Prayer is defined as a lifting of our hearts and minds to God, and contemplation can be considered the highest form of prayer. In vocal prayer we speak to God with words that help to frame our thoughts as we address the Almighty. In meditation we use our mind to think about God, to ponder with prolonged attention the mysteries that are revealed in Scripture or sacred writings. But in contemplation we move beyond the need for words or thoughts, finding these unnecessary as we gaze upon the object of our desire with great love.
In her second letter to Agnes of Prague, St. Clare of Assisi advises her: “Look upon Him who became contemptible for you, and follow Him, making yourself contemptible in this world for Him. Most noble Queen, gaze, consider, contemplate desiring to imitate Your Spouse.”
An adaptation of Clare’s words, “Gaze upon Christ, Consider Christ, Contemplate Christ,” can be a Franciscan mantra for those wishing to draw closer to God in contemplative prayer. A friar friend of mine once suggested that a singular gift of Francis and Clare to the Church was a new vision of contemplation, a departure from the monastic tradition where monks directed their vision upward, toward heaven to attain the goal of union with God. The monk began ascending the ladder of contemplative prayer with sacred reading, which led to meditation/prayer, and ended with contemplative union.
For Franciscans, the focus or gaze is not upward, but rather outward toward ordinary human life, particularly focused on the Incarnation, where God chose to descend into our world to become one with us through the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.
In gazing upon the face of Christ, particularly in the cross of San Damiano, Francis and Clare saw the faces of the poor, the rejected, the suffering of humanity and so were moved by compassion to acts of charity and service. The path to contemplation for Franciscans is to gaze, consider, contemplate, and imitate—a goal focused on transformation by which one becomes like the face of God reflected in the Incarnation.