Growing into Contemplative Prayer

Br. James at Prayer

There’s a hunger in many peoples hearts these days for intimacy, for love. One unfortunate reason for this hunger is the lack of authentic love shown to one another in the world resulting in so many people today who long for that love they never received. Another reason, and one that is thoroughly positive, is the reality that this longing for love and intimacy is part of how God created us to be.

As He was creating each one us it was done with so much love and tenderness (a love and tenderness that was exclusively for us alone) that it actually became written into our very nature and being. St. Catherine of Siena, in her Dialogue, records God the Father saying: “The soul cannot live without love. She always wants to love something because love is the stuff that she is made of, and through love I created her.” (1) If love is part of who we are then we will naturally seek it out.

This longing for intimate love, expressed in various ways throughout our lives, reaches its pinnacle and fulfillment when we seek to love and be loved by God. As we grow in this love relationship it slowly develops into what the saints call “contemplative prayer.” This is a special prayer that is, literally, an infusion of God’s presence and love into the heart, which cleanses, expands and unites the soul to God in a profound way.

This gift of receiving God’s love in contemplative prayer is not necessarily something we can make happen. It has to be received. However, we can prepare our hearts to receive this intimate encounter with God. I’d like to share 6 ways we can lean our hearts in this direction and then wait upon the Lord to “fulfill the good work He has begun in us.” Phil. 1:6 (2)

Leisure and Recollection

It might be surprising to think that leisure, which Americans often associate with laziness, could be a pathway to contemplation. Understanding the term correctly might help bridge the gap.

Fr. Dubay writes that Leisure and recollection are the basis of contemplation. He says that, “Leisure is: an open receptivity to drink reality and be transformed by it.” (3) And that Biblically, “Leisure is a being quiet before the Lord and waiting for Him . . . being enriched by absorbing God’s creation, beauties, marvels, truth, word

[and] resting in God” (4) He also adds that “contemplation is the supreme example of leisure” (5).

Seen in this light leisure is not a passive loafing around, but an active opening of the heart to experience God in every person, place, situation, and thing. This active process is often accompanied by recollection: the experience of being attentive to God.


An atmosphere of prayer is essential to growth in prayer. Humility is as well. Often, however, this foundational virtue is frequently misunderstood. St. Thomas Aquinas got to the heart of it when he wrote that, “humility is truth.” (6) If humility is truth then the next step in humility is to live in that truth, and to do this in regards to God by embracing the reality that all good—whether in us, done by us, or around us—is truly the work of God, not of man.

To come to terms with our own finitude, our own limitations and imperfection, and our inability to produce anything of lasting spiritual value on our own, and to then embrace our need for God is a huge step in the journey. It’s in those moments that many of the great saints make sense, who often were convinced of their own inner poverty and inability to produce lasting spiritual good, and who sincerely referred all the praise to God.


Defining what detachment is requires a lot of precision, skill, and understanding of authentic spirituality; it would require a lot of quotations to give a thorough treatment of the matter. However, simplicity is often best in expressing difficult things. To put it all very concisely, detachment is a turning from self [sought in created things and selfish desires] and a turning to our Beloved. “We are to find delight in everything but to cling to it in nothing.” (7)

The more we are free from selfish desires and clingings (those things that we believe we need or must have to be fulfilled and happy in life other than God Himself), the more expansive our love, compassion, understanding, generosity, and prayer life will be. A vessel is first emptied and cleansed before it is filled to provide drink for others.


When it comes to solitude there are two forms: exterior and interior. The exterior solitude would refer to those times and places of silence or retreat from the noises of the world. These are necessary. However, the more essential silence is that which is interior since it is a matter relating to the heart and soul, the deepest part of man.

