Prayer in the Christian Tradition
by Philip St. Romain; all rights reserved
See Also: Christian Prayer Methods online course.
“Prayer is lifting the mind and heart to God.” This ancient definition (generally attributed to St. Augustine) allows for a wide range of prayer forms. Any time one consciously turns the mind and heart to God, there is prayer. But prayer is also happening in those whose minds and hearts are habitually—even unconsciously—directed toward God. In other words, one need not be “saying prayers” to be praying. Prayer can be a way of life, but this seems to be the case only for those who have some type of formal, conscious prayer in their lives. Life can indeed be a prayer, but only for those who pray.
Christian prayer is relational. This in itself sets it apart from meditation practices where the object seems to be the attainment of higher states of consciousness. We address ourselves to God as creatures who are not-God. No need to bemoan this “dualism,” however, for it is the condition which makes for relationship and, hence, love, possible. Furthermore, this dualism is never really lost. As the mystic Teilhard de Chardin put it, “unity differentiates.” The closer one draws to God, the more fully one becomes the unique and beautiful God-imager that each of us was created to be. That’s what life is supposed to be about!
To whom does the Christian pray?
To God, of course, who is Trinity. And it doesn’t really matter if one prefers praying to the Father/Creator, the Son, or the Holy Spirit. There seems to be no jealousy among Them for our prayers. Traditionally, the person of Christ figures most significantly in Christian prayer; as an ancient formula puts it, we pray “through him, and with him, and in him.” In other words, the Christ who shares our humanity prays with us, moving our prayer through him and in him. The Christ who shares in divinity enables us to also experience the blessing of divine life which flows through him and in him. He is the vine of divine life, and we branches are privileged to receive and communicate the sap of the Holy Spirit which flows ever fully through him.
Two Broad Categories of Prayer
A wide variety of prayer forms can be found in the Christian tradition. Two very broad and general categories are frequently recognized to distinguish between all these forms, as described below:
A. Active Prayer.
This is sometimes called discursive prayer, and refers to prayer which we initiate through the use of our mental and volitional faculties (thinking, reasoning, imaging, acts of will, visualization, remembering, etc.). We DO something to address ourselves to God. Examples are sacred reading, reflection, petitions, intercessory prayer, liturgical prayer, the rosary, praise, adoration, repeating a mantra or sacred word. The term, kataphatic prayer is also used for active prayer.
B. Passive (Contemplative) Prayer.
This is often called infused contemplation. Here the soul is embraced by God without it exercising the faculties. God communicates “Spirit to spirit,” as it were, through the unconscious dimension of the soul. The term, apophatic prayer, is sometimes used to describe this prayer. Generally, contemplative prayer begins as a natural development from the life of active prayer, which helps to prepare the faculties of the soul to receive the gift of contemplation.
Contemplation is a grace that God can give to any one at any time. Common opinion once held that it was reserved to only a few very saintly souls who had spent decades in a religious cloister of some kind. Happily, that stereotype has come to pass (for the most part). It seems that contemplation is a grace that God WANTS to give to all, and that it is a normal development in the deepening of faith.
Because contemplation is a grace, there is nothing we can do to “obtain it.” We can, however, prepare the soils of the heart to receive it by living a life of moral virtue and especially by striving to be charitable in our relationships with others. Cultivating silence by removing unnecessary disturbances from the mind is also helpful. Finally, there are “contemplative practices” (centering prayer, Hesychast prayer, Christian meditation, praying with Scripture) which explicitly invite the grace of contemplative prayer. These practices have been described in previous newsletters, but will be presented again in the next four as parts of this series.
Praying with Scripture has been the most traditional springboard to contemplative prayer. Sometimes called Lectio Divina (Sacred Reading), a variety of methods are used, one of which follows:
Christian Meditation (John Main Tradition)
This contemplative discipline is of fairly recent origin, although mantra-like prayer forms such as the Jesus Prayer are not unknown to Christianity.
(From Prayer of Heart and Body, by Thomas Ryan, CSP) Centering Prayer
This term, centering prayer, is of recent origin, but the method is described in many places, most notably The Cloud of Unknowing.
(Works best after taking time to read and reﬂect on Scripture; two 20 minute periods a day are recommended.)
(From Open Mind, Open Heart, by Thomas Keating)
Hesychast Prayer (“quiet” prayer)
(This form of contemplative practice was widely used by the fathers and mothers of the desert in the early days of Christianity. At least two 20 minute prayer periods are recommended.)
Practice of this prayer may lead to feelings of warmth in the heart and perception of inner light. Enjoy. . .
More information about this prayer can be found in Mystical Theology, by William Johnston
Stages of Prayer
Contemplative practices such as those described above may or may not lead to infused contemplative graces. Nevertheless, there are other good fruits that can come from them, especially when practiced as part of an overall lifestyle of faith and moral living.
Contemplative graces are themselves seeds of sorts, which tend to sprout and grow through time, producing an ever-deepening union with God. A traditional way of understanding the growth of contemplative prayer is described below:
A. Prayer of quiet.
God is united with the deeper levels of the will, but the faculties of thinking, imagination and sensation remain untouched by the contemplation and often roam about freely. Nevertheless, one is aware of being embraced by God, even though it might be hard to describe how one knows this. Often, this is one’s ﬁrst taste of contemplative prayer.
B. Prayer of union.
Contemplative energies touch both conscious and unconscious levels, silencing the conscious faculties. One is simply content to rest quietly in the loving presence of God, obscure though it might be. This rest may last from a few seconds to minutes, but its effect is refreshment and peace. There is no loss of conscious awareness in this prayer.
C. Prayer of ecstatic union.
The energies awakened by contemplation overwhelm the conscious faculties to the extent that one becomes unconscious for a period of time. This is not sleep in the usual sense, for the attentiveness of prayerful posture is generally maintained during prayer. Ecstatic experiences may last for seconds to minutes. Upon returning to consciousness, one has a sense of having missed a period of time, but not knowing how long. Not everyone experiences this; it might simply be a phase through which one passes. The fruit is generally deep serenity and inner healing.
D. Transforming union.
There is no longer any obstacle in the soul to receiving contemplative graces. All the faculties are trained to cooperate with the Holy Spirit, and in turn they are infused with the loving energies of the Spirit to function according to the will of God all through the day. Such people can seem quite ordinary, although the serenity experienced in this state is truly extraordinary. This is the fully liberated person, who already enjoys something of the joy of heaven even while on earth. life is now prayer, and prayer is life. Sin is still a possibility, but it is generally avoided.