The Pause that Refreshes: Meditative Prayer

This past weekend, I was honored to present at the Dallas Catholic Youth Conference. The following is my talk/presentation on meditation:

The Pause that Refreshes: Meditative Prayer
Dallas Catholic Youth Conference, August 1, 2015
Kaitlyn Willy

Welcome to “The Pause that Refreshes: Meditative Prayer.”

My name is Kaitlyn and, as my bio indicated, I have had quite a few different jobs in ministry. I started out as a youth minister while I was working on my BA in History and Greek at the University of Dallas and have since earned an MA in Theology at the University of Notre Dame. During and after Notre Dame, I was the campus minister at Butler University for three years and was working there when I co-founded UP Ministries and Spiritual Uprising Magazine. Although the magazine is currently on hiatus, I’m still involved in a few things over at the Church of the Incarnation in Irving where I go to Mass every Sunday and I blog regularly for both Spiritual Uprising and on my personal blog while working on my PhD at UNT. I’m so excited to be here with you.

Before we begin, I think it is in keeping with the message of this presentation that we take a few moments to silence ourselves, to let go of the conversations you had in the last session or in the hall outside, to forget about our phones or problems at home or what you are doing tomorrow. Take a moment to quiet yourself, still your mind, and focus your breathing…


Silence is important. It calms us, refocuses us, and helps us to remember that we are always and everywhere in the holy presence of God.

I think that in today’s world we, especially young people like us who live our lives so plugged in to social media, have become uncomfortable with silence. Out of curiosity, how many of you need music playing in order to sleep? I know that was a problem for one of my former students at Butler when we were on a mission trip that involved a technology fast for the week. She couldn’t sleep because she needed to have music to fall asleep. When we can no longer stand silence even in our sleep, you know we’ve grown uncomfortable with stillness and silence in our lives. Yet, stillness and silence create the best atmosphere there is for meditative and contemplative prayer.

I’m guessing since you’ve chosen to come to this talk instead of whatever your other choices are, that you want to learn how to meditate. I think that meditation is one of the best ways to not only grow in our relationship with God, but also to help center and focus ourselves.

Now, meditation might not be a form of prayer that you are familiar with, but meditation has been used, particularly by those living in the monastic life, since the beginning of Christianity and even before that into our Jewish roots. In fact, in very first two verses of the Psalms, we learn that the one who meditates day and night on the word of God is blessed. For us as Christians and Catholics, meditation is not only a way of prayer, but also a calling, an opportunity to refresh our spirit and renew our souls in a deeper relationship with God.

Now, before we get ahead of ourselves, I think that we should discuss a few definitions of prayer and meditation. Maybe it’s because when I’m not doing ministry I work as an English teacher, but I think that in talking about something as misunderstood and complex as meditation, it is probably best to acknowledge up front the different ways that meditation is understood.

Now, this is going to be an interactive session. I’m an introvert, so I’m not going to force you to talk to someone you don’t know—unless you came here alone, in which case, hopefully the person next to you is nice. Now, we’re going to take a couple minutes and I want you to come up with some definitions of prayer and meditation as you understand them. What is prayer? What is it not? How do you do it? What do you know about it?

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “Meditation is above all a quest. The mind seeks to understand the why and how of the Christian life, in order to adhere and respond to what the Lord is asking. (CCC 2705). Meditation engages thought, imagination, emotion, and desire. This mobilization of faculties is necessary in order to deepen our convictions of faith, prompt the conversion of our heart, and strengthen our will to follow Christ. Christian prayer tries above all to
meditate on the mysteries of Christ, as in the rosary. This form of prayerful reflection is a great value, but Christian prayer should go further: to the knowledge of the love of the Lord Jesus, to union with him in meditation (CCC 2708).”

What do you think of that? Does that make sense? Does something in that strike you? (reread)


I think that for me, one of the best definitions of meditative prayer is to say  “Meditation is prayer in the human manner.”  What that means is that when we read or reflect on something of God, whether it is reading scripture or the lives of saints or reflecting on something that has happened in our lives, we are taking the first step by doing the reading or reflecting and opening ourselves to God’s movement within us.