Interior silence is, by far, the harder of the two to live because it involves a deep, inner stillness. Pray over this quote by Fr. Thomas Merton from his original manuscript, Seeds of Contemplation:

“There is no true solitude except interior solitude. And interior solitude is not possible for anyone who does not accept his true place in relation to other men. There is no true [or lasting] peace possible for the man who still imagines that some accident [or quality] of talent or grace or virtue segregates him from other men and places him above them [or below them]. God does not give us graces or talents or virtues for ourselves alone. We are members one of another and everything that is given to one member is given for the whole body. I do not wash my feet to make them more beautiful than my face.” (8)


To be loving always requires generosity: a going out from ourselves and giving to another. When it comes to our relationship with God the same holds true. To show Him love requires much generosity. The deeper the generosity runs—especially in the day to day events of life—the more intense the love relationship with Him will be. This giving of ourselves is not meant to be exclusively in prayer, but is meant to manifest itself in every area of our life. Fr. Dubay gives us a very important tip in this regard:

“While the saint [Teresa of Avila] emphasizes the need for prayerful solitude and ‘frequent inward recourse to our God’, she also lays it down that ‘it is not length of time spent in prayer that brings the soul benefit: when we spend our time in good works, it is a great help to us and a better and quicker preparation for the enkindling of our love than many hours of meditation.’ ” (9)


When a person makes themselves vulnerable to another there’s often a wonderful result: the other reciprocates that gift of vulnerability back with tenderness and vulnerability. In much the same way, when we make ourselves vulnerable with God, who is love and mercy Itself, we very well may receive a deep experience of acceptance and love from Him. The greater our vulnerability is with Him, the wider the doors of our hearts are open to allow Him, if He wills, to grant the felt experience of His love and mercy for us personally. The more we experience this embrace of love and mercy, the more we begin to trust that He will not hurt us or wound us, and we reveal more of ourselves to Him.

It’s in these moments of trust and vulnerability that God is given the opportunity to come into our hearts and mend, heal, bind, and fill them with His love. Sometimes we’ll experience this strongly, other times, possibly the majority of the time, it’ll be a hidden work that God is doing in the soul which we may not recognize or perceive except with the light of faith and trust.

Moving Towards Contemplative Prayer

As we put these six dispositions into action in our lives, adapting them wisely to the circumstances of our state in life, we may begin to notice a new depth to our prayer: an experience of His presence and His personal love for us, which then causes us to desire His loving presence all the more. This experience is one of contemplative prayer; and as we surrender more and more of ourselves to His love during these experiences we have in prayer, as well as manifested in the circumstances of the day, and also in the requirements of our state in life, the deeper His presence and love will penetrate our hearts becoming more tangible.

It’s through this intimate, contemplative prayer that our Father will meet our deepest desires for love, acceptance, and nurturing that no one else has; and, in the process, make us into the persons and servants He has destined us to be.

By Br. James of the Holy Spirit

(1) Catherine of Siena, The Dialogue, trans. Suzanne Noffke, OP, The Classics of Western Spirituality (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1980), chap. 51, p.103
(2) All quotations from the NAB Bible
(3) Fr. Thomas Dubay, S.M., Religious Commitment, produced by Dominican Nuns (Newark, N.J.; 1977) chap.26, p. 91-92
(4) ibid, Fr. Thomas Dubay, S.M., Religious Commitment, chap.26 p.91
(5) ibid, Fr. Thomas Dubay, S.M., Religious Commitment, chap.26 p.91
(6) Fr. Jordan Aumann, O.P., Spiritual Theology, (Continuum, 2006), chap. 2, p. 301-302
(7) Fr. Thomas Dubay, S.M., Fire Within (Ignatius Press, San Francisco; 1989) chap. 8, p. 132
(8) Thomas Merton, Seeds of Contemplation (Dell Publishing Co., New York; 1949) chap.4, p.36
(9) ibid, Fr. Thomas Dubay, S.M., Fire Within, chap. 7, p. 128

By | 2018-01-17T17:41:17+00:00 June 4th, 2016|Categories: Contemplation, Newsletter Articles|0 Comments