Bishop Hying

Walking with the Lord in meditative prayer provides sacred moments that benefit in all way

As published in the Northwest Indiana Catholic on July 15, 2018


      Recently at a “Lunch and Learn” event, Dr. Raul Enad, a local physician, made a powerful presentation about the health benefits of focused and consistent meditation. Citing medical studies conducted with a large group of religious sisters and brothers, he pointed out the extraordinary longevity and mental acuity of these religious in comparison with the general population. One of the significant factors in their exceptional health is the practice of reflective prayer in an atmosphere of peace and silence.

      Dr. Enad showed other studies which reveal that those who pray meditatively experience physical changes in their brain which improve memory, mood and concentration, while reducing stress, depression, sadness and risks of dementia. Some of the evidence was startling, but upon further reflection, I did not find it surprising. 

      Spending time in stillness with the Lord, doing some deep breathing and focusing on the beauty of sacred moments in the presence of God can only benefit us in all ways - the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual.

      What is meditation? 

      Different than communal or vocal prayer, it is a sustained and concentrated effort to place our heart, mind and spirit in the presence of the Lord with attention to a word from Scripture, an image of God or Jesus Christ, or a particular spiritual idea or thought that can focus our distracted and scattered existence on the beautiful reality of the Divine. Lection Divina is a way to meditate with a narrative from the Scriptures.

      Once, I received, as a penance in confession, to reflectively pray one Our Father, but spend 30 minutes, savoring every phrase. The Rosary can be deeply meditative if we truly enter into the mysteries and not just rattle off the Hail Marys.

      To successively meditate, we need a quiet place, a little bit of free time and a comfortable position.  Some folks find early mornings in the sun room an ideal situation; others go to church in front of the Blessed Sacrament. Maybe, the only way it will work for you is to close the door of your office and spend 15 minutes of your lunch break sitting in stillness. 

      I need something concrete and specific to focus my meditation - a psalm, a parable, an image of the Sacred Heart, a particular virtue or religious thought.

      In a previous column, I spoke of the saints of the Counter-Reformation and their remarkable impact on the world around them. Saints Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross still speak powerfully to us of the fruits of a life given to prayerful meditation. 

      They lived in 16th century Spain and were Carmelites. John served Teresa as her spiritual director and both worked ardently for the spiritual reform and renewal of their religious order. Their greatest legacy to the Church is their writings on meditative and contemplative prayer. 

      “Interior Castle” and “The Way of Perfection” by Teresa and “Ascent of Mount Carmel” and “Dark Night of the Soul” by John are spiritual classics which illuminate the mystical path of prayer for serious Christians. Try reading one.  I do not always grasp everything these remarkable saints are saying, but I unfailingly find pearls of great wisdom.

      Both Teresa and John point out three fundamental phases in our desire for with God. 

      The first is the Purgative, whereby we seek to rid our lives of serious sin and bad habits. If we imagine our soul to be a garden, this initial step is the painful process of removing rocks, tree stumps and weeds and breaking up the earth in preparation for planting. Confession, spiritual direction and the earnest attempt to live a disciplined and holy life are helpful components in this purgation.

      The second phase is the Illuminative, as God enlightens our hearts, souls and minds, filling us with divine knowledge, helping us to live the Christian virtues, and leading us into a deeper relationship with him. Studying the Catholic faith, reading solid spiritual books, faithfully meditating on the Scriptures and devotedly sharing in the sacraments all lead us along this illuminative path of increasing intimacy with God. 

      St Irenaeus thoughtfully wrote that this earthly existence gives both God and us time and space to know each other, ever growing in a profound intimacy of love, mercy, grace and virtue. Through the lens of the garden image, we allow the Lord to plant the seed of his life and grace in us, as we faithfully water and nurture this spiritual growth.

      The third and final phase of the mystical life is ,as the soul enters so deeply into the mystery of God that such an individual truly experiences the sweet foretaste of heaven. In this phase, which few people actually consistently reach for extended periods of time in this life, God is in the driver’s seat, as it were, acting upon the soul, filling it with inexpressible joy and peace. 

      In this phase, prayer moves from meditation, where we are actively praying, to contemplation, where the Holy Spirit is praying in us and all of our senses are quiet and at rest. The soul’s garden enjoys the glorious satisfaction of harvest, as the fruit of a lifetime of prayer is occasional glimpses of with the Divine.

      Although sequential, in one sense, all three of these phases are going on in our lives simultaneously.  We will always be striving to overcome sin and selfishness, always seeking greater knowledge, virtue and grace and hopefully having moments of with the Lord. 

      While I have certainly not reached the stage of and most often feel in the Purgative state, nevertheless, transcendent moments of prayer, love, knowledge and unity with other people and the truth of creation which I have experienced, serve as grace-filled markers on the pilgrim way to the Kingdom of God. 

      I pray that one of the greatest fruits of our Synod process will be the steady cultivation of meditative prayer in the lives of more and more Catholics. Nurture the garden of your soul. Walk there with the Lord in the early light of dawn or the cool of the evening. Seek the Lord, knowing that he is already seeking you.


       + Donald J. Hying

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