BY Fr Thomas Dubay


Prayer Primer front cover

St. Augustine put it in his classic prayer: "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you." (p. 14)

This world is simply not enough-it just cannot satisfy their deepest longings. [Those who want a prayer life] therefore want a vibrant relationship with God, the number one priority in any sensible person's life. They seek help in this pursuit, and they want to know how to begin it. (p. 117)

Amazingly, God deeply desires this communion with us. He thirsts for us, not because he needs us, but because he is pure love. "Whether we realize it or not, prayer is the encounter of God's thirst with ours. God thirsts that we may thirst for him" (CCC 2560). (p. 30, 31)

Of all interpersonal intimacies open to the human person contemplative prayer in its advanced stages of development is incomparably the greatest. Mystics, the men and women of profoundest immersion in the indwelling Trinity, are unanimous in declaring that these depths immeasurably surpass any other experience. They are literally unspeakable. St. Paul is of a like mind when he tells the Corinthians that the human eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor can the human mind even imagine what splendors God has prepared for those who love him (1 Cor 2:9). (p. 31)

The aim: To fall in love

One of the beauties of divine revelation is that everything is summed up in one reality: love. God is (not simply, has) purest, unending love (1 Jn 4:8), and whatever good we happen to be doing, if it is done well, is living love in action (2 Jn 6). Because truth is symphonic-it makes one concert of beauty-it follows that the aim of all prayer is eventually to be head over heels in love with Love, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. When that happens we are then going to love everyone, even our enemies and those who neglect us. (p. 33)

Two cautions: The recipient still needs to do a lot of hard work in living a serious spiritual life-growth is not automatic. The second caution: No one ought to wait for or count on an extraordinary experience in order to get moving. (p. 49,50)

Deepening conversion

Beginning a serious prayer life is before all else to begin conversion. The reversal we have in mind here is a moral/spiritual turning from selfishness to a love for truth, goodness, beauty-this is to begin a tum to God. (p. 50)

The more deeply we are converted, the more we welcome Beauty himself and all he has to say. We are prepared for a deepening prayer life. (p. 51)

But you might remark, "I am too weak to do this radical thing with my life, and I am not sure I want to do it. What then?" The answer to that problem is that, of course, you (and all of us) are too weak for any conversion, let alone so radical a one. But this is one of the reasons Scripture provides us with so many examples of how to pray for the help we so direly need. Say those prayers sincerely, and you are on the way. But we need also to accompany the prayer with action. (p. 51)

First of all, we should realize that communing with God is not a mere formality, technique, or method. So, you may ask, how do we get started? The short answer is to be yourself. There is no one exclusive way. God is your supreme Beloved; be at home with him. He is here now. He loves you unimaginably more than you love yourself.'' Cast your cares on him, and he will care for you'' (1 Pet 5:7). You do your part, and he will do his. (p. 53)

Scripture tells us that we should pray through the day, but without neglecting our work or other people. All sorts of diverse happenings can remind us of the divine omnipresence and ignite a short sentiment directed to God. Suppose someone scowls at you. Simply say, "Lord, he is hurting; heal and comfort him." Someone else is gracious toward you. "Thank you, Jesus; I really did not deserve that." Or the day is hot and humid, or cold and stormy. "Gladly I join with you, Lord, in your freely embracing all aspects of our human situation." Or you are worried, or feel weary, or have a headache, or all three together at one time. "I welcome these tiny sufferings as small sharings in your being tortured to death through love for us." Dinner is tasty or the sunset is gorgeous. "Blessed are you, my God, for making this universe so delightful; it could have been dull and drab." (p. 53)

Yes, be yourself. Getting intimate with God is simple: nothing complex, contrived, artificial. All that is required is good will, and you can have this merely by wanting it . . . . and then making some effort. And be sure to persevere, to stick with it. (p. 53, 54)

Chapter 7 Vocal Prayer

Vocal prayer is good, needed, and important. Jesus himself taught that we should address God with human thoughts and words. ''Ask and you shall receive'', he said, and he taught us himself to say the Our Father. His Church offers us precious treasures in her Eucharistic Sacrifice and in the Liturgy of the Hours. She encourages lay people to join religious and clergy in enriching their lives at this daily banquet of her official prayer. Likewise the Church promotes private devotions such as the rosary, the way of the cross, and litanies. (p. 55)

