In prayer, different things can happen. We might engage in petition, thanksgiving, worship, adoration, liturgy, ejaculatory prayers – or also mental prayer, meditation and contemplation.
There is this thing called meditation. We might form our own thoughts, starting from a consideration of the world and of nature, starting from reflecting on and absorbing a passage of Scripture, starting from the words of a saint or words from a spiritual book, starting from the mysteries of the Rosary, or starting from any experience that we have had or are having. These thoughts, if they take us to God and let us tease out the details of God’s being or God’s work in salvation history, are called meditation. We do mental work. In that, we pray.
On the other hand, sometimes it happens that we begin with meditative thoughts and prayers, and then, all of a sudden, this disappears. We lose control. We are left in a void as regards our own attempts and control, and another inspiration comes over us, leading us into light or darkness from on high. This is normally called contemplation, and the beginning experiences of it often feel dark, for we are losing control and God is giving us prayer. Instead of our working the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, God is guiding us by his sevenfold Gift of the Holy Spirit. We have to let go. God leads us into the dark. Then it gradually, maybe in days or weeks or years, becomes light.
It is common advice of the saints to let God do his work. If we cannot pray as we want to, but yet we can still pray, we should accept prayer on God’s terms. We should give up; we should give in. Such a response is beneficial for us (and, by extension, for our neighbours). In previous posts, I have detailed this advice in John of the Cross (more than once), Teresa of Ávila, Catherine of Siena, Francis de Sales, René Voillaume (more than once), Edith Stein (more than once), Marcel Văn, and others.
John of Ávila is of the same mind. In his Audi, filia (Listen, O Daughter), he describes the situation as follows:
[I]f you are thinking about one thing in prayer, and your souls feels that it is invited elsewhere and that another door of a good thought has been opened to you, you should then leave what you were thinking about and take up what is given to you…
[I]f you are reading or praying vocally, and the Lord visits you with some profound sentiment, you should stop what you were doing and enjoy the portion that the Lord is sending you. Once it is finished, you will be able to continue what you were doing before. Since exterior devotion serves to awaken the interior, the former must not be taken as a means to hinder the latter.
John also specifies why he thinks it is important for us to follow this counsel of his:
I would not speak in such detail if I had not seen people so attached to their own rules and the fulfillment of their own tasks, that, even if there are reasons to think that the Lord wants them interrupted, they do not wish to be.
In other words, it can be, secretly and stealthily, our pride at work when we deny God his ability to work freely in us. When we pray and God wishes to do most of the praying (contemplation), we ought rather to say yes. To turn down a gift in order to do things the way we prefer is, at best, bad manners. Bad manners might come from lack of understanding of God’s customs, or they might come from our desire to have things our way; in either case, we would do better to learn good manners and apply them. God pays well for our good manners, and he bestows wonderful gifts.
When, in meditating, the opportunity of contemplation comes, we ought to say, Yes; do speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.
Note that detailed signs of the onset of contemplation (that is, an initial transition from meditative prayer to contemplative prayer) are given by Saint John of the Cross and discussed here and here.