Now, if you google Catholic meditation, you will come up with all sorts of things: lists of steps, ways to do it, articles on the best resources or stories to use. I’m not going to say to not read those, but I’m also not going to recommend it. Something that I’ve learned about meditation over the years is that while specific steps or methodologies are helpful, they’re not absolute. And, even if you’ve learned them, there are different types of meditation that remove or redefine some of those steps. So, even though I’m going to teach you different steps and methods, the important thing is not the order or the method, but that you are entering into meditation of God and His word and a conversation with Him. As a friend of mine wrote to me as I was preparing this talk, “If you look around and don't feel like you're praying/meditating "the way you're supposed to" (based on what you see others doing, or what they tell you to do) -- that doesn't mean you're doing it wrong. Prayer is cultivating your friendship with Christ, and every friendship looks different.”

So, what I’m here to do is to teach you are a few different methods of meditation and help you practice them. My goal here is that when you leave, you will have more tools in your toolbox for building a stronger relationship with God and for finding rest in the midst of the stress of school, work, friendships, and life.

Now, I’m one of those people who listens better if my speaker gives me an outline, so in case there are any of you who feel the same, here it is: We’re going to more fully define meditation, we’re going to learn steps traditionally associated with meditation, then we’re going to learn about and practice three specific types of meditation: Lectio Divina, Imaginative Prayer, and praying with labyrinths. Now, there are many other types and styles of meditation that you could try, but the reason I’ve chosen these is that these are the ways that I pray and these are the styles that my former students at Holy Family and at Butler have found helpful.

How to Meditate: What it is, isn’t, how to do it. 

Now, if Meditation is prayer in the human manner, there’s something that you need to know. Because meditation involves being human, there’s something meditation does not involve… can you guess where I’m going with this? (pause) Meditation does not involve being perfect. No one meditates perfectly. It’s not a test, you’re not getting a grade. If you get distracted, you just say hey, Lord, sorry about that and jump right back in. If you’re waiting until you can pray perfectly without distraction to start meditating and start building a relationship with God, you’re going to have to wait until you’re in heaven, which kind of misses the point.

But, because it’s important to avoid distractions when meditating, the first step of meditation is to choose a time and a place that are suitable for prayer. For those of you with your own room and your own space, that’s probably pretty easy. But, here’s the thing—if you can’t find the perfect place to meditate, that’s okay. The only wrong way to pray is to not. Some of the places I like to pray or meditate are in my room, out in nature (usually by trees or by lakes, because that’s where I feel close to God), or in the sanctuary of a Church. The important thing is that it’s a relatively quiet place where you won’t be disturbed and that you’re choosing a time where you can give your full attention to God. Choosing to meditate right before your mom calls you to dinner might not be ideal.

Going along with that, you should probably turn your phone off—or at least turn it to do not disturb. Even if you make it so it’s vibrating, that will distract you because you’ll wonder what you’re missing.

So, step one—find a time and place where you can be alone with, or at least give your full attention to, God.

Step two—now this is the hard part. Step two is to gather yourself inwardly, to calm your mind and your thoughts. Take a moment of silence. Let go of what happened that day, let go of your worries. Stop thinking about whether or not so and so likes you back or if you did well on your math test. Just be.

Now, again, this is hard. I know that and so does God. Here’s a trick I learned about prayer a long time ago that has helped me ever since. When you’re praying imagine that you are sitting at the bottom of a calm, still body of water, like a lake. No worries, guys, you can breathe under this water. Got that? You’re at the bottom of or  sort of floating in a lake underwater. Now, floating up on top of this lake are some boats and those are your thoughts or the sounds of cars outside the window or whatever else is distracting you. Those boats can go over the water and cause ripples, interrupting the stillness of the water, but you’re at the bottom of the lake and can barely feel them. When they come by, just acknowledge them and let them pass—don’t engage, don’t feel guilty, don’t jump on board. Distractions are okay, just refocus yourself. Remember that Meditation is not a removal from the world but a way to help you be better in the world.

