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 | By Doug Culp

A Gaze of Faith

We have been considering the three major expressions of prayer in the Christian Tradition. We have already examined vocal prayer – the prayer of the union of body and soul – and meditation, the prayerful quest to understand the why and how of the Christian life. This brings us to the last of the major expressions of prayer:

Contemplative Prayer.


A gift

Contemplative prayer is first and foremost a gift, a grace. Consequently, we must receive it in humility and a poverty of spirit. The Catechism teaches us that contemplative prayer is nothing less than surrender to the “loving will of the Father in ever deeper union with his beloved Son.” (CCC 2712) It is an attentiveness to the word of God through the obedience of faith that arises from belief in the Word. In this way, contemplative prayer participates in the “yes” of the Son, who emptied himself in obedience to the Father.

A gaze of faith

Not surprisingly, contemplation is “a gaze of faith fixed on Jesus.” (CCC 2724) What’s more, this act of focusing our attention on Jesus is a renunciation of our self-centeredness, for such attention requires by its very nature that we no longer be primarily concerned with ourselves.

This “selflessness” allows for the gaze of Jesus, in turn, to purify our hearts. Jesus’ gaze teaches us in the light of his truth and compassion for all. It instructs us in the mysteries of his very life, thereby opening up for us an “interior knowledge of our Lord.”

Imago Dei (image of God)

“All of us, gazing with unveiled face on the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as from the Lord who is the Spirit.” (2 Cor 3:18)

In this passage from St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, we learn that standing in the presence of Christ leads to our beholding and reflecting his glory. In the act of gazing upon Christ, we are transformed into the image of Christ, for we come to be like what we contemplate.

In contemplative prayer, we grow into deeper and deeper communion with Christ, and therefore the Father, through the power of the Holy Spirit. We become more and more like Christ and share more and more in his being of “the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing” with the Father. (Phil 2:2)

In this way, contemplative prayer is a “communion of love bearing life for the multitude.” (CCC  2719) For the more we are conformed to the likeness of Christ, the more our life will reflect his life. Through contemplative prayer, we can become the instrument through which God bestows his grace so that all may have life and have it more abundantly. 

Is there a formula for contemplative prayer?

There is no formula for contemplative prayer in terms of the choice of time and duration. However, we cannot simply undertake contemplative prayer only when we have the time. On the contrary, we have to make time for the Lord, firmly determined “not to give up, no matter what trials and dryness one may encounter.” (CCC 2710)

Words might be used in contemplative prayer, but they generally will be few. In contemplative prayer, words serve only to lead us into that silence that allows us to hear the Father speak to us through his incarnate Word by the power of the Holy Spirit.

We can always enter into contemplative, or inner, prayer. Contemplative prayer is not dependent upon conditions of health, work or emotional state. All that is required is a heart (the location of the encounter between God and humanity) – a poverty of spirit and faith.

The saints on contemplative prayer

St. John of the Cross described contemplative prayer as silence, or “silent love.” In one of his prayers to God, he said: “Let your divinity shine on my intellect by giving it divine knowledge, and on my will by imparting to it the divine love and on my memory with the divine possession of glory.”  

Contemplative prayer, according to St. Teresa of Ávila, “is nothing else than a close sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us.”

According to St. Bernard of Clairvaux: “The first stage of contemplation is to decide in our hearts to abandon ourselves to his holy will. Convinced that what is according to his will is in every way more advantageous and fitting for us, we must surrender even the best of our desires to the Lord, trusting in his loving care for us.”

Doug Culp is the chancellor for the Catholic Diocese of Lexington.

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