THE beginning of prayer is desire, desire to love God, who has loved us first. Desire is the “pilot light” which keeps the burner of prayer lit, always ready to mingle with the “propane” of the Holy Spirit. He is the one who then ignites, animates, and fills our hearts with grace, enabling us to begin the ascent, along the Way of Jesus, to union with the Father. (And by the way, when I say “union with God”, what I mean is a real and actual union of wills, desires, and love such that God lives totally and freely in you, and you in Him). And so, if you have stayed with me this long in this Lenten Retreat, I have no doubt that the pilot light of your heart is lit and ready to burst into flame!
What I want to speak of now is not a method of prayer, but what is foundational to any spirituality, because it corresponds with our human nature: body, soul, and spirit. That is, prayer must engage at various times our senses, imagination, intellect, reason, and will. It involves our conscious decision to know and “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” Mark 12:30
We are body and spirit, and we experience the need to translate our feelings externally. We must pray with our whole being to give all power possible to our supplication. —Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), n. 2702
Christian Tradition has retained three major expressions of prayer: vocal, meditative, and contemplative. They have one basic trait in common: composure of heart. —CCC, n. 2699
These three expressions of speaking to God, thinking of God, and looking at God all work toward igniting, increasing, and intensifying the flames of prayer in order to fill the “balloon”—the heart—with God’s love.
Speaking to God
If you think of a young couple falling in love, whenever they meet, they exchange affectionate words. In vocal prayer, we speak to God. We begin to tell Him how beautiful He is (which is called praise); we are thankful that He is meeting us and blessing us (thanksgiving); and then we begin to open our heart to Him, sharing our concerns and His (intercession).
Vocal prayer is what “ignites” the burner of the heart, whether it is the prayer of the Liturgy, the recitation of the Rosary, or simply saying out loud the name of “Jesus.” Even Our Lord prayed aloud, and taught us to say the Our Father. And so…
Even interior prayer… cannot neglect vocal prayer. Prayer is internalized to the extent that we become aware of him “to whom we speak;” thus vocal prayer becomes an initial form of contemplative prayer. —CCC, n. 2704
But before we look at what contemplative prayer is, let’s examine what is called “mental prayer” or meditation, that is thinking of God.
Thinking of God
When a couple really starts to fall in love, they begin to think about one another all the time. In prayer, this thinking is called meditation. In vocal prayer, I speak to God; in the Scriptures, or other spiritual texts, God speaks to me. That means that I begin to read and listen to what God is saying to my heart (lectio divina). It means that prayer ceases to be a race to finish it, but now a rest in it. I rest in God by letting the transforming power of His living Word pierce my heart, illuminate my mind, and feed my spirit.
Remember, earlier in the Retreat, I spoke about the “inner man”, as St. Paul calls it; this interior life in Christ that needs to be fed and nurtured so as to grow in maturity. For Jesus said,
Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God. (Matt 4:4)
In order for their to be enough “flame” to fill a hot air balloon, you have to turn up the propane. Meditation is like that; you are welcoming the Holy Spirit to enter your heart, teach you, and lead you into the truth, which will set you free. And thus, as the Catechism says, “Meditation is a quest.” CCC, n. 2705 It is how you begin to be “transformed by the renewal of your mind.” Rom 12:2
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. It is a question of acting truthfully in order to come into the light: “Lord, what do you want me to do?” —CCC, n. 2706
Seek in reading and you will find in meditating; knock in mental prayer and it will be opened to you by contemplation. —Guigo the Carthusian, Scala Paradisi: PL 40,998
Looking at God
When a couple has come to know each other by talking, listening and spending time together, words are then often replaced by “silent love”, by a simple yet intense gaze into the other’s eyes. It is a look which seems, as it were, to fuse their hearts together.
In prayer, this is what is called contemplation.
Contemplation is a gaze of faith, fixed on Jesus. “I look at him and he looks at me”… —CCC, 2715
And this look of Jesus is what transforms us interiorly—as it transformed Moses exteriorly.
Whenever Moses entered the presence of the Lord to speak with him, he removed the veil [from his face] until he came out again… Then the Israelites would see that the skin of Moses’ face was radiant. (Exodus 34:34-35)
Just as Moses did nothing to merit this radiance, so too in the New Covenant relationship with God, contemplation “is a gift, a grace; it can be accepted only in humility and poverty.” CCC, n. 2713 Because…
Contemplative prayer is a communion in which the Holy Trinity conforms man, the image of God, “to his likeness.” —CCC, n. 2713
In contemplation, the “propane” valve is wide open; the flame of love is burning high and bright, and the heart begins to expand beyond its limited human capacity as it is fused with God’s heart, thereby lifting the soul into the stratosphere where it finds union with Him.
SUMMARY AND SCRIPTURE
Vocal, meditative, and contemplative prayer purify and prepare us to see Him face to face, now, and in eternity.
All of us, gazing with unveiled face on the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as from the Lord who is the Spirit. (2 Cor 3:18)
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