So, step two is focusing yourself.

Now, if you think of meditation as a conversation between you and God, which it is, basically what you have done is found a place to have your conversation where you won’t be interrupted and you’ve focused yourself so that your thoughts are on the person you’re talking with. What do you think is next?


Step three is, basically, greeting God. You can do this as simply as saying, “Hi, God, it’s me, Kaitlyn, I thought we could talk.” If that feels uncomfortable, a lot of people like to begin with an Our Father or something similar. There’s also the Jesus prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner). There’s really no wrong way to do this part of the prayer, you just greet God both to greet him and to remind yourself that you are in His presence.

Step four is called input. This is where you do what you probably traditionally think of as meditating. Now, this can look like any number of things and can take many forms. A lot of people will use scripture to meditate or they’ll read about the lives of Saints. You could also use song lyrics or a song itself as a topic of meditation. Whatever you choose, you read over it, sometimes many times. This is where God has a chance to speak to you through the material and help you talk with him. You can also use your imagination to create a setting to talk with God.

Step four is the heart and soul of meditation, but it’s meaningless without the other steps, especially step five. In step five, we ponder and reflect on the reading or conversation from step four. Some people journal, some people draw, some people just sit and think. Be simple, be yourself. Ask God to show you what he was trying to tell you in step four. Again, there is no wrong way to do step 5 other than to omit it. Step five can (and should) also involve direct conversation with God: adore, praise, repent, thank, petition.

So, we sit down and greet God, we read something or speak directly about something with him, then we take time with God to reflect on that conversation and discern what we need to take away from it. This is the point where we are processing.

The last thing we do, which is often the last part of an intentional conversation with a friend, is to make a plan. Step six is the resolution, where we determine to do something specific in response to what we have meditated on. If our meditation was on the creation of the world, our resolution might be to have greater respect and care for God’s creation. If it was on forgiveness, we might plan to make amends with a friend we fought with. Whatever it is, it should grow organically out of our conversation with God. This shouldn’t be something that causes you stress. It might even be as simple as deciding to reflect further on the topic or to pray about it again in the future.

So, those are the six steps. Don’t worry if you’ve forgotten some of them, because they’re in the handout. You can always go back and check.

Now, as I said before, these steps can be flexible. Maybe you start your prayer with thanksgiving or intercessions. Maybe you do four and five together at the same time. Remember again, there are no wrong ways to pray as long as you show up. God just wants to talk with you.

Let’s pause here. Are there any questions?


Lectio Divina

Now, as I said before, we are going to talk about and practice three different types of meditative prayer. The first is a really traditional form called Lectio Divina, which literally just means “Sacred (or Divine) Reading” in Latin.

Now, Lectio involves the same six steps as we just learned, but with some variation. Again, it’s all in the handout—don’t panic.

Before you begin in Lectio, you choose a specific passage from the Bible (or some other reading) as the basis for your prayer. Then, you do steps 1-3 as always. Find a time and place, focus yourself, greet God and ask for his guidance. Then, for step four and five, you read the passage several times.

“Picture lectio divina as a way of feasting on God's Word...First we take a
bite; then we chew, savoring the taste of it; and finally we swallow and digest it, and it becomes part of us.”

Now, read the text out loud. If you haven’t read the passage before or if you aren’t familiar with it, simply listen to what the text says the first time through. What happens?

Read the text again. This time, “listen for a word or phrase that catches your
attention and invites you to linger with it. Don't analyze it. Just listen to it. Give yourself some silent space before you read the text aloud again. ”

The third time, “begin to ponder why this particular word or phrase is speaking to you. How does it connect with your life?”    What is God saying to you through the text?

Read the text aloud a fourth time. “Listen for God's invitation to you. Then begin a conversation with him. What do you want to say to God about what you are hearing? How does the text lead you into prayerful dialogue with God?”

You may choose to read the text aloud a fifth time and “then simply rest in God's presence. No words are necessary. Just be still, and know that he is God.”

In this prayer, steps four and five are combined. Some people may read the text only three times through instead of five. Listen to yourself in how many repetitions you choose to do and consider the length of your passage.

