Contemplative Prayer

As we’ve explored this week, any human perfection simply reflects God’s holiness. Receiving such goodness comes through grace; it cannot be achieved. But we can be honest and humble, recognizing our imperfection and need of mercy. And we can practice opening our hearts, minds, and bodies to let God’s love flow more freely. Mirabai Starr reflects on the three stages of prayer taught by Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) in her book The Way of Perfection. She invites us into deepening intimacy with God:

Teresa names the first stage the Prayer of Recollection. When we make the effort to set aside time to be still and turn inward, we gather all our faculties to a single point of concentration and invite the presence of the sacred to enter us. . . . In this state, we may find that what the Buddhists call “monkey mind” continues to chatter for a while, but gradually things settle down and a kind of spaciousness begins to open between the thoughts, and that’s where the Holy One slips in to sit beside us.

The Prayer of Recollection involves our active participation. It requires discipline, concentration, and a willingness to endure both mental turmoil and spiritual aridity. It is an act of purification; by scouring the vessel of our souls with the practice of prayer, we empty ourselves so that the Beloved may fill us.

At that point, we may enter the Prayer of Quiet. Now that the labor of recollection has cleansed us, we are ready to receive the infusion of divine light. This is a state of grace. . . . Once we have gathered our senses and intellect, a feeling of deep peace and quietude may wash over us like a warm wave. This is an exceedingly delicate experience. . . . We cannot manufacture or manipulate this stage of prayer. We can only make ourselves ready to receive it when it comes and, in the words of the late meditation teacher Stephen Levine, we “hold on tightly and let go lightly.”

In Teresa’s final stage, the Prayer of Union, any sense of an individualized self slips away. The soul merges with the Divine, like a drop of water into the boundless sea. The Beloved, who, as it turns out, has longed for the lover as fervently as she has desired him, makes her one with him. The Prayer of Union is usually fleeting, but its impact endures. Each time God blesses us with these unitive experiences, we are forever transformed. We are likely to still bumble through the human condition, behaving unskillfully at times and with more grace at others, but with each taste of union we identify a little less with the individual personality and more with our essential unity with the Divine. We are less likely to take passing circumstances as seriously as we used to. Our values shift from acquiring security to serving the One through being of service in the world.

The contemplative life is not a matter of achieving some artificial state of perfection available only to the spiritual elite, who glide past the obstacles that throw off the rest of us. It is a matter of being so fully present to the moment that we cannot help but catch a glimpse of God in all that is. “Which of my blessings,” the Holy One asks in the Qur’an, “will you deny?”

Teresa of Avila is one of the great advocates and models of the power of simply sitting for a few minutes each day in silence and stillness, and striking up a conversation with the One who is waiting to love us unconditionally, the One who will never leave us, the One who is not different from the essence of who we truly are.