When I was in elementary school, I recall Sister Mary Dorothy explaining to us three “types” of prayer. She described discursive prayer as a prayer using words where we talk to God, meditation as a type of prayer where we think about God, and finally contemplation, a type of prayer that does not use words or thoughts but a prayer where we are simply with God. Then she added that this was the prayer of the saints and mystics, and since none of us fit into either of those categories, we should only worry about discursive prayer and meditation!
As I looked back at my life as a child, I realized that there were many contemplative practices that brought me great consolation. I loved it whenever Sister would tell us to put our heads down on our desk and to sit in quiet for a few moments in the classroom. At recess, the Oldenburg Franciscan Sisters encouraged us to “give up some of our recess time for Jesus” by going into the parish church to “make a visit to the Blessed Sacrament.” I loved slipping into the dark and cool church, where all was silent. Those moments alone with flickering candles of the vigil lights became moments of communion for me with God.
There were also contemplative teachings that moved my soul and continue to move my soul, quotations from the Scripture like, “Be still and know that I am God”. Or, the wonderful story about Elijah from the book of Kings where God comes, not in noise and thunder, but in a still, soft breeze. And of course, Jesus’ own teaching about the best way to pray, “to enter that inner room of the human heart and to pray to God in secret.”
These early experiences, combined with the profound influence of the Oldenburg Sisters, led me to seek religious life and particularly Franciscan life. In my early years with the friars, I don’t recall contemplative prayer being emphasized, but we were given ample time to “be alone with the alone,” and this nourished my soul.
My longing for a deeper life of prayer led me to investigate Trappist life, and I transferred from the friars to the Abbey of Gethsemani in 1973. There I was introduced to contemplative practices, contemplative prayer and contemplative living. I came to see clearly that everything I was experiencing at Gethsemani was in fact what my dear Franciscan novice master, Edwin Deane, was trying to teach us in the novitiate. But we were too young to hear it, to grasp it or to allow God to really grasp us.
I returned to the Franciscans, and on the day I departed Gethsemani the abbot said, “You are privileged to be a son of Saint Francis, the greatest contemplative who ever lived.”
I now fully know and believe the truth of this statement and have spent my life trying to become a truly contemplative person.