Leading from within: How to pray contemplatively

February 3, 2020 — One of the significant questions we as faith-filled people should be asking ourselves is: How can we live our faith with greater depth and credibility? Another way we could ask this question regarding the depth and credibility of our beliefs is through a more imaginative lens: How can we live with more contemplative attentiveness in and toward the world around us? Rather than merely addressing God in our prayer, more importantly, are we awake to the presence — the incarnation — of our God in the world and persons around us? Are we imaginatively observant in our faith to the particular circumstances around us each and every day? 

The writer Annie Dillard, rich in experience and wisdom in living with a deep sense of contemplative imagination, attentiveness and prayerful listening, has asked herself, what does one do with a day? “I open my eyes.” Cultivation of our perceptions to the world around us is for the poets in our lives like Annie Dillard, as well as for Mary Oliver, a form of prayer and a means of encountering God. What we see, what we are awake toward in an egoless manner shapes our ethical actions in the world. Learning to see with contemplative attention is the basis of our behaviour. Mary Oliver points this out in reflecting, “What we enjoy, we value. What we feel is making our lives rich and more meaningful, we cherish. And what we cherish, we will defend.” What we see, what we are attentive toward, shapes how we act.  

Ignatian prayer, through the spirit and wisdom of St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, shares with us in a particularly affective way how to live with this deeper sense of contemplative imagination and attentiveness toward God’s presence in all things. Through its cultivation of a contemplative attitude, the Ignatian charism teaches us how to live with spiritual depth and maturity. It also helps us to make significant decisions with good discernment. Cultivating a contemplative attitude deepens our relationship with God, lends credibility to our beliefs and helps spreads genuine fruitfulness in our world. According to the spiritual wisdom of St. Ignatius — one that is closely related to the contemplative insights and dispositions of poets like Annie Dillard and Mary Oliver — we can grow in a more contemplative attitude through the following ways: 

1) Praying Affectively 

To pray affectively involves our whole person, praying with our spirit and with our body. In addition to our soul, our flesh must also experience the presence of God. Struggles in praying affectively can often be related to being out of touch with other relationships and aspects of our lives. Being out of touch with the reality around us often roots itself in lack of personal self-awareness (egocentricity); a too cerebral approach to life that remains detached; or a reluctance to accept reality rather than involving oneself in it with a sense of passion and commitment.  

Lack of affective prayer may not even be a reflection of our being out of touch, but could be contributed to simply a distorted or unsettling image of God that we struggle with; false presuppositions about prayer, such as every moment of our prayer needs to be affective; or feeling that arousal of feelings within our prayer are misleading. 

To pray affectively we must come to be more like Mary in our presence before Christ, as opposed to interiorly busying ourselves. To pray like Mary we must come to let ourselves go in the presence of God with loving patience and trust, even when we may not affectively “feel” his presence … to sit still and be with him, open to his quiet voice.  

2) Prayerful Reflection 

A struggle we have in our prayerful relationship with God often does not entail our prayer itself but on our appropriation and integration of it within our lives … on our affective remembrance of how God has been present with us. To be moved in our prayer is one thing, to remain moved and to spiritually grow from it is something else entirely. Remaining in our prayer through appropriation and integration of this experience with God is a sign of our capacity and maturity to discern a pattern and plan in our relationship with God. It is this capacity to discern how God is speaking and present with us in an ongoing way that determines our behaviour in our world through Christ. By appropriating and integrating our experience of God through personal reflection and remembrance, we will grow in our faith. Signs of our growth in faith is how we are truly being called to give witness and credibility to our faith through giving witness to how we are genuinely affected and moved by our relationship with God through Christ.  

3) Discernment 

Each day we are called upon to make choices. Some small, such as how to respond to a person we suddenly encounter; others large and life changing, such as the decision upon our life’s work. How to make such choices through our incarnate love of God has been St. Ignatius’ gift to our church, what is commonly known as Ignatian discernment. To make genuine Christ-like choices in our lives we must come to put on the heart and mind of Christ. This can only occur by reorienting ourselves toward God’s will by entering into Christ’s life through Gospel contemplation. By entering into deep and sustained friendship with him we come to think and choose in harmony with him and his desire for us … as a dancer comes to feel the music he or she is dancing to.  

Through contemplation of the moments and scenes of Christ’s own life and attitudes in relation to those around him we become more deeply instilled with Christ’s own guiding presence with us today. To feel, to know intimately and affectively, is central to Ignatian discernment. This felt knowledge of God through Christ is the foundation of recognizing and cooperating with the movements of the Holy Spirit within us. In becoming truly affected by God in Christ we will grow spiritually and discerningly,. rooted in our contemplative and active relationship with Christ. 

The fruits of this contemplative attitude within us and in our behaviour with others has been captured strikingly by former Father General of the Society of Jesus, Pedro Arrupe. I will conclude with his image of the contemplative attitude, that I am sure Annie Dillard, Mary Oliver, as well as St. Ignatius, would whole heartedly delight in themselves: 

Nothing is more practical than 
finding God, than 
falling in Love 
in a quite absolute, final way. 
What you are in love with, 
what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. 
It will decide 
what will get you out of bed in the morning, 
what you do with your evenings, 
how you spend your weekends, 
what you read, whom you know, 
what breaks your heart, 
and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. 
Fall in Love, stay in love, 
and it will decide everything. 
~ Joseph Whelhan, SJ (often attributed to Pedro Arrupe, SJ) 

This article was published in the last issue of Canadian Jesuits. Consult it online for other texts on spirituality.





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