The meaning and purpose (and types) of prayer

A reader named Steven responded to my Wasting Time with God post by writing, in part:

Carl, the terms “prayer,” “contemplation,” “meditation,”  “non-discursive contemplation,” have been used in this conversation. I would very much like to understand how you would distinguish between them. Furthermore, I am trying to come to a deeper appreciation of the meaning and purpose of prayer.

Forgive me for not getting too detailed in my response here, for two reasons: 1. it’s late, and I want to get to bed, and 2. I address these issues in further detail in the forthcoming book. So, for now, here is an admittedly brief response.

First of all, “non-discursive” is used only for the purpose of adding emphasis. Talking about non-discursive contemplation is rather like talking about the very truth. Contemplation, as I understand it, is by its very nature non-discursive, or at least has as its goal the entry into a non-discursive way of relating to the divine.

Now, as for the distinctions between prayer, contemplation and meditation (please keep in mind that I am defining and using these terms explicitly in terms of the Christian wisdom tradition. My definitions may not make sense in other contexts):

  • Both contemplation and meditation are forms of prayer;
  • Contemplation is a form of meditation.

Therefore, let’s start with the broadest term (prayer), and finish up with the narrowest (c0ontemplation).

Prayer, as I understand it, involves communion/communication with God. Now we can go down the rabbit hole of “what is God?” but I’ll save that for another day. If the marker “God” makes you uncomfortable, try replacing it with “Holy Mystery.”

Just as there a variety of ways in which human beings can communicate (verbally, non-verbally) and for a variety of reasons (to get something done, to enjoy intimacy), so too prayer can take on a variety of forms, methods, techniques, and purposes. But it seems to me that whether we are praying to get something from God or simply to enjoy God; whether we pray using lots of words we find in a book or simply sharing the unrehearsed words of our hearts or employing a technique to silence the words in our mind, it all boils down to some action or dimension of communion or communication with God (the Holy Mystery).

So both the meaning and purpose of prayer is to facilitate such communion or communication.

Meditation, as a type or category of prayer, represents that point where we begin to relinquish control over our own prayer. It’s easy to approach prayer as if you need to be making a speech while God, your heavenly secretary, quietly takes good notes. But eventually such prayer dries up. Meditation (in the Christian sense) implies a quieter, more reflective, pondering or thoughtful consideration of God, or of some other aspect of your faith & relationship with the Holy Mystery. We pray using words for rain, but we meditate on God’s goodness. We pray with words to confess our sins, but we meditate on God’s forgiveness. We pray discursively to praise God, but we still our mind to simply rest in God’s praiseworthiness.

In the classical Christian understanding of the word, meditation can still be filled with thoughts, ideas, feelings, and mental chatter. It is, essentially, a cataphatic form of prayer, which is to say prayer that uses concepts and words and images to reach out to God. But there comes a point when we begin to recognize just how impoverished even the loftiest words and thoughts and concepts are when it comes to God. It seems that any word or image or concept that reveals God also in some significant way conceals God. It seems that the more we pray, the more we meditate, the more we mysteriously and inexplicably feel called to a place beyond words, beyond concepts and images, beyond anything that seems to come between us and God. The more and more we are able to move into this prayer beyond words, beyond images, the more we have embraced the path of contemplation.

Now, a number of “methods” or techniques for contemplation have been developed over the centuries, from John Cassian encouraging the repetition of Psalm 70:1 (69:2 in the Douay version) to the eastern fathers and the Jesus prayer, to the centering prayer movement in our own day. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with such intentional forms of prayer that aim to enter into contemplation, but I think that, ultimately, contemplation is a gift, that may or may not be given to us, even when we engage in a method or a technique. Repeating the Jesus prayer for hours a day may not make you a mystic, it could just mean you’re obsessive and compulsive. So, while such techniques for contemplation do exist, it’s important to keep in mind that what efforts to still or slow down the mind actually do is to dispose us to the mysterious action of the Holy Spirit — which may or may not take us where we “want” to go. It’s helpful, therefore, to keep in mind that even the apophatic (no-images) form of contemplative prayer is, at the foundation, still a form of prayer: seeking communion or communication with the Holy Other. And just like human-to-human communication, it doesn’t always go the way we want it to or think it should.

Okay, I’m begin to nod off, so I’ll end here. I hope this helps to make these terms at least a wee bit clearer, and perhaps will initiate further discussion and consideration from those who are more clever (or at least, more alert) than I am…

Is Mysticism Genetic?
Emptiness and Non-Attachment
Catholic Meditation and Contemplative Prayer: What's the Difference?
Entering the Year of Mercy: Are You Willing to Take the "Rahner Challenge"?
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Cindy

    Thanks Carl!

    A wonderfully succinct explanation … and a real constellation of excitement for the upcoming book!!!

    Can’t wait to get mine – I’ve pre-ordered it on

  • Maggie Daly

    For what it’s worth, I’ll toss in a comment. I’ve been doing a lot of spiritual reading lately including a reread of Tilden Edwards’ Spiritual Friend. (Sorry I can’t figure out how to italicize or underline in this post.) There is a lot of talk about “kataphatic” and “apophatic” spiritual paths. Edwards’ book has many really great end nots so I eagerly turned to the note on “kataphatic” only to find the simple statement: Some people spell it with a “c”. Big insight, LOL.

    More seriously, although I find the concepts of kataphatic as more word and image-driven and anaphatic as more silent and mysterious comprehensible to me they are like the well-known optical illusion often called “Tumbling Blocks” which depicts a stack of cubes that looked at one way are things you can sit on and looked at another way are things you could not possibly sit on. Yet the image is one and the same. It is the perception that changes. So too with kataphatic and anaphatic. They have a fade in/fade out relationship with each other and the single unity they approach. They are not the same, and yet they are.

  • Ron Krumpos


    In a footnote in my book, I note: The terms “contemplation” or “meditation” may mean the reverse (discursive vs. nondiscursive) in Eastern versus Western faiths. Discursive is a process of reasoning.

    In general (and hopefully not in contradiction to your book):
    Hinduism & Buddhism: Meditation is non-discursive; contemplation is discursive.
    Christianity, Judaism & Islam: Contemplation is non-discursive; meditation is discursive. Some people in each Western faith do use the Eastern meanings.

    What you call them is not important; that you do them is vital.

    In religious prayer, we talk to God (usually asking for favors). In mystical prayer we listen to God (what does God want from us). Controversial, but often true.

    • Carl McColman

      Ron, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. Well said.

  • Bob

    Contemplation maybe a gift one can do penance and obtain it through moral effort and avoiding venial sins. Those who seek god will find him, also the pure in heart will see god. according to the Scriptures.