Meditative Prayer


Christian prayer has its roots in the Bible, especially in the New Testament. It means communion with God in faith; its aim is to bring our minds and wills and activities into harmony with the will of God. (Interior Castle II). To be authentic, prayer has to be founded in faith and trust in God who is our Rock, our Fortress and our Shield, “the One who is always there.”

Several of the older spiritual writers of the church, and also many modern ones, speak of prayer in terms of dialogue with God. St. Teresa too, calls it a “friendly dialogue and frequent solitary converse with one who, we know, loves us.”(Life, chapter 8.)

This notion of prayer has the advantage of including all its varieties. For in truth, prayer is a conversation or dialogue. “We speak to God when we pray; we hear Him when we read the divine sayings.”

(St. Ambrose: quoted in Vat. II ‘ On Revelation, par. 25). God answers not only through His inspired word, but above all through the Word Incarnate. He turns to men in an explicit act of communion. He illumines their minds, so that they may know what is right and good. He brings to their knowledge realities that were previously hidden from them, in order to mould their consciences. He speaks too, through His Prophets and authentic representatives. (cf. Joseph Pieper: New Scholasticism Spring 1969: pp. 205-228). St. Teresa has something to say about this “voice of God”, calling men to greater perfection and closer union with Himself. The nearer they come to the place where He dwells, the more readily they understand His voice, and “He becomes a very good Neighbor to them.” All sincere men and women experience this gentle but insistent call to follow Christ and they suffer greatly because they cannot respond as promptly as they would like. At the early stages of the spiritual life, God’s voice comes through, in conversations with good people, in what one hears in sermons or reads in books. Trials, illnesses and frustrations bring many wholesome lessons; and at times of silent prayer, God speaks delicately and subtly. (see Interior Castle II) On another occasion, I hope to return to this theme of interior illumination by the Holy Spirit.

The objection has been raised, by agnostics and atheists, that prayer is unnecessary. Nietzche said that it was shameful to pray, it was an admission of dependence on another being; and this, to his way of thinking, was unworthy of men. Without going to the extremes of Nietzche, others have urged that since God already knows our needs, it makes no sense to tell Him about them. Again, there are those who say that it is impossible to change God’s mind, and futile to try, so why should we pray? Deists maintain that since God is not interested in the affairs of this world, there can be no encounter with Him. But the great spiritual writers of Christianity, taking their stand on the teaching of the Gospels, point out that prayer is a perfectly normal activity on the part of man, being a noble expression of our status as human beings. It is an effort to discover our real needs, which we ourselves don’t always know, To humbly ask for a favor is not coercing Him. Rather it is making use of the common sense and freedom He has given us to discover that there are many things we cannot do ourselves, that we need the help of someone who is greater than we. And though God’s bounty exceeds all our expectations, there are many things that He will not give unless we ask for them in faith and humility.(see Luke 11. 9-13: also Summa Theol. II-II 83.2)

At the same time, it is necessary for all of us to learn what to pray for. God will not normally give what can be attained by human industry or skill. In other words, He has already made provision for many of our human needs by giving us intelligence and free-will and material to work on. Where these can be used, God will not intervene again. He will not, for instance, heal a sick person in some extraordinary way, if human medication can achieve the same result in an ordinary way. However, science can never rule out the power of God. In fact it is He who established the laws that science works on, and gradually discovers. The point is, that where human resources are available, they must be used to their full extent. And, as St. John of the Cross says, this is in keeping with God’s plan for ruling the world, and indeed very pleasing to Him.(Ascent II. 22). This is an important point, and we all need to learn it. Prayer must never degenerate into superstition, or never become an escape from our obligations. We must never throw our responsibilities over on God by taking refuge in a kind of pseudo-hope. “God will take care of this.” Yes, He will, but only when we have done our part. It is good advice to apply to prayer the old maxim: “Believe that everything depends on God: act as if everything depends on you.” This is a very Carmelite way of looking at prayer. It may sound rationalistic at first sight, but it is really common-sense in action. It is exemplified in the teaching both of St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross. On the other hand, it ought never be interpreted so rigidly as to eliminate the “Father-and-child” kind of relationship which must always exist between men and God. He is love personified; He is ready to give us far more than we could ever dream of. But like a good Father, He does not want to spoil us by doing what from the beginning He had given us the power to do. That is how we grow up in Christ, combining our own co-operation with the strength of God.

