Prayer and Contemplation

In the Commentary on Lombard’s Sentences, Aquinas took “prayer” to mean specifically the “petition for the things needed for this life.” In the Summa, Aquinas defines prayer as “an ascent of the intellect to God.” (II-II, Q. 83, art. 17). Both of these descriptions focus on the intellect. It is the intellect, especially as perfected by the virtue of prudence, which discerns what the needs of life are, and the intellect which inclines to God in prayer.

We are accustomed to thinking of prayer as a highly intellectual pursuit, a matter of thinking, discerning, and speaking. Accordingly, prayer is intentional. We might set aside time to pray, or designate a specific part of the house as a spot for prayer. However, more often than not, many of us find our mind racing or wandering to topics often unholy during our intentionally designated prayer times. Even when our minds do not wander, we might fumble around for the right words to say, or worry that our petitions and offerings of praise are inadequate. As a result, we may emerge from our times of prayer intensely dissatisfied.

One solution to this problem is to focus more attention on contemplative prayer. The contemplative Carmelite William McNamara described contemplation as “a pure intuition of being, born of love. It is experiential awareness of reality and a way of entering into immediate communion with reality.” Jesuit Walter Burghardt calls contemplation a “long loving look at the real.”

As a Dominican, contemplation was integral to Aquinas’ spirituality. What is wonderful about contemplation is that it is largely not an intellectual pursuit, but rather, a passionate, emotional, even intuitive endeavor. Aquinas writes, citing Gregory that “the contemplative life is to cling with our whole mind to the love of God and our neighbor, and to desire nothing beside our Creator.” He goes on,

Now the appetitive power moves one to observe things either with the senses or with the intellect, sometimes for love of the thing seen because, as it is written (Matthew 6:21), “where thy treasure is, there is thy heart also,” sometimes for love of the very knowledge that one acquires by observation. Wherefore Gregory makes the contemplative life to consist in the “love of God,” inasmuch as through loving God we are aflame to gaze on His beauty. And since everyone delights when he obtains what he loves, it follows that the contemplative life terminates in delight, which is seated in the affective power, the result being that love also becomes more intense (II-II, Q. 18o, art. 1)

He says later in the same question:

Although the contemplative life consists chiefly in an act of the intellect, it has its beginning in the appetite, since it is through charity that one is urged to the contemplation of God. And since the end corresponds to the beginning, it follows that the term also and the end of the contemplative life has its being in the appetite, since one delights in seeing the object loved, and the very delight in the object seen arouses a yet greater love. Wherefore Gregory says (Hom. xiv in Ezech.) that “when we see one whom we love, we are so aflame as to love him more.” And this is the ultimate perfection of the contemplative life, namely that the Divine truth be not only seen but also loved.

Contemplation is, therefore, a lot like falling in love. Contemplation is the passionate discovery of God’s delightfulness. I say “passionate” because contemplation, like love, emerges from something deep within us, from our appetites which incline us, often unconsciously, toward the good and the beautiful.

Walter Burghardt writes that contemplation, understood as the “long loving look at the real”

means that my whole person reacts. not only my mind, but my eyes and ears, smelling and touching and tasting. Not senses utterly unshackled; for at times reason must temper the animal in me. But far more openness, far more letting-go, than we were permitted of old, in a more sever spirituality, where, for example, touch was “out,” because touch is dangerous. No one ever thought of reminding us that free will is even more dangerous. Or cold reason.

Contemplation is integral to the life of prayer, but it cannot be forced. Rather, we must cultivate a capacity for the contemplative life, even in the midst of our busy activities. Burghardt offers five suggestions:

First, seek out some sort of desert experience. This does not need to be some sort of long, drawn-out ascetic withdrawal from life, but rather, an experience that “brings you face to face with solitude, with vastness, even with powers of life and death beyond your control.” A desert experience is simply something that interrupts the routine of your day-to-day life in a way that makes you slightly uncomfortable and heightens your awareness and perception of the unfamiliar world around you.

Second, cultivate a feeling for festivity, the experience of doing something utterly lacking in utilitarian value. Closely related is the third suggestion: cultivate a sense of play. Both festivity and play are contrary to work. Watch children who spend hours playing dress-up or other games of make-believe and you will understand the spirit of festivity and play. Both are linked to a sense of awe and wonder: “Let your imagination loose to play with ideas–what it means to be alive, to be in love, to believe and to hope.”

Fourth, learn to let go, to not posses, to let experiences and things be ephemeral. Most of us are conditioned when we see something beautiful–a sunset, a flower, a cute puppy, or our own children–to take a picture. The contemplative life savors the moment but lets it pass.

Finally, make contemplative friends, friends who radiate wonder, whose sense of delight is finely tuned. I have a very dear Jesuit friend and colleague who has taught me more about the contemplative life than I could ever learn from study. He does his morning prayer in the woods and though he has seen the same herons lighting on the water in the early morning light for the last five years, he still does not fail to mention each sighting in conversation with awe and wonder. The word I hear most from him is “amazing,” which he usually says in a loud voice, eyes sparking, wide smile on his face. Nothing is too simple to be “amazing” for him, be it a Rush concert, a line from Aquinas or Cicero, a sip of single malt scotch, or a heron searching for fish in the shallow water.

This particular friend offers perhaps the best advice for cultivating the contemplative life: think about your life, think about those moments where you experience the most profound delight and the strongest affective pull towards God, and be more intentional about seeking out those experiences. If you find it in gardening, garden more. In running, run more. In looking at art, get a season pass to a museum. For each of us, the contemplative life will look different. But if we are to have a meaningful life of prayer, a life where we “pray without ceasing,” cultivating the contemplative life is indispensable.

And to my dear friend, Father Nick Austin, SJ, who is now preparing to return to England to continue his career in moral theology and parish life, I give you my thanks for all that you have taught me about the contemplative life. The world is thirsty for people like you whose entire being radiates in love for God. You, my friend, have chosen the best part, which shall not be taken away from you (Lk. 10:42).

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3 comments so far

  1. Bob MacDonald on

    Prayer seems to be the topic of the week and this carefully crafted and detailed post of yours requires a response. It almost approaches what I have known, but I doubt I ever would have discovered such knowledge from these words or these writers. I am not sure it is possible to give a direct answer. Most of what I have written on prayer I have written as story. I will see if there are further stimuli to writing on this… In the meanwhile – here are a couple of questions.

    Do you think this statement that you quoted “Not senses utterly unshackled; for at times reason must temper the animal in me” implies either that intellect cannot be escaped or that the incarnation is somehow incomplete in Jesus? Was he not a human ‘animal’ in all points like us…?

    You write: many of us find our mind racing or wandering to topics often unholy during our intentionally designated prayer times … I wonder how you define the holy. Is the wandering mind itself an indication that God has more to teach than we are willing to face?

  2. Alex on

    Great post. One correction perhaps. You mention Burghardt’s five suggestions but I think you left out #3. Also, are there specific techniques that Aquinas or anyone else suggests during that “desert” prayer time, or are we left to figure that out on our own? I’d love to hear ideas or be directed to some.

  3. SP on

    See McCabe, GOD, CHRIST, AND US, ch. 18.


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