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Exploring Christian contemplative prayer


Let nothing trouble you
Let nothing frighten you,
Everything is fleeting,
God alone is unchanging.
Patience will obtain everything.
The one who possess God,
Wants for nothing.
God alone suffices


Prayer of St Teresa of Avila


Sometimes those who live the interior life turn in within themselves in a simple manner following their inclination to delight, and there, beyond all activities and virtues, they look with a simple and inward gaze upon blissful love. Here they meet God without intermediary.

And there shines upon them from the depths of Gods unity an undifferentiated light, which shows them darkness, bareness and nothingness. Such people are enveloped in the darkness and fall in modelessness as if they were quite lost. In the bareness they lose the perception and distinction of all things and are transformed and permeated by a simple radiance.

In the nothingness all their works fail them, for they are overwhelmed by the activity of the love of God that is deep without end. And in the inclination towards delight of their spirit, they overcome God and become one spirit with him. And in this union in the spirit of God they savour an ecstatic delight, and possess the divine essence. (1)


Jan Van Ruysbroeck
Rhineland Mystic, 13th Century


Had you but once entered perfectly into the Heart of Jesus, and tasted something of His burning love, you would care nothing for your own gain or loss; for the love of Jesus causes a man to regard himself very humbly. The true, inward lover of Jesus and the Truth, who is free from inordinate desires, can turn freely to God, rise above self, and joyfully rest in God.

He who knows all things at their true worth, and not as they are said or reputed to be, is truly wise, for his knowledge comes from God, and not from man. He who walks by an inner light, and is not unduly influenced by outward things, needs no special time or place for his prayers. For the man of inner life easily recollects himself, since he is never wholly immersed in outward affairs. Therefore his outward occupations and needful tasks do not distract him, and he adjusts himself to things as they come. The man whose inner life is well-ordered and disposed is not troubled by the strange and perverse ways of others; for a man is hindered and distracted by such things only so far as he allows himself to be concerned by them. (2)


Thomas a Kempis, 15th Century
Author of The Imitation of Christ


Mental prayer is, as I see it, simply a friendly intercourse and frequent solitary conversation with Him who, as we know, loves us. (3)


St Teresa of Avila
Spanish Carmelite saint, 16th Century
See Four Waters of Prayer


A question may arise about our teaching. Are proficients (those whom God begins to place in this supernatural knowledge of contemplation) because they are beginning to experience contemplation never again to practise discursive meditation and work with natural forms (4)


St John of the Cross
Spanish Carmelite saint, 16th Century
See Ascent of Mount Carmel excerpt


The loving gaze that finds God everywhere. (5)


Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection
Carmelite Friar, 17th Century


I understand and I know from experience that: ‘The Kingdom of God is within you’. Jesus has no need of books or teachers to instruct souls; He teaches without the noise of words. Never have I heard Him speak, but I feel that He is within me at each moment; He is guiding and inspiring me with what I must say and do. I find just when I need them certain lights that I had not seen until then, and it isn’t most frequently during my hours of prayer that these are most abundant but rather in the midst of my daily occupations.

I have frequently noticed that Jesus doesn’t want me to lay up provisions; He nourishes me at each moment with a totally new food; I find it within me without my knowing how it is there. I believe it is Jesus Himself hidden in the depths of my poor little heart: He is giving me the grace of acting within me, making me think of all He desires me to do at the present moment.(6)


St Therese of Liseaux
French Carmelite Saint, 19th Century


The heart is the dwelling place where I am, where I live; according to the Semitic or biblical expression, the heart is the place ‘to which I withdraw’. The heart is our hidden centre, beyond the grasp of our reason and of others; only the Spirit of God can fathom the human heart and know it fully. The heart is the place of decision, deeper than our psychic drives. It is the place of truth, where we choose life or death. It is the place of encounter, because as image of God we live in relation; it is the place of covenant. (7)


In the ‘prayer of the heart’ we seek first of all the deepest ground of our identity in God. We do not reason about dogmas of faith, or ‘the mysteries’. We seek rather to gain a direct existential grasp, a personal experience of the deepest truths of life and faith, finding ourselves in Gods truth. Inner certainty depends on purification. The dark night rectifies our deepest intentions. In the silence of this ‘night of faith’ we return to simplicity and sincerity of heart. We learn recollection which consists of listening for God’s will, in direct and simple attention to reality. Recollection is awareness of the unconditional. Prayer then means yearning for the simple presence of God, for a personal understanding of his word, for knowledge of his will and for capacity to hear and obey him. (8)


Thomas Merton
Trappist monk, 20th Century
See What is Contemplation


Contemplative prayer is the world in which God can do anything. To move into that realm is the greatest adventure. It is to be open to the Infinite and hence to infinite possibilities. Our private, self made worlds come to an end; a new world appears within and around us and the impossible becomes an everyday experience. Yet the world that prayer reveals is barely noticeable in the ordinary course of events. (9)


Father Thomas Keating
Cistercian monk
See Dimensions of Contemplative Prayer,
also Contemplative Outreach UK, and their American counterpart Contemplative Outreach


Contemplation is the irruption of God in the human soul. It is a silent, imageless and loving communion with God that transcends all discursiveness. According to John of the Cross, “Contemplation is none other than a secret, peaceful and loving infusion of God, which if the soul allows it to happen, enflames it in the spirit of love” “Secret contemplation …is a science of love…which is an infused loving knowledge that both illuminates and enamours the soul, elevating it step by step unto God its Creator.”

