By Christina Mayeux
Know this: Because of God’s great love for us, he desires an intimate relationship and communication with us.
God calls us to conversation and a loving exchange, and we are invited to respond accordingly. This exchange is known to us as prayer.
“Whether we realize it or not, prayer is the encounter of God’s thirst with ours. God thirsts that we may thirst for him.”
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 2560)
Many forms of prayer
There are many types of prayer and all are acceptable to God. Meditation is a form of prayer which is encouraged and beneficial to growth in the spiritual life. It is a stage in the progression of prayer that begins with vocal prayer, progresses to meditation, and ascends to contemplative prayer, which is remaining in silence in the presence of God. St. Ignatius of Loyola describes meditation as, “calling to mind some dogmatic or moral truth, and reflecting on or discussing this truth according to each one’s capacity, so as to move the will and produce in us amendment.” According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), “meditation is above all a quest. 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). The practice of meditation is described by the Catechism as utilizing, “thought, imagination, emotion, and desire. This mobilization of faculties is necessary in order to deepen our convictions of faith, prompt the conversion of our heart, and strengthen our will to follow Christ” (CCC, 2708)
I recall attempting to pray the Rosary as a child, and even as a teenager continued to carry the beads with me, reciting the Our Fathers and Hail Marys, usually in petition or when I felt in need of God’s help. Although praying the Rosary is an exemplary form of meditative prayer, and I continue to pray it daily, my faith then was childlike and lacked the depth that comes with experience and trials of life. Rather than merely reciting the memorized words of the cherished prayers upon the beads, my Rosary has become more of a meditative prayer, reflecting upon the mysteries in the lives of Jesus and Mary. Today, in adulthood, in addition to reciting the Rosary, I recognize the importance of also carving out a portion of each day to be spent reading and reflecting on the truths of the Faith and the Word of God. I have come to understand that, like in any other relationship, it is necessary to cultivate friendship and communication with God through meditative prayer – listening to his words and the wisdom of the saints and reflecting on them.
The saints offer us wisdom
Meditation comes in many forms and can be nourished by Scripture, the writings of the saints or the Church fathers, holy images, or other types of spiritual writings. There are many methods of meditation and many books are available detailing its practice. The writings of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, both Carmelite doctors of the Church, are preeminent sources of instruction on setting out on the way of meditation and contemplation. As the saints will tell us, what is important is to remember that the aim or objective of meditation is knowledge of the love of Christ and union with him.
Aside from the Carmelite doctors, many other of the saints stress the importance of meditation for growing in the spiritual life. St. Padre Pio likens meditation to checking our reflection in a mirror: “Whoever does not meditate is like someone who never looks in the mirror before going out, doesn’t bother to see if he’s tidy, and may go out dirty without knowing it.” Through it, we become more in tune with the ways of God and more self-aware. We are enlightened about ourselves – our imperfections and faults and how to correct them, and we often receive insight into God’s will for our lives. In short, we come to know God more and to be transformed into his likeness.
In her Story of a Soul, St. Therese of Lisieux expressed her love of Scripture and how the gospels nourished her soul and provided inspiration for her periods of meditation and contemplative prayer. Drawing upon her wisdom and experience, I have found that spending time in prayer with Scripture, especially the gospels, which contain the words and actions of Jesus himself, has been the most beneficial form of meditative prayer for me, as it is for many others. Often a word, phrase, or passage jumps out and seems to resonate during prayer. I often pause with that particular thought, reflecting upon it to contemplate its deeper meaning and allowing the Lord to speak to my heart.
Although Scripture usually considered the most effective material for meditation, other works and images can be used to supplement prayer as well. There are numerous books and writings which are excellent for inspiring meditative prayer. Some of these, according to the Catechism, include: “the Sacred Scriptures, particularly the Gospels, holy icons, liturgical texts of the day or season, writings of the spiritual fathers, works of spirituality, the great book of creation, and that of history.”
One of my own personal favorite sources for spiritual reading and reflection is the Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis, which was also loved by St. Therese, St. Thomas More, and St. Ignatius. The Imitation is a masterful collection of wisdom and instruction on the way of holiness and the spiritual life.
Along with reading the material and reflecting upon it, St. Frances Xavier found it helpful to write down the thoughts and inspirations which come to a person during meditative prayer. He says, “When you meditate on all these things, I earnestly advise you to write down, as a help to your memory, those heavenly lights which our merciful God so often gives to the soul which draws near to him, and with which he will also enlighten yours when you strive to know his will in meditation, for they are more deeply impressed on the mind by the very act and occupation of writing them down.” Through this action, the saint says, we can refer back to our notations and will be reminded of the insights we have gained through our prayer.
Although we are relentlessly bombarded with distractions from the world, it is vital to take time to incorporate prayer into our daily lives. Meditation is an excellent method of seeking communion with God. On the importance of this practice, the Imitation of Christ proclaims, “In silence and stillness the devout soul advances and learns the hidden truths of Scripture. There it finds the salutary tears that wash away the guilt of sin, so that it grows more intimate with God as it severs itself from the clamor of the world.” (Imitation, Book 1, Ch. 20) Meditation and prayer are necessary to maintaining peace and joy in our daily lives. Through these practices, we come to know God more intimately and love him more completely.