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Contemplative Prayer

Contemplation is a form of prayer that can be hard to explain. In fact, some may describe it in terms that make it even more ethereal, but all will say it is sitting in God’s presence.

Fr. Donald Haggerty is a retreat

director, a former seminary professor and a priest at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in the heart of Manhattan on Fifth Avenue. Prior to his days in the seminary, he taught in high school in both New York and in Puerto Rico. He also worked with Mother Teresa’s Sisters and Fathers in service to the poor and the homeless. This ministry actual also led him to live as a volunteer in dormitories for and with the homeless in the Bronx.

In his growing vocation, he began to pray the deep and hard to describe form of prayer in the Church called Contemplation. He has written several books on the subject. His latest is Contemplative Enigmas published by Ignatius Press.

I (RJC) interviewed Fr. Haggerty(DH) for Writings from the Catholic Abbey to the Secular World.

RJC: One of the first books I ever read on prayer was New Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton. I was away from the Church for a while and I came back when I was a sailor. I remember Merton described contemplation as something like being in a dark room surrounded by light, indicating it was hard to explain. I got that sense reading your book too; it is hard to put what you are writing about in words.

DH: I would agree with that. That whole thing of contemplation is full of paradox. I have been influenced, and maybe you as well, by St. John of the Cross. You know he has strong impressions that we live a certain blindness as we enter into deeper faith. As God is closer in our lives and as we are approaching Him more there is a certain obscurity that is part of that relationship with God.

RJC: Reading your book changed my prayer schedule as well. I do a holy hour and I had fifteen minutes of silent prayer but I changed it to a half an hour. As you mention, it is difficult but it is so fascinating. What I read and as you warned, it is not a technique. Be careful of techniques, you seem to write over and over again.

DH: The thing is there are so many books, there are a number of books that do approach this idea of contemplative prayer as open to technique. This notion of centering prayer which has been popularized for some time and advertised as a method of contemplative prayer and in the reality of the tradition there is no method that is controllable to enter into a deeper prayer.

I mean, this is grace and some of these mental techniques, even Thomas Merton was searching through Asian methods to deepen prayer, and some of the mantra type approaches to prayer that were taken from Transcendental Meditation, some of that has perhaps been more a detour than a reality of prayer.

The great reality of prayer depends on how generously we give ourselves to God’s will. One can ask how is my prayer life but you have to ask first how is my life outside of prayer. Are we striving for charity in our life? Are we trying to live humbly? Are we truly seeking God’s will? Because without that, prayer can have illusions and so it is not a method as you know. On the other hand, there are good things to do like reading the gospel every day, or pray the Jesus prayer, ‘Oh Lord have mercy on me, a sinner’, pray psalm 51 or look at a crucifix. There are things we can be doing in prayer that can become something of a bridge taking us over more in the direction of God and giving him a chance to walk across that bridge toward us.

RJC: What I got a sense reading your book is you are approaching God on His terms and I guess that is the best way to put it. It is a fascinating experience where I guess a technique can throw you off. You are in God’s presence and He is the one who does the leading.

DH: I think a lot of prayer is not so much mental — the mental aspect of it — the mind experience tends to be more subject to obscurity and distraction and we don’t always have insightful thoughts in prayer. But the deeper reality of prayer is in the longing of the soul, the will’s longing for God which can often be emotionless not feeling anything. You know the deep down desire and longing for God and that is not always a pleasant experience at all and the reality is just wanting God.

I am not sure if you ever read Dom John Chapman, he was a Benedictine abbot who has a great work. They collected many of his letters after his death, I think it is called Spiritual Letters (2003 Burns & Oates; ISBN: 978–0860123347) About half of these letters he is writing about contemplative issues to contemplative monks, nuns and priests. And he makes comments like this and there that good prayer coming out of that prayer sometimes was simply a very strong intent, want. I want God, I want you I want your will.

That could be very little thought, no great insights, but the deeper desire of the person zeroing in on wanting God and then the question of what can we do in prayer and what can provoke that more deeply. And there are many things like looking at a crucifix or reading, in Lent reading the gospels of the passion, looking at the images of the Stations of The Cross something that again puts oil on that flame of wanting God above all things.

RJC: I was fascinated by where you go to in the book in this prayer: God speaks in this level of silence. Can you comment on that because I know I cannot give it justice to describe it.

DH: We all have that sense of that reality. That is again something from St. John of the Cross — to speak of that language of that silent love. It would be like I saw my parents in their old age alone in a room together many times and they might not be speaking, but they were definitely aware of each other. You know glancing at each other at times. It is possible to be with someone and there is no speech taking place, no conversation and yet there is a very strong sense of being with that person.

If we have ever been with a person in a hospital room where they are not feeling well but we are just sitting with them, they are very comforted by your presence and we know we are with them.

