"Remember, I am with you always to the end of the age" (Mt 28:20)


[Part 4 of 6] GRACE TO BEG FOR
[Part 6 of 6] REVIEW OF PRAYER

he first consideration in understanding meditation and contemplation is to imagine that we are now entering into the main course of the meal where we will truly be fed by the Word of God. Traditionally this is called Lectio Divina which is a formal type of prayer involving one’s whole mind, heart and even gut. A formal prayer period is distinguished from an informal one in terms of the degree of awareness and focus given to the prayer exercise. There is greater importance and priority given to partake in food during the three major or formal meals, namely, breakfast, lunch and dinner. These are the non-negotiables when it comes to maintaining a healthy diet or regimen. In a similar fashion, formal prayer period is a more focused and devout type where the attention or consciousness of the retreatant, in a retreat setting, is solely devoted to partake in spiritual food and not doing other exercises, e.g., walking, running, painting and the like. A daily regimen of formal hours of prayer periods is largely a mental exercise of ruminating or chewing over something mentally. In the full Spiritual Exercises aka 30-Day Long Retreat setting, the exercitant is asked to offer four to five formal prayer periods. I would like to introduce the three concentric circles or chambers where a formal prayer period usually happens.

First circle: The first outermost circle—the mind—is the first chamber or vessel of chewing over the Word of God or other prayer matter given by the spiritual guide or the giver of the Spiritual Exercises. The prayer matters prescribed by St Ignatius may employ meditation or contemplation separately or jointly. During the meditation part of a prayer a retreatant feeds his or her mind with the words of Scripture without straining to “study or solve.” Silencing the mind is required by “emptying” it of other external concerns. There are occasions that meditation is done as a centering prayer by remembering a word or a phrase where the Spirit is talking to or conversing with us. In this sense, all formal prayer periods happen as “conversing” and “relating” which is so different from talking about something. Within the mind the two paths are clearly distinguished.

Contemplation is a special kind of meditation that is employed when the prayer matter revolves around a Gospel account which is episodic or situational. The needed centering prayer to enter and accompany every contemplation, although not exclusive to it, is what St Ignatius calls Composition of Place. There are different ways to enter into a prayer period as there are ways of entering a house. Mary Gordon’s book “Seeing Through Places” shares her experience of entering the house of her grandmother in three different ways: through the front porch, the side porch, or the kitchen. Among the three, the kitchen is the most common way. Mary Gordon’s experience when entering through the kitchen is like entering her grandmother’s life and person which is comparable to the experience of Composition of Place. After composing the place, contemplation as a long loving look takes center stage. There is a line from an old song that says, “The old gray mare, she ain’t what she used to be”—e.g, with hair that used to be black as night. But we have to look her in the eye now with gray hair. Dr Edward de Bono, a Maltese physician and psychologist, calls it “lateral thinking” or the ability to look at things in different ways.

When the material or food for prayer is an event in the life of our Lord, the yeast of contemplation is one's very first step towards the house of God and feeling welcome and at home in there. Be like our forefather David in exclaiming, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD!’ Our feet are standing in your gates, O Jerusalem” (Ps 122:1-2 NRSVCE). Or be like the Psalmist in praying, “One thing I have asked from the Lord, that I shall seek: That I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, To behold the beauty of the Lord and to meditate in His temple” (Ps 27:4 NASB). Or imagine you are in the shoes of the first two apostles—Andrew and Peter. When they first encountered Jesus, he told them, “What do you seek?” And they said to him, “Rabbi where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They did not only come and see where Jesus was staying; but they stayed with him that day, for it was about the tenth hour (CF Jn 1:38-39).

St Teresa of Avila once quipped “God lives among the pots and pans.” When we have arrived at the revered place of God start noticing the “pots and pans.” You are not alone in the house so engage the people living there through noticing, relishing and savoring. Contemplation is a conversation with God, but we can be more at home by also engaging the characters in the Bible. A relationship or a bond will be formed through these conversations. This makes contemplation as more imaginative, more colorful, more adventurous and more surprising than the more direct and concise meditation type of prayer. All prayers, whether meditation or contemplation, spring from what is written—through the words in Scripture—and through what is implied between the lines. This is the roughage or the course and fibrous fodder from grass and hay for the goats and sheep. Just like in our food intake, we should eat more of carbohydrates and other stuff that fuel our body. Likewise, in prayer, the Word of God is the main fuel and it is precious manna that has been passed on to us from one generation to another starting from the beginning of time. The retreatant is invited to participate proactively in these kinds of written, spoken and sang discourses in every prayer period and allow oneself to be fed.

