The Practice of Contemplative Prayer

Contemplative prayer is a persistence in faith uniting us to God — not only with God the Creator, Who is upholding nature in existence, and so in some way is present in every thing, but with God, Who makes Himself available in a supernatural way. God transfigures the believer from within, enabling the believer to enter into friendship with Him and become receptive to His life and loving power. Contemplative prayer differs from meditative prayer in that the internal mental discourse is reduced to the minimum. It may appear at the beginning, but the purpose of prayer is not thinking through some issue.

Prayer has the encounter with God as its end, and this takes place through faith. Even concepts about God — theological formulae of a dogmatic or moral nature that correctly grasp the truth — are put aside for a moment in this prayer, though they are not denied. This is because contemplative prayer drives deeper, beyond these concepts, to the living God Himself. Theological notions, according to St. John of the Cross, are like a silver veneer, but beneath them there is gold.

Faith as a product of grace rooted in the intellect and the will reaches out deeper, beyond the conceptual knowledge of God to the living God, with Whom it unites the soul. In contemplative prayer faith is exercised. The praying person initially grasps some simple truth of faith known from the Gospel or the Catechism, or just looks with faith at the tabernacle or an icon. There is no attempt to invent, to recall, or to plan something; there is only a simple expression of faith that God is present here, and that through faith contact is established with Him. The presence of Christ in the tabernacle cannot be understood, but, in the humility of the mind, it is possible to express an interior faith that He is here. And this perseverance in faith ensures an immediate encounter with Jesus, Who grants grace that sometimes prompts us toward love.

This article is from The Spark of Faith.

In the actual exercise of faith, there has to be belief in the supernatural character of faith. Faith is a gift of grace, meaning that it is supernatural. It does not, therefore, belong to the order of nature. It is an extra gift of God — a created but supernatural gift that is of the same nature as God, and yet at the same time is rooted in the human faculties of the mind and the will. Faith is a tool that unites with God, and we need to believe in this potency.

It may seem strange, but in contemplative prayer, as faith is exercised, it is as if it is raised to a higher power. But this is so. One believes in God, and also one believes that faith is supernatural, that it has the capacity of ensuring an encounter with Him. That is why acts of faith directed toward God are repeated and then elicit supernatural love.

It is possible to persevere in such union with God. The practice of contemplative prayer, if it is regular and daily, habituates one with an encounter with God. If it happens that during this prayer the mind and imagination wander, drawing one away from the exercise of faith, it is always possible to help oneself by reading a selected text, by reciting a vocal prayer, or just by directing one’s gaze toward the tabernacle or an icon. But once pure faith appears, a touching of God through faith and trust that He is here, it is possible to persevere, even for a moment, in this contact with God.

Such faith, to which one can return after moments of distraction, is extremely fruitful. Since it is an exercise of faith, it expands in the soul the capacity for receiving grace. In mental prayer, the content on which one is meditating dominates, and it can even be discussed after one prays. In contemplative prayer there is no such intellectual content that could be later shared with others. There is only the encounter with God. But for the spiritual life, it has a greater fruitfulness than the mental pondering of a theme, even of a divine theological truth. In contemplative prayer it is the making of acts of faith that is the fundamental moment, because they ignite grace, setting it in motion. This faith, as the first of the theological virtues, draws with it hope, which accepts the plans that God has for us, and it elicits charity, the friendly relationship with God.

Practice is necessary for contemplative prayer, but it is not difficult. It is not the highest cognitive moment of the philosophical mind. It does not require any particular intellectual capacities. It consists in making acts of faith, and that is why even children are capable of contemplative prayer.

After all, for children, belief in God is easier than for adults because children are accustomed to accept many things in trustful faith. They cannot persist in concentration for a long time, but the short moments when they believe God and commend themselves to Him are true moments of contemplative prayer. In religious education children should not be required to understand everything, nor should themes that they do not understand be deleted from catechetical programs.

Most of the truths that children learn about in catechesis transcend understanding. Adults also do not understand the Triune God, the Incarnation, the Redemption, and the Resurrection of Jesus, or the sacraments. Such truths can be received in faith, and, as faith is exercised, the focus upon God may be maintained and in this the soul is opened to an effusion of grace. When children trust in God and accept revealed truths that are beyond the cognitive capacities of the mind, and when they persevere in them, they are already engaged in contemplative prayer of the highest order. It is essential, therefore, that both children and adults be trained in such prayer.

The arranging of a daily schedule of life in such a way that half an hour is set aside for staying in faith with God requires some planning, but it is possible. It is irrelevant whether this time given to God be in the morning or the evening, in one’s own home or in a church when there are no services there. The rhythm of daily prayer has to be adapted to one’s occupation and psyche. Some people pray better in the morning, others in the evening. It is essential, however, that this special and extended time for meeting God in faith and love be maintained on a daily basis.

The practice of such prayer conducted regularly changes life deeply, because it permits the transfiguration of the human interior by divine grace. In moments of silent prayer, one expresses a childlike persistence in the face of God, awaiting His gift of grace free from paralyzing thoughts about oneself, one’s sins, and one’s blunders in life. What is central is God, Who is merciful and loving and Who grants His grace. A lively faith, maintained in the moment of prayer opens one to that gift. The attitude toward God is childlike, but the arranging of the day in such a way that there is time for prayer requires a certain maturity. And so faith in contemplative prayer is childlike, but it is the prayer of an adult who treats the relationship with God in a serious and responsible way.

Concern about union with God through prayer that expresses faith and love for Him is much more important than the combating of moral weaknesses. That is why the encounter with God should not be transferred to some distant, impossible time, after sin is presumably overcome. First of all, the lively encounter with God has to be established and, as a result, through the power of received grace, sins will start disappearing on their own. The proximity with God is also more important than theological erudition, although this is, indeed, helpful when it nourishes faith.

The repetition of acts of faith in contemplative prayer does sometimes turn out to be difficult because various distractions flash across the psyche. What is decisive, however, is the repeated returning to God. If the psyche were to function well, like a good radio tuned once to the proper station and receiving without intermittence, there would be only one act of faith, expressed at the beginning. But often during the time that was planned for prayer, the mind is carried away in distractions or by the imagination.

Each time the praying person becomes aware of the drifting away from faith, it is possible to turn to God again. Thus, during distracted prayer the love for God is repeated often. Such mangled prayer, in which there are multiple returns, is very fruitful, because the living faith is expressed several times, and it is faith that opens to grace.

Furthermore, such returns to God habituate one to referring to Him in faith and in giving of oneself to Him, and this is important in daily life. There are many situations in which some good work is undertaken, sometimes something really minute, but in that moment demanding. The only reason it is done is the desire to give some pleasure to God, so that through this human generosity He will experience the joy of giving Himself.

Editor’s notes: This article is from Fr. Giertych’s The Spark of Faith: Understanding the Power of Reaching Out to Godwhich is available from Sophia Institute Press.


Fr. Wojciech Giertych, O.P. (born 27 September 1951) is a Polish Roman Catholic priest in the Dominican Order. He has served in the Prefecture of the Pontifical Household as Theologian of the Pontifical Household during the pontificates of Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis.

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