When I started my contemplative prayer support group I had to explain to some newcomers what contemplative prayer is, and what we can do to make ourselves ready to receive this gift, as well as to how to nurture it after we have received it.
There were many books on this subject that I recommended reading, because they helped me to understand what was taking place in my relationship with God. My favorite books were "Dark Night of the Soul," the "Cloud of Unknowing," and "The Interior Castle."
Of course, during our meetings, I drew heavily on the writings of the authors of these books, because they were great Lovers of God, and I also drew from my own personal experience, as I attempted to explain to others what contemplation is.
A big temptation
In simple and advanced meditation we take the lead by preparing ourselves to be open to the reception of God's gifts. In contemplation, God takes the lead. Of ourselves we can do nothing to produce contemplation. In fact, when a transition begins to take place, we may feel our prayer is going wrong - that we are falling back. It will become almost impossible to meditate - that is - to continue to reason and ponder the Scriptures, to find pleasure in prayer. Our prayer may become very dry and seem to be going nowhere.
The biggest temptation takes place at this point. It seems that we have exhausted our ability to meditate, that it was a phase we went through when we were enthusiastic about drawing closer to God, but that the honeymoon is over, so to speak. Now we feel as if it was all in our mind; why go on? If we are getting nothing out of it, it is a waste of time.
Rather than give in to the big temptation to quit mental prayer, this is the time to go on with it - no matter what! We are not moving backward, we are moving forward, but it is on a path with which we are unfamiliar. We were much more comfortable doing it the "other way," where we felt in control of the situation to a certain degree and where we seemed to be getting something out of it, even though we might have gotten less on some days and more on others.
What do we do now?
First, we continue setting aside 20 minutes twice a day for this mental prayer which seems futile!
Second, we are going to be certain that we are preparing ourselves properly for prayer, by selecting our meditation material every day, just as we have done in the past.
Third, we are going to continue to try very hard to lead a life of basic virtue, always making a sincere effort to grow in the love of our neighbor, and to do all the other things which are God's will for us.
The first three points are no different than what we have been doing. This is to insure that we are progressing and not regressing through our own fault.
The fourth point is going to be different, because...
Fourth, we are not going to grit our teeth and try to meditate, by using our reasoning powers to reflect on scripture or whatever other meditation material we have before us. Here, we are assuming that such efforts have been tried and no longer work.
We now quit trying that method. Instead, we simply yearn for God's Presence without a lot of words or reasoning.
We stretch our will with naked intent toward God in peace and love, without becoming upset or intense over the fact that we don't seem to be doing much.
We keep doing this even though we don't feel anything. We may be having a very dry time of it.
Effort to learn
This fourth point is not to be mistaken for the struggles a beginner goes through in trying to do simple meditation. That struggle is the effort to learn how to meditate, because meditation is an art. Some people meditate for years before they arrive at the fourth point in discussion.
If there is a valid progress to the fourth point, a good book to read is: "The Cloud of Unknowing." It will help you to understand what to do. It will make you more familiar with the "cloud" under which you are laboring; the dryness which you are experiencing.
This "cloud" precedes something exquisite that God has in store.
The dryness is the period of preparation which purifies us for a deeper prayer life where God takes the lead. At the same time it teaches us the meaning of what Christ said: "Without Me, you can do nothing!"
Some people go through intense suffering because they experience to a degree what St. John of the Cross refers to as the dark night of the senses, and later - what is worse: the dark night of the spirit. These are both explained in his book entitled "Dark Night of the Soul."
It's necessary to understand that each soul is unique, and God works with it according to its nature. Everyone does not experience the dark night of the senses and the dark night of the spirit as St. John of the Cross did, even to a limited degree.
What you will experience is a definite dry period in which the "thrill is gone" and it seems useless to go on with mental prayer. Your soul will be a desert. When you feel like this, it's important to bear in mind that the great Christian Mystics such as St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila as well as many others, went through this same dryness and even intense darkness of spirit. But the intensity of their preparation was matched by the rare gifts God gave them.
It is when you experience the depths of your complete nothingness, knowing that He is All, that He comes to you in a very special way. No one who has experienced this, even in a small way, can put it into words to explain it to others, even though I certainly attempt to do just that in this blog.
Contemplation, also known as Centering Prayer, takes place when God speaks to you. This is not an apparition. Neither is it an audible voice. A bolt of lightening will not hit you and you are not going to be signed up to pose for holy pictures. It is not some mysterious light which starts to glow in your room, either.
What is it then?
It is an awakening of your soul to the total picture. Interiorly you experience personal communion with God. It may last for only a few minutes.
The concept, idea, emotion comes together as ONE, WHOLE - without any effort on your part. You aren't using words or even pressing mentally in your own thought patterns. Your faculties are still. You are the passive one but you are paying attention. You are rapt in what is happening.
You have a complete new insight, feeling, experience than you have ever had before, or read about in any book. There is no doubt as to what has happened. You saw things from God's point of view.
No matter what you do, you cannot recapture this exact experience again. Try as you may to re-think your previous thoughts to reproduce it, it doesn't work. Trying to create the same mood or atmosphere doesn't work either.
Contemplation cannot be produced or sustained by one's own efforts. It is unpredictable, it cannot be contained or captured. It cannot be explained because it is God communicating Himself to you, a mere creature! It's pure gift!
As it says in the New Testament: "The Spirit moves where He will, and you know neither His coming nor His going."
Nothing will be quite the same for you after you have experienced even a little contemplation. You will 'see" things differently.
What are some of the results of contemplation? Here are a few: a certainty that all is well; an infused knowledge of love being at the center of everything; a sense of new life or living in a new world; intense joy; profound peace; a loss of anxiety about worldly problems and an understanding of your place in the Universe.
Knock, and it shall be opened
There is no guarantee that God will give you the gift of contemplation. Indeed, you may struggle through dryness, the night of the senses, and the night of the spirit, and not receive this gift. However, it is highly unlikely. We have Christ's words: "To him who knocks it shall be opened." God is never outdone in generosity.
God knows your heart better than you do. If you continue mental prayer for years and never receive the gift of contemplation, what do you care? You have done your part by preparing yourself for union with God. That's His Will for you!
If you have not done it for love of Him but to "experience" something unusual, do not be surprised if He does not grant it to you. Perhaps He knows that it would be a source of pride and self-satisfaction which would lead you away from Him.
The words in a novel by Graham Greene say: "Those who seek God have already found Him." These words are true. The first priority in your life is to seek God and to prepare yourself to meet Him on the day of your death, which is the beginning of eternal ecstasy.
Your prayer life may vary considerably over the years. You may go back and forth in simple meditation, advanced meditation and contemplation. It doesn't necessarily proceed in a straight path directly to the summit, so don't expect it to be that way.
You won't be able to measure your progress with a ruler. Instead, you will be on a journey inward. you will have setbacks - some through your own fault; others through circumstances beyond your control. But this is the most adventurous and worthwhile Journey your will ever undertake.