Contemplative prayer

Father James with his five friends from seminary: Fr. Pat (Mobile). Fr. Adam (Kansas City), Fr. Victor (Mobile), Fr. Alex (Scranton), Fr. Anthony (Harrisburg).

Letters from a Pastor to His People- July 21, 2019

Dear Parishioners,

A wise person once told me that true love doesn't consist in saying 'I love you'.  Think about when you're with your spouse, or your brother or sister, or your best friend.  When you're watching TV together, or fishing together, or having dinner, you may be sitting in silence, but love is being expressed.  Love is a reception of the other person's presence.  That is the ultimate goal for prayer.  That is what we call contemplation, and that's the point I want to make from the Martha-Mary Gospel.

Let us view this scripture passage allegorically: in other words, beyond just a reading about a historical moment—two women encountering Jesus two thousand years ago.  From an allegorical lens, Martha and Mary can represent two types of prayer.  Martha is the active form of prayer; Mary the contemplative form of prayer.  What I mean by this is Martha would be the "set," formulaic prayers: praying the rosary, saying litanies and novenas, grace before a meal, prayers of the Mass, even going out and serving the poor.  These are mental and active forms of prayer.  This type of prayer is also sometimes referred to as "discursive prayer."  Or, if you really want an esoteric term, "kataphatic prayer" (as opposed to "apophatic prayer"). 

Mary, on the other hand, is what we call a "contemplative" form of prayer.  She sits at the feet of the Lord and absorbs his presence.  She doesn't say anything.  She adores and receives.  Her mind isn't that active.  She isn't trying to conjure up anything or feel a particular way or even achieve anything.  She just is, and she is with Jesus.

Here is a quote from Thomas Merton about contemplative prayer:

Contemplative prayer is, in a way, simply the preference for the desert, for emptiness, for poverty. One has begun to know the meaning of contemplation when he intuitively and spontaneously seeks the dark and unknown path of aridity in preference to every other way. The contemplative is one who would rather not know than know. Rather not enjoy than enjoy. Rather not have proof that God loves him.

Contemplation is the higher form of prayer.  Jesus specifically calls it better.  It doesn't mean active prayer is bad.  Not at all.  But contemplation is "better" because it most resembles what will occur in heaven.  It is the exchange of true love. 

I think it might serve us well to try contemplation.  It's very hard, especially because it requires setting aside quiet time and sitting still.  We don't need to say anything.  We just recognize we are in the Lord's presence and then receive his presence—again, as if we were fishing with our best friend. Saint Augustine once said, "Leave the past to God's mercy, the future to His Divine Providence, and the present to His love."

If we can do this contemplative form of prayer, it will make our active form of prayer—our rosaries, our Mass experience, etc.—that much more meaningful.  We will seek out the Lord's presence, which is the sign of true love.  And that will never be taken from us.

I will be departing this week for my annual vacation with my priest-friends, the guys I studied with in seminary and have been close to now for about ten years.  As you can see in the picture, we are from all different dioceses and this is generally the only time of year we see one another.  Needless to say, we have a fun time!  You'll be in my prayers and, again, Fr. Emanuel will be back at the helm, so if you have any complaints direct them to him!  Just kidding.  I hope you and your families are enjoying your summer days as well. If you were wondering, my Chicago priest friends and I won the annual priest golf outing a few weeks ago! 


Yours in Christ,

Fr. James

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