But there is a caveat to keep in mind. Ignatian prayer moves deeper beyond the visual imagining and beyond sense experiences. These are important only as launching pads like St Ignatius’ imagined maidservant in the Contemplation on the Nativity, e.g., I am moving from ‘gazing at’ the Holy Family to ‘serving them in their needs, just as if I were there’ (SE 114). But when all is said and done in contemplation we are brought closer and closer to the heart. St Teresa writes in the “Interior Castle” her vision of the soul as “a castle made of a single diamond… in which there are many rooms, just as in Heaven there are many mansions.” Her castle is her body. She describes the various rooms of this castle—the degrees of purgation and continual strife—through which the soul in search for perfection must traverse before reaching the innermost chamber, the place of complete transfiguration and communion with God. For St Teresa, there is no life more real than the interior life, and few persons have had such an extraordinarily rich experience of this ultimate spiritual reality—the source of St Teresa’s profound joy.

Second circle: The second circle—the mouth—is the second chamber into meditating or contemplating the Word. It is not just the mind—the first chamber—that is fed by the Word of God. Memories, emotions and relationships may be evoked in the conversation process which become the consolations and desolations of each prayer period. Another way of looking at consolations and desolations is a form of movement—of moving away from to getting closer to. Consolations are always tied to desolations, and vice versa. The second chamber, which is more spatiotemporal, is a very fitting venue for the various spiritual movements or feelings in a retreat setting. The mouth serves like a door to our enteric nervous system which is commonly called gut. When we were still in the womb of our mothers, both our gut and our brain originated from the same clump of tissue called the neural crest. One section turned into the brain between our ears and another section turned into the “second brain” or one’s gut where one half of all our nerve cells are located (Jordan Rubin, Patient Heal Thyself, p. 31).

Just as there is food for thought there is also emotional eating, which, by the way, could be seen as a negative coping mechanism—hence, it solidifies a connection between mind and gut. There is this apocryphal, but endearing story about eating partridge when St Teresa and her group of sisters and priests came back home from one of their expeditions by donkey cart. During the Reform period, Teresa founded monasteries for men and convents for women. It was already late in the day, and everybody was tired, and one of the sisters came down to the convent kitchen at night to make a cup of tea. St Teresa was known for her “love” of partridge. A fellow nun spotted her not just eating, but devouring a whole bird with great gusto. The nun was rather scandalized by this who probably thought that eating should be done very modestly. And she said, “Oh, Mother, excuse me, I didn’t realize you were eating and with such gusto.” And Teresa could tell that the nun had a judgment about her gastronomic ecstasy. Mother Superior slapped her hand down on the table and said, “When I fast I fast. When I eat partridge, I eat partridge!” In St Teresa’s case, we can “pray” and learn so much more through the gut. Jesus, for example, taught his followers about the relationship between praying and fasting while they were eating. When his disciples were unable to cast a devil from a suffering man, he told them the secret ingredient to obtaining a spiritual power by “prayer and fasting” (Mt 17:14-21). Jesus seems to be pointing to a level of spiritual and emotional power that depends primarily on the gut and only secondarily, the brain. For Jesus, one can “think,” “learn” and “pray” through the gut.

There is a Native American proverb which says, “Listen or your tongue will make you deaf.” Like the mind, the mouth needs restraining and quieting down too. They are like Siamese twins; when one is sick, the other may also be sick. The reason you do not hear others’ feelings or even your own emotions is because your busy tongue has made you deaf. Every meditation and contemplation for that matter relies heavily on “gut feeling” to be able to listen well to the voices and accompanying feelings of the different characters in the bible. Recall the passage to your imagination and be free to make it as vivid and real as possible by looking at what people are doing—listening intently to what they are saying, and feeling their heart beat as they move around. If given the opportunity, feel free to savor, smell and touch what the characters are tasting, smelling, sensing or touching. Throughout the period remain within the context of the passage. As you glide into the people’s experience within the Living Word of God, make it your own privileged experience by claiming and believing in it. Do not forget to converse with the people in the scene.