Anyone who reads present day books or articles about prayer and compares them with what St. Teresa wrote, cannot but be struck by a notable difference in tone. Some of the more recent writings are valuable and highly commendable,(e.g. Rahner’s books, and Prayer by Von Baltassar). But others are superficial, excessively interested in discovering “new forms of prayer”, by which they mean, new techniques. Moreover, they put considerable stress on “getting something out of prayer”, which is interpreted to mean, reaching out after sense devotion or emotional satisfaction. St. Teresa, while not overlooking these aspects of prayer-life, relegates them to areas of secondary importance. She, and especially St. John of the Cross exalt the role that faith plays in spiritual growth. They relate prayer first and foremost to God and then to everyday life. The final aim of prayer and the only safe test of its authenticity is how it affects our day-to-day existence. No matter how striking the favors one may seem to receive, no matter how good one my feel, these things are of no value unless they make us more Christlike. That is to say, prayer, which springs from the theological virtues, must in turn help them to increase. It should bring a deep sense of reverence for God, love for the Church, a humble intelligent obedience to her teaching, a calm sense of dedication to the needs, both spiritual and material, of our fellow men, and a proper sense of justice and self-sacrifice. The honest effort to practice these virtues is the real preparation for prayer, and the only true test of its genuineness. Without them, it is a house of cards. History shows us many people who made a great display of praying, but were in fact secret hypocrites, simply because they gave no attention to the corresponding practices of the Christian virtues. In this connection one should read the first eighteen chapters of the Way of Perfection. They are a classic example of St. Teresa’s solid insights and her down-to-earth common sense. For her, prayer was intended to give glory to God by helping us to become more like God-made-man. Prayer which stops short at speculation or feelings is not real prayer at all. In fact, it can open the door to many illusions. Few have valued the “inner light” as highly as St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross, but few have realized more clearly than they that it is difficult of attainment and that in its earlier stages other lights can be easily mistaken for it. All of us are prone to imagine that the products of our overwrought imaginations or subconscious activities actually come from God. The Spain of St. Teresa’s day was full of people who said that they were under the direct guidance of the Holy Spirit. They claimed to pray all day long, and yet sometimes indulged in terrible aberrations. St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross would have no part with the “Alumbrados”, as they were called. They regarded the movement as one of Satan’s strategems, disguised under the appearances of great holiness and offering what seemed a short-cut to high spiritual perfection. St. Teresa insists that the only reliable test of spiritual maturity is the possession of the virtues: humility, obedience, self-denial, fraternal charity. These are always valid currency, she says, (Way of Perfection 18), an unfailing source of revenue and a perpetual inheritance. St. Paul said the same thing, long ago. (cf. Galations 5-13)

Concerning methods of prayer, St. Teresa says almost nothing in the Interior Castle, In fact she says little enough about them anywhere, although she gives many useful suggestions in the Life, chapters XI-XIII, and again in the Way of Perfection, chapter XXVI. We mean to return again to these. For the moment, two points should be noted. The first is that prayer is not the same as techniques in prayer. These are useful, but are not an end in themselves. Secondly, the type of prayer which is practiced in the first three mansions comes under the category of “ordinary prayer”. This is meant to designate the kind of prayer which does not call for exceptional graces, and is within the reach of every baptized person striving to improve his way of life, even though he may still be far from perfect. However, the name “ordinary prayer” poses many problems. These we set aside for the moment, since they do not actually enter directly into the practice of everyday prayer. In addition, theologians are far from arriving at unanimity about them; they are all closely bound up with the deeper mysteries of God’s providence, man’s freewill, and the efficacy of grace.

When St. Teresa, and indeed St. John of the Cross too, use the word “meditation”, they do not restrict it to the reasoning process that many people have to use in order to arrive at some measure of conviction about the Church, about the Christian way of living, about God’s dealings with man, and so forth. This, of course, is one form of prayer-activity, but only one. St. Teresa interprets meditation to cover all the active processes by means of which we learn about God up to the time when God intervenes in a positive manner to teach us about Himself. In this way, we can divide the entire range of the prayer-life into two main portions; meditation and contemplation. Meditation is the equivalent of “ordinary prayer”. It is characteristic of the first three mansions. We shall see however, that there are several ways of making meditation.

St. Teresa speaks about certain Important attitudes or qualities which are pre-dispositions for the prayer-life.

The first is that those who wish to advance in prayer must be unselfish in their motives. This does not mean that total “emptiness” (Kenosis) has been attained straight away. But it does mean that one has to be as generous as possible with God, and especially one must not think of such things as spiritual favors(Interior Castle 1). St. Teresa puts it this way: “They must be like brave soldiers, ready to serve their King without pay.” (Life). Next, they must have a resolute will to stay with God, come what may. Inevitably, there will be opposition from our selfish human nature, from the world about us and from the Evil One. This calls for humble fortitude and firm reliance on Christ. (cf. Interior Castle II). A courageous will is one of the main characteristics of those in Mansion II.

