I am a cradle Catholic, born to good parents who provided everything I needed to grow in my faith. Despite their efforts, as a teenager I began to doubt. Then, at the beginning of my senior year in high school, I experienced a profound encounter with Jesus at a prayer meeting. My life changed radically, and I began to tell family and friends that my goal was to become a saint.
After about six years in the seminary, which I entered right after graduating, I felt that God might be calling me to marriage. I left and then joined a committed group of Christians who met regularly for prayer, fellowship, and service. There I met my future wife, Marie. Together, we struck out on our journey to make Jesus number one in our lives.
Yearning for More. The desire to become a saint kept burning in my heart, and I did all I could to pursue it. I had a substantial daily prayer time, meditated on the Scriptures faithfully, and attended Mass every Sunday and many weekdays. I served in my parish. I prayerfully reviewed each day, repenting of sin and seeking to abandon myself to the will of Christ. Living out my commitments to my wife and growing family were my top priorities, but I also strove to be a witness of love and service to people at my job.
In all this, the Lord was truly with me to show me his paths. Still, there was something missing. I began to experience a tremendous restlessness, a real dryness. Psalm 63:2 became a daily prayer:
O God, you are my God whom I seek; For you my flesh pines and my soul thirsts
Like the earth, parched, lifeless, and without water.
Certain statements of Jesus began to haunt me: “I came that they might have life and have it to the full” (John 10:10). “The water I give shall become a fountain within him, leaping up to provide eternal life” (John 4:14). The “haunting” only grew as I read the lives of many saints. I kept asking myself, “What do they have that I don’t?”
What Is Contemplation? Years of feeling like I was on a spiritual plateau finally came to a head during a retreat. I complained to the retreat master that I had this yearning to go deeper with God but didn’t know how, given that my family and work responsibilities were all-consuming.
“You might just have to wait another twenty years until your children are grown and you can retire,” he told me. “Then you’ll have the time to pursue a deeper prayer life.”
This was not what I wanted to hear. In fact, it seemed wrong. God had called me to marriage and to lay life: wasn’t that supposed to be my path to holiness? I began to cry out to the Lord all the more. And then “it” began to happen.
I had heard about contemplative prayer. I had read about it. And there were times in my walk with the Lord when I had touched upon this deep, abiding sense of God’s presence. But it was still elusive and a great mystery to me.
The Lord led me to revisit a spiritual classic that I had read in seminary. Called The Cloud of Unknowing, it speaks of contemplative prayer as an infusion of God’s presence and love. I began to see that this prayer is a gift, a kind of indwelling that can only come from God and not from human striving or willing. No technique can produce it, although we can prepare ourselves by prayer and faithfulness to living the gospel. I learned, too, that my deep longing for more of God was itself a form of contemplative prayer—something that God had placed within me and not my own doing.
Plunging into Prayer. As my longing for deeper intimacy with Jesus became almost overwhelming, my wife gave birth to our sixth child, a beautiful daughter. Grateful as I was, I couldn’t help thinking, “I’m not a monk, with a lot of time for opening myself up to contemplative prayer! How am I, a father of six, supposed to respond to this desire?”
I finally stopped making excuses, knowing that the time had come to go beyond reading about contemplation and take a step in faith, within my own life circumstances. It felt like jumping off a high dive blindfolded, though, and I was fearful. But in the end, it wasn’t all that complicated.
I simply began taking five, ten, or fifteen minutes here and there to sit quietly in the presence of Jesus. I wouldn’t ask for anything. I didn’t use my usual litany of prayers or even cling to Scripture for meditation. I would simply whisper “Jesus” or “Jesus, I love you,” “Jesus, I trust in you,” or “Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner.” I would say these things to my Beloved over and over and over, somehow knowing that he wanted to hear them.
When I got up in the middle of the night to feed and rock the baby, I would see it as a chance to tell Jesus how much I loved him. When I drove my car, it was an opportunity to cut off the radio and speak Jesus’ name. When work became stressful, I took the occasion to tell Jesus: “I trust in you” again and again. And as I did, I was flooded with the sense of God’s love and presence.
In time, I found further help from another book that was collecting dust on my shelf, The Fire Within by the late Fr. Thomas Dubay. Based on the writings of St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila, it became my trusted guide for growing deeper in this form of prayer and gospel living.
And I did need guidance, for I quickly discovered the not so consoling form of contemplative prayer that John of the Cross calls the “dark night”—a dark knowing, feeling absolute dryness and abandonment for long periods of time, yet being somehow aware that God is still deeply abiding.
The Pursuit of Sanctity. Today, I still do my usual daily prayers and Scripture meditation. But sitting in the presence of God—sometimes with great consolation but often in darkness, with no particular experience—now constitutes the bulk of my prayer life. I believe it has sped up a process of transformation in Christ.
This is not to say that I have become an instant saint! In fact, I am more aware of my sins and faults than ever. But in my daily struggles and busy-ness, there is a deep, abiding sense of God’s presence. Fear is giving way to courage. Doubt is yielding to hope, and negativity to gratitude. Anxiety is being replaced with peace. Criticalness is being overcome by love.
Contemplative prayer has enabled me to get off a spiritual merry-goround and progress toward my goal of becoming a saint. Such a thought might seem proud or unrealistic. But I really don’t think so. To echo St. Thérèse, the Little Flower, “God would never inspire me with desires which cannot be realized.”
If you resonate to this heart’s desire to become a saint, know that God himself placed it in you. Whether you’re a lay person or a monk, he is inviting you to act on this desire. Take the next step, and allow God to draw you into a whole new reality of his love. n
Dan Almeter is a leader of Alleluia Community in Augusta, Georgia. He and Marie have been married thirty-two years and have six children and six grandchildren.
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