Sometimes we sit and talk – meditative prayer

In the next two posts, I want to tease out the two types of prayer that are mostly about listening – meditative and contemplative prayer.

To me, the difference is that meditation is thinking about God, and contemplation is spending time with God. Of course, they blend at the edges, one can readily become the other, and mystics rise above both to transcendent prayer.

With meditative prayer, you pick a devotional passage, picture, or piece of music (usually from the Bible, or a commentary on the Bible). And you think yourself into it. That’s meditative prayer.

If it’s a story, I was taught to imagine myself into the scene as one of the bit players, and think about what I see, feel, smell, and hear. If it’s another sort of text, a technique I find useful is to read it once and see what catches at the mind, then think about that from every angle I can. When I’ve run out of ideas, I go back to the text and start again.

The idea is to think deeply about the story or the text, and listen to what it is telling me, and what God is saying to me through that.

Three of my favourite Church devotionals are meditative prayers: the Stations of the Cross, the Rosary, and the Liturgy of the Hours.

The Stations of the Cross are a series of picture meditations on Jesus’s last hours, from being sentenced to death to being laid in the tomb.

The Rosary is likewise story based – it has four groups of five stories (called ‘mysteries’ – the medieval word for stories) from the life of Jesus to think about. The Joyful mysteries are about Jesus’s birth and childhood; the Luminous mysteries (an optional new addition to the set) are about His three years of preaching; the Sorrowful mysteries are about His passion; and the Glorious mysteries are about His resurrection and the glory to come. See here for a post on the history of the rosary, and how to pray it.

Devout Catholics will often pray one group of stories a day – saying a series of repetitive prayers to occupy the butterfly part of the mind – and keeping track of these on a set of prayer beads – so that we can focus our attention on the stories.

The Liturgy of the Hours is slightly different. It is a cycle of prayers, psalms, and readings composed by Benedict of Nursia for contemplative religious, and for 1500 years priests, religious, and many lay people have made it part of their daily lives. I’ll do a whole post on this some time, because it is a wonderful way to stuff your mind full of things to meditate on.

About joyfulpapist

JoyfulPapist is an adult convert to Catholicism, with a passion for her God, her faith, and her church.
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5 Responses to Sometimes we sit and talk – meditative prayer

  1. Gertrude says:

    I would probably take issue that you can ‘think’ yourself into meditative prayer. If you are talking about Lectio Divina, this practice requires a little more than just thinking yourself into a place of meditation! The time of day (ideally when you are most alert ie. first thing), the place you choose, and I would say a freedom – a freedom and permission to be yourself, and to be gentle and understanding as to who you are. This same sense of freedom applies to the reading and the praying of the text you choose. Sometimes, Lectio is not for the faint hearted!
    By the Liturgy of the Hours I assume you mean the Canonical Hours of the Church – The Divine Office. Again, this is not always practical outside the Religious life, and The Little Office of the Virgin Mary could be more practical for the devout wishing to join in the Prayer of the Church. An interesting post, and for anyone contemplating meditation, I recommend St. John of the Cross (among others), but it is always useful to remember the Chinese proverb – ‘Even a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step’.

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  2. joyfulpapist says:

    Yes, Gertrude, you’re absolutely right. I’m still just beginning to get the hang of it after nearly 40 years of practice!

    Re the Divine Office, I used to have Universalis on my Palm Pilot, and would pray the morning and evening offices on the train while travelling to and from work. The Palm Pilot died long ago, but I know have a cell phone with Internet capacity, so I’m about to bookmark Universalis and start again!

    I’m not familiar with the Little Office -my conversion post dates Vatican II, so fell into the desert time when the new brooms were sweeping so many of the treasures of the Church into dark corners. I’ll go and find out more.

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  3. Gertrude says:

    There is one other point that I think should be relevant to anyone considering serious meditative prayer. Father Constant Tonnelier, who has made a study particularly of Carmelite mystics, offers the following advice:

    “…experienced travellers will reveal a common opinion;it is very difficult to travel alone. Some might observe that it is even foolish.”

    He goes on to say:

    “I am of the personal opinion that a travelling companion is welcome under all circumstances. The spiritual journey, which can be the most challenging is experienced best with a guide. This observation is not a preference or an opinion, but an established spiritual necessity.”

    This illustrates the wisdom of having the guidance of a Spiritual Director, and is something I too would endorse. Of course it is possible without, but,there are some places in our journey if, left to ourselves, we may not visit, or paths down which it might be unwise to travel.
    If someone wishes to listen to a piece of music (a bit new-agey in a meditative context do you not think?)and think of something – that’s fine, and no harm done. But spiritual meditation, if done as a traveller hoping to reach that destination with Our Blessed Lord, might require some help with the time-table!!

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  4. joyfulpapist says:

    Excellent advice, Gertrude. Just to clarify, when I mention music above, it is in the context of a sung devotional text – perhaps a sung Psalm or Antiphon. I see that I didn’t make that clear above. The text becomes the matter for the meditation, and the music the ‘carrier’ that helps with focus.

    I did not at all have in mind the pseudo-Eastern new-agey inward-looking meditation techniques that seemed for a while to swamp our local religious order-led retreats. I’ve tried those, and I’m convinced that if you look inwards under that kind of approach the best you can hope for is to meet yourself looking back – and any spiritual encounter is going to be with the Enemy, not with our Lord.

    Meditation as Catholics practice it is about directing your mind outwards, into the words and thoughts of God or those who have loved God. It isn’t at all a touchy-feely feel-good thing. It is a discipline and a training. A coach is essential. If you can’t find a physical Spiritual Director you trust, you should at least start by putting yourself in the hands of your Guardian Angel and your Patron Saint.

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  5. Mimi says:

    I wish I’d known all this stuff before!

    About 15 years ago, naively throwing myself in at the deep end without any advice or preparation, I tackled St John of the Cross and Thomas Merton’s “Seeds of Contemplation”. The experience seriously messed my head up, and I ended up with a bad case of scrupulosity — we’re talking OCD here! Confession 4 or 5 times a week, whirlpools of black despair, all that sort of thing. I wasn’t right for about three years — and believe me, it seemed a lot longer than that! 😉

    Now I wouldn’t touch contemplation if you paid me! I’m sticking with ordinary vocal prayer — it works for me! 🙂

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