In its discussion of prayer, the Catechism of the Catholic Church distinguishes between meditation and contemplation. Meditation is described as a quest, in which “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.” (2705)
One can use a variety of books, such as the Bible or spiritual classics, religious images, and a variety of methods. “Meditation engages thought, imagination, emotion and desire. This mobilization of faculties is necessary in order to deepen our convictions of faith, prompt the conversion of our heart, and strengthen our will to follow Christ.” While it is of great value, “Christian prayer should go further: to the knowledge of the love of the Lord Jesus, to union with him.” (2708)
Meditation leads to the next step, contemplation, or mental prayer. Quoting St. Teresa of Avila, who has passed down many fine writings to help us with mental prayer, the Catechism says, “Contemplative prayer … in my opinion is nothing else than a close sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us.” (2709). She has also described mental prayer as an “intimate friendship, a frequent heart-to-heart conversation with Him by whom we know ourselves to be loved.”
Teresa did not believe it to merely an advanced state of prayer for a few devout souls, but an essential form of prayer for every Christian. She said, “He who neglects mental prayer needs not a devil to carry him to hell, but he brings himself there with his own hands.”
St. Alphonsus Liguori agreed: “It is morally impossible for him who neglects meditation to live without sin.”
Fr. John Hardon, in his The Catholic Catechism, notes, “Daily prayer at regular times is paramount. All Catholic writers on the spiritual life agree that there should be daily mental prayer, if only for a few minutes, at certain times when a person is sure of being freed from other duties, and there ought to be some system to prayer, particularly for beginners. Most writers recommend various simplified forms of meditation. They tend to reduce all prayer to a consideration of Our Lord, either by thinking of him in one of his mysteries, or by speaking with him simply in meditation on the Gospels or the mysteries of faith, or by a simple repose in God, sharing with him whatever is on our minds and conversion with him as a child would talk with a loving father or mother.”
USE OF THE INTELLECT AND THE WILL
While a rosary does contain an element of meditation, a rosary is not mental prayer. Nor is a Divine Mercy chaplet, or prayers said from a prayer book, as valuable as these can be. Neither is it spiritual reading, such as when one reads a passage from The Imitation of Christ.
Mental prayer makes use of the intellect and the will. The memory recalls a subject matter, such as a passage from Scripture, reflects on it and uses it as “fodder” for conversation with Christ. It consists in not thinking much, according to Teresa, but in “loving much.”
Teresa’s method involves several steps. First, the preparation. Putting yourself in the presence of God. This may be done by considering God’s providence, how He cares for us, or how He lives in us when we are in the State of Grace. Next, you select some material to use for reflection. Scripture is an excellent source, or you can use a religious picture.
Third, is the consideration. You ask yourself a series of questions as you turn the material over in your mind: What’s going on? Why? Who is involved? What does it mean to me?
Fourth, and most important, is the conversation. You talk the subject matter over slowly with Christ, you speak of your love for Him, include praise and thanksgiving, and petitions. When the conversation trails off, you can return to the written material.
And finally, you conclude, by thanking God for the gift of your prayer, consider ways you may improve the next time, and whatever other “loose ends” you’d like to tie up. his method could be used for five minutes, or an hour, depending on the time you have available, but for the layman, 30 minutes daily ought to be your goal.
St. Philip Neri taught one woman to meditate petition by petition on the Our Father, but he was reluctant to give detailed direction on mental prayer. He believed priests ought to let people follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Once, for example, a man came to him for confession and then asked him how he ought to go about mental prayer. The saint responded, “Be humble and obedient, and the Holy Spirit will teach you.” One of St. Philip’s favorite subjects for meditation were the Four Last Things: death, judgment, heaven, hell.
St. Philip and many other saints recommended in conjunction with mental prayer that the individual make use of so-called ejaculatory prayers or short prayers throughout the day. Quoting St. Francis de Sales, Fr. Hardon notes, “Admire [God’s] beauty, invoke his aid, cast yourself in spirit at the foot of his cross, adore his goodness, often inquire of him concerning your salvation; a thousand times in the day offer your soul to him, fix your inward eyes on his kindness, hold out your hand to him as a child to its Father.”
Such prayers can be easily interwoven with the activities of the day, Father continues. He adds, “Pious aspirations are a form of true meditative prayer. Without them we cannot live a contemplative life really well, and we make but a poor business of the active life.”
In his book How to Pray Always, Raoul Plus, SJ, notes that difficulties in mental prayer are usually due to “the lack of method in our mode of coming into contact with the supernatural world, to want of courage in exerting ourselves during prayer, or to failure to persevere in the presence of God in times of aridity, when sensible consolations are absent.”
ALLOWING GOD TO INTERVENE
For me, contemplative prayer is allowing God to intervene in our minds and hearts in a way in which we focus on Him, pray to Him, praise Him and allow Him to speak to us. A big part of it is listening and being silent before the Lord. Remember when the prophet Elijah spoke to the Lord,
1 Kings 19:11-12 “Then the LORD said: Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD; the LORD will pass by. There was a strong and violent wind rending the mountains and crushing rocks before the LORD—but the LORD was not in the wind; after the wind, an earthquake—but the LORD was not in the earthquake; after the earthquake, fire—but the LORD was not in the fire; after the fire, a light silent sound.”
The Lord did not speak in the strong and violent wind, earthquake or fire, but in a silent whisper. That is contemplative prayer: God speaks to you in a whisper. It is during this time that we need to let God love us, minister to us and encourage us.
If you’re new to contemplative prayer, begin by carving out a consistent time of the day where you may be alone and in silence for even as short a time. To begin with, start with five minutes. Invite the Holy Spirit to come into your heart. Ask the assistance of the Blessed Mother and your guardian angel. Take a section of the four Gospels, particularly one which contains the words of Christ Himself, read it slowly, reflect on it and think how it might apply to you. Speak to the Lord about it with words, or without words in the silence of your heart. When you finish your time, try to make a resolution to apply something you’ve read to improve your life: perhaps to be more patient with others, to stop speaking uncharitably about others, to be more generous, be more truthful, avoid bad language, etc. Increase your time of contemplation as you are able. Seek out the advice and support of a good priest to help you advance. I think you’ll find it most profitable to your spiritual well being.