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Kazia Jessop

World Religions
Service Paper
Meditative Prayer in Catholicism
Arguably one of the worlds most complex religions, rich in symbolism and ritual,
Catholicisms influence is deep, significant, and bound to its lengthy history. With millions of
adherents around the world, the religion is intricate and highly personal for each believer. While
the Catholic Church is vast and may vary to some small extent as tends to be the nature of such
widespread belief, a critical component to their practice is individual union with God. Living
according to Gods will can be considered equally important but can also be viewed as a means
of achieving the aforementioned spiritual union. This union is not something that merely
descends upon the believer after enough passage of time nor is it something that can only be
experienced after ones life on earth has ended. Catholic scholars and authorities alike claim
union with God comes with rigorous (and often silent or internal) prayer and quiet, open
contemplation of Gods message, the Bible, and the life of Christ. Conversely, union with God is
not necessarily something that can be acquired. Rather, one presents their openness to God, and
God alone can choose to grant this unity and insight. This contemplative prayer is a form of
western mediation. Christian meditationoften called simply contemplation has enjoyed a
long, though subtle, history in Catholic tradition and plays a central role in the Catholic
relationship to God.
Arriving early to Monday evening Mass at Cathedral of the Madeline in downtown Salt
Lake, I was able to witness this deep form of prayer first hand. Entering the Cathedral, I was
immediately struck by its reverential quiet, the profound sense of solitude it provided after
slipping in from bustling streets. In the gloom, I could make out other attendees seated in the
pews, heads rested on fists, bowed in prayer. Some of them clutched rosaries; others sat serenely
with closed eyes, silently mouthing passages of scripture completely unknown to me. Having
spent time in Italy previously, I was shocked by its similarity to the cathedrals and hilltop
churches I had visitedthe same bookish smell, candles lit for prayer, the lofty, domed ceilings
and deep silence. The sermon of the Sunday Mass I ducked in on in Fiesole, dictated entirely in
Italian, was unfortunately lost on me, but here, I was greeted with a peaceful nod from the
Father, a brief hello from a fellow attendee who resumed her prayer almost immediately as I
seated myself in a pew reasonably distant from the altar.
The practitioners surrounding me all seemed to be absorbed by a powerful inner dialogue,
and their silence held so much conviction I could hardly help myself from staring. Initially, I was
quick to compare this to eastern meditation, similar to the type practiced by Buddhists, but later
found this to be an exceedingly common and utterly flawed perception. Catholics are quick to
distinguish their form of Western meditation from the more popularized Eastern meditation.
Christian meditation, while undeniably focused on ones inner state, has completely different
goals from that of its counterpart. While the goal of Eastern meditation is to empty ones mind or
quiet ones own mental chatter to reach higher truths or even worldly release, Christian
meditation aims for precisely the opposite. When practicing Christian mediation, one fills their
mind with things of God and holiness, of prayer and of scripture. The goal is an elevated spiritual
union with God.
During this meditation, the practitioner is to open a space within themselves for the
divine while remaining lovingly attentive to God, in order for God to fill this metaphorical
inner space with spiritual richness. It is stressed that during this prayer, one must only attempt
to renounce personal egotismthe renunciation of the things that God has created and placed us
among (material things, loved ones) is not necessary. In this way, the meditator is only required
to separate from their own selfishness and moral impurity, rather than their worldly possessions,
for it is this selfishness that impedes them from identifying and accepting the will of God.
Contemplative prayer is not something that can be mastered by any prescribed method or
technique, and while many documents mention the importance of meditation in developing faith,
there is little strict instruction. Instead, one must allow them to be guided by God and He will
choose the way in which He wants to be revealed. Contemplative Christian prayer teaches one to
love thy neighbor and to accept their trials, and precisely because of this, it brings one closer to
God. This restoration of the relationship between God and the practitioner can lead the Catholic
to a deeper, more authentic understanding of the Bible and Christs message.
During my research, after many confusing hours lost in the obscurity of Christian
mysticism and long winded Bible passages, I finally noted an important theme. During
contemplation, the believer is meant to be in a state of submission and awe to God rather than
seeking to understand Him. It was stressed that one should never be attracted to meditative
prayer for the sake of reaching some distorted taste of divinity. For this reason, St. Teresa of
Avila warned against meditation claiming that it was appropriate to reject the temptation of
certain methods which proposed a leaving aside of the humanity of Christ in favor of a vague
self-immersion in the abyss of the divinity. However, many believe that if done properly, that
is, when one is focused entirely and earnestly on Christ, that their meditation can be considered a
valid means to both expressing and increasing their faith.
This type of meditation is very accessible to the believer, because the experience does not
have to be analytical or complex. This type of meditation can be felt deeply and profoundly
without the need for some sort of higher guidance or interpretation. The monk Thomas Merton
claims that "we must not imagine the early monks applying themselves to a very intellectual and
analytical meditation' of the Bible. Meditation for them consisted in making the words of the
Bible their own by memorizing them and repeating them, with deep and simple concentration."
This internalization and repetition personalizes the Bible for the believer, which helps them
create a more powerful relationship with their faith. Rosaries are handy aids in this
contemplation, as rosary prayers are, in and of themselves, a type of meditative practice.
Upon questioning attendee Shandre Devoli (who was happy to share her name) at
Cathedral of the Madeleine how meditation deepened her religious practice, she told me she had
begun using rosary at a young age, around 13 years old, after years of watching her mother use
it. She said it created a quiet time for her during the day, where she could set aside a moment to
center herself and focus on her faith and God. Rosary prayer was something very common in her
house, where her family prayed with the rosary daily. She claimed that it deepened her
relationship to God, and every time she meditated with her rosary, her understanding and her
practice developed further. She has passed this practice on to her almost adult children, and
hopes that it will help focus and hone their faith the same way it helped her.
Pope Leo XIII, an adherent of Christian meditation, spoke highly of using the rosary as a
meditation aid. In Laetitiae Sanctae he says that the rosary is a powerful means of renewing
our courage, and advises Catholics to dwell upon the sorrowful mysteries of Our Lords life,
and to drink in their meaning by sweet and silent meditation. He also recommends the reading
of Scripture, claiming that the best preachers of all ages have gratefully acknowledged that
they owed their repute chiefly to the assiduous use of the Bible, and to devout meditation on its
Meditation can be practiced anywhere, but is best practiced somewhere private, such as a
home or church. Before beginning, one must place themselves in the presence of God and
reflect upon Himthat is, realize Gods power, his omnipresence as opposed to your human
smallness. It is critical to come to a humble internal state before presenting your meditation to
God. The meditator may use a word that is representative of God and meditate upon it, but it is
made very clear that during your meditation, you must not worship your practice or any
symbolism you choose to associate with it. The aids are there as tools, and should not be
confused with your reverence and respect towards God. Pope Leo XIII respects a pious
meditation, positing that the frequent meditation upon the things of heaven wonderfully
nourishes and strengthens virtue and makes it always fearless of the greatest difficulties for the
good of others.
While this topic was enormously complex and difficult for me to understand originally, I
came to understand it as a beautiful and misunderstood spiritual practice. Though I was quick to
dismiss it as an offshoot of Eastern mysticism or even a composite of Eastern and Western
religious tradition, I came to understand meditative prayer in Catholicism as something deeply
important and unique to the religion.

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