will begin gently to give you a new awareness of himself. That newness is the beginnings of infused contemplation. This we must explain briefly.
Infused (a word from Latin meaning poured in) contemplation is a divinely given knowing of God. It is not a vision. There are no images, words, ideas, or concepts. This awareness comes in two forms: Either it is a brief and delightful experience or a dry wanting or desiring of God. We do not produce either of them; indeed, we cannot initiate or extend them. They are simply there, present, perceived.
When contemplation comes in the unfeeling form, most people think of it as nothing happening, as no prayer at all. Yet the mere desire for God is a meeting with him. Furthermore, it purifies the recipient of defects and thus is beneficial and necessary. At the beginning, both experiences are brief and delicate, and unwilled distractions do occur. Later on, if one’s generosity continues, the two types of awareness become stronger and of greater duration.
The inspired word speaks of people yearning, pining, and thirsting for the living God (Ps. 42); incessantly longing for him (Ps. 63); yearning and seeking for him all through the night (Ps. 119); desiring him like a desert, parched, weary, and without water (Is. 26:9). Biblical illustrations of wordless and delightful prayer are also frequent: having the attention of one’s mind “always on the Lord” (Ps. 25:15), living through love in the divine presence (Eph. 1:4), the love of God being poured out into our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 5:5), tasting and experiencing the very goodness of God (Ps. 34:5), pining with love and delight (Ps. 73:25–28), abiding in divine love (1 John 4:16). Both the yearning and the delight are far more than emotions.
Christic contemplation is a loving intimacy with the Trinity that is given to those who live the Gospel seriously. As it develops it gradually becomes so deep that we can call it falling in love with God. Contemplative prayer is given in many differing ways that surpass images and ideas: experiencing, yearning, knowing, loving, delighting. No matter what your past may be, you are called to the heights of this intimacy with your Creator.
When and how is this contemplation reached? We cannot cause or produce the least bit of it. God gives it when we are ready. As Jesus said to one of his favorites, Angela of Foligno, “Make yourself a capacity, and I will make myself a torrent.”
How do we make ourselves a capacity? First of all, we must be doing our best to live the gospel by being honest, faithful, humble, patient, pure, loving. It makes no sense to talk about being intimate with anyone and at the same time offend that person with no efforts to improve our behavior. That being assumed, we begin mental prayer by meditation—that is, by pondering the basic truths God has revealed in two of his books, the book of Genesis in all its wondrous splendors and the book of Revelation with its even greater marvels and beauties. When we faithfully live the divine word for some months or years, God begins to give the awareness, the yearning, the loving, the intimacy that we call contemplation.
The God of revelation does not operate by fractions. He pays us the compliment of calling us to the heights, not to something less. The greatest of the commandments is to love him with a whole heart, mind, soul, and with all our strength. Ninety-nine percent is not enough. We are to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect, not simply to be rather good.
This radical totality is rooted also in the human nature the Lord gave us. All of us have an endless thirst for beauty, love, and delight without limit. Everyone experiences this, even the playboy and the atheist. This is why every last one of us, saint or sinner, is never completely content with any created experience. Always we want more—endlessly more. The trouble with the atheist and the sinner is that they are looking for fulfillment and quenching where they cannot be found.
How do we know that God always asks everything of us, all for our own good? The answer is simple: He has said so over and over again. We have cited a few general examples. Now we see this same radical totality in what the Lord says about our prayer intimacy with him. God gives this remarkable intimacy when we are ready for it. And we get ready by living the entire Gospel generously, and that includes giving ample time to our prayer life.
What are the results of this profound, contemplative immersion in God? First of all, you realize that you are far more precious as an ensouled human being than anything and everything in the subhuman universe—more valuable than all the billions of galaxies in our universe and all they contain.
Second, a deepening prayer life prompts you to give up gladly all selfishnesses, big and small, that impede living the gospel fully, that prevent you from becoming an entirely transformed man or woman, “perfect in beauty” as Scripture puts it (Ez. 16:13–14). When you become head over heels in love, you will happily surrender the petty idols that prevent a total self-gift to God and to others in him. Gossiping about others’ faults and endless idle chatter are corrected. So is excessive eating and drinking and useless or harmful television. In deepening immersion in the Lord you become more patient, more humble, more pure, more loving.
The third result of growing contemplative prayer is an enhanced appreciation for created beauty. The deeper we are as persons, the more we wonder at our astonishing universe: a leaf, a snowflake, a living cell in biology class. We are drawn to linger over anything beautiful and thus drink more deeply of its splendor. Just as a smudged mirror obscures the image reflected in it, so does selfishness obscure our vision of the splendors of our universe—especially the magnificence at the pinnacle of visible reality, the human person.
This is why Francis of Assisi saw in creation a shining radiance of the divine glory. He did not see simply the beauty of a rose but a living reflection of the unending beauty of the divine Artist who fashions the millions of roses and other billions of flowers on our luxuriant, blue planet. On the other hand, superficial people are often so jaded by raucous music and garish lights, by alcohol and drugs, by violent and erotic experiences that they become incapable of recognizing lofty splendor when they meet it. Men and women on fire with truth and love are rare—and immensely enriching to people who know them.
A fourth result is our completion and fulfillment as persons. Contemplation feeds us in our deepest hungers: truth (being in touch with reality as it is), love, beauty, delight, celebration. No matter how elegantly wealthy people dine and drink, they always look for more. No one’s deepest needs are ever met at banquets. Luxuries never satisfy. Nor do worldly pleasures and entertainments, licit or illicit. On the other hand, people with a deepening prayer life experience a growing happiness, contentment, and fulfillment. Augustine learned from experience before his conversion that sin never satisfies: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
Point number five: Our beneficial influence on others increases precisely as our prayer intimacy with God deepens. The best thing a husband and father can do for his wife and children is to enhance his immersion in the Trinity. His influence for good toward them here on earth then assumes a greater richness, and it is eternal in its impact. The same, of course, is true of a wife and mother, of a priest and his parishioners, of a teacher and her pupils.
A person so gifted tends to think spontaneously of fresh insights that good people appreciate hearing but rarely encounter at home, in school, or from the Sunday pulpit. Deeply prayerful parents see, live, and can explain to their children what mediocre mothers and fathers would not dream of in fifty years. The same of course, is true of prayerful catechists and clergy. Theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar said it well: “He who does not listen to God has nothing to say to men.” By definition mediocre men and women are lukewarm, dull, and colorless when it comes to matters of prime significance. There is little danger they will light fires or stir enthusiasm.
A sixth result of profound intimacy with the Lord is that it increases gradually our daily drinking from the riches of the eucharistic liturgy. God forces himself on no one. The less we cling to selfishness, the deeper we are as persons, the more he can bestow. Shallow men and women worship with their lips, but their hearts are far from their Lord, say both the Old and the New Testaments. Contemplatives worship more and more richly as their prayer life deepens.
If a person continues to be faithful in giving ample time to prayer and in living the gospel generously, contemplation grows even to the point of becoming for five or ten minutes a deep absorption in God, so deep that distractions cease. Not surprisingly, one’s whole spiritual life blossoms. That is why deeply prayerful men and women become beautifully patient, self-sacrificing, humble, obedient, chaste, and loving.
We can begin to understand better why Scripture calls contemplation “gazing on the beauty of the Lord,” the “one thing,” the most important of all our duties and privileges. As we explained in the first part of this article this deepening immersion in God is meant for everyone—yes, for you too.