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Prayer, Meditation, and Contemplation: Insight for the Contemporary College Student

Mysticism is a wide spectrum, involving many different facets and outlets for the experiencing of the Ultimate. The most common and prevalent in Western culture are the practices of prayer, meditation, and contemplation. By examining Kenneth Leech`s ideas on prayer as a window to our true nature, Kierkegaard`s idea that God is the criterion in each person`s process of becoming, and Thomas Merton`s ideas on contemplation as the prerequisite for positive action, this paper will claim that mystical experiences such as prayer, meditation, and contemplation are essential practices for those seeking spiritual completeness and progressive action, even for contemporary college students who feel they have no time for such practices.

Before an understanding can exist of the significance of prayer, one must first understand what prayer is. Leech writes that To know God is to know one`s own true Self, the ground of one`s being. So prayer is an intensely human experience in which our eyes are opened and we begin to see more clearly our own true nature.[1] Prayer, then, starts with the Self. One must look within him or herself and have a genuine desire to commune with the Ultimate before that person can engage in a true prayer. God resides in each person uniquely; so to open up a communication with Him is to look within oneself and understand the subject`s true nature which has been constructed by God. This true nature is the essence of the subject aside from temptation and weakness. It is the ideal that resides in each person, and this ideal, as Kierkegaard says, is God.[2]

God is the criterion, and he who seeks the subjective consciousness of the self places himself before this criterion because it is a goal that he will always be in the process of achieving because to become like God is, perhaps, impossible. However, one must not get bogged down by the idea that one can never actually reach the goal, because significance is not so much in the achievement of the goal, but in the actual existence of striving to meet the goal. In other words, each person is in a process of becoming his or her ideal self. The process will never end because the subject will die before the goal is ever met. This might sound a bit depressing, but death must be embraced as an inevitability. Thus, it is the process that the subject must focus on and find significance in, not the end because the end will never actually be achieved. One is able to tap into this true nature and contemplate his or her process of becoming through the experiences of prayer and meditation.

Thomas Merton writes of contemplation as life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive[3]. To silently contemplate is to look internally at who one is; to see the sacredness of existing and the realization that there is a source of existence. Contemplation is an imperative practice that allows humans to constantly examine themselves, acknowledge God as the source of being, and grounds them so they are capable of action to better themselves and the world around them.

When someone is able to silently contemplate, it allows him or her an opportunity to set aside the distractions in life that Merton calls noise.  By doing so, he or she is isolated from the world in an attempt to view him or herself apart from his or her place in the world. To constantly examine oneself is to become aware of who that person truly is.

When a person contemplates, he or she becomes fully aware; aware of existence, and aware of God as the source of that existence. Merton says that contemplation is awakening, enlightenment, and the amazing intuitive grasp by which love gains certitude of God`s creative and dynamic intervention in our daily life[4]. While in contemplation, people are connected with God; they can feel His presence. Contemplation is not a way to find God in a finite sense that places Him inside restrictive boundaries; it is a way to be with God in His own realm. Prayer and meditation allows for an experience of Him in a spiritual sense. Through contemplation, the subject experiences God in His form, not in the subject`s.

It is difficult, however, in our society to actually spend the time devoted to silent contemplation. In the college student disposition, we are so busy that it seems impossible to make time for anything, let alone sitting in silence for a significant amount of time. We must realize, however, that meditation is not merely sitting in silence. It is not a waste of time as some might say in our culture. It is, on the contrary, a practice that has significant spiritual, emotional, and intellectual benefits. As Merton writes, It helps us to concentrate on a purpose that really corresponds not only to the deeper needs of our own being but also to God`s intentions for us[5]. In other words, contemplating allows us to discover that which we truly need for ourselves in the deepest sense, as well as that which God intends for us. It is an opportunity for purpose. It makes a reason to exist clear for us.

It may seem that contemplation is an alternative to the life of action. It perhaps appears that to lead a life of contemplation one must forsake the world and live a life away from creating, experiencing, and acting. On this, Merton writes This does not mean that they are incompatible with action, with creative work, with dedicated love. On the contrary, these all go together. A certain depth of disciplined experience is a necessary ground for fruitful action. [6] Contemplation is the primer, so to speak, for positive action. It is only once we examine and know ourselves that we are able to act to progress the rest of the world. By contemplating, we become aware of what is truly important, therefore we are able to act on that. We become aware that we must love our fellow man; therefore we must act to aid humanity. We become aware that God is the source of our existence; therefore we must act on our love for the Creator.

Prayer, meditation, and contemplation are essential practices for all humans in a spiritual and moral sense. It is our individual responsibility to know who we are. It is only once we acknowledge our own being that we are able to make a progressive change in the world and help those who need it.


[1]Leech, Kenneth, True Prayer: An Invitation to Christian Spirituality, (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1980), 3.

[2] Anti-Climacus (S. Kierkegaard), Sickness unto Death (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978).

[3] Thomas Merton, A Call to Contemplation, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000), 58.

[4] Merton, Contemplation, 59.

[5] Merton, Contemplation, 77.

[6] Merton, Contemplation, 85.

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