Contemplation and Vocal Prayer: For a Balanced Spiritual “Diet,” Cultivate Both

A reader of the blog wrote to me with this question:

We had an opportunity last night to attend a presentation on prayer & spiritual warfare. I’m now contemplating the presenter’s heavy use of the prayers of the church in his life of prayer. I am much more comfortable with personal, silent, & contemplative prayer. I’d like your thoughts on the value of the use of the prayers of our church, the saints, church fathers, etc. thanks!

Many people who are drawn to contemplative prayer often find that they begin to feel uncomfortable with traditional “vocal” forms of prayer — particularly rote prayers, what you can find in a book — whether it’s the Liturgy of the Hours or simply an anthology of traditional prayers, drawn from the Bible or from the writings of the saints — such as the Handbook of Prayers or the Peoples’ Prayer Book. If I’m finding spiritual sustenance by learning to relax into silence, then suddenly going back to using a lot of words — especially words originally composed by someone else, who may have lived centuries ago — seems counterintuitive.

Believe it or not, I’m actually rather sympathetic to the preacher that promoted the use of traditional praying. Even though in my writing I am primarily an advocate for contemplative prayer, I think the question of vocal versus contemplative prayer should be seen in terms of “both/and” rather than “either/or.”

Sometimes contemplatives will justify letting go of rote prayers by appealing to Saint Paul: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways” (I Corinthians 13:11). But I don’t think is a very apt analogy. Prayer — whether vocal or meditative or contemplative — is appropriate for the entire lifespan. Children can learn contemplative ways of praying — look at the wonderful book Journey to the Heart: Centering Prayer for Children for inspiration on how to introduce youngsters to the prayer of silence.

Vocal prayer, like centering prayer or other forms of silent prayer, is appropriate for all ages: from toddlers to elders.

Why, then, do some people feel resistance to one or more forms of prayer? Because, just as some contemplatives resist vocal prayer, it’s also commonplace to find people who enjoy vocal prayer but who resist silent prayer, for a variety of reasons.

I think it boils down to temperament. Some of us are naturally drawn to silent ways of praying. Others are much more comfortable with prayer that relies on language — whether humble words of need spoken in times of distress, or eloquent verse that we inherit from the most gifted poets of our tradition. Maybe a few lucky souls are “spiritually ambidextrous,” finding joy in both the words and the silence.

Mystics and Monastics Agree: Both Vocal and Silent Prayer Matter

But once again, no matter what type of prayer you intuitively prefer, I would encourage everyone to hold lightly to a “both/and” approach to balancing vocal prayer and contemplation.

Why? For two reasons. First, many of the great mystics have endorsed vocal prayer, even for advanced contemplatives. They point out that even when such prayers seem to offer us no conscious benefit, we should still pray them, for the Holy Spirit works in our hearts through such prayers — at a level below the threshold of ordinary consciousness.

Consider this bit of advice from The Way of Perfection by St. Teresa of Ávila:

I am not now discussing whether or no everyone must practice mental or vocal prayer; but I do say that you yourselves require both. For prayer is the duty of religious. If anyone tells you it is dangerous, look upon that person himself as your principal danger and flee from his company. Do not forget this, for it is advice that you may possibly need.

Granted, Teresa is writing to nuns, but I think her advice is sound for all Christians. “Mental prayer” (what we would call meditation and contemplation) and “vocal prayer” are both necessary for a fully-formed spiritual life — and if anyone tells you otherwise, Teresa suggests you stay away from that person!

Speaking of nuns — and monks — they provide the second reason why I recommend integrating both vocal and silent prayer into your spiritual practice.

Nuns and monks have been our most dedicated custodians of silence for centuries now, but they are also, simultaneously, the chief voices in the daily round of liturgical prayer — the Divine Office — that is chanted around the world, a continuing symphony of praise and intercession. Monastics realize that this kind of prayer is formative, generative, and eternal. Let’s unpack each of these.

Vocal prayer is formative. Praying the Daily Office, and other traditional prayers of the Christian tradition, forms our minds and hearts into what it means to be united with Christ. This language of prayer gives us the syntax and vocabulary of life in the Spirit. Formation is not the same thing as “training” — this is more than just a kind of cognitive mapping that prayer offers us. It shapes our souls, the way the potter shapes the clay. It gives us a structure and a trellis which facilitates our ability to grow into spiritual maturity with and in Christ.

