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Set aside meditation & vocal prayer for deeper spiritual life?

Deeper Spiritual Life?


Dear Dan, I have a rule of life (firm spiritual commitments) and as part of that rule I have been meditating (Ignatian) and for post on a deeper spiritual lifepraying the rosary and the Liturgy of the Hours daily for years now. My struggle is that I have heard that if I sense the Lord’s presence (which does happen), that I should set these prayers aside and focus on the Lord. I am confused, I thought that focusing on God is what I am already doing. To me, the advised action will result in a failure to keep my commitments to the Lord. What am I missing here?

Dear Friend, your habit of daily prayer reflects a beautiful example of a substantive commitment to Christ. Don’t ever let loose of your daily dedication to specific times for prayer and your concrete commitments to the Lord. You will find great reward in this level of rigorous devotedness. In fact, your ascesis has probably brought you to an important crossroads in your prayer life.

The Difference Between Means and Ends

Why do we pray? Some would answer this question, “because we should,” and they are right. God is worthy of our prayer and self-giving, and simply on the basis of His goodness, we should respond with a rigorous commitment to daily prayer. Still, this approach is more reflective of an exercise of duty (which is good) and less of devotion (which is better).

For the person of good-will, often duty is the appropriate starting point. However, the purpose or end of our prayer is not merely that of satisfying a debt or checking off a box on our religious checklist. No, God deserves far more than our duty, He deserves and desires our love. Beyond that, He has not called us into a relationship of mere duty. He has called us into existence in order to have a profound love relationship with Him. We are called into a life of abundance, fullness, love, joy, and peace in His presence.

So, the end of prayer is an intimate relationship with the God of the universe, not a checked box. With clarity regarding the ends, we can now shift our attention to the means.

The rosary and meditation are both means to an end rather than an end in themselves. These means are important. In particular, the rosary should never be abandoned as a daily practice. However, if we are properly growing in the Lord as is indicated by your question, there may be times when we pause our attentive repetition to move into a deeper experience of prayer.

Meditation is a bit of a different animal. Meditation is a means that is necessary for early spiritual growth but a means nonetheless that we should set aside once the Lord begins to call us into a deeper level of prayer. At first, this setting aside is simply the appropriate fruit of affective meditation. However, later on, the setting aside becomes complete as, by a sheer act of grace on the part of God, our meditation terminates in contemplation. Though we won’t focus on this element here, in the Ascent of Mount Carmel, St. John of the Cross speaks about this transition in detail and particularly in Chapter 13 where he says:

For as it is necessary to abstain from it (meditation) at the proper time, in order to draw near unto God, that we may not be hindered by it.

Key Points to Remember

Just in case I have failed to provide sufficient clarity up to this point, let me repeat a few important items. First, we should never abandon the rosary as part of our daily prayer. Second, if we are progressing normally, there will be a time when we move beyond discursive meditation. Third, there will be times when these or any means or method of prayer should be paused as we follow the Lord’s leading.

An Example

For instance, let’s say that we are praying the second of the sorrowful mysteries or practicing our meditation on the scene of the scourging at the pillar. As we enter into our time of prayer, all is normal. However, at some point we are drawn with unusual clarity to some aspect of Christ’s suffering. Whether that be a realization that He has suffered for me personally, or we encounter a deep sorrow for what we experience as a witness of His suffering. Regardless of the specific prompting, it might be an important time to pause and ponder – to allow the Lord to draw us deeper into the scene, into His presence, into the moment and reality of His suffering. When I say pause, what do I mean? Simple, gently stop and be present to the Lord. Don’t make any grand intellectual shift, don’t focus on what is happening to you in prayer, focus on what He is showing you. Give yourself to this special revelation, this special gift. If and when this moment subsides, you can then gently return to complete your commitments. If however, this moment extends through the entire time you set aside for prayer, you should not feel guilty at not having completed them. To the contrary, you should rejoice regarding the special graces you have received.

What is happening in these moments is that God is drawing you beyond the means to the ultimate and divine end – Himself.

So, to answer your question, unless you are a religious or are otherwise bound to complete specific prayers as a matter of obedience, it would be a good, wise, and holy act to set the means aside in order to fully engage with the End of all Ends.

To learn more about Dan and his new book, Navigating the Interior Life, click here.

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Art for this post on deeper spiritual life: Page detail from Mediaeval Book of Hours, artist unknown, 1533, PD-US author's life plus 100 years or less.

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About Dan Burke

Dan is the President of the Avila Foundation, the parent organization of, the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation, Divine Intimacy Radio and Divine Intimacy Radio - Resources Edition, Into the Deep Parish Programs, the Apostoli Viae (Apostles of the Way) Community, and the FireLight Student Leadership Formation Program, author of the award-winning book, Navigating the Interior Life - Spiritual Direction and the Journey to God, Finding God Through Meditation-St. Peter of Alcantara, 30 Days with Teresa of Avila, Into the Deep, Living the Mystery of Merciful Love: 30 Days with Thérèse of Lisieux, and his newest book The Contemplative Rosary with St. John Paul II and St. Teresa of Avila. Beyond his "contagious" love for Jesus and His Church, he is a grateful husband and father of four, the Executive Director of and writer for EWTN's National Catholic Register, a regular co-host on Register Radio, a writer and speaker who provides online spiritual formation and travels to share his conversion story and the great riches that the Church provides us through authentic Catholic spirituality. Dan has been featured on EWTN's Journey Home program and numerous radio programs.

