Most people think Contemplative Prayer is the same as Meditative Prayer. I too was mistaken before. I joined the Secular Carmelites, as I was eager to learn meditative prayer.
As a part of the Carmelite study, I soon learned from the writings of St Theresa of Avila that contemplative prayer cannot be learned. It is a gift from God. God does all the work.
At the time of writing this, I have not experienced this state of prayer and therefore, cannot talk through my experience. Therefore, I will be quoting the teachings of St Theresa of Avila who is the founder of Discalced Carmelites and is highly regarded by the Catholic Church for her teachings about prayer.
St Theresa of Avila had mystical experiences in her life and was a contemplative. She is known as a Doctor of the Catholic Church.
She compares the stages of prayer to a Gardner who sets out to make a beautiful garden in which the Lord is to take delight. The garden soil was first unfruitful and full of weeds. Our Lord uprooted the weeds and planted good plants instead, which means, that the soul by the grace of God has now resolved to the practise of prayer.
The good Gardner want to make these plants grow by watering them carefully so that the flowers will send forth fragrance to our Lord, so that our Lord may come often to the garden and take delight among these virtues.
It is the gardener’s duty or desire now to find ways of watering the plants.
At our first stage of prayer we are like the gardener who draws water out of a well using a bucket. It is hard work and tiresome. But in order to keep the plants growing, we want to keep drawing water.
Some of us tend to give up through tiredness. But those who know that the ultimate gain will outweigh the labour will keep drawing the water no matter how hard it is.
At the second stage of prayer the Gardner uses a water wheel and buckets where the water is drawn by a windlass.
This becomes easier and gives more water. Although less laborious, yet the Gardner has to do the work.
At the third stage of prayer, the Gardner irrigates the land, where the water comes by a stream or a brook. The water saturates in to the garden more thoroughly.
Now there is less need to water the garden more often and the gardener’s labour is much less.
At the fourth stage of prayer, the garden is watered by heavy rain. Our Lord waters the garden and there is no work at all by the gardener. What a JOY!
This is the stage I believe where one reaches contemplative prayer. We don’t have to make any effort, but God does the work.
God gives this gift at his own will only to those whom he chooses.
We cannot ask for it, but we can strive for it. St Theresa of Avila guides us through the first, second and third stages of prayer. She says that we should never give up, through all the trials and tribulations of life. If we give ourselves totally to God’s will and detach ourselves from the world, that God through his mercy might give us this gift of contemplative prayer.
However, she says that we should not get disappointed or lose hope if we are not granted this favour. Because if we do the hard work and keep persevering, that action alone will please God. Like the good gardener who kept on with his work, because all what he wanted was that his Master takes delight in his garden.
St Theresa of Avila says that contemplative prayer is a state where the soul is in perfect union with God. She calls it ‘Spiritual Marriage’.
In St Theresa’s book she explains what happens to one’s senses, understanding, and memory while at this stage of prayer. She says that you can understand what you don’t understand. Your ‘will’ is in union with God and it just want to ‘BE there’.
I only could compare this stage of prayer to the Gospel story about our Lord’s Transfiguration and how Peter felt. Peter did not want to leave that place, as he suggested that they build three tents and stay there.
This is just a brief summary about contemplative prayer. We Catholics are very lucky that we can learn about the way of Catholic meditative prayer and contemplative prayer through the lives of our own Catholic Saints.
A good book that I could recommend on prayer would be the ‘Interior Castle’ or ‘The Mansions’ written by St Theresa of Avila. You could also attend Catholic retreats or talks given about the Interior Castle at Carmelite retreat centres around the world.
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