Multiplying vocal prayers: Problems and solutions

Worded prayers are indeed important, and yet we must now look into a widespread difficulty... the excessive multiplication of vocal prayers to the neglect of "pondering the word day and night" (Ps 1:2) and a contemplative immersion in the beauty of the Lord, the "one thing" we often speak about in this primer. We can overdo good things. (p. 59, 60)

This same problem is perhaps even more pronounced among sincere lay people who have not been instructed about meditation and its importance. They assume that to grow in prayer means to multiply words and devotions. Not realizing that the Lord, his Church, and the saints say just the contrary, they add diverse pious exercises one upon the other-and this on a daily basis. They mean well but do not grasp what they are missing. (p. 61)

Hints for improving vocal prayers

I. The quality of our prayers is more important than the quantity, the number of them. (p. 61, 62)

2.            If, during vocal prayers to which you are not obliged, your mind and heart are drawn to meditation or contemplation, you are welcome to cease the worded prayers you had intended to offer. This is the advice of St. Francis de Sales, and he adds that God is more pleased with mental communion with him and that it is also more profitable for your soul (Introduction to the Devout Life, pt. 1, 1, 8). The saint rightly makes an exception for prayers of obligation, such as the Liturgy of the Hours fora priest. (p. 62)

3.            It is wise before beginning personal prayers, and the Liturgy of the Hours as well, to pause a few moments to recollect yourself, that is, to gather your inner attention to what you are going to do. (p. 62)

4.            In choosing among many possible private devotions, it is good to consider giving priority to the Liturgy of the Hours. (p. 62)

Chapter 8 Meditation

What then is meditation?

Just as you and I get to know people by meeting, listening, and speaking to them, so in meditation we get to know God interpersonally by conversing with him in a quiet place: "When you pray, go into your private room, close the door and pray to your Father in that secret place." (Mt 6:6) We listen to him speaking to us through the beauties of nature, Sacred Scripture, the texts of the liturgy, the lives and writings of the saints. …. In meditation we ponder what he says to us in all these ways, and then we respond with our inner thoughts, applications, and words. It is a mental conversation between two friends coming closer and, as time goes on, becoming more and more intimate. (p. 67, 68)

This silent conversation is only the beginning stage of becoming more and more familiar with our unspeakable Creator dwelling in our soul. Meditation is prayer in the human manner. By that we mean that it is we who read or reflect on suitable thoughts that will arouse our adoration, praise, requests, thanksgiving, expressions of sorrow and love. (See also FW, pp. 49-50.) When the person is ready, the Lord gives a new kind of awareness of himself that we can only receive, not produce of ourselves. We will explain this in our next chapter. For now we consider only meditation. (p. 68)

Jesus, focal point of meditation (p. 68)

St. Teresa of Avila advised her nuns that turning their inner eyes upon Jesus in all of the details of his life was the best way to begin their meditative prayer. (p, 68, 69)

Quick tips for using a method  (p. 72-73)

1. Method in meditation is like a scaffolding used to construct a building. It is a means to the end, not the end itself. Just as in the case of scaffolding, prayer methods are not meant to be permanent. When they have achieved their purpose, we leave them aside. Otherwise they can impede more simple and better prayer. We may add here several other tips from SSD, p. 182:

2. Meditative prayer should be calm and unhurried. There is no set amount of material to be covered. One sentence or paragraph may at times serve for an hour or a week of reflection and inner dialogue with God.

3. Beginners may overemphasize thinking at prayer. Imagination and reasoning have their places, especially in the early stages, but at any stage of development love is the core of communion.

4. Dialoguing with the indwelling Trinity includes other types of affectivity which are naturally sparked by diverse reflections: praising, sorrowing, yearning, thanking, petitioning.

5. Simplicity is in order. One should not be bewildered by an excessive concern with techniques, steps and procedures. One should pay comparatively little attention to the method itself. Such a preoccupation can obstruct the Holy Spirit during the actual time of prayer.

6. Prolonged difficulty with a given procedure might suggest another approach, or a combination of other approaches. Consultation with one's guide at this point would be wise.

7. When one finds oneself united to God in a simple loving attention or yearning, the methods should be left aside. One has what they are meant to bring about.

