Deeper Spiritual Life?
Dear Dan, I have a rule of life (firm spiritual commitments) and as part of that rule I have been meditating (Ignatian) and praying the rosary and the Liturgy of the Hours daily for years now. My struggle is that I have heard that if I sense the Lord’s presence (which does happen), that I should set these prayers aside and focus on the Lord. I am confused, I thought that focusing on God is what I am already doing. To me, the advised action will result in a failure to keep my commitments to the Lord. What am I missing here?
Dear Friend, your habit of daily prayer reflects a beautiful example of a substantive commitment to Christ. Don’t ever let loose of your daily dedication to specific times for prayer and your concrete commitments to the Lord. You will find great reward in this level of rigorous devotedness. In fact, your ascesis has probably brought you to an important crossroads in your prayer life.
The Difference Between Means and Ends
Why do we pray? Some would answer this question, “because we should,” and they are right. God is worthy of our prayer and self-giving, and simply on the basis of His goodness, we should respond with a rigorous commitment to daily prayer. Still, this approach is more reflective of an exercise of duty (which is good) and less of devotion (which is better).
For the person of good-will, often duty is the appropriate starting point. However, the purpose or end of our prayer is not merely that of satisfying a debt or checking off a box on our religious checklist. No, God deserves far more than our duty, He deserves and desires our love. Beyond that, He has not called us into a relationship of mere duty. He has called us into existence in order to have a profound love relationship with Him. We are called into a life of abundance, fullness, love, joy, and peace in His presence.
So, the end of prayer is an intimate relationship with the God of the universe, not a checked box. With clarity regarding the ends, we can now shift our attention to the means.
The rosary and meditation are both means to an end rather than an end in themselves. These means are important. In particular, the rosary should never be abandoned as a daily practice. However, if we are properly growing in the Lord as is indicated by your question, there may be times when we pause our attentive repetition to move into a deeper experience of prayer.
Meditation is a bit of a different animal. Meditation is a means that is necessary for early spiritual growth but a means nonetheless that we should set aside once the Lord begins to call us into a deeper level of prayer. At first, this setting aside is simply the appropriate fruit of affective meditation. However, later on, the setting aside becomes complete as, by a sheer act of grace on the part of God, our meditation terminates in contemplation. Though we won’t focus on this element here, in the Ascent of Mount Carmel, St. John of the Cross speaks about this transition in detail and particularly in Chapter 13 where he says:
For as it is necessary to abstain from it (meditation) at the proper time, in order to draw near unto God, that we may not be hindered by it.
Key Points to Remember
Just in case I have failed to provide sufficient clarity up to this point, let me repeat a few important items. First, we should never abandon the rosary as part of our daily prayer. Second, if we are progressing normally, there will be a time when we move beyond discursive meditation. Third, there will be times when these or any means or method of prayer should be paused as we follow the Lord’s leading.
For instance, let’s say that we are praying the second of the sorrowful mysteries or practicing our meditation on the scene of the scourging at the pillar. As we enter into our time of prayer, all is normal. However, at some point we are drawn with unusual clarity to some aspect of Christ’s suffering. Whether that be a realization that He has suffered for me personally, or we encounter a deep sorrow for what we experience as a witness of His suffering. Regardless of the specific prompting, it might be an important time to pause and ponder – to allow the Lord to draw us deeper into the scene, into His presence, into the moment and reality of His suffering. When I say pause, what do I mean? Simple, gently stop and be present to the Lord. Don’t make any grand intellectual shift, don’t focus on what is happening to you in prayer, focus on what He is showing you. Give yourself to this special revelation, this special gift. If and when this moment subsides, you can then gently return to complete your commitments. If however, this moment extends through the entire time you set aside for prayer, you should not feel guilty at not having completed them. To the contrary, you should rejoice regarding the special graces you have received.
What is happening in these moments is that God is drawing you beyond the means to the ultimate and divine end – Himself.
So, to answer your question, unless you are a religious or are otherwise bound to complete specific prayers as a matter of obedience, it would be a good, wise, and holy act to set the means aside in order to fully engage with the End of all Ends.
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Art for this post on deeper spiritual life: Page detail from Mediaeval Book of Hours, artist unknown, 1533, PD-US author’s life plus 100 years or less.