Posted in ccc, CONTEMPLATIVE Prayer, Morning Prayers

Catholic Meditation and Contemplative Prayer: What’s the Difference?

Catholic Meditation and Contemplative Prayer: What’s the Difference?

To answer this question, let’s look at the Catechism of the Catholic Church. In the glossary, we find the following definitions (I’ve highlighted several words and phrases in each definition to help us parse out the difference):

First, for meditation:

MEDITATION: An exercise and a form of prayer in which we try to understand God’s revelation of the truths of faith and the purpose of the Christian life, and how it should be lived, in order to adhere and respond to what the Lord is asking.

And now, for contemplation:

CONTEMPLATION: A form of wordless prayer in which mind and heart focus on God’s greatness and goodness in affective, loving adoration; to look on Jesus and the mysteries of his life with faith and love.

So immediately we can see that Catholic meditation is a cognitive exercise — prayer seeking understanding; whereas contemplative prayer sets aside that kind of mental effort, seeking instead a wordless, loving adoration of Christ and his mysteries.

Put another way:  in meditation we think; in contemplation we rest our thoughts and simply love (and respond to love).

To unpack this a bit further, we can look into the body of the Catechism itself, for further insight into both meditation and contemplation.    In sections 2705-8 of the Catechism we find further insight into a Catholic understanding of meditation.    In the interest of brevity I’m only going to post a few key phrases but look it up in the Catechism and read the entire section:

Meditation is above all a quest.  The mind seeks to understand the why and how of the Christian life, in order to adhere and respond to what the Lord is asking… To meditate on what we read helps us to make it our own by confronting it with ourselves… To the extent that we are humble and faithful, we discover in meditation the movements that stir the heart and we are able to discern them… Meditation engages thought, imagination, emotion, and desire… This form of prayerful reflection is of great value but Christian prayer should go further: to the knowledge of the love of the Lord Jesus, to union with him.

Immediately following this (sections 2709-19) is the Catechism’s discussion of contemplative prayer.   Once again, here are just a few key phrases:

ccc2709-2719

 

Contemplative prayer seeks him “whom my soul loves.” … We seek him, because to desire him is always the beginning of love… In this inner prayer we can still meditate, but our attention is fixed on the Lord himself…. One cannot always meditate but one can always enter into inner prayer, independently of the conditions of health, work, or emotional state.   The heart is the place of this quest and encounter, in poverty and in faith… Entering into contemplative prayer is like entering into the Eucharistic liturgy:   we “gather up” the heart, recollect our whole being under the prompting of the Holy Spirit, abide in the dwelling place of the Lord which we are, awaken our faith in order to enter into the presence of him who awaits us… Contemplative prayer is the poor and humble surrender to the loving will of the Father in ever deeper union with his beloved Son… It is a gift, a grace; it can be accepted only in humility and poverty. Contemplative prayer is a covenant relationship established by God within our hearts. Contemplative prayer is a communion in which the Holy Trinity conforms man, the image of God, “to his likeness.”
Contemplation is a gaze of faith, fixed on Jesus… Contemplative prayer is silence, the “symbol of the world to come” or “silent love.” Words in this kind of prayer are not speeches; they are like kindling that feeds the fire of love… Contemplative prayer is a communion of love bearing Life for the multitude, to the extent that it consents to abide in the night of faith… We must be willing to “keep watch with [him] one hour.”

The Catechism refuses to draw a hard and fast distinction between meditation and contemplation:  “in [contemplation] we can still meditate.”   Head and heart are both intimate parts of one being.   We may seek in contemplation to love and behold God in silence but thoughts will still dance in our minds.   But as “The Cloud of Unknowing” so helpfully teaches us, when meditative thoughts emerge during contemplative prayer, seek to be non-attached.   Let them arise and let them fall. Keep our focus “fixed on the Lord himself” — in contemplation our intent is to love God, not to think about God;   to know God rather than merely know about God.

Nevertheless, because meditation is an effortful prayer, there are times when we are simply too tired, or too angry, anxious, or whatever, to meditate.   Yet contemplative prayer, emphasising rest and silence, is always available to us.    Perhaps most important of all is the recognition that meditation is not the highest form of prayer: contemplation is.   Yet true contemplation is always a gift, a grace.   It’s not something we achieve, it’s something we receive.

To summarise:

  • Meditation is a quest;   contemplation involves rest.
  • Meditation is mental, cognitive, discursive;   contemplation is silent, heart-centered, beholding
  • Meditation is important, contemplation even more so.
Posted in ccc, CONTEMPLATIVE Prayer, Morning Prayers

Contemplative Prayer – Making a Start

“Contemplation is a gaze of faith, fixed on Jesus” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No 2715).

Contemplation is the prayer of the heart and not of the mind.   Contemplative prayer may focus on a word or a saying or one may simply be in the presence of God.   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.  It is the prayer of being in love.

HOW:  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 pray. 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, rooted in the scripture, the creed, a prayer or an aspect of our Christian faith.   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.

Jesuit Father William Johnston who has written much about contemplative prayer said: “Properly understood, contemplation shakes the universe, topples the powers of evil, builds a great society and opens the doors that lead to eternal life”.

What are the practical steps that we can take in order to incorporate into our busy lives daily contemplative prayer?

  • First of all, we need balance in our lives.   When was the last time that we enjoyed dinner with family and friends, or turned off our cell phone and refrained from checking our email at every moment?   Excessive work and travel, excessive involvement in sports and entertainment are tearing us apart.
  • Secondly, contemplation requires the capacity to be alone.   It is difficult to be alone in our contemporary society.   Even when we are alone, the noise of our own worries and fears drown out the silence of God’s voice.   Many people are incapable of being alone and they immediately feel an obsession to talk with someone on a cell phone or check their email.
  • 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.

Excerpt from Fr James Farfaglia’s Homily on Contemplative Prayer

“The only trouble is that in the spiritual life there are no tricks and no shortcuts.   Those who imagine that they can discover spiritual gimmicks and put them to work for themselves usually ignore God’s will and his grace.”

“We do not want to be beginners.   But let us be convinced of the fact that we will never be anything else but beginners, all our life!”

“Hence monastic prayer, especially meditation and contemplative prayer, is not so much a way to find God as a way of resting in Him whom we have found, who loves us, who is near to us, who comes to us to draw us to Himself.”

― Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer

THOMAS MERTON ON CONTEMPLATIVE PRAYER NO 1