Vocal prayer is generativePraying liturgically does more than just tell us who we are; it gives us insight into who God is calling us to be. “What is now proved was once only imagined,” mused William Blake; in other words, the reality that the Spirit calls us to manifest in our lives originally comes to us from the imaginal realm where God’s call can first be received; the beauty of prayers like the Liturgy of the Hours is that it helps us to “imagine” what God has in mind for us, so therefore it not only shapes who we are today, but it beckons us to become what we shall be for all eternity. Which, of course, leads to the third quality of vocal prayer:

Vocal prayer is eternalI’ve written about this before, following the insightful words of a Holy Cross Father who wrote about how the liturgy is “like staring out into eternity.” There is a timelessness about prayer that touches the timelessness encoded in our hearts. Even though we pray in the normal flow of chronological time, spiritually speaking the rhythms and cadences of prayer can remind us that we stand at the crossroads of kronos and kairos — of the time which is the ticking of a cl0ck, intersecting with the radical eternity which is only found in the depth of the present moment. Particularly when we persevere in praying vocally over time, we can discern in the attention we bring to the prayers of the liturgy an ability to receive God’s eternality, even if only “through a glass darkly” as the clock keeps ticking.

A Brief Word About “Spiritual Warfare”

I realize that I am writing primarily about liturgical forms of vocal prayer, which may be different from the kinds of prayer that the authority on spiritual warfare was talking about. He may have been focussing more on shorter prayers that are designed specifically as words invoking a kind of spiritual protection.

I tend to avoid the language and culture of “spiritual warfare” because I find it inherently dualistic. Some people may benefit from this kind of spiritual thinking, particularly if their lives are in crisis; so I don’t mean to just dismiss it. But I think it’s not the most useful way of approaching spirituality over the long haul. Just as we sometimes have to fight on earth, but we do not want to be in perpetual war, there needs to be a recognition that sometimes the best way to respond to evil or abuse is not through fighting, but through compassion and humility.

For anyone who feels a need to use prayer that is anchored in the language of conflict or aggression, I would encourage you to consider that in God’s view of things, reconciliation takes priority over aggression. So while I can see that there might be a limited use for vocal prayer that is designed to triumph over evil, ultimately the most helpful ways of praying are not those dedicated to fighting evil so much as those that confidently trust in God’s goodness. And liturgical forms of prayer may be particularly well suited for this sustainable approach.

“Pray as You Can, Not as You Can’t”

Let me finish with one qualification to all of the above. Remember, I wrote “I would encourage everyone to hold lightly to a ‘both/and’ approach to balancing vocal prayer and contemplation.” I want to finish by underlining this idea of holding both ways of praying lightly.

The renowned monk/spiritual director Abbot James Chapman once advised a directee to “pray as you can, not as you can’t.” I think this is an important principle as well.

Sometimes, people find that they are just hopeless at one or another type of prayer. The thought of practicing centering prayer just fills them with dread. Or a formal prayer like the Liturgy of the Hours feels like an exercise in futility.

If you are under a community rule that commits you to praying a certain way, then you need to work with your spiritual director to find a way to endure it (or, hopefully, restore a sense of joy in it). But if you aren’t under any sort of binding rule, there comes a point when it seems to make more sense to focus on the kind of prayer that does nurture you, rather than to keep flogging the dead horse of a type of prayer that you find simply unpalatable.

While I really think that the best way to sustain a rich practice of Christian prayer is to find a way to integrate both vocal and silent prayer, if someone really can’t stand one form or another, I would much rather they stick to the type of prayer that works for them, than to give up all prayer out of the frustration they are feeling.

Ideally, working with a spiritual director can help anyone to explore different ways of praying and to discover their natural “prayer style.” So naturally anyone who is serious about daily prayer I would encourage to prayerfully consider meeting with a spiritual director.

Always remember: prayer is a response to love. The Bible says “We love because God first loved us,” (I John 4:19) and I believe prayer works in a similar way: we pray because God loves us, and indeed, because God prays through us (Romans 8:26). So at the end of the day, always choose the way of praying that best facilitates your capacity to respond to God’s love.

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Carl McColman
Soul Friend and Storyteller. Lay Cistercian, Catechist, Author, Blogger, Podcaster, Speaker, Teacher, Retreat Leader.