On Pain and Contemplative Prayer

I wish I could fully put into words what my prayer life has become of late. In many ways, the dissection was the best thing to happen to my spiritual life, although I’m still struggling with sins and attachments.

First, a few definitions. The terms contemplation, meditation, mysticism, etc., get batted around and can mean several things. A simple way to explain the Catholic, and particularly Carmelite, tradition of contemplative prayer is that there is “acquired contemplation” and “received contemplation.”

Usually, in Catholic discussions of contemplative prayer, there are four pitfalls considered (besides the old, “Only those who are worthy should practice contemplative prayer,” which the spiritual Masters would deny vociferously):

1) Confusing the physiological and psychological experiences that naturally come from being in a prayerful state with received contemplation
2) Becoming too attached to consolations
3) Falling into pagan prayer modes or occultism
4) Lastly, the Eastern tradition tends to warn against being too reliant on imagination (often recommended as a strategy in the Western tradition), and recommends sticking with the Scriptures and Icons (which are supposed to be written according to careful rules of theological symbolism) so as to avoid letting the imagination run wild.

Often, and I’ve found this to be true in my own life, we can get so caught up in trying to avoid all the warnings that we actually thwart our prayer life.

For example, I had come to misinterpret “avoid attachment to consolations” as “avoid consolations,” so when I would feel consolations, I would often try to ignore them. And, as many Catholics do, I interpreted warnings 1 and 3 as meaning I had to always be practicing some form of vocal prayer–though there’s nothing wrong with that. Holy Mother Teresa says that some people can achieve contemplation through vocal prayer.

So, a year ago, as I discussed previously on this blog, I worked through some of the kinks in my prayer life: very small but significant mistakes I was making. I spent a lot of time hashing some things out with experienced Carmelites, both Internet friends and my local Community’s president. In a Facebook discussion with a friend who’s been a Secular for a long time and even lived with the Carmelite nuns on Mount Carmel for a while, I said how sometimes I like to just sit and hold a crucifix, or a statue of Jesus, and just love Him, and my friend said, reminding me of Lucy Van Pelt, “THAT’S IT!” She said, “If that’s what it takes for you, just sit there wearing your ceremonial scapular and holding a crucifix.”

Then there were two things my President said that also helped. One was that, in response to my concerns about how, if one is praying without words, one knows that one is being Catholic and not Pagan, he said that that comes from having a well-rounded prayer life. If we’re participating in the liturgy and practicing devotions, then we can engage in prayer of quiet with confidence that we’re on track with Jesus. The second thing he said is that we know by the fruits, that prayer of quiet will make us more of what we’re on track to be. If we’re otherwise right with God, prayer of quiet will make us more peaceful, more loving, etc. On the other hand, if you’re *not* right with God, and you try to practice prayer of quiet without a proper framework, it’s going to produce bad fruit.

And when he said that, I responded that prayer of quiet is a lot like suffering.

So these things really helped me to break loose in my prayer life in the past year.

I am nowhere near contemplative union, but I am pretty sure I’m solidly in what St. John of the Cross calls the Night of the Senses (the stage at which one is purged of remaining sins and attachments to external things).

But what has really struck me is how my pain (and my painkillers) contribute to my prayer life, and combine to create a very interesting state of prayer. Where just a year ago, I found prayer of quiet incredibly difficult, and where I started by, following my mentors’ advice, using very slow recitation of vocal prayers combined with deep breathing exercises to get myself into the proper mental state for prayer of quiet, now I can easily lapse into not only prayer of quiet but outright contemplation, but simply giving a mental aspiration to God and by embracing my pain.

It goes beyond “offering it up.” Again, I can’t put into words what the experience is like, but by surrendering completely to the pain (or painkiller wooziness, as the case may be), I can completely surrender to God.

I just wish I were better about it.

Then there’s Mass, which has always been a time of great torture for me. It’s like as soon as Mass starts, God cranks up my pain meter or something. Both Ralph McInerny and Cardinal Ratzinger have argued that the cliche “old lady saying her Rosary” during the Traditional Latin Mass is more in keeping with Vatican II’s call to “active participation” than someone who’s focusing entirely on flipping through hymnals, hopping up and down, or engaging in some “lay ministry” without being prayerfully recollected. So in order to prayerfully recollect myself at Mass, I usually have to engage in practices that, on the surface, many “Vatican II fanatics” would insist are “not active participation,” like spiritual reading, or praying the Psalms, or praying the Jesus Prayer or something.

I’ve been trying to relatively “cram” for the fact that next week I’m making my definitive promises as a Carmelite, and I’ve been reading the Letters of St. Therese. So today I read a few letters, but, in keeping with what my Community’s president says about “reading for formation, not information,” I could only manage a few letters and had to stop, but it put me in a deep state of contemplation for Mass and afterwards.

And one of the other thoughts that came to me had to do with reading. I have a house full of books I want to read, and I feel like I *ought* to read. And I find it ever more difficult to read, for a variety of reasons. But when I *do* read, it seems like a basic thing spiritual masters-Thomas a Kempis, Therese, John of the Cross, etc.–complain about is people who confuse “book learning” with spirituality and read more than they have to. I have all the information in my head. It’s the practical application I struggle with–so do I really need to read all those books?

I keep wanting to read the documents of Vatican II and the Catechism in honor of the Year of Faith, but again–is that really what God wants?

I know what God wants of me: to practice contemplation and achieve detachment. I know *how* to do that, and certainly one of my attachments is my desire to read so much, yet there’s also the idea that if I spent less time on other forms of recreation and dedicated it to holy reading, at least I’d be occupying my mind better and building an even deeper prayer life, to hopefully root out the remainder of my sins and attachments.

So, that’s where I stand right now, but I thank God for the deep graces He has granted me in this past year, and I truly appreciate the gifts in prayer He has granted me. This reflection wasn’t as well written as I hoped, but I pray this meager attempt might be helpful to someone.

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One response to “On Pain and Contemplative Prayer

  1. Hi, I found your blog through WordPress. I thought you might be interested in the posts I wrote recently on contemplation, and my blog in general. Congratulations on your upcoming promises. I’ll say a pray for you.

    http://contemplativehomeschool.wordpress.com/2012/11/20/what-is-contemplation-part-i/

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