“Contemplative prayer…I want to learn how to do that…..do any of you do contemplative prayer…what helps you focus? My mind seems to just wander off on this tangent or that and I can never seem to stay on track with my prayer.”
A woman asked this in a Facebook group I belong to. I started to answer and realized it should really be a blog post. So here you go.
OK, first there are a couple of definitions of “Contemplative Prayer.” There is the Ignatian Method. In that method you pick, for instance, a scene in the bible, like the Crucifixion and picture yourself as one of the characters in the scene. See what they see, what would you feel or do, etc. then let it lead to speaking with the Lord. It could only be a few minutes, that’s ok. It is an active type of prayer. The best known of these is the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. Go to the Ignatian Contemplation webpage for more info.
The other type of Contemplation is “Infused Contemplation” and it is a gift from God to someone who has already an active prayer life in meditation. It is NOT something you achieve, it is a gift. You are basking in the Lord and only lasts a very short time. Do not allow people to tell you so called “Centering Prayer” is contemplation, or is ok. It is not. The problem, and I have researched this quite a bit, is there are many websites online that promote a faulty understanding of contemplation. If a website says to “empty your mind” or uses the term “mantra” or “recite a prayer word” that is not authentic Christian prayer. It has invaded parishes and retreats, and online, but the Vatican says this Eastern type of prayer is not kosher, as it were. You are trying to build a relationship with God, not empty your mind. St. Teresa of Avila, a Doctor of the Church, and a master of Contemplative Prayer thought this ridiculous.
So, the lesson here is to start praying and don’t let distractions get in the way. If you are distracted just let it fade away and continue praying. A picture of a scene from the bible or other good Christian book may help you focus. The rosary is an aid to prayer too.
Next, become acquainted with a man who should become your favorite, Fr. Thomas Dubay, S.M. Fr. Dubay died in 2010. He was a retreat master for religious and laity for decades. He taught authentic prayer in an imminently practical and down-to-earth way. His books are treasures. Start with his Prayer Primer: Igniting a Fire Within. It is easy to understand and follow.
Then, buy Fire Within: St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, and the Gospel-On Prayer. This book is a classic and you should own it and read it in small doses. Reading books by St. Teresa of Avila will be good too, but read this to get ready for that. If they seem a bit over the head for you, then slow down. You will be ready at some point.
Now, a Spiritual Director is very helpful. It is hard to find one. You can ask a very trusted priest, but it takes time to find a director that works for you. Next best is reading Fr. Dubay’s Seeking Spiritual Direction: How to Grow the Divine Life Within. Now, I found this book to be droll for the first half, because he explains what a spiritual director should be etc. and you wind up wondering where you might find such a rare, amazing person. The second half though is amazing because he uses this section to counsel you in your prayer life, like a spiritual director would. It is a treasure trove of questions you never even thought of and it is very helpful. It explains the steps one progresses in prayer, the downfalls and confusions; it is great.
Fr. Dubay did several series on EWTN (The Global Catholic Network) and one of them was about Contemplative Prayer. You can download the audio to your computer and listen to it on your iPod or listen at your computer. Go to EWTN, at the top choose Faith, then Libraries, then Audio Library. Where it says Series Search type in “Dubay.” What will pop up is his six different TV series. Choose the one that says “Contemplation.” Listen to them carefully. I like to listen to them in the car so I’m not distracted or interrupted. Read his other books too.
For something newer, you might be interested in two resources online and a great book. First, take a visit to the lovely Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart in Los Angeles website. Read their blog and about their spirituality. I feel calm and peaceful just going there.
Also, make it a habit to visit the RC Spiritual Direction Website. Sign up for their newsletter and read their stuff. It was founded by Dan Burke, a convert from Judaism and the Executive Director of the National Catholic Register. I know him personally and he is excellent. He wrote the wonderful book you should read, Navigating the Interior Life: Spiritual Direction and the Journey to God. It talks about spiritual direction, but also about making a “Plan of Life,” to further you along in prayer and your life with God. This book is a classic and was sorely needed. I’m so glad he wrote it.
Consider also reading St. Francis de Sales’ classic book Introduction to the Devout Life. You might want to learn about Lectio Divina too, which is an ancient simple prayer method of using the Scriptures. Read Praying Scripture for a Change: An Introduction to Lectio Divina by Tim Gray. It’s very good and an easy read.
So, there you have it, just what you need to get started. Don’t be overwhelmed, just start talking to God and let Him lead. And keep asking questions!