Step six, the resolution, grows organically out of the prayer. Consider, what do you want to do based on your prayer?

Frequently, after or during Lectio Divina, people choose to write in a journal to process what they are feeling or to share with others.

Lectio Divina: Practice

For the sake of this workshop, while I lead you in meditation, we will skip parts 1-3 because we have already taken time at the beginning of the session to still ourselves and become aware of God’s presence. Again, at home, these are important steps that we shouldn’t skip.

Now, I am going to lead you in Lectio Divina. For the scripture reading, I have chosen the story of the woman at the well. Can anyone tell me the story and why it’s important?

(have a student answer)

Very good. Now, listen to the words of the scripture. Listen for a word or phrase that catches your attention and invites you to linger with it. Don't analyze it. Just listen to it.

(reading, John 4:1-29)


What word stood out to you?

I’m going to read it again and I want you to ask yourself these questions:  Why do you think that word or phrase stood out to you? What do you think God is trying to say to you, here, now, in this passage?

(reading, John 4:1-29)


Normally, I would read the passage a third time, but it’s a long one and we have other things to cover.  I am going to be silent for a couple minutes. During this time, listen for God's invitation to you. Then begin a conversation with him. What do you want to say to God about what you are hearing? How does the text lead you into prayerful dialogue with God?

(pause for 2 minutes)

I’m going to invite you to turn to your neighbor and share. What struck you? What moved you? What do you think God is saying to you?

(pause for 2 minutes)

Is there anything you would like to share about the prayer? Is there something that you heard in the reading? Was there something that made the prayer difficult?

(group discussion)

Imaginative Prayer

The second type of prayer we are going to learn about and experience is Imaginative Prayer, which is frequently called Ignatian Contemplation because it is associated with Saint Ignatius of Loyola. Does anyone know who that was?

(pause, discuss Iggy)

The Ignatian method is to place oneself in the Biblical scene and to become a part of it by way of the imagination. Ignatius suggests that we try to imagine what we might see, what we might hear, and what the persons in the scene might be doing. Always, at each point in the contemplation, Ignatius says we must “try to draw some practical fruit from the reflection for our own life today.” In other words, what changes or challenges does our reflection on the event furnish us?

When I was in sixth through eighth grade, my religion teacher would have us sit quietly with our eyes closed and she would lead us in a meditation. Sometimes the meditations would be like the ones Ignatius wrote about in his Spiritual Exercises, where we would place ourselves inside the Gospel story and become part of the scene. Sometimes a member of the crowd, sometimes a disciple walking with Him, these exercises helped me come close to Jesus in a way that I had never experienced before. I could feel the heat of the sun on my face, the wind in my hair. I could smell the salt in the Sea of Galilee. This practice grew in me as I got older, and oftentimes at Mass as I listen to the Gospel I close my eyes and experience the reading this way.

Imaginative prayer can be used in another way, too. It can be used to make prayer more intimate and more personal. Instead of sitting and talking to God, try closing your eyes and imagining yourself in a special place, sitting with Jesus and talking with him. The place is important for the prayer as part of the setting. When I did this with my high school students, some of them imagined themselves sitting on a beach sitting next to Jesus while others imagined a park or their own bedrooms. Some people use the same place each time they pray, whereas others have many different places they go to speak with Christ. Either way, this practice allows you to create a drawing room within, where you can meet with Christ as often as you want.

I like imaginative prayer because it’s not so rigid. Saint Ignatius thought that the imagination should be used to our advantage in our spirituality instead of blamed for our distractions.

Now, instead of explaining imaginative prayer in detail, I’m simply going to lead you in a reflection on the reading of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple. This might seem like a strange reading to do at this time of year, but I’ve chosen it because I love the characters and I think that they have a lot to say to us in our lives. Anna and Simeon spent their lives in hope, and I think that is a great thing for us to reflect on.

Imaginative Prayer: Practice

Before we begin, close your eyes. Let your focus turn inward to your own body. Find a comfortable position that enables you to breathe freely.

