Catholic Teaching


In our last issue we discussed the five forms of prayer as delineated by the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC). These were Adoration, Petition, Intercession, Thanksgiving, and Praise. In this issue we will continue our discussion concentrating on expressions of prayer: Vocal, Mental and Contemplative prayer. As in the Bible, there are different expressions of prayer. “But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father in secret…” (Matthew 6:6). And, “In these days he went out to the mountains to pray; and all night he continued to pray to God.” (Luke 6:12).

What is prayer? “For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look toward Heaven, it is a cry of recognition and love, embracing both trial and joy.” (St. Therese of Lisieux). “Prayer is the raising of one’s mind and heart to God.” (St. John Damascene). What is the expression of prayer? “Now in reality there is no real prayer until the soul begins to perform ‘acts’ or affections. This cannot be too often emphasized. The purpose of consideration, reflection or meditation in its strict sense is merely to lead the soul to produce acts.” (Fr. Eugene Boylan, Difficulties of Mental Prayer.)

Vocal Prayer: Vocal prayer is prayer in words spoken aloud or mentally. We are body and spirit and we need to translate our feeling externally. God wants “external expression that associates the body with interior prayer, for it renders Him that perfect homage which is His due.” (CCC 2703). Vocal prayer is what orients the soul toward meditation.

Meditation or Mental Prayer: The word meditation comes from the Latin meditation, which means to chew. When we meditate, we chew - or dwell - on some mystery of our faith. That is to say, we use our imagination and memory to enter more deeply into the mysteries of our Faith. “The mind seeks to understand the why and how of the Christian life, in order to adhere and respond to what the Lord is asking.” (CCC 2705). Meditation is a form of cooperation with the Holy Spirit dwelling within us. Spiritual reading is a necessary preparation for meditation. Meditation requires attentiveness which is difficult to sustain. We are usually helped by reading Scripture (usually the Gospels), lives of saints, writings of these saints and Doctors of the Church, writings of the Holy Fathers, and countless other well written texts by orthodox authors. “Spiritual reading and mental prayer are as necessary for the life of our soul as the daily food is for that of the body. Without constant spiritual reading, not only can there be no progress in prayer, but not any hope of perseverance in the spiritual life.” (Fr. Boylan). Meditation can be called ‘thinking of God’ while vocal prayer is ‘talking to God.’ The Rosary is an excellent example of a combination of both Vocal and Mental Prayer as one recites vocal prayers while meditating upon the mysteries. Meditation orients the soul toward Contemplation.

Contemplation: Contemplation is simply to be in the loving presence of God. If Vocal Prayer and Meditation are active prayers –they involve our initiative -- Contemplation on the other hand is passive prayer. It is something done by God within us. As the Catechism teaches, “It is a gift, a grace; it can be accepted only in humility and poverty.” A soul in Contemplation usually ceases to actively pray in words or to meditate. Such deliberate actions would only seem to get in the way. Thus Contemplation can usually be described as a speechless and leisurely loving union with God, although divinely infused words of loving prayer or imagination may occur; but only passively! Nonetheless, there is an active side to Contemplation. It requires of us an active attentiveness, an obedience of faith, and an unconditional acceptance of our childlike state before God (see CCC 2716).

St. Teresa of Jesus (of Avila) says that Contemplation is a close sharing between friends. The Bible states Contemplative prayer seeks Him ‘‘whom my soul loves” (Songs 1:7, 3:1-4). The Catechism lists a series of states of propositions which identify and describe Contemplative prayer as:

  • 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
  • the simplest expression of the mystery of prayer
  • the pre-eminently intense time of prayer
  • a Gaze of faith, fixed on Jesus
  • hearing the word of God
  • silence or silent love
  • a union with the prayer of Christ insofar as it makes us participants in His mystery
  • a communion of love bearing life for the multitude, to the extent that it consents to abide in the night of faith
  • taking time to be alone with Him who we know loves us.

Nearly all of the writers on Contemplative prayer stressed silence as a requirement. Many achieve this through Eucharistic adoration or simply praying in front of a Tabernacle. “When we really love, silence becomes the carrier of love, for silence is the result of a communication secret. What engenders silence in us? A secret borne in the depth of our heart. When words become a secret love, we enter into silence. And the great secret of our Christian life is Jesus who gives Himself as food. This is the great secret. All God’s words are secrets for us, but the secret par excellence is Jesus who gives His body - that is His heart – as food, and who desires we receive it as the great secret of our life. It is for this reason that He gives Himself in silence. He wants to engender silence in us, the silence of adoration, the silence of contemplation. . .The Eucharist. . .is a mystery of silence, for the New Covenant is one of love, that of the Bridegroom and the bride. And the Eucharist is given as a divine sign of the bond with Christ, of this bond between our hearts and the heart of Jesus.” (Pere Marie-Dominique Philippe)

In the above, Philippe was emphasizing silence and actually, you could substitute love for silence as he considers silence the carrier of love. Most writers of Contemplative prayer stress love as the essential requirement. Pierre Cardinal Berulle states, “While in this mortal life we cannot know God as much as we wish, yet we can love Him as much as we wish, lifting ourselves up from one level to the next by His grace and His love. The conditions and the level of knowledge, which we will have of God in Heaven eternally, depend on the level of this love on earth. For we will know God to the degree that we will have loved Him, and not to the degree that we will have known Him on earth.”

Jim Fritz

Note: Parts of this article are from notes taken in a class taught by Rev. Frederick Edlefsen, St. James Parish in Falls Church, Virginia



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