Third circle: This is the place of the heart—the place of union and harmony. St Benedict of Nursia, points out in his Rule of prayer in the Psalms to his monks: mens concordet voci, “the mind must be in accord with the voice.” The saint teaches us something about meditating and contemplating the Word of God which must precede our thoughts and feelings. Benedict XVI speaks of the liturgy as a place of harmony or union between mind and voice. As Sacrosanctum Concilium recalls, “in order that the liturgy may be able to produce its full effects it is necessary that the faithful come to it with proper dispositions, that their minds be attuned to their voices, and that they cooperate with heavenly grace lest they receive it in vain” (SC 11).

Ever in Scripture, it is the heart that prays and it is the heart that is truly fed or where we truly receive and become one with God. There is a saying that when the heart is full, the mouth is empty—that includes also the mind. The Rule of St Benedict opens with the words, “Listen with the ear of the heart.” What does it mean to listen with the ear of the heart? Only after we have quieted down our two brains that we can move into the third circle—the heart. Once, I got a feedback from one of my silent retreatants who thanked me for listening not only to words but to movements of the heart. It dawned on me that it does make a big difference to listen in this way. Deep in the heart, prayer happens. So allow the “ears of your heart”—to do their work. It is a difficult and challenging journey to listen with the heart when it has hardened like rock, e.g., of one’s own assumptions, prejudices and past hurt. However, this is the most privileged place to receive the Word of God when the mind is in accord with the voice like the experience of Angels who are so single-minded and single-hearted.

The desert fathers and mothers refer to this innermost state as the “purity of heart” where we come face to face with God. “Even before there is a word on my tongue, behold, O LORD, You know it all” (Ps 139:4). Although God knows already what you might have there in your heart, talk to Him and listen reverently to His words of consolation. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “in the sacramental liturgy of the Church, the mission of Christ and of the Holy Spirit proclaims, makes present, and communicates the mystery of salvation, which is continued in the heart that prays. The spiritual writers sometimes compare the heart to an altar” (CCC 2655): altare Dei est cor nostrum.

Colloquy As Prayer Within A Prayer

Towards the end of the prayer period you may wish to make a colloquy with the Lord. Colloquies are deep conversations no longer with the biblical characters, but with Jesus as a lover speaks to the beloved. Colloquies can also happen spontaneously at any point of the prayer period. As a rule, never end any prayer period without some form of a Colloquy. The Curé of Ars, St John Mary Vianney gives this perfect catechism on prayer. I quote, “Prayer is nothing else than union with God. When the heart is pure and united with God, it is consoled and filled with sweetness; it is dazzled by a marvelous light. In this intimate union God and the soul are like two pieces of wax moulded into one; they cannot any more be separated. It is a very wonderful thing, this union of God with his insignificant creature, a happiness passing all understanding.”

Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection (c. 1614—12 February 1691) served as a lay brother in a Carmelite monastery in Paris. Christians commonly regard him for writing the classic Christian text, The Practice of the Presence of God. He said that our relationship to God is God’s indwelling presence in our hearts. God is truly in our hearts, that we must adore, love, and serve him “in spirit and in truth.” This is the best disposition to have in each prayer period where we practice the presence of God—who sees everything that happens and will happen in us and in all creatures. God’s presence is always at work freely in, with, through and in spite of all creatures that depend on Him for everything they need.

Brother Lawrence’s concept of prayer goes even deeper, as he defines the practice of the presence of God as a “prayer within the prayer.” He says: “During our work and other activities, even during our reading and writing, no matter how spiritual—and, I emphasize, even during our religious exercises and vocal prayers—we must stop for a moment, as often as possible, to adore God in the depths of our hearts, to savor Him, even though in passing and stealthily. Since you are aware that God is present to you during your actions, that He is in the depths and center of your heart, stop your activities and even your vocal prayers, at least from time to time, to adore Him within, to praise Him, to ask His help, to offer Him your heart, and to thank Him” (Spiritual Maxims 9). For it is these brief moments of relishing God’s presence that truly satisfies and fills the vessel of the heart.

