What You Need to Know about Contemplative Prayer

Ask a Carmelite Sister

Dear Sister,

I understand what it means to pray using vocal prayers, that is, praying aloud either alone or with others. I also understand, I think, about meditation. Meditation is thinking about, reflecting upon, and applying some biblical or other spiritual thought to my own life. But… contemplation? I don’t have a clue. I guess it’s just not for me. I’m a very practical person and have never (yet) been able to grasp this idea of contemplative prayer. Do you have anything that could help me understand?

Dear Friend,

Thank you for your question. It seems to me that most people who are trying to lead a good life sooner or later come to this question. Some people think that maybe they aren’t praying often enough or hard enough or long enough. Others mistakenly try to acquire contemplation through various methods that are “out there.” What all of them need to realize is that prayer is a relationship and it very beautifully grows just like any other relationship.

Prayer, in the general sense, is nothing more than your personal relationship with God. So, let’s talk about relationships. You could choose to talk to someone out loud. That’s vocal prayer. You or you could quietly think about the person. That’s meditation. Or, as in the case of let’s say a couple that’s been married for many, many years, the two of you could just quietly sit together without saying anything at all. That’s contemplation.

Another example would be a beach example. You could stand on the beach and voice aloud a poem which tells how much you love being at the beach. Again, that’s vocal prayer. Or you could engage in the activity of trying to identify different kinds of shells by referring to a book, and then deciding where you might find these shells on this particular beach. That would be like Meditation. Or at sunset you can just sit quietly on the beach and drink in the beauty of the sunset. That would be Contemplation.

A new baby in the home provides another example. The mom can talk to the baby or sing. That’s like vocal prayer. Or, she could read about parenting and apply what she is reading to her own baby. That’s like meditation. Or she could hold her newborn baby in her arms and just look with love at that beautiful infant. That is contemplation.

St. John of the Cross

St. John of the Cross teaches that in the normal progression of the prayer journey, one starts with vocal prayers, then moves into meditation, and ultimately reaches contemplative prayer – although this is not a hard and fast rule.

He gives three criteria to help one see if he or she is at the transition into contemplative prayer. Here they are:

Three Signs of Transition into Contemplative Prayer

“The first [sign] is that as these souls do not get satisfaction or consolation from the things of God, they do not get any from creatures either.”

The soul experiences a lack of satisfaction either in God’s things or in creatures. Material or sensual pleasures no longer satisfy you, but at the same time there is nothing else, material or spiritual that satisfies you, either.

“The second sign . . . is that the memory ordinarily turns to God solicitously and with painful care, and the soul thinks it is not serving God but turning back, because it is aware of this distaste for the things of God.”

The soul feels as though it is not serving God, and may even have distaste for spiritual things. Whereas before, it was easy or comforting to pray, it no longer is. In fact, you may not even want to pray anymore. The soul wonders if it is taking a step backward, rather than forward, wondering if it has done something wrong and is being punished.

“The third sign . . . is that the powerlessness, in spite of one’s efforts, to meditate and make use of the imagination . . . as was one’s previous custom.”

It is impossible to meditate. The previous way of prayer doesn’t work at all anymore and there doesn’t seem to be a new way of prayer emerging yet.


Basically, that’s it. Father Thomas Dubay, during retreats he has given to our community of sisters, would say the following, “If you experience a dry longing for God, and can’t seem to pray anymore like you used to, you are transitioning into contemplative prayer.”

And, I’d like to also pass on to you what a Carmelite priest once told us. He said that if firewood is wet, or still damp, when you try to start a fire, it won’t ignite. We allow the wood to dry out first. Then we burn it in the fireplace. In the same way, prior to contemplative prayer, the soul is allowed a time to “dry out”… thus, the “dry longing for God” until that moment when our God Who is a consuming fire, burns His love into our very souls through contemplation.

I hope one or more of the ideas here help you. The concept that is taken for granted in all of this is the premise that you are in the state of grace and really trying to lead a good life. That comes first.

I hope that is of help to you and until next time,

Sister Laus Gloriae, O.C.D.


Send your questions for Sister to asksister@integratedcatholiclife.org.

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Promoting a Deeper Spiritual Life Among Families through Healthcare, Education and Retreats

The Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles strive to give striking witness as a vibrant, thriving community of dedicated women with an all-consuming mission. It is our God-given mission, a mission of the heart, a mission of loving service to the poor, the sick, the needy and the uneducated. Our loving service overflows from each sister’s profound life of prayer. We strive to reflect His life and hope and His promise to all that light has come into our world and darkness has not overcome it.

A look at the history of our community, with its motherhouse in Alhambra, California, reveals how its life-giving presence has come about. During the beginning decades of the 1900s just as the epic Mexican revolution was subsiding, a ruthless religious persecution was gaining momentum in Mexico. This horrible persecution accompanied the birth and humble beginnings of our community, a legacy that Mother Luisita, our foundress, and her two companions brought with them as religious refugees entering the Unites States in 1927.

Those seeds planted by Mother Luisita, now a candidate for sainthood, have taken deep root in the United States since those early days. People and places have changed throughout the years, yet the heart of our mission remains. As an autonomous religious institute since 1983 we continue to carry out our loving service in our healthcare facilities, retreat houses and schools which remain to this day centers of life and hope. Today we are moving forward together “Educating for Life with the Mind and Heart of Christ” in schools, being “At the Service of the Family for Life” through health and eldercare and “Fostering a Deeper Spiritual Life” through individual and group retreats. At the heart of our vocation is a passionate mission of loving service which facilitates our life-giving encounter with the living God.

The heritage of the Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles is rooted in the spirituality of Carmel, the Gospels, the Church, with our particular charism derived from our beloved Foundress, Mother Maria Luisa Josefa of the Most Blessed Sacrament.

In His merciful goodness, God has graced our Institute with the Carmelite charism which has its roots in a long history and living tradition. The spirituality of St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross is rooted in this tradition. Carmel means enclosed garden in which God Himself dwells. The divine indwelling in the soul is the foundation of Teresa's doctrine. Thus our vocation is a grace by which contemplation and action are blended to become an apostolic service to the Church.

Our ideal finds a living expression in the life and charism of our beloved Foundress, Mother Maria Luisa Josefa of the Most Blessed Sacrament, whose spirit we faithfully preserve and foster.

Our life is characterized by: - A life of prayer and union with God - A deep love for Jesus in the Holy Eucharist - Devotion to our Blessed Mother - Steadfast fidelity to the Magisterium of the Church - Praying for priests - Commitment to works of the apostolate in ecclesial service

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