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What is the “Prayer of Simplicity”? (Part I of III)

November 4, 2013 by  
Filed under Contemplation, Fr. Bartunek, Meditation, Mental Prayer, Prayer

Prayer of Simplicity: What is it? (Part I of III)

Dear Father John, I’ve heard that the prayer of simplicity is a kind of a bridge from meditation to contemplation. Can you help me to understand what this experience of prayer might be and how one might know that God is leading them down that path?

The term “prayer of simplicity” is used differently by different spiritual authors, so there is some danger of confusion in answering this question. I will try to define my terms as I go, so we can all stay on the same page. The topic is so important for spiritual growth that it’s worth diving into even at the risk of seeming to contradict what some of our readers may have learned from other sources.

The bridge from meditation to contemplation is a mysterious and wonderful stage of spiritual growth. Let’s start by briefly describing the difference between these two forms of mental prayer (as opposed to vocal and liturgical prayer). With that clarified, we will be better prepared to take a closer look at the bridge.

Mental Prayer in General
prayer of simplicityMental prayer, in general, is characterized by a highly personal dialogue or intimate exchange between the pray-er and God. In vocal prayer, we use someone else’s words to address God. In liturgical prayer, we enter into the official prayer of the entire Church, making it our own and contributing our love to it. In mental prayer, in contrast, we address God in our own words, conversing with him intimately in the quiet of our hearts. This conversation involves listening as well as speaking, but its primary characteristic is its high degree of interpersonal intimacy. Mental prayer is a private, deep, spontaneous, loving conversation between two very close friends – the pray-er and God.

Meditative Mental Prayer
In the earlier stages of our spiritual growth, mental prayer usually has a predominately meditative quality. Meditation always involves extended, thoughtful reflection. Christian meditation, meditative mental prayer, involves thoughtful reflection on the great truths of our faith: God’s goodness and omnipotence, Christ’s love and virtues, divine providence, etc. When we meditate, as Christians, we activate our faith and turn our attention to these truths that God has revealed to us, and we consider them, we savor them, we enjoy them, we talk to God about them. To do this, meditation usually involves a mediator – some kind of source for the ideas that we are thoughtfully reflecting on. We can use Scripture for meditation (lectio divina), or good spiritual books, the writings of the saints and popes, or simply the beauties of nature and the events of our own lives. These subjects occupy our attention as we reflect on what they reveal to us about God and God’s plan for the world and for our own lives. In that reflection, the Holy Spirit works powerfully within our souls, teaching, strengthening, enlightening, and guiding us with his sevenfold gifts.

The Unity Underneath the Methods
Christian meditation can be done in many different ways. We can think analytically about a paragraph from the Catechism (discursive meditation); we can use our imagination to put ourselves into a scene from the Gospels (discursive-imaginative meditation); we can simply express our feelings towards God in our own words (affective meditation). Although different individuals will have different natural preferences and proclivities for a particular method, usually the different forms end up coming together and leading us into a discursive-affective combination. In all cases, the pray-er is active and busy during meditation. This is why the Catechism describes meditation as a “quest” for a deeper knowledge of and intimacy with God.

In Part II, we will discuss contemplative mental prayer, some characteristics of contemplation and the beginnings of infused contemplation. In Part III, we will look at the prayer of simplicity as “acquired contemplation” as well as other signs of growth in prayer and a recommendation for a more in-depth reading on this subject.

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Art for this post on the prayer of simplicity:  Teresa of Avila, Peter Paul Rubens, 1615, CCA-SA 3.0 Unported, Wikimedia Commons.

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college, he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller, "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". His most recent books are "Spring Meditations", "Seeking First the Kingdom: 30 Meditations on How to Love God with All Your Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength", and "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions". Fr. John currently splits his time between Michigan (where he continues his writing apostolate and serves as a confessor and spiritual director at the Queen of the Family Retreat Center) and Rome, where he teaches theology at Regina Apostolorum. His online, do-it-yourself retreats are available at RCSpirituality.org, and he answers questions about the spiritual life at SpiritualDirection.com.

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  • Jeanette

    Wow. I’m so excited about this post and the ones to come! This interests me very much. I so enjoy affective meditation…as you have described…simply expressing our feelings toward God in our own words. I feel His presence so closely then. Looking forward to posts II & III to come. Thank you Fr. Bartunek.

  • Gabrielle Renoir

    As one who has been blessed by God with the gift of contemplation I, too, greatly look forward to Fr. Bartunek’s future articles on this subject, Jeanette. I feel I could never have achieved contemplation on my own. It is, I think, a gift from God. We do, though have to have a willing heart and prepare our soul for the receipt of such a wondrous gift.

    • Jeanette

      Truly, infused contemplation is something we do not achieve on our own and is a beautiful gift from God!

      • LizEst

        You’re absolutely right, Jeanette. It is pure gift, not achievement. God bless you, Jeanette.

  • DianeVa

    Can affective meditation be written, as in journaling? I often read something in Scripture or the CCC or from a spiritual book and it sets my mind and heart into much discussion with God through my journaling. When I do resist writing and I have a wonderful interior discussion with God, later I find myself wishing I had written my thoughts and God’s promptings down. Is it prideful to want to record our mediations and or contemplations?
    Looking forward to II and III. Thank you Fr John!

    • Gabrielle Renoir

      It’s not at all prideful to want to write your thoughts down, Diane! It honors God! We only become prideful when and if we forget that we are receiving a beautiful gift from God that we could never receive on our own or that we are as advanced spiritually as we can be. All of us have much yet to learn! Writing down your thoughts and your conversations with God can help to bring you closer to our beloved Lord.

  • Jessie

    Examples of these types of prayer being practiced in OT and NT? By Jesus himself? I know I’ve read things like ‘and he went up to pray’, and recall his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, but can anyone help me label some of these examples as the specific forms of “meditation” and “contemplation”? I have an evangelical fundamentalist(even somewhat Pentecostal) friend who is extremely skeptical of this due to the Eastern mysticism “connection” she claims there is. She herself tells me she speaks in tongues as her church occasionally. We have great discussions on spirituality and I’d like to help her clarify what meditation and contemplation are but I know I’ll need to use the Bible to do so… Thanks for any help

  • John

    I have heard the term “natural” contemplation used. Not something initiated by God but the explanation I heard seemed to be more the practice of meditative mental prayer that moves more into a simple “beholding” (initiated by the person, not God) or loving being in God’s presence, and in particular before the Most Blessed Sacrament. Not sure if that’s an appropriate term or not or the misuse of a proper term that means something else.

    • John, the more common term is “acquired” contemplation which would be synonymous with “natural” contemplation or that contemplation which can be had through natural means. It is very different than infused contemplation because it is purely limited (in theory) to the best that we can do using our own ability to concentrate and connect with the reality we are pursuing. Hope that helps.

      • John

        Thank you. It helps a lot.

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