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?
In the first part of this post, we discussed mental prayer in general, meditative mental prayer and the unity underneath the various prayer methods. In Part II, we examined contemplative mental prayer, some characteristics of contemplation and the beginnings of infused contemplation. Today, 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.
The Prayer of Simplicity as “Acquired Contemplation”
On the other hand, once God has begun to give us this gift, our meditative prayer should change a little bit. It should become simpler. This is what I will refer to as the prayer of simplicity. Some writers even call it “acquired contemplation,” because it does serve, as your question points out, as a kind of bridge between more meditative and more contemplative mental prayer. The prayer of simplicity involves giving ourselves permission to be less busy during our time of meditation. Not focusing on too many ideas, not trying too hard to fill the time with a lot of words, not scrambling around noisily until we get a brilliant light.
In the earlier stages of spiritual growth, those things are often what we need to do; they are how we exercise our faith, hope, and love. Once God begins to give us infused contemplation, however, we need to begin to trust more in his action and less in our own. This isn’t a complete passivity – that’s actually a heresy, called “quietism.” We must love, we must continue to “seek his face always” (Psalm 105:4), but as we grow spiritually, we do so more simply. We allow God’s presence, especially his presence within us, through grace, to occupy our attention more and more. A multiplicity of ideas, words, feelings, and images often marks the early seasons of meditative prayer. Then, as we are drawn by God towards infused contemplation, he will reduce the multiplicity and simplify our interior experience. We can help that process by quieting our soul and resting in God’s presence, exercising our faith in his closeness, his goodness, and the transforming power of his love. As the Psalmist puts it (Psalm 131):
LORD, my heart is not proud;
nor are my eyes haughty.
I do not busy myself with great matters,
with things too sublime for me.
Rather, I have stilled my soul,
Like a weaned child to its mother,
weaned is my soul.
Israel, hope in the LORD,
now and forever.
This is the prayer of simplicity, which can indeed serve as a bridge between a mature habit of meditative prayer, and a welcoming response to the first stirrings of infused contemplation.
More to Say
That is only a partial answer to your question, but it’s about as good as I can do in a post. It would be worthwhile to explore more thoroughly other signs of growth in prayer, and especially the most important sign: growth in virtue and fidelity to God’s will in our daily lives outside times of prayer. For a more complete discussion of these things, I highly recommend Chapter Six from Fr. Dubay’s excellent treatise on Carmelite spirituality, Fire Within.
Thank you for your question. God bless you!
Art for this post on the prayer of simplicity: Teresa of Avila, Peter Paul Rubens, 1615, photographed by David Monniaux, CCA-SA 3.0 Unported, Wikimedia Commons.