Contemplative prayer may seem like a lofty spirituality accessible only to an enlightened minority, but it is the only way we can truly respond to St. James’ exhortation to joy in the midst of trials. Contemplative prayer is no more complicated than breathing or gazing upon someone we love. Contemplative prayer is difficult only when we are unacquainted with obscurity and expect or prefer something obvious.
The Word of God, though extremely nourishing for our faith, still obliges us at some level to plunge into obscurity. The only obvious thing that can directly and immediately develop our faith is the suffering due to trials. We don’t need to go out looking for trials, they are already present in our daily lives: I can experience my life, my habits, my sins as a burden; I can also experience other people as a burden: responsibility, injustice, rudeness.
A prayer life open to contemplation first discovers oneself as a burden. This is a painful realization and can be wrought with anxiety and moments of despair or frustration. The temptation in this trial is to try to figure out how to stop being a burden (either for ourselves, for others, or for God). If we live this trial with faith, we can go of the way we see ourselves and the ways we could fix ourselves. Faith can free us from all anxious striving to become, “the best version of ourselves.” Our heart, our breath, and our inner vision must simply plunge into Jesus, “casting all our cares on Him.” I must come to peaceful terms with the fact that, at some level, I am and will be a burden as long as I live. I am peaceful when I surrender and open that vulnerable place in my soul to Jesus. The Word takes upon Himself the burden of human flesh weighed down by sin.
Contemplative prayer discovers that Jesus carries our burdens with us out of love. This enables us to understand how we can bear the burdens of others out of love also. Contemplative prayer directly feeds an authentic ministry of compassion. We must allow Jesus to carry our burdens so that we can carry the burdens of others.
“If anyone is so zealous for continence or good works that he neglects to seek the rewards of eternal recompense in return for them, that person may indeed appear to have a fine linen miter on his head, but he does not have little crowns, for although he certainly displays the image of virtue before other human beings, he does not acquire the reward of virtue with the Lord”1
“James does all he can to encourage people to bear their trials with joy, as a burden which is bearable, and says that perfect patience consists in bearing things for their own sake, not for the hope of some better reward elsewhere. He nevertheless tries to persuade his hearers to rely on the promise that their present state will be put right. The person who has fought the hard battles will be perfectly able to handle anything. Someone who comes through his troubles in this way will be duly prepared to recieve his reward, which is the crown of life prepared by God for those who love him.”2
“If we sin when we are drunk with pleasure, we do not notice it. But when it gives birth and reaches its goal, then all the pleasure is extinguished and the bitter core of our mind comes to the surface. This stands in contrast to women in labor. For before they give birth, such women have great pain and suffering, but afterwards the pain goes away, leaving their bodies along with the child. But here it is quite different. For until we labor and give birth to our corrupt thoughts, we are happy and joyful. But once the wicked child called sin is born we are in pain as we realize the shame to which we have given birth, and then we are pierced through more deeply than any woman in labor. Therefore I beg you right from the start not to welcome any corrupt thought, for if we do so the seeds will grow inside us, and if we get to that stage, the sin inside us will come out in deeds and strike us dead by condemning us, in spite of all our confessions and tears.” 3
“The desires of sinners are the birth pangs of death.”4