Scripture says not a word about techniques for prayer, not a word about oriental or centering ways to empty the mind. Rather our Christian meditation aims at filling our minds and hearts with pondering God's word in the books of creation and revelation. It is meant gradually to lead the beginner to something better, namely, to drinking the goodness and beauty of God in a wordless way. We are to grow to a radiant absorption in him farther down the road. Meditation prepares the novice for contemplative communing with the indwelling Trinity. (p. 73)

There are a few people who never seem quite able to pray meditatively. St. Teresa was one of them. Their difficulty may be the lack of a vivid imagination, or, more likely, they may have already progressed to a simple manner with God and go to him with unaffected love. Perhaps the best advice for most of these people is to pray as they can pray, not to try what they cannot do. Hence, for these few simply to abide in the divine presence without being concerned about producing images and reasonings leaves them open to whatever the Lord chooses to give. Competent spiritual direction here is a great help. (p. 73)

Specific steps

To meditate successfully we first of all choose a suitable time and then find or provide for ourselves a place of solitude.

Our second step is to begin to commune with God just as we begin talking to anyone: we notice the presence of the person we are addressing.

Step number three is to say slowly some brief vocal prayer: the Our Father or the Hail Mary or the Glory Be or some other favorite one. Another alternative is to use one's own words: "Lord, come to me; I need you ...

Input is step number four. You are now prepared to read something that may help your pondering and inner mental conversation with your indwelling Lord. [eg Scripture or saint’s writings].

Step number five: you ponder the passage, apply it to yourself, draw conclusions that fit your life, aims, and person. Most of all you talk over all this with the Master in your mind and will. Use your own thoughts, desires, petitions, inner words. Be simple. Be yourself. Be sure not to omit what we call the affections of the will: adoring, praising, repenting, thanking, asking. These affective responses are the very heart of Christian meditation. But be inwardly still, too, when that is your inclination: "Be quiet and know that I am God" (Ps 46:10). You are growing in intimacy with your Creator.

Finally, you make a concrete resolution: What am I going to do about all of this in the concrete details of my daily life? Things must change for the better if we are to grow in prayer. A vague wish to improve is not enough. (p. 74-76)

Because meditation is at the core of coming closer to God (and therefore to others as well), it should lead to tangible results in the practical order of our behavior. Hence, ordinarily you want to conclude this daily prayer period with some specific resolution to improve, to grow in some virtue or get rid of some fault. "I will be ready for this annoying situation with my husband (wife) when it may occur today; I will be gentle even if firm." Or the resolution could be "when she (he) nags at me today, I shall be patient, or if I judge it proper to respond in some way, I will make it a point to be loving in my manner." Fidelity to meditation should affect life-style, and it therefore introduces a deeper happiness into a marriage, a convent, or a rectory. (p. 76)

Before leaving prayer time it is good to thank the Lord for the privilege of communing with him. And a few requests for help in carrying out the particular resolution are also advisable. (p. 76)

When and for how long should you pray?

There are two rules of thumb that help in answering the question of what is the best time for meditation: one is to pray when you pray best; the other is to pray when you can, that is, when it is possible or feasible. (p. 78)

How long in duration should your mental prayer period be each day? One principle to follow is that one begins with the amount of time that usually can be implemented, perhaps ten, fifteen, or twenty minutes. It is better to under-commit than to over-commit. Fidelity to what we decide is important. When the person is ready, the amount of time can be increased by perhaps ten-minute increments; most people would not find it is too difficult. …St. Francis de Sales recommended that lay people devote one hour to their daily meditation and if possible that it be in the early morning, a time when they are rested, refreshed, and less distracted. If a beginner finds that an hour is more than can be handled, he may, I think, start with less, but with the expectation that he will extend this favored time with his Creator, who loves him without measure. (p. 78, 79)

Chapter 9 Contemplation

[Beginners] should know enough about [contemplation] to recognize its first beginnings and so know how to avoid putting obstacles in the way of what the Holy Spirit wants to bestow on them. (p. 84)

What contemplative prayer is not

Before we sketch briefly what our deepening immersion in the Trinity is, we must insist that it is very far from an oriental state of impersonal awareness produced by techniques and methods. Thus it should not be confused with Buddhist or Hindu exercises. Nor is it introspection, dwelling on one's own inner life, feelings, and thoughts. And of course, we are not here speaking about visions and revelations-these are not meant for everyone. Finally, our contemplation is not simply thinking things over. Nor is it more or less strong emotional feelings about God and religious matters. (See also FW, pp. 7, 57; SSD, pp. 69, 83-84, 135-36, 156-59, 171.) (p. 85)