It is clear that contemplation is infused i.e. it comes from God and cannot be grasped by us, “So delicate is this interior refreshment that ordinarily if one desires it or tries to experience it, it will not be experienced; because, as I say, it does its work when the soul is most at rest and most free from care; it is like the air which, if one desires to closes ones hand upon it, escapes”.

Contemplation is a kind of being to being conversation with no intermediary and no possibility of misunderstanding the communication. In contemplation, God does not come through the senses or through the normal pattern of knowing. God comes from an unknown way infusing directly into our being a loving knowledge of God. (10)


Joseph Chalmers O.Carm.
Carmelite Friar
See Full Article


Contemplative prayer is silence, the ‘symbol of the world to come’, or ‘silent love’. Words of this kind of prayer are not speeches; they are like kindling that feeds the fire of love. In this silence, unbearable to the ‘outer man’, the Father speaks to us his incarnate Word, who suffered, died and rose; in this silence the Spirit of adoption enables us to share in the prayer of Jesus. (11)


Most people spend their entire lives living up to these mental images instead of living in the primal ‘I’ that is already good in God’s eyes. But all I can’ pay back’ to God or others or myself is who I really am. That’s a place of utter simplicity. Perhaps we don’t want to go back to it because it’s so simple. It feels unadorned. There’s no dressing, nothing to congratulate myself for. I can’t prove any worth, much less superiority. After years of false adornment, it will at first feel like nothing.

But being nothing has a glorious tradition. When we are nothing, we are in a fine position to receive everything from God...The Franciscan word would be ‘poverty’. The Carmelite word would be nada, nihil – ‘nothingness’. The Buddhists speak of emptiness. Jesus preferred to talk in images so he spoke of the desert. The desert is where we are voluntarily under stimulated. No feedback. No new data. That’s why he says to go into the closet. That’s where we stop living out of other people’s response to us. We can then say, I am not who you think I am. Nor am I whom you need me to be. I’m not even who I need myself to be. I must be ‘nothing’ in order to be open to all of reality and new reality.

The Zen master calls this state ‘the face we had before we were born’. Paul would call it who you are: ’in Christ, hidden in God’ (Colossians 3:3) (12)


Father Richard Rohr
Franciscan Friar


Contemplative prayer is the simplest expression of the mystery of prayer. It is a gift, a grace; it can be accepted only in humility and poverty. Contemplative prayer is a covenant relationship established by God within our hearts. Contemplative prayer is a communion in which the Holy Trinity conforms man, the image of God, ‘to his likeness’. (13)


Although the spiritual life may take many forms, it is always and foremost about love. Perhaps the most profound and pure experience of this love occurs in what the traditions refer to as contemplation.

In popular usage, to contemplate something is to think about it, considering it from a variety of angles. This is not at all the understanding of the classical authors of spirituality. Classically, contemplation is a particular kind of experience, usually occurring in the context of prayer. It is a sheer experience of loving presence, and it comes as pure gift, given when and as God chooses.

The Latin roots of the word, cum (‘with’) and templum (‘temple’) connote the sacredness of the experience. In its original meaning, contemplation is always a gift, and cannot be achieved by any method or practice. It is thus held in contrast to meditation, which includes all the practices and disciplines we may intentionally undertake in the course of our spiritual lives. Put simply, we can do meditation, but we cannot do contemplation because it only happens as gift. (14)


Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation
See Contemplative Spirituality


The word mysticism is used to describe the experience of the divine life as it gradually develops in a person who is open to receive it. Almost all the main world religions have developed a mystical teaching. It is designed to help every serious searcher to go beyond the simple religious practises of the beginner to experience the action of God who gradually makes His presence felt within. The way to Christian mysticism leads beyond the mere saying or recitation of prayers to meditation.

Then onward to contemplation, which is the word used to describe the sort of simple prayer that enables a person to experience the hidden or mystical action of God making His presence felt within. In Christianity it is always Jesus Christ who is the object of meditation, but at the beginning of the mystic way, it is always God who is the object of contemplation. The believer therefore begins to wonder where the humanity of Christ has gone. The truth of the matter is it has gone nowhere, it is we who have gone more deeply into Christ’s humanity where, in, with and through Him, we are praying and offering ourselves to the Father. (15)


David Torkington
See Transformation by God – An Introduction to Christian Mysticism.





Davies, O. The Rhineland Mystics, SPCK, 1989, page 95




Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, Trans. Leo Shirley-Price. (Harmonsworth, Penguin Books, 1952). Book 2, Chapter One, On the Inner Life, page 25.




Teresa of Avila, The Life of Saint Teresa by Herself, Penguin, 1957, page 63




Kavanaugh, K. OCD and Rodriguez, O. OCD (trans) The Collected Works of St John of the Cross, ICS Publications, 1979. The Ascent of Mount Carmel, Book 2, Chapter 15;1-5, pages 148-149




Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, The Practice of the Presence of God. Spiritual Maxims, Chapter 6, para. 31.




McCaffrey, J. OCD, The Carmelite Charism – Exploring the Biblical Roots, Veritas, 2004, page 19-20




Catechism of the Roman Catholic church, Contemplative Prayer 2563


Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer, Doubleday, 1996, page 67



Father Thomas Keating, Open Mind, Open Heart, Continuum, 1996



Father Joseph Chalmers, Contemplation and the Carmelite Rule,



Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church, Contemplative Prayer 2717



Father Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs – The Gift of Contemplative Prayer, Crossroad, 1999, page 77. (see



Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church, Contemplative Prayer 2713



Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation, Contemplative Spirituality



David Torkington, Transformation by God – Introduction to
Christian Mysticism,
( made simple.htm)