One of the key points the Catechism of the Catholic Church makes about prayer is that it involves a mutual relationship between God and the person praying. "Prayer is the encounter of God's thirst with ours. God thirsts that we may thirst for him," the Catechism states (no. 2560).
Moreover, God is the initiator of the relationship: "In prayer, the faithful God's initiative of love always comes first (no. 2567). The human act of praying is a response to God's initiative.
Perhaps this is not our experience. The move from saying prayers to meditating or praying from the heart can be difficult. Even the most loquacious person can be at a loss for words. I may not have a lot to say to God.
Even more so does it seem that God has little to say to me. I wait in silence for God to speak and I hear nothing. God doesn't seem to be holding up his end of the deal.
However, as I progress further in prayer, I realize God does speak. Usually not in words and often not at that moment. But sometimes I will later experience a stirring in my heart or events will make me aware of something. Or perhaps I will simply know a bit of the depth of God's love.
If I reflect on this awareness, I will realize that God has, through means other than an edict carved on pillars of stone, responded to my prayer. My dialogue with God becomes woven through both specific times of prayer and the fabric of my daily living.
As this relationship with God becomes firmly established, I may experience strong affection for God and great consolations in prayer. Prayer becomes much easier. It is a time to which I look forward with anticipation.
The great mystical writers, however, note that if I remain faithful to this life of prayer, eventually there may come a time when these affections and consolations dry up. The honeymoon is over. God seems to have disappeared just as surely as the 12-year-old Jesus disappeared from the sight of Mary and Joseph on their visit to Jerusalem.
Here, I can start to believe that I am failing in prayer, backsliding and becoming lukewarm towards God. In fact, there is a possibility of this becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. This time of desolation can lead me to abandon the life of prayer and the pursuit of holiness as if it were a mirage.
What is happening may, in fact, be quite different. God may be becoming especially active, trying to enter my life in a new and deeper manner. My efforts to reach God may actually prevent him from entering my soul. I may be struggling to find God when I should be surrendering to the love God has poured out. Here, a skilled spiritual director is needed to guide me through this desert.
The goal is contemplation. This contemplation is not something I do, but rather something God does through me. Through contemplation, God will give me an awareness of his presence. This may come at a time when my prayer is no more fervent or devout than usual. It is not something I have earned -- it is a gift from God.
Because of my human limitations, I will not see God face to face, but rather with the eyes of the soul. This is the sort of vision which St. Gregory of Nyssa described as "a seeing that consists in not seeing." It is a deep and intimate communion with the Invisible. St. Teresa of Avila, one of the greatest spiritual masters, puts it this way: "This union is above all earthly joys, above all delights, above all consolations and still more than that."
This is a great gift. I am given a much closer relationship with the Father. Rather, than knowing about him, I now know him. In drawing close to the Father, my own natural desires and my own sin stand in the true light. Natural desires are futile; sin is vanity and misery. But, most importantly, I perceive the great love and mercy which pours forth from God's heart.
Some saints have been given extended periods of direct contemplation of God and even been brought into a transforming union or spiritual marriage. But even a brief glimpse can lead a person to a life of outstanding virtue. One of the great spiritual writers of the early 20th century, Dom Columba Marmion, received, during his seminary days, an instantaneous perception of "a light on the infinity of God." This brief illumination formed his spirituality for the rest of his life.
The contemplation given by God can give birth to a fervent desire to lead a virtuous life. It doesn't necessarily turn one into a saint. But it can be a powerful spur to the pursuit of sanctity. This is the most important fruit of contemplation.
We have the testimony of St. Teresa on this: "The highest perfection consists not in interior favors or in great rapture or in visions or in the spirit of prophecy, but in the bringing of our wills so closely in conformity with the will of God that, as soon as we realize he wills anything, we desire it ourselves with all our might and take the bitter with the sweet, knowing that to be his majesty's will" (The Foundations, ch. 5).
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This section on contemplative prayer is one of the most beautiful and important parts of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, well worth reading and re-reading. Here is a brief selection:
"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" (no. 2712).
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