Imagine yourself in front of the temple in Jerusalem. You are sitting on the ground in front of the temple, between two people. Focus on how the ground feels under you. Is it stone, sand, dirt? How does it feel? Is it warm or cold, firm or loose?

What do you feel? Do you feel the sun on your face, the wind in your hair? Take a moment to focus and be there in that place.

On one side, there is an old man sitting. His name is Simeon. Imagine his aged face, his white beard. Sit with him a while. What does he say to you?

On your other side is an old woman, Anna. There is a warmth of hope in her eyes. Sit with her for a moment. What does she say?

Simeon and Anna are waiting, waiting for the most important event in their life. There is a young couple far off that is walking towards the temple. The woman carries a child. Simeon and Anna are anxious in their waiting as the couple draws near. How do you feel as the couple draws closer to the temple door? Closer to where you sit? What might you say to Simeon or Anna?

Stay in that place and continue to imagine the scene that is unfolding as I read the passage aloud. Concentrate on what you see, what you hear, what you feel, smell, and taste.

(read Luke 2:22-40)

(silence for a time)

As Mary and Joseph walk away, turn to Anna or Simeon. What do you say to them? What do they have to say to you?

When you are ready, say goodbye to Anna and Simeon. Take a moment to consider how you feel about what you just saw. What thoughts does it bring up in you? What reaction does your body have to these thoughts? Do you feel a tightness in your chest, a lightening of your heart?

When you are ready, open your eyes and come back into the room.

Discussion Questions:
1) How did the meditation make you feel?
2) Is there anything you would like to share about your conversation with Simeon or Anna?
3) How do you move forward in your life, taking this experience with you?

The Labyrinth

Okay, so now that we have done two really heavily mental prayers, I thought we could finish up with something that is more physical.

First, does anyone know what a labyrinth is?

A labyrinth is not a maze because there is only one way to turn. Instead it is a path along which you can contemplate and pray. Because there are no decisions to make in the path, you are free to let your body move while your mind is in prayer.

There are three steps to praying with the labyrinth.

The first is purgation. Now, imagine that you are walking along an actual labyrinth path. Purgation is the walk inwards. Most labyrinths have a bench inside the center. Imagine that Jesus is sitting there. During purgation, you are approaching Jesus. This is a time for releasing, letting go of the details of your life, the cares and concerns that keep you distracted and stressed. You imagine yourself literally leaving these things behind on the path, letting go of each so that when you enter into the center of the labyrinth, your mind is free. This is like steps 1 and 2 of traditional meditation.

The second step of praying the labyrinth is Illumination. Illumination is the time spent inside the center, during which you are talking with Jesus. Of course, you begin by greeting him, as in step three of meditation. Then, you can talk with him, as in steps four and five of meditation. You stay in the Center as long as you like. Continue to do what feels natural. Illumination is a place for clarity and insight. Receive what is there for you.

The third step of praying the labyrinth is the Union. As you prepare to leave, take time for gratitude and considering how you will integrate this experience into your life. During the Union, you imagine that you are walking back out of the labyrinth along the same path, but that Jesus goes with you back into the world. You come back to the world with a renewed vision or a refreshed spirit. Each time you walk the Labyrinth, you may become more empowered to find and do the work God has given you. This is step six of meditation.

The Labyrinth: Practice

Now, in an ideal world, which unfortunately we are not in, I would be able to lead you all in this prayer with a life size labyrinth. As it is, we will have to make do with paper ones.

I’m going to give you time now to walk the labyrinth using your finger and the paper labyrinth in front of you. If you need a reminder the steps are listed above.

(five minutes)

What did you think?

Some final thoughts about meditation and its role in our life as disciples

Now you know a little more about meditation, but why do it? Meditation can play an important role in our life as a disciple. We’re here at DCYC because we want to be better disciples, right? Meditation centers us in Christ, moves us to action, awakens us to a better knowledge of God and ourselves, and helps us in discernment about where God is calling us to be.

Breathing prayer
Be still and know…
That I am God.

Before our closing prayer, are there any questions?