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.