Contemplative Prayer, Imaginative Prayer and Encountering God in the Silence

An illustration of a boat in storm waters, with Jesus reaching out his hand towards someone struggling in the waves.

Contemplative Prayer: Table of Contents

What Is Contemplative Prayer?

Contemplative prayer is when we use our minds and hearts, and sometimes our imaginative ability, to recognize God’s presence and fix our gaze on Him. It seeks to achieve a union with God and is characterized by quiet, stillness, and simply resting in God’s presence.

According to Pope Francis, who considers contemplation the salt that gives flavor to our day, contemplation is less a way of “doing” and more a way of “being.”

Contemplative prayer, or imaginative prayer, has a rich history in the Church but probably goes back to Jesus himself. Some theologians consider Jesus a contemplative, pointing to the times Jesus went off by himself to pray in solitude and how He encourages the disciples (and all of us) to “go into your inner room” for prayer (Matthew 6:6).

Contemplation/Contemplative Prayer vs. Meditation

Contemplation is a foundational type of prayer in the Catholic faith, but it’s distinct from other forms of prayer, like meditation.

Meditation is the use of the understanding, the reasoning faculty to come to know God’s revelation better. Contemplation is the use of the imagination to achieve the same end. 

In meditation, we use our mind to ponder. It’s an active endeavor, usually involving a “source material” to prompt us.

Contemplation, on the other hand, represents a fulfillment of all of our efforts to deepen our personal relationship with God. It has the character of a gift: we are given the grace of gazing lovingly on the very source of our life.

Fr. Dennis Gallagher, AA suggests we view meditation and contemplation as “two ends of a continuum.”

And Thomas Merton points out that meditation can support more contemplative prayer.

“(Thomas) Merton notes that vocal prayer, meditation, and the sacraments (especially celebration of the liturgy) nourish the life of active contemplation,” Sr. Marilyn Sunderman, RSM wrote.

Contemplative Prayer Historical Roots – Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross

If Jesus demonstrated the practice of contemplative prayer, it’s likely the early Church observed some form of it.

We see clearer roots through fifth-century monk John Cassian, one of the “Desert Fathers,” who described contemplative prayer in his book, The Conference.

“Every monk who longs for the continual awareness of God should be in the habit of meditating on it ceaselessly in his heart, after having driven out every kind of thought, because he will be unable to hold fast to it in any other way than by being freed from all bodily cares and concerns,” he wrote. 

“This, then, is the devotional formula proposed to you as absolutely necessary for possessing the perpetual awareness of God: “‘O God, incline unto my aid; O Lord, make haste to help me.”

The tradition remained in the Church for a thousand years when one of the most famous contemplatives in Church history, St. Teresa of Avila (Hallow’s patron saint!), took up the practice.

She described contemplative prayer as “nothing else than a close sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him whom we know loves us.”

A contemporary and friend of St. Teresa, St. John of the Cross, a fellow Spanish mystic, also wrote about contemplative prayer, in his work “Counsels and Maxims of the Spirit.” 

“What we need most in order to make progress is to be silent before this great God with our appetites and our tongue,” he wrote,  “for the language He best hears is silent love.”

Another 16th-century saint would further popularize contemplative prayer.

St. Ignatius’s Form of Contemplation: Imaginative Prayer

St. Ignatius was transformed in his faith during a period of quiet and stillness–he was bedridden after recovering from a cannonball and began reading books about Jesus and the saints.

In addition to being the founder of the Jesuits and being a champion of the daily examen, he also popularized a unique form of contemplation called imaginative prayer.

In imaginative prayer, one imagines him or herself in a particular setting, often one from Scripture.

Igantius recognized that no one could not effectively “teach” or “do” contemplative prayer, since God does all the heavy lifting in contemplation.

“A major difference between Ignatius and these writers is that they would provide the imaginative experience for prayer, but Ignatius preferred to set the stage and leave the imaginative work to God and the retreatant,” writes Jesuit Tucker Redding, SJ.

Ignatius echoed St. Teresa of Avila’s description of contemplation as sharing between close friends, encouraging those doing imaginative prayer to spend some time in conversation with Jesus “as one friend speaks to another.”

While we may open ourselves up to contemplation, and this conversation with God, the true encounter all stems from grace.

“Contemplation, like all prayer, is pure gift, and not anything we can achieve,” writes Margaret Silf, an expert on Ignatian spirituality. “It happens when prayer becomes, wholly and utterly, the flow of God’s grace, transforming the land it flows through, like Ezekiel’s stream.”

Thomas Merton and Seeds of Contemplation

In the 20th century, Merton, an American Trappist monk, inspired a new generation of Catholics to encounter God through contemplative prayer.

One difficulty he found, however, is in “teaching” someone contemplation. He, like Ignatius, recognized that contemplation was not something that could clearly be taught or actively “done.”

“No one teaches contemplation except God, Who gives it,” Merton wrote in New Seeds of Contemplation. “The best you can do is write something or say something that will serve as an occasion for someone else to realize what God wants of him.”

This is what Merton sought to do.

Merton wrote prolifically, often on the topic of contemplative prayer. He believed contemplative prayer had the power to change the world.

“If the salvation of society depends, in the long run, on the moral and spiritual health of individuals, the subject of contemplation becomes a vastly important one, since contemplation is one of the indications of spiritual maturity,” Merton wrote in A Book of Hours. “It is closely allied to sanctity. You cannot save the world merely with a system. You cannot have peace without charity. You cannot have social order with saints, mystics and prophets.”

Fr. Thomas Gallagher and Imaginative Prayer

While contemplation cannot be taught, we can strive to follow the example of Thomas Merton and offer something that might spark an encounter with God for someone else.

Fr. Timothy Gallagher, a priest from the Congregation of the Oblates of the Virgin Mary, has spent decades bringing people to God through imaginative prayer.

Imaginative prayer, or in the Ignatian tradition, imaginative contemplation, describes how we can open ourselves to the Gospel and enter into it imaginatively, allowing our whole heart to be present for God to mingle with.

It’s as if a scene from Scripture is playing at a movie theater. We might sit and meditate over what we see. Imagine prayer is as if we walked into the theater and were immediately in the movie. In the scene. Experiencing it with hearts receptive to the Lord.

In a new course on Hallow, Fr. Gallagher will guide users through these opportunities to be open to God’s grace.

Try imaginative prayer and join Fr. Gallagher’s course today.

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