The following is a transcript of a Raised Catholic podcast episode. To listen to the episode, click here.
Today is episode 84: Contemplative Summer Week Six – Tactile Prayer
Hi friends, as I explained in detail before a break way back in episode 78, I’m taking this summer to focus on contemplation with a variety of methods and focuses, and each week this summer I’ll model a different kind of contemplative prayer for you. This week, we’re contemplating God using a method called tactile prayer.
If you were born and raised Catholic, the idea of tactile prayer may seem like a new concept but actually, this is something most Catholics have done from way back. Simply said, tactile prayer is using our body or movement to connect with God so