So, there is something like that in prayer. There is a deeper longing for the person, you know the blind presence of ourselves to that person. It would be like a blind person in a room that is in darkness, he knows that we are there. That is completely different from a sense of absence. There is a difference between concealment and absence. One thing is for God to hide and conceal himself and that is very different than thinking that he has disappeared or abandoned us.

RJC: You had mentioned something about that you are not too fond of people who talk to you that they have this direct line to God. I have the image that people say that ‘God spoke to me today and this what He said’ and you feel averse to that concept.

DH: You know I think that is correct. I am sure about in your own priesthood and I speak to people who talk about messages from God. I am not talking about people who are mentally ill. You know I think charismatics will speak in this manner and I think that it is better to be distrustful towards that and it is often, as I say in the book, that it can be fueled by emotional impressionability. The reality is that God is transcendent. He is capable certainly of speaking to a prophet and He did provide mystical experiences to saints but the ordinary sober approach to God is more healthy. It takes us into a life of deeper faith and authentic deeper prayer. I think there are mistakes .

I have seen people, I cannot say many, I have seen people who have missed vocations because they are looking for a sign from God to speak and this is not perhaps God’s way. He wants us to go forward in faith. He providentially shows that yes you are on the right track, without something special.

RJC: That brings us right back to that theme that comes out so strong in this book — we do this all on God’s terms.

Do you teach this in the seminary?

DH: No, I don’t teach in the seminary anymore. I was teaching moral theology in seminary work. What I have done is I have had a lot of time with the Missionaries of Charity — Mother Teresa’s sisters. I do a January course for them. They have a year-long program they run for fifty sisters each year and they bring in priests to give ten day intensive courses. I give a ten day course on spirituality so some of it gets in there and in retreat work you get some of the aspects of prayer in there. But I don’t teach this in the seminary no.

RJC: Do you suppose that the seminarians would be open to this because one the things I read from Cardinal Sarah is that one of the biggest problems we have in the Church today is that the priests and the bishops are not praying. I generalized a little bit there and he focuses on a lack of silence and a lack of prayer.

DH: I would agree that it is true that is the biggest crisis in the Church and that is the foundation behind everything else. My impression is that it depends on the seminary. I cannot say universally but I think that the likelihood is that when people first get into a seminary, especially when they are a little older, if they are in their twenties when they go in instead of at 18, if they had a conversion, they seem to have a greater desire for God.

I did teach in the seminary at St. Mary’s in Emmitsburg. I did teach courses on St. John of the Cross there. They were well received and the guys did like that but Mount St Mary’s was also a special place. They had about 160 students in my time there and it was a very prayerful place and very wholesome middle America really very good guys so they took to it very much so.

RJC: You make it clear that contemplation does not mix with not living a virtuous life.

DH: Yes, absolutely, I think that is one of the problems sometimes of the other version of contemplative prayer. They can be advertised as contemplative prayer but there may not be any real effort of virtue or moral living. The problem with these techniques like centering prayer, I wrote about this in the first book I wrote on contemplative provocations. I have a chapter on provocations and I have a chapter entitled Aberrations and I was really going after centering prayer in that. You can have these experiences of tranquility whatever because of practicing centering prayer and that could be spoken of a kind of contemplative prayer; it has nothing to do with contemplative prayer.

RJC: I found there is one thing that you make clear that there is no place in the prayer life for technology. Technology yes but the phones, and Cardinal Sarah says the same thing. The phones, the constant interruptions and I think you say it several times almost to the point where almost as a joke I want to say ‘hey do you want an extra phone?’

DH: It is a problem today and I live in the city in the heart of New York and it is just the normal way of living that people are on their cellphone all the time. If we want something serious with God, we have to turn some of that off. It does not mean that you cannot have a computer and a phone but there has to be something of turning away from that. These things become compulsive also and then in order to pray you have to be able to be attentive in silence.

There is a certain discipline in that too and there is a certain capacity for slowing down and being quiet. So, of course, you watch TV all the time. If you are turning on a radio all the time and I was a spiritual director in the seminary, I used to tell them not to turn on the radio when getting up in the morning. You should try and enter into quiet there as you are getting ready to go to chapel. You don’t want to be listening to a lot of noise then. And so, there are small things like that discipline that can help while most people kind of indulge in that area.

RJC: One of the issues I deal with in my priesthood and I am sure you deal with in yours are people who don’t really have a focus on prayer but focus on ‘these are the rules of the Catholic church and you have to follow the rules.’ How do you deal with that kind of spirituality?

DH: We have a lot of confessions here in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, thank God. I try to tell people over and over again to try to get into a church every day. I must talk about prayer in every confession. Your life is changed by prayer. I think that is the one thing to really try to insist on with people in my opinion because prayer changes you it is like if you began to not take care of yourself. If you started running and you were totally out of shape that is going to change your life. It is a similar thing with prayer once you begin to give yourself to a commitment every day in prayer, then it will have an effect for sure.

Fr. Donald Haggerty’s Book Contemplative Enigmas is available through Ignatius Press.

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