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  • Writer's pictureDr. Anthony Lilles

Priesthood, Contemplative Prayer and Real Presence

Contemplatives need holy priests and holy priests need contemplatives. The priest helps the contemplative behold the mystery given by Christ and the contemplative helps the priest humble himself in prayer. In this mutual relation, we confront beautiful dimensions of the mystery of the Real Presence.


Some contemplatives believe that it is possible to reach a state of consciousness that surpasses the whole sacramental economy. The corollary is that the ministerial priesthood is superfluous once a certain level of spiritual maturity or degree of prayer is attained. The Sacrament of Holy Orders, however, is uniquely implicated in the mediation of the Great High Priest. At the Last Supper, the Lord instituted its mystery as a necessary means of grace in His Mystical Body. Priests, who act in the person of Christ, serve as the very head of His Body with power and authority to make Christ's presence Real. Contemplation that leaves the Body of Christ behind is no longer really Christian and the spiritual life that rejects the gift of the priesthood has lost its head.

On the other hand, there are also some who believe that priesthood does not need to be rooted in contemplative prayer. It does not need to be lived out so radically they presume. It would seem to be enough to manage through the business of religious and make sure all institutional obligations are efficiently dealt with. Such an attitude believes that contemplatives themselves are of little value for the priestly business of the Church. This is pure folly. Such hubris cuts off those who most need the love of God from the only kind of prayer that will help them find it. When the priesthood is deprived of contemplative prayer, it is cut off from its life's blood and proceeds in its activity with lifeless closed eyes. Though it is never an easy thing, the priest thrives the more intimate his relation with the Lord, and contemplative prayer is nothing other than that commitment to spend time in still silence before Him, waiting on Him, searching for Him, and allowing oneself to be found by Him. Christian contemplation gazes on pure love -- Divine Love dwelling in humble humanity making all things new -- and it takes diligence and fasting to recognize the delicate, subtle and hidden work that He is about. For the Body of Christ not only has a Head, but also a Heart. Christ the Head laid down His life that we might have His Heart and behold the undying life that flows from it. Contemplatives draw close to this Sacred Heart and through them, Eternal Life flows into the rest of the Mystical Body. A priest who contemplates the merciful love that this Heart contains is vulnerable to this Divine Inflow. A minister who allows himself to be formed by contemplatives who know this wisdom becomes a source of spiritual refreshment to all those to whom he ministers. This joining of Head and Heart, of truth and holy desire, of wisdom and joy, of contemplation and action has the quality of music. The interplay of these relations evokes moments of elation and heartache so intense that time and space can no longer limit it. This music moves us into great silence, an openness, a receptivity. The mysterious harmony of these sacred relations reconstitutes those who will join its strain. Complementary differences in the Body of Christ not only protect us from hubris before the Lord, they implicate us in a beautiful mystery of interpersonal relations that reflect eternal splendors otherwise hidden from this world. What results is a great hymn, a song of praise and thanksgiving, a canticle of love that reverberates in every Mass and echoes in the silence of Eucharistic adoration -- a Eucharistic canticle. When a priest holds the Blessed Sacrament in his hands, it is in order that this supreme gift might be seen, recognized, contemplated, treasured, adored and partaken. His ministry evokes contemplation, adoration, and transformation through the Real Presence his ministry makes manifest. In the Mystical Body, the Head and the Heart are bound to each other, each building up and blessing the other, each depending on the other. Thus, the priestly ministry and contemplative prayer are bound to one another, in the Eucharistic canticle of heaven.

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