What contemplation is

While meditative prayer involves reading, thinking, imagining, drawing conclusions, and conversing inwardly with the indwelling Trinity, contemplation is none of these things. Rather it is a real awareness of God, desiring and loving him, which we do not produce but simply receive from him when we are ready for it. There are no images, ideas, or words. In the first stages what he gives is usually a dry desire for him (that is, with little or no feelings), or it is a gentle, delightful awareness of his presence. Both of these two types of awareness are brief. They are ''just there", that is, not produced in a human manner. They cannot be had whenever we want them. No methods or techniques can produce them. When we have lived the Gospel generously in our state in life-and this includes fidelity to meditative prayer-God begins to grant this superior type of communing with himself. (p. 85, 86)

What the Lord gives ("infuses" is another word for this) is at first usually delicate, gentle, and brief. The recipient will most likely continue to experience distractions. But this advancing type of prayer progressively grows as time goes on in both depth and duration-again we repeat, if we continue to live the gospel in a wholehearted manner. At times it can become a deep absorption, so deep that distractions cease for five or ten minutes. However, this absorbing prayer is advancing contemplation, which we need not explain further at this point. (For more, however, see FW, pp. 57-71, 86-107; SSD, pp. 154-59, 267-78; CCC 2709-19.) (p. 86)

Transition from meditation to contemplation

Our communing with God is a gradual process from the humanly produced kind of relationship to the divinely given desiring and loving. This latter itself grows in depth and splendor all the way to what is called the transforming union. (See FW, pp. 17597.) This growth process "from one glory to another" (2 Cor 3:18) is due to the divine initiative, not to our mere wish to have it happen. The transition stage is part of the gradual growth to a fullness. (p. 86)

The Lord alone does it when we are ready. And beginners get ready by daily meditative prayer together with getting rid of their venial sins. When they are sufficiently purified by this renewing lifestyle, they will begin to notice on occasion an inclination at prayer to leave thinking aside. At the same time they notice a desire to be with God in a wordless way. At other times they will be inclined to meditate. They are in the transitional stage. (p. 87)

The rule of thumb at this point is to follow the lead of the Holy Spirit, that is, you do what he inclines you to do at prayer time. If you find it easy to meditate and it seems to work, then do that. If, on the other hand, you are inclined simply to be with him without words, do that. Be patient during this transition period. Do not worry about occasional, unwilled distractions that occur. Be gentle in turning away from them and back to the Lord who is drawing you. (For more, see FW, pp. 5-4 55, 86-87; SSD, pp. 183-90.) (p. 87 88)

One slowly leaves the transitional stage as the infused desire and love for the Lord becomes habitual. If all goes well, once in a while there may be a profound and intensely delightful absorption in God, when for a few minutes there are no distractions at all. If one continues to grow, this communion can become ecstatic and then should grow on to the summit, the transforming union. These advanced degrees of contemplation are described in FW, pp. 57-71. Sts. Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross explain them at length and with details and sublime beauty. (p. 88)

Scripture proclaims contemplation [is] for everyone. (Ps 34:5, 8; Ps 27:4; Ps 25:15; Ps 84:2; Ps 63:1; Is 55:1-3; Rev 22:17; Jn 7:37-39; Eph 3:19-20; 1 Pet 1:8; Phil 4:4; Lk 18:1; Col 3:15, 17). (p. 88, 89)

Mass, the daily summit

Participation in the Eucharistic sacrifice is the highest of all our prayers, and most effectively when contemplative love burns in the hearts of the celebrant and the laity alike. Why is the Mass so sublime? It is the unbloody reoffering of the paschal mystery: the passion, death, and Resurrection of Jesus himself, the Supreme Priest, both victim and victor.

The Lord once said to Angela of Foligno "Make yourself a capacity, and I will make myself a torrent." The Eucharist is indeed a cascade of power, love, and beauty. To drink deeply of this torrent we need to mature as persons, to give up self centered clinging to our sins and their deadening burdens. As these obstacles are removed, we gradually drink more and more of the rushing waters of the liturgy and imbibe their refreshing light and delight. This is why the saints without exception love the Eucharist so much and why those who imitate them closely go to daily Mass when it is at all possible in their state in life. (p. 98)

Thomas Dubay has some great advice about family prayer (Chapter 12), Prayer in a Busy Life (Chapter 13), When you should pray (Chapter 14), Problems and pitfalls (Chapter 15), Quick Questions (Chapter 16) and Assessing Progress (Chapter 17). Buy the book. It’s worth it!



Fr Thomas Dubay. Prayer Primer, San Francisco:Ignatius Press, 2002