Blessed Virgin Mary As Perfect Model Of Meditation And Contemplation

Who is the model of someone who listened to the Word? It is the Blessed Virgin Mary. St Ignatius recommends to the retreatant that every after a prayer period one of the following prayers have to be recited: Our Father, Anima Christi or the Hail Mary. Mary has a pivotal role in the graces that we ask from the Triune-God. There are two helpful metaphors to describe Mary as a model: first, Mary is compared to a Great Aqueduct, which floods the earth with grace (St Bernard of Clairvaux c. 1153). Secondly, Mary is like the neck of the hourglass through which graces from heaven pass (Edward Yarnold SJ, A Do It Yourself Retreat). We can combine the two to portray Mary’s role as both the way and the quintessential vessel. It is said that “empty vessels make the most sound.” This is true of Mary, who has been given the fullness of grace and becomes Theotokos (God-bearer). But the satisfying and feeding occurred in small amounts of spiritual food. Mary’s life was filled with decisions she had to make and which were chosen rightly and consistently on a daily basis. Like any ordinary person, she had to deal with doses of normal life struggles and their immediate implications.

Church Tradition juxtaposes Mary and Eve in terms of their choices and responses to God. The fall of Adam and Eve, our first parents, was occasioned by feeding on the forbidden fruit. Mary chose to feed on God’s Word. Twice in identical words Luke’s Gospel points to the ‘here-and-now’ of Mary as she ‘kept’ the words in her heart (2:19; 2:51). This is what von Balthasar means that “the inner reality of love can be recognised only by love” (Hans Urs von Balthasar, Love Alone Is Credible, p 61) and the inner reality of love can bloom and grow only by love, kept in the heart of Mary, contemplating God in that humble way which helped her son to grow “in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man” (2:52; 2:40).

On Mount Calvary, the crucified Lord gives to us his own mother as the New Eve who models for us how to be satisfied. In William Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, there is a Hebrew Old Testament verb “saba” which means “to be satisfied, have enough, be filled.” Mounce calls our attention to the deep spiritual meaning of being satisfied as when one grows “old and full of years” (1 Chr 23:1). Ever in scripture, satisfaction is not only to have enough physically in terms of earthly food, but more so spiritually in terms of heavenly food which alone satisfies. The opposite to satisfaction is dissatisfaction which is a very dangerous thing to happen to one’s soul. It connotes the state not only of abandonment and emptiness, but of death. Mounce cites the book of Proverbs (CF Pro 27:20): “Death (Sheol) and Destruction (Abaddon) are never satisfied continually requiring more souls, and haughty man enlarges his appetite like Sheol, and he is like death, never satisfied (Hab 2:5).”

In the 1854 Apostolic Constitution, Ineffabilis Deus, promulgating the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, Pope Pius IX referred to the opinion of the Fathers of the Church: “Hence, to demonstrate the original innocence and sanctity of the Mother of God, not only did they frequently compare her to Eve while yet a virgin, while yet innocent, while yet incorrupt, while not yet deceived by the deadly snares of the most treacherous serpent; but they have also exalted her above Eve with a wonderful variety of expressions. Eve listened to the serpent with lamentable consequences; she fell from original innocence and became his slave. The most Blessed Virgin, on the contrary, ever increased her original gift, and not only never lent an ear to the serpent, but by divinely given power she utterly destroyed the force and dominion of the evil one” (Italics mine). Fr JM Manzano SJ


  1. I'm happy to read your very extensive sharing...shedding light on Ignatian way of prayer...and enriching my experience of a contemplative walk in climbing a mountain with our young people yesterday, beholding the beauty of God in His creation...reflecting and sharing with them the "mountains and caves" of our lives.. Then on the top ... taking a silent moment with God, feeling at peace and refreshed by cold wind...

    Your words reminds me of the words of St. Teresa ..
    In prayer...
    The important thing is not to think much but to love much and so do that which best stirs you to love. Love is not great delight but desire to please God in everything.

    Thank you so much Fr. JM! GBU! Cuidate!

    1. Thank you for your wonderful sharing as you take delight in the beauty of God's creation—His revelation to us of his great love. GBU!


    2. Indeed! His Beauty revealing His great love to us... 😊


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