I am not qualified to write about anything theological. I am neither a theologian nor a religious. Nor am I learned in the ways of God. (I wish!) I am writing only in obedience to a perceived prompting. If I am wrong, then I will be writing nonsense. If I am right, then perhaps I will write something of value to someone.
My knowledge of prayer has grown in the few years since I became a believer and converted to Catholicism. I now understand that most theologians consider that facility in "ordinary" prayer said aloud or silently (repentance, petition, thanksgiving, and praise) precedes the development of meditation which precedes the development of contemplation. In other words, over a long period of time we work toward ever greater intimacy with God in our prayer life. Weird (and perhaps unbelievable) as it may be, my prayer life began with contemplation – two full weeks of nearly nonstop contemplation, actually, thrust upon me. That was all I knew about prayer until I joined the Catholic Church and learned that most other people’s experiences with prayer significantly differed from mine. Well, that’s God for you. He does not necessarily feel bound to follow any particular rules or to interact with two different people in the same way.
Perhaps because I began with contemplation, I am most comfortable with that form of prayer. I have never been able to learn how to meditate, and perhaps that really is not necessary, given that it is considered a step toward contemplation. I have learned the more ordinary forms of prayer, but even now, given the passage of more than three years (yeah, I know, not much in the grander scheme of things), I prefer to “be still” with God and let God direct the communication (that communication is much wiser and more satisfying). When I don’t, when I start chattering away, I sometimes feel a divine finger against my lips, and of course I immediately hush so that a communication of greater value can transpire.
Recently, I joined a contemplative prayer group that meets once a month. It is directed by a priest (yes, another priest in my priest-panoplied life – they each seem to bring something different and important, and I would not give up a relationship with any of them). At one meeting, however, the contemplative prayer priest was not present, but someone quite special was: a homeless-looking lady whom we all initially thought had wandered into our meeting by mistake, who later revealed to me in a paired discussion that she was dying of cancer, took on the features of Christ during our contemplative prayer (I suppose she was simply reflecting that God-seed that is in all of us), and then walked out (whispering to me to pray for her).
As I said in the beginning, I am the last person who should be writing about prayer. I am not wise. I am not a long-time believer. I am not a theologian or otherwise educated in religious matters. I know little more than what I learn through direct experience, reading (e.g., Authenticity by Fr. Dubay, the works of St. Theresa of Avila, and the Book of Privy Counseling), research, interactions with other believers, formation for my upcoming profession in the Secular Franciscan Order, and preparatory study as a catechist teaching questioning teenagers. Taken all together, it is only a minute fraction of what I would like to know, of what I thirst to learn. So, being in such a great state of unknowing, is it any wonder that contemplative prayer would appeal to me more than any other kind of prayer? It is through contemplative prayer that God can teach me the most, through union (even when it is only partial -- whatever God deigns at a given moment to gift me with) that I can develop a more perfect trust, through an accompanying directiveness that I can sense what I am supposed to understand and feel, through a washing in love that I can accept who I am with all my imperfections, through implanted thought that I can learn lessons and receive taskings, and through the Divine Presence wrapped around me that I can release all my stress and worries into Him and gather into myself a reservoir of love that I can splash onto others as needed later. Contemplative prayer starts my day and ends my day. If only I could spend the entire day in it! During the day, I resort to ordinary prayer, and that tides me over until the evening surf throws me on the shore at God’s feet and I can once again rest in His being.
What has been your experience? What is your understanding of such matters? Let's learn from each other.