Call it the drama of prayer.
From the Transfiguration of Christ to the ecstasies of saints like Francis of Assisi, Catherine of Siena, and Teresa of Avila something incredible happens to us when we go deep into prayer. However one labels it—contemplation, meditation, deep prayer—there’s a certain unmistakable experience of the supernatural that strikes those who pray to the depths.
The first Psalm offers its own vision of meditative prayer.
A person who meditates, according to Psalm 1, is like an evergreen tree near streams of water. And it is the law of God on which this person meditates.
At first this seems all very mundane—quite the opposite of the ecstasies just mentioned. Legal textbooks seem about as likely to fire the contemplative mind as the phone book. To be sure, Leviticus has its moments, but it doesn’t exactly make the list of Scriptures to which we turn for contemplation.
Here, a much needed clarification is in order: for much of the Old Testament, ‘law’ was simply shorthand for the five books of the Pentateuch. That means that by ‘law’ the author is referring to is not just one of the many hundreds of legal codes on eating, dressing, and hygiene, but also all the stories contained within those first five books, from Eden to the exodus and beyond. As more books were added the shorthand of the ‘law’ was stretched to include them as well.
The Hebrew word for meditate, hagah, could also be translated as speak, mutter, talk, and murmur, in either ‘pleasure or anger’ as one lexicon notes. These alternative meanings suggest that there was a verbal component to the meditation described in Psalm 1. This makes sense: we often speak out loud in our prayers and do the same in meditative prayer, which is really just prayer on spiritual steroids.
But what is spoken? No words, no ‘prayer’ of the blessed man is given in this psalm, unlike others. Instead, the only words that the psalm indicates are at his immediate disposal are the words of God Himself—the ‘law.’ This suggests that the best prayers speak God’s own words to Him, rather than our own. Prayer thus is not so much something we say to God as a dialogue into which we enter.
This is contrary to the common view of prayer. Often prayer is thought of as a sort of message in a bottle sent to God, or as some kind of mystic lifeline to heaven. From this perspective, prayer is something we initiate.
That’s all true—but it’s not the whole story of what happens in prayer.
Prayer is something we initiate, but it is God who first moves us to even pray to Him. It is God who spoke to us first. And He has given us all the words we need in order to speak to him about our wants, our longings, and our struggles. Indeed, it’s hard to think of a desire, an emotion, or a want that cannot be found somewhere in the psalms—both the inspired word of God and the original prayer book of the Church.
Just think of the Our Father, which covers all the main bases of prayer—from praise and confession to supplication for everything from the mundane bread of our daily needs to our noble longings for heaven. And the Our Father, of course, consists of words given to us by the divine Word Incarnate Himself.
This ought to change our perception of what prayer is. (For our purposes here, meditative or contemplative prayer is considered to be just a specific or higher form of prayer in general.) Prayer is not just something we say to God in heaven or, more accurately, to the all-powerful omnipresent God—as awesome as that alone would be. No, prayer is something we do with God.
Perhaps this explains some of the odder translations of the Hebrew word for meditation (hagah) later in the Old Testament.
The word appears in quite a different context in Isaiah 31:4,
For thus saith the Lord to me: Like as the lion roareth [hagah], and the lion’s whelp upon his prey, and when a multitude of shepherds shall come against him, he will not fear at their voice, nor be afraid of their multitude: so shall the Lord of hosts come down to fight upon mount Sion, and upon the hill thereof (Douay-Rheims).
In Isaiah 38:14 King Hezekiah says that he ‘mourned’ like a dove, again using the word hagah. Yet another similar use of the word comes in Isaiah 59:11, “We shall roar all of us like bears, and shall lament [hagah] as mournful doves. We have looked for judgment, and there is none: for salvation, and it is far from us.”
Of course, hagah is properly translated as meditate in Psalm 1. But the above texts display the intriguing range of meanings the word has.
But how relevant are they to our discussion of prayer? More than might at first seem.
In the last two texts, Isaiah 38 and 59, hagah is used to describe the mournful supplications of one individual and then the nation to God—in other words, prayer.
Then, in Isaiah 31, the God is likened to a ‘roaring lion.’ The emphasis here is on God’s action, not His speech, but note that God is still speaking: He is pronouncing judgment on Israel’s enemies and passing on these prophetic words to Isaiah. Perhaps the ‘roaring’ of the lion is also a subtle metaphor for God’s speech. At the very least, it reminds us of to Whom it is that we pray.
Sometimes prayer may become for us a duty, perhaps it may even feel like a spiritual chore. It is so much more than this. This wondrous thing we call prayer is a mystical encounter we ought to approach in fear and trembling as well as joy. Let us be as mourning doves approaching our roaring lion of a God.