Prayer of Simplicity: What is it? (Part I of III)
Dear Father John, I’ve heard that the prayer of simplicity is a kind of a bridge from meditation to contemplation. Can you help me to understand what this experience of prayer might be and how one might know that God is leading them down that path?
The term “prayer of simplicity” is used differently by different spiritual authors, so there is some danger of confusion in answering this question. I will try to define my terms as I go, so we can all stay on the same page. The topic is so important for spiritual growth that it’s worth diving into even at the risk of seeming to contradict what some of our readers may have learned from other sources.
The bridge from meditation to contemplation is a mysterious and wonderful stage of spiritual growth. Let’s start by briefly describing the difference between these two forms of mental prayer (as opposed to vocal and liturgical prayer). With that clarified, we will be better prepared to take a closer look at the bridge.
Mental Prayer in General
Mental prayer, in general, is characterized by a highly personal dialogue or intimate exchange between the pray-er and God. In vocal prayer, we use someone else’s words to address God. In liturgical prayer, we enter into the official prayer of the entire Church, making it our own and contributing our love to it. In mental prayer, in contrast, we address God in our own words, conversing with him intimately in the quiet of our hearts. This conversation involves listening as well as speaking, but its primary characteristic is its high degree of interpersonal intimacy. Mental prayer is a private, deep, spontaneous, loving conversation between two very close friends – the pray-er and God.
Meditative Mental Prayer
In the earlier stages of our spiritual growth, mental prayer usually has a predominately meditative quality. Meditation always involves extended, thoughtful reflection. Christian meditation, meditative mental prayer, involves thoughtful reflection on the great truths of our faith: God’s goodness and omnipotence, Christ’s love and virtues, divine providence, etc. When we meditate, as Christians, we activate our faith and turn our attention to these truths that God has revealed to us, and we consider them, we savor them, we enjoy them, we talk to God about them. To do this, meditation usually involves a mediator – some kind of source for the ideas that we are thoughtfully reflecting on. We can use Scripture for meditation (lectio divina), or good spiritual books, the writings of the saints and popes, or simply the beauties of nature and the events of our own lives. These subjects occupy our attention as we reflect on what they reveal to us about God and God’s plan for the world and for our own lives. In that reflection, the Holy Spirit works powerfully within our souls, teaching, strengthening, enlightening, and guiding us with his sevenfold gifts.
The Unity Underneath the Methods
Christian meditation can be done in many different ways. We can think analytically about a paragraph from the Catechism (discursive meditation); we can use our imagination to put ourselves into a scene from the Gospels (discursive-imaginative meditation); we can simply express our feelings towards God in our own words (affective meditation). Although different individuals will have different natural preferences and proclivities for a particular method, usually the different forms end up coming together and leading us into a discursive-affective combination. In all cases, the pray-er is active and busy during meditation. This is why the Catechism describes meditation as a “quest” for a deeper knowledge of and intimacy with God.
In Part II, we will discuss contemplative mental prayer, some characteristics of contemplation and the beginnings of infused contemplation. In Part III, we will look at the prayer of simplicity as “acquired contemplation” as well as other signs of growth in prayer and a recommendation for a more in-depth reading on this subject.
Art for this post on the prayer of simplicity: Teresa of Avila, Peter Paul Rubens, 1615, CCA-SA 3.0 Unported, Wikimedia Commons.