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  • Cecilia

    Dan, is this not what what Our Lady is teaching at Medjugorje, i.e., prayer from the heart? As we are in this mental prayer, we become drawn into a deeper level where God “speaks to the heart.” During the times of apparitions, the rosary is recited & often it is in the middle of this recitation that the visionary’s entire being is drawn to the apparition. If we observe, we, too, can imitate the process and receive what Our Lady or Our Lord desires to teach us at that time. Time stands still, our hearts are joined to eternity if we are but willing to “let go” our our own agendas. My understanding is that the first step of setting aside the time to pray (giving our yes/fiat to the call) then focusing on the means (rosary, etc) we have allowed heaven to form our hearts to then hear the Holy Spirit’s voice of love. However, sometimes along the way our focus becomes our agenda rather than God’s calling. Anyway, this seems to be what I have experienced.

    • Dear Cecelia – you are on target! This has always been the teaching of the Church from the beginning.

    • Sandy

      Cecilia, I never realized or connected that Our Lady is teaching us how to pray/be in union with God through the visionaries of Medjugorje. I have been to Medjugorje four times and been present at numerous apparitions, but never connected dropping what I’m in the middle of when the Lord or Our Lady calls us and being totally focused and immersed in that moment of utmost intimacy. What you wrote reminds me of how difficult it is for me to let go of my agenda and let God work in me. Thanks for giving me a new understanding with clarity.

  • Br. Matt

    I am a Capuchin Franciscan friar and, as a religious, this was a lesson that was important to learn. As a novice I remember reading Saint Bonaventure’s “Rule for Novices,” a summation of points that Bonaventure thought critical for the spiritual progress of a Franciscan novice. He noted that, when the Lord revealed his presence, it was necessary to halt all activity and in silence listen to Him. But when he “withdraws his presence” the novice should continue with whatever work – either temporal or the work of prayer – he was doing. Since I think we are all, in some way, spiritual novices, this advice could easily apply to anyone. The invitation to deeper prayer sometimes comes at moments when we don’t consider ourselves praying, i.e. at moments when we are not praying the Rosary or the Divine Office, but simple, seemingly arbitrary moments of everyday life, such as waiting at the bus stop or stopped at a traffic light or going grocery shopping. I think in those moments, too, it’s important to pause and allow the Lord in as much as is possible, given the circumstances.

    • Well said. Thank you Brother Matt

    • LizEst

      Thank you, Brother Matt, for this very clear and concise explanation, which is very easy to understand. My grade school parish was run by Franciscans. God bless you! How long have you been a Capuchin friar?

  • Sanctus 3

    Thank you, Dan, for this clear teaching. It matches very well with what St. John of the Cross tells us are the three ways to know when we are moving from meditation to a beginning form of contemplation.

    And I agree with B. Matt that God can break through to us in so many ways outside of our set prayer time. In fact, for me, it seems more likely!

  • I find it fascinating that Dan’s beautiful illustration of the dynamics of what happens (or what can happen) in mental prayer is part of a comment on “setting aside” our prayer disciplines or methods. In the context of mental prayer, the method of meditation, either discursive, imaginative, or affective, exists precisely in order to create the conditions in which we are better able to hear God speaking to us or to feel him nourishing or comforting us. Again in the context of mental prayer, we really can’t do anything besides meditate: acquired contemplation always grows out of meditation, and infused contemplation is a pure gift of God – and so, I don’t think we can ever really sit down and “do” contemplation; all we can do is enter into mental prayer through our own effort (meditation), and be docile to whatever God does and wherever God leads. There may be seasons of our spiritual journey when we barely begin our meditation (time set aside for mental prayer) and we are drawn immediately into contemplation, but those seasons may be followed by others when God asks us to do a lot of work during mental prayer! In both cases we still have to keep doing our part. I also seem to think that we may be confounding affective meditation with contemplation, but that is a topic worthy of its own entry. In any case, I agree wholeheartedly with Dan about continuing to set aside time every day, formally, for mental prayer, and about keeping the means and ends united.

    • Fr. John – you are right. By bringing in St. John of the Cross at this point I have left the impression that there is a clean jump from initial impulses that rightly flow from discursive to affective meditation, to the complete setting aside of meditation that comes when drawn to contemplation. I think you ought to write a post about this!

      • Modified the post to better reflect the process…

    • LizEst

      Thank you, Fr. John, for this explanation. I second Dan’s comment about writing a post on this. God bless you!

      …and thanks to Dan, too! ; )

  • Well, my good people of God, on this one, I am just a wobbling toddler trying to learn how to walk steadily…..but God, willing, I will come out with something new as I continue to re-read the Post and your deep theological Responses and references from the Giant Saints of the Catholic Church

  • JRKH

    This offer made me think of two verses from Scripture. One in Luke 17:1-10 which ends with the servant saying, “I am a poor servant for I have done no more than what is required”. The other from Mt 25:14-30 and the Master’s compliment, “Well done good and faithful servant.
    The reason that these two struck me in connection with the issue here is because a servant does indeed have duties and commitments that he is to be about and must be careful to properly discharge these duties. But perhaps the most important of these duties is to be attentive to the master’s voice and to respond promptly to that voice no matter what other task the servant might be currently engaged in.
    So – for the one engaged in prayer – who hears the master call – must set aside what he is doing and respond…”Yes Lord, I am here”. After all, what higher duty can a servant have if that servant hopes to hear the master say, “Well done good and faithful servant.”
    Does not this make sense???


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