Growth in prayer is a matter of love, not technique
In my last column, I talked about being recollected at the beginning of prayer and practicing recollection throughout the day. Today I’d like to focus on the stage of prayer that is known as acquired recollection, following the teaching of St. Teresa of Avila. Acquired recollection (as a stage) is a simplified meditation that is experienced by those who have been practicing meditating on Scripture for a long time.
When we first begin praying, our meditation is labored. We expend lots of mental energy in reading Scripture, reflecting on it, and trying to apply it to our lives. We struggle with talking to God about it. Our prayer is often dry. As we form the habit of prayer, however, the Holy Spirit leads us to deeper insights into the Scriptures. The conversation with God becomes more fluid. After a time – sometimes months, sometimes years – we find that what we read leads us to praise and adoration. Our conversation is ruled by the heart more than the head. We call this stage affective prayer.
Later, another development occurs. Prayer simplifies. Instead of a few paragraphs of Scripture, a sentence might be enough to spur the conversation. Then we find ourselves moved to sit in silent love of God for a few minutes, not saying anything, because all words seem inadequate to express what is in our hearts. When the loving attention wanes, we return to Scripture and may find ourselves again caught up in wordless love of God. This acquired recollection is a training ground for infused contemplation, when God will, by his own action, draw us into silent communion with him.
Often, I meet well-meaning Catholics who desire union with God. They have read about this stage of prayer and they try to implement it by sitting silently. However, recollection is not so much a matter of technique as a response to a growing love for God. It must develop organically out of our meditation time, rather than being seen as a method that anyone can practice.
Prayer growth is intimately tied to love. When we love God through obedience to his will, following the teachings of the church and the promptings of the Holy Spirit, our prayer grows deeper. Trying to practice the prayer of acquired recollection before we have done the dryer work of discursive meditation can actually hinder us from growing. Humility and patience are two of the most important virtues for prayer growth.
Blessed Pere Marie Eugene writes in his exposition of Carmelite spirituality, “To condemn oneself then to passivity in order to attain to contemplation is as presumptuous and unavailing as it is dangerous” (“I Am a Daughter of the Church,” p. 85). John of the Cross likewise says, “At the proper time one should abandon this imaginative meditation so that the journey to God may not be hindered, but, so that there is no regression, one should not abandon it before its due time” (“Ascent of Mt. Carmel,” Book 2, Ch. 13, 1). An unnatural passivity leads us backwards, not forwards.
Like physical growth, spiritual growth, including growth in prayer, unfolds in stages. Just as a child cannot skip the teen years and go straight to adulthood, beginners in prayer cannot skip stages if they desire true growth. Our focus should be on love, not methods. Love is willing to wait for the beloved.
Connie Rossini is a member of St. Peter Parish in Omaha. She is co-author of “The Contemplative Rosary” released by EWTN Publishing and author of four other books on Catholic spirituality.