Liturgy and Contemplation (Part II)

August 05, 2007


Read Part I of this 2-part article.

Photo credit: Paul Covino
students prayingAnother definition of contemplative prayer comes from The Study of Spirituality, Cheslyn Jones, Geoffrey Wainwright and Edward Yarnold, SJ, editors: “Prayer in which the individual waits in an open and receptive attitude, looking to the Lord. It has been called a prayer of loving attention to God” (p. 367).  This definition adds some important elements that provide key connections with liturgy: prayer, waiting, openness and receptivity, the Lord, attentiveness, and God.

Liturgy, as one form of our life of prayer, involves dialogue.  Prayer is a dialogue – listening to the voice of God and speaking our hopes and wants, our needs and desires, our praise and thanksgiving, to the One in whom we live and move and have our being (Preface for Sundays in Ordinary Time VI).  Dialogue requires an openness to the one with whom conversation takes place, attentiveness to the speaker, and receptivity to what is gleaned in the exchange.  The Liturgy forms us for dialogue: “The Lord be with you. And also with you.”  The dialogues in the liturgy both express the communitarian nature of the liturgy and they “foster and bring about communion between priest and people.” (General Instruction of the Roman Missal 2000, 34).  Communion is one of those words that describe the deeper experience involved with both contemplation and liturgy.

Waiting is an essential element of time and characterizes the liturgical year.  As a matter of fact, we have a whole season of waiting to celebrate the first coming of the Savior in our midst and to make room for that presence to be more clearly realized in our own day and time, Advent.  We wait to celebrate the liturgy, taking time in silent prayer to prepare ourselves or in communal reflection on feast, seasons, or the scriptures of the day, to prepare.  We wait to hear the Word proclaimed.  We wait to receive the Body and Blood of the One whom we are called to become, by virtue of our Baptism.  We sing of that waiting in repetitive refrains like the Taizé: Wait for the Lord, whose day is near. Wait for the Lord, be strong, take heart.  Even that repetitive style of singing is a form of contemplation – taking a long, loving, look at the One for whom we wait, by letting the words and melodies and thoughts associated with them linger on our lips, lounge in our minds and hearts, and lure us into becoming what we sing, the presence of the Lord who is strong, and whose heart transforms us and our world.

This kind of waiting requires an openness and receptivity to the Lord, a willingness to be attentive, that is, pay attention, to the ways in which the Lord is made known, sometimes through an awareness of God’s presence and at others through an awareness of God’s apparent absence. At all times, we wait so that we can pay loving attention to God. And here is where an essential element of contemplative prayer and of liturgical prayer become necessary, silence.

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal, #45 instructs us:

"45. Sacred silence also, as part of the celebration, is to be observed at the designated times.  Its purpose, however, depends on the time it occurs in each part of the celebration.  Thus within the Act of Penitence and again after the invitation to pray, all recollect themselves; but at the conclusion of a reading or the homily, all meditate briefly on what they have heard; then after Communion, they praise and pray to God in their hearts.

Even before the celebration itself, it is commendable that silence to be observed in the church, in the sacristy, in the vesting room, and in adjacent areas, so that all may dispose themselves to carry out the sacred action in a devout and fitting manner."

Notice the different purposes of silence within the Liturgy:

+  Disposition or Attentiveness (before the celebration)
+  Recollection (within the Act of Penitence and after the invitation to pray)
+  Meditation (after each reading and the homily)
+  Praise and Prayer (after communion)

The great spiritual writers talk about a need to prepare for prayer of any kind.  Why?  We need the proper disposition, we need eyes alert, hearts open, ears attentive, and minds ready for the encounter with the Holy.  This is the time of open receptivity and the willingness to take the long, loving look.  Before we can celebrate we need to be alert, to dispose ourselves to enter into the encounter with the Lord that the liturgy is, through sign, symbol, word, sacrament, silence, song, people and gesture.  Liturgy and contemplation both require the proper disposition for any encounter to take place.

