One of the joys of summer is finding time to sit outdoors in the cool of the early morning or late evening. For many of us, vacation always includes a walk along a beach or around a lake or through the woods. One reason we love these walks is that we feel like we have a few minutes to think about nothing. We are not racing to the next event or to meet a deadline. We savor this time and so does God, our loving Father. In fact, God’s desire is that rather than thinking about nothing, we take this time for a conversation with him, who knows everything on our minds and in our hearts, who doesn’t mind hearing a plea for help, but also enjoys the quiet of just being together.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that “prayer is the raising of one’s mind and heart to God or the requesting of good things from God” (CCC, 2559). The shade of the backyard, a sunset over the water or the quiet of the woods is an invitation to raise our minds and hearts to God. It seems so natural to offer a word of thanks for the beauty of God’s creation and to request God’s help for all the people and situations that make up our prayer list. But these moments are also perfectly made for another kind of prayer. The beauty of a summer day, the quiet and less hectic pace is a perfect opportunity for the prayer of contemplation. It is the form of prayer that offers God the gift of our silence so as to fully enjoy his presence and better hear his word in our hearts.
Saint Teresa of Jesus, the great teacher of prayer, writes in The Book of Her Life, “Contemplative prayer in my opinion is nothing else than a close sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us” (The Collected Works of Saint Teresa of Avila, I, 67). In its most developed form, contemplative prayer draws one as near to God as is possible in this life. It anticipates now some of the intensity of the beatific vision, the “contemplation of God in his heavenly glory” (CCC, 1028). It gives a taste of the divine presence. This experience of contemplative prayer is truly a gift from God. While few of us will experience contemplative prayer in its fullness, we can practice its components in a way that will deepen and enrich our practice of prayer.
The Catechism teaches that rather than vocal prayer (prayer expressed in words) or mental prayer (the practice of seeking to understand the “why and how of Christian life”), contemplative prayer is a gaze of faith fixed on Jesus, a hearing of the word of God done in silence, resulting in a deeper union with God. It begins by simply being conscious of placing ourselves in the presence of God and quieting our minds and enjoying the silence. Many of us have been fortunate enough to have a similar experience with a spouse or a close friend or sitting with a sleeping child, where simply being together in silence brings great happiness and a sense of peace. It can be the same with God.
Our Lord has a gift in store for us. If we “steal” these quiet moments with God during the slower pace of the summer months, we will begin to treasure them. We will discover ways to make them a regular part of our practice of prayer as summer becomes fall and the daily calendar begins to fill back up. Contemplative prayer is a gift from God that keeps on giving.