Reflection, Contemplation, and Prayer:
A Triad of Spiritual Awareness
If you go to the internet or any Christian book on spiritual growth you will quickly see that these three terms (and one other, we will attend to later) are always interconnected. That being said, I am going to separate them here in order to discuss them in detail and to clarify each for practical purposes. Note that I am defining each of these specifically in relation to spiritual direction.
Reflection: 1. Approaching a time, object, memory, or circumstance with the intention of seeing God at work. 2. Engaging a time, object, memory, or circumstance, such as recalling a memory or looking at a crucifix, focused on God to perceive God reflected in the moment/object.
Contemplation: 1. To be fully present in our heart and mind focused on one aspect of our self while also being emptied of the self in order for God to be present. 2. Intentionally emptying the mind of thought to provide a quietude to encounter God.
Prayer: 1. A spiritual communication between us and God; a two-way relationship in which we not only talk to God but also listen to God. 2. Prayer includes Adoration/Blessing, Contrition/Repentance, Thanksgiving/Gratitude, and Supplication/Petition/Intercession.
These definitions may be familiar to you or seem confusing. Needless to say, the practice of spiritual development will come more naturally once it is begun.
So, to put these three together in practice I will start with Prayer since this is something we all know and think we do well. Here we go…
Get comfortable, quiet your mind, and pray. You will most likely immediately begin a sort of “agenda of prayer” in which you enter an existing pattern. Go with it, as they say. After a time, and perhaps when you are “done,” let your prayers lead you. Allow yourself to let go of the agenda (you have fulfilled it already) and pray what comes to mind/heart.
This is the moment when a divine transition is possible. Be aware that the prayers you are now praying – you are thinking – but you are actually “hearing.” That is to say, if you can quiet your mind (often a byproduct of intentional prayer) and observe the action of prayer creation (thought), you may become aware that the prayers of your mind seem to be an echo.
Remember what St. Paul tells us in the Book of Romans:
“For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” (8:26)
All too often we can be hung up on the “groanings too deep for words” part of this passage. If it's too deep for words, you ponder, how can I hear the words? In reality two things are happening here: first, the Holy Spirit is praying for us, groaning toward the passion of Christ and the intention of God; and second, we are blessed by the Holy Spirit in our awareness (actually the awareness of the Holy Spirit) and pray the prayers we ought to pray.
St. Paul tells us that most of the time we can't get out of our own way, so God has sent the Holy Spirit to pray for us and leads us in prayer. Paul continues:
“And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.” (Romans 8:27)
We are blessed by this intercession and may, in fact, be a participant in it!
Prayer is indispensable. Prayer cannot be omitted and, though it can be truncated, we can never stop the Holy Spirit from doing what God has promised us would be done. In this case then, all we need to do is become aware and join in.
So, now that you have achieved this awareness, hearing your own prayers as an echo, there is an opportunity for positive release! Without “taking over your mind,” (*more on this in a moment) enter into the new rhythm of prayer as a sort of guest, carried along by the prayers. This, whether short or long, is the first ‘prayer step’ into a deeper awareness and communion with God.
*“taking over your mind,” This is a danger (often unavoidable at the early stages of prayer awareness) in which, once you become aware of what is happening, you will override it with thoughts about it.
If this happens, fear not! You have become aware, if only for a moment, of the Holy Spirit praying through/for you. This awareness is awareness! You have taken the first step after all and can reflect on the blessing as you anticipate the next time you pray.
Next week, I will briefly cover Reflection, as we continue this four-week walk toward spiritual awareness.
Praying in the Spirit,
Father Bill Burk†