Just as in contemplative prayer we recollect ourselves, trying to empty our minds and hearts of all that might get in the way of paying loving attention to God, so that we can know when to let something pass through our minds and hearts because it is truly a distraction, and when to dwell with it because what we would otherwise dismiss as distraction is what God is using to attract us, so, too in the liturgy.  We recollect ourselves: to become aware of our sinfulness or where we have lived the loving mercy of God, to become aware that it is not just about me, but about the we, who are invited to pray in the direction, “Let us pray,” becoming aware that communion with God through Christ always puts us into communion with one another and all creation, through Christ. 

Don’t we see this dual connection in the two arms of the cross? One reaches upward and the other reaches outward to connect us with God and creation, through the Christ whose corpus hangs on that cross, with arms open wide in vulnerable surrender. Silent recollection is an element of connection between liturgy and contemplation, yet, how often is silence skipped over in one’s ordinary experience of liturgical prayer?

For the encounter with God through the Word and with Christ through the Gospel to transform us, have an effect in our lives, and make a difference, we need to let them sink in.  We need to chew on them so as to become part of our very DNA.  We need to meditate on the Word we hear, the Word we sing in the Responsorial Psalm, and the connections between Word and life the homilist offers, by taking time in silence to “meditate briefly on what [we] have heard.”  Meditation is another form of contemplation that is prescribed in our liturgical instructions.  Again, how often is this skipped over; or we take a short, loving look rather than a long enough one; or silence is interrupted by physical movement, or an instrument, or the clanging of a thurible or incense boat.  Meditation requires silence, not only of mind and heart, but also of body and movement.

And then we have that time of intimate communion: with God in our hearts through the Body and Blood of Christ that has become one with our bodies and blood; with the living Body of Christ with whom we have shared this communion; and with the heavenly banquet, of which this communion is foretaste and promise.  Together, in communal silence after the communion chant (see GIRM 2000, 88), we praise God for this gift and pray in the ways that this kind of shared intimacy invite.  We are invited to a communal silence that allows the love made present in the sacramentum caritatis, the sacrament of charity, to deepen our bonds with Christ present in multivalent ways. 

This, too, is often neglected.  People take time for private prayer, as if communion were only about Jesus and me.  But, for us to have the sense of the Jesus and we that is at the core of Catholic theology and a Catholic Christian anthropology, we need this time to be personal, but never private, personal and with an awareness of the community to whom we belong.  Why?  Because our intimate union with Christ, and the ways in which we are to take Christ to and see Christ in the world beyond the walls of the domus ecclesiae, house of the church, requires this kind of communal awareness.

Even the singing during the time of communion can feed that contemplative stance.  If we use a refrain that is sung over and over, interspersed with verses as in a psalm sung in responsorial style; or verses sung over a mantra, as in the wonderful melodies offered by Taizé or Suzanne Toolan, RSML or the exciting pieces of the composers group behind Psallité; the music frees us to contemplate on the communion we share and the intimacy that Christ invites.  The repetition of melody and text, the repetitive movement of procession, the awareness of Christ present in Sacrament, in minister, in assembly, all help us take a long, loving look at the real presence of Christ, open to the ways in which we are to become what we eat and drink, as St. Augustine taught so many centuries ago.

Repetitive movement, whether in procession, or singing, or standing, or sitting, or signing senses with the cross, or… frees our minds and hearts to gaze upon the One with whom we become one in both contemplative and liturgical prayer.  Silence disposes us to recollect on who and whose we are in both types of prayer, as well.  Meditation helps the Word and its connection with life sink into the ground of our beings like a gentle spring rain, or the melting snow of a winter now over.  Praise and prayer remind us of the goal of the Christian Life and the Liturgy that we celebrate, the glorification of God and the sanctification of the human person, if not, all creation.

Liturgy and contemplation have many points of intersection.  I have shared my thoughts and experiences of each and both.  What comes to mind for you?  What would you add to this list?  What article would you write? Take a long, loving gaze at the real, open and receptive to the Lord, whose real presence we are to be, attentive to the God who is lovingly attentive to us, in Word, in Sacrament, in contemplation and liturgy, and beyond.

Read Part I of this 2-part article.

Paul H. Colloton, OP, D.Min. is the Director of Continuing Education of the National Association of Pastoral Musicians (NPM), Washington, DC.


Liturgy and Contemplation (Part I)

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