Thirdly, generosity must be tempered by common sense and prudence. One must not rush ahead too fast. There can be secret pride in the urge to throw discretion to the winds and rely entirely on God. It is certainly an ideal to aim at, but it calls for heroic strength, which at the beginning may not be presumed.(Interior Castle I. 2.)

Forthly, we must have high and noble ideals, even if we don’t always succeed in living up to them. They have a catalytic effect on our way of life. Again and again, St. Teresa comes back to this point, stressing however that it is not mere human idealism, nor yet an arrogant wish to be”Perfect”.

(cf. Life12: Way of Perfection 23) She leaves us in no doubt about the hard work this calls for if our prayer is to be genuine. (Way of Perfection 21 and 23: Interior Castle II). Indeed, it can be said that the main thrust in all these mansions is the cultivation of virtue rather than discovering techniques of payer.

However, spiritual growth and prayer go hand in hand. St. Teresa points out that prayer is one of the great means of amending our lives, (Life: 8.), and when we pray, the important thing is not to think much but to love much.. (Interior Castle 4. 1.)

But since we cannot love God unless we know Him first, we must set about acquiring the requisite instruction. Naturally, the best place to find this is in the inspired pages of Holy Scripture. St. Teresa, herself an avid reader of the Gospels, encourages us all to do the same.

(cf . Way of Perfection 21.). But she also recognizes that not everyone can profit from the direct reading of Scripture. For these, there are many other suitable books. (Way of Perfection). In any case, this is where the prayer of meditation comes in. It enables us to acquire a little love for Christ and His Church. This love is not just sweet sentiment; it is strong, manly and vigorous. “Love consists, not in the extent of our happiness, but in the firmness of our determination to try to please God in everything, and to pray Him ever to advance the honor and glory of His Son, and the growth of the Catholic Church.” (Interior Castle 4. 1)

Prayer must always be full of reverence for God. “Try to think of Who it is you are addressing and what you yourself are, if only that you may speak to Him with due respect.”

(Way of Perfection 22). And as we do in our liturgy, one effective way of acquiring this outlook is to call to mind our sins. St. Teresa suggests that we begin prayer with the sign of the Cross, a short examination of conscience and an act of sorrow. This makes us a little more worthy to appear in the presence of God. (Way of Perfection 26)

St. Teresa gives several methods of making meditation. I will merely list them here in outline. Some of them are important enough to deserve a separate conference.

1. Meditation in the traditional form, is making reflections or considerations on a subject chosen in advance, for the purpose of arriving at some fruitful convictions and firm resolutions. This kind of prayer may not be possible for everyone. St. Teresa herself derived very little help from it. Nonetheless, she recommends it highly to those who find it profitable and attractive,(Way of Perfection 19: I Want to See God p. 194). Not many people have a natural aptitude for formal meditation, but everyone must try to learn, even if it means learning in the hard way. It is well to remember that a difficult half-hour of prayer, fruitless to all appearances, can be a valuable way of exercising the virtue of faith.

II. Meditative reading. This form of meditation was used by St. Teresa herself for 14 years. (Way of Perfection). Though it is particularly helpful for beginners, it can be employed at all stages, because as both St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross say, even those who are proficient in prayer will derive advantage in returning to simple meditation now and again, especially at times of fatigue or dryness. (See Life 4: Way of Perfection, as above: I want to See God Part II chapter 3.)

III. Cultivating a personal friendship with Christ. This is a kind of prayer that appealed very strongly to St. Teresa. (She speaks of it in Life 12; Way of Perfection). She has a lot to say about this holy fellowship, and by implication, encourages us to seek similar friendships with the Blessed Mother and the Saints, (e.g. Life 30: Interior Castle VI. 7). Naturally, it calls for the basic dispositions of humility, adoration, thanksgiving and trust.

In chapter 9 of her Life,St. Teresa speaks of a method which consists in “making pictures of Christ inwardly”. She represented Him to herself in those scenes of his life where He was most alone or neglected. She even encourages the use of an actual picture or image. (Way of Perfection).

V. The prayer of simple Recollection: This is the highest and simplest level of “ordinary prayer”. It is the prelude to infused contemplation. Since it is so important, and is within the reach of everyone, it calls for a chapter all to itself.

This ends a brief sketch of Teresian meditative prayer. Almost every part could be expanded. Here, to conclude, are a few short passages referring to prayer.

“Provided we do not abandon prayer, our Lord will turn everything we do to our profit , even though we may find no one to teach us.”

“What can be the value of faith without good works, or of works which are not united with the merits of our Lord Jesus Christ?”

“Prayer and self-indulgence do not go together.”

by Father Gabriel Barry, O.C.D.

Print Friendly