A Catholic Monthly Magazine

Techniques of Prayer

Fr John Kelly

by Fr John Kelly ocso

Before we can speak meaningfully of techniques of prayer we need to remind ourselves once again of the nature of prayer. In this series we have adopted for the most part St. Teresa’s definition of prayer as “loving communion with One whom we know loves us.” If prayer is “loving communion” with God, it follows that techniques of prayer are all those factors that contribute to this loving communion. There are innumerable factors that can help our prayer in different ways. All of these can be called ‘techniques of prayer’ in the wide sense in so far as they help to unite us with God.

In earlier chapters of this series I pointed out that Christian contemplation has been traditionally understood in two main senses. One can speak of ‘active contemplation’ and ‘passive contemplation.’ The Fathers of the church and official church documents usually speak of contemplation in the active sense. John of the Cross and many others, especially in recent centuries, use the word ‘contemplation’ for a passive form of prayer.

Both types of contemplation require different techniques. There are some techniques suited to both types of contemplation. There are others, however, that are helpful only to active contemplation, while still others are more suited to passive contemplation.


Techniques Useful for Both Types of Contemplation 

All contemplation requires that we withdraw our attention and affections from ungodly things and that we direct them to God. We need interior peace so as to commune with God. Silence and solitude contribute greatly to this peace. Jesus often prayed in solitude. Freedom from disorderly attachments is also important. If we love some creature more than God we cannot give ourselves wholly to God, which is essential for genuine prayer.

It is also well to remember that everyone’s prayer should be a rhythm of active and passive prayer, and types of prayer that are partly active and partly passive. On a scale from one to ten, where one stands for a very active type of prayer and ten stands for a very passive type of prayer, there can be varying degrees of more or less activity and passivity in a person’s prayer. I think that this applies to everyone who takes prayer seriously. In practice one must follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Having said this, it can often be wrong to use certain techniques at a time when we are being led into deep passive prayer. A time comes for most people when discursive meditation needs to be abandoned because it is becoming a hindrance to one’s communion with God. We must never try to force our feelings at prayer, if they do not come naturally during prayer. Singing psalms as we walk around, and spiritual reading are not compatible with passive prayer. In passive prayer we must stop using our faculties to a large extent and let God act. Hence it is desirable that the mind be utterly still and free from all thoughts even of sacred things. Jane de Chantal is very insistent that when we are called to passive prayer we must not reflect even on the mysteries of Christ.

Repetition of a short aspiration is a very common technique in the Christian tradition. It seems to be a mixture of active and passive prayer. Cassian recommends it; the ‘Jesus Prayer’ is an example of such prayer. The Rosary contains a lot of repetition. Francis de Sales says that it is better to repeat a single aspiration one hundred times than to say one hundred different aspirations. Constant repetition will impress it on our hearts. Repeating an aspiration on beads can also help.

Techniques of Active Contemplation

We already pointed out that we use all our faculties in active contemplation. Ignatius of Loyola encourages us to use our senses and imagination. Even reading and study, used with discretion, can lead us to affective communion with God. Reflecting on gospel passages, on the sufferings of Jesus or on a particular virtue are so many techniques that can lead us to loving communion. Above all, words lead us to such communion. When Jesus was asked for a method of prayer he told his apostles, “when you pray, say ‘Our Father’” He gave them a technique - say definite words. When appropriate words are said slowly and with attention they will eventually generate affections in our hearts.

Words are very powerful. If I say to someone, ‘I love you’, both I myself and the person addressed can be deeply moved. In large measure the techniques for active contemplation resemble the techniques used by people who try to nourish love for each other. By speech we express our love and respect for the other. We praise them, thank them and find joy in their company. Body language is also important. All these dynamics help us to nourish our love for God, especially in active contemplation.

We express and nourish our love for God also by song, music, reverent bows, genuflections, prostrations etc. Personal prayer, alone with God in solitude, is a very effective way of fostering loving communion in one’s heart. Jesus usually went off alone to pray; he didn’t want his apostles around as he entered into loving communion with his Father.


Techniques for Passive Contemplation

Passive prayer calls for a change of technique. In active prayer we use all our faculties. In passive prayer we try to be interiorly very still; we abandon inner discourse and we make every effort to relax and let God act in us. We try to be quiet externally and internally. Sitting still helps to induce inner stillness. Focusing on one’s breath, on one’s heart-beat, on various parts of the body, can lead to integration and peace of mind and body. The repetition of a mantra or sacred word empties the mind of all other content and prevents the operation of the analytic mind. This is necessary so as to allow God to act in us.

Inner silence is also the atmosphere in which the deep-self is actuated and this actuation serves, in some measure, to integrate body, mind and spirit.

In conclusion, techniques are necessary to enter into loving communion with God. This communion must be realised, not just at the level of consciousness, but also at a deeper level where God dwells in the depths of our being. While all prayer unites our spirit with God’s Spirit it seems that this happens in a special manner in passive prayer, wherein we remain still and let God act. “Be still and know that I am God” (Ps. 46).

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