WHAT IS CONTEMPLATIVE PRAYER?
Br. Cassian DiRocco, O.S.B.
Contemplative prayer is the simplest way of prayer. It is—in the words of St. Augustine—“the key that unlocks the gates of Heaven.” Because it is actually Christ who prays in us (cf. Gal. 2:20), contemplative prayer is a way of being—not a way of “doing”, not a technique—so that the gift of self that God offers to us in Jesus can be more readily received. Contemplative prayer is entered into by simple, humble receptivity, making us more fully available to share in intimate communion with the Father who is love (cf. 1 John 4:16).
Through the grace of baptism, the life-giving communion of love that is the Holy Trinity abides within us. It is here—in the “inner kingdom”—that the graces of contemplative prayer “happen.” In the Philokalia, St. Isaac of Syria directs us to “enter your inner treasure house, and you will see the treasure house of heaven. For both the one and the other are the same, and one and the same entrance reveals them both.” Contemplative prayer, then, is not so much a “reaching out”, but a gentle receiving of an already present love. Jesus Himself assures us that the kingdom of Heaven is within us (Luke 17:21), and that unless we become like little children (Matthew 18:3), we will not enter into that Kingdom. In other words, by surrendering our complicated agendas, we become as unencumbered as the little ones, who, because of their simplicity, have ready access to the inner life of God (cf. Matthew 19:14). When we try to “make” prayer more complicated than this, it can cease to be true prayer, becoming less a movement of receptivity, participation and belonging, and more of a “project” that instead dissipates, agitates, and separates us from experiencing God’s love.
The trouble is, we tend to naturally resist the simplicity which allows us to gently settle into that still-pointed center that is by baptismal right our true home. We need help in “downsizing” so that we can travel very lightly on this road of love and union, and we have been given this help in Mary, whose soul could so easily magnify God because of her nothingness (cf. Luke 1:46, 48). Without anything weighing her down, she became at the Annunciation what we are called to be as people of contemplative prayer: tabernacles of the most high God (cf. Psalm 46:4). We are given Mary as mother, sister, and friend to gently nurture our own original simplicity so that we can rest in God’s love—and He, rest in us—without our getting in the way.
And as if this were not enough—God’s mother being our mother, too—we were given an even more unsurpassable gift, the one pathway that allows us to be real partakers of the Divine nature (cf. 2 Peter 1:4): Jesus, present in His entirety—“body, blood, soul and divinity”—in the Eucharist. When we receive the Eucharist, Christ’s Paschal mystery—beginning with His Incarnation, reaching its apex in His Passion, and stretching open-ended into eternity—becomes grafted into our very being, and we become “hosts” of His dying and rising prayer. We cannot grasp this mystical gift; we can only receive it with love, coming as it does from the God of Love in Jesus who has “called us friends” (cf. John 15:15), and who has given us access to union with the Father through such an intimate friendship in the Eucharistic that He is actually consumed by the friends He loves!
Contemplatives, then, know the “secret” of friendship in prayer. St. Teresa of Avila tells us that contemplative prayer is “nothing else but a close sharing between friends”, and St. John of the Cross tells us that our part in this prayer of contemplative friendship is nothing more than a gaze of “silent love.” Put most simply, St. John Vianney assures us that all that is necessary in this gaze of love is that “I look at Him, and He looks at me.” And when we do, we allow God’s being to gracefully fill our own.
So, let’s not make it complicated. Let’s just allow contemplative prayer to be as easy as God intends it to be: In silent, simple friendship, we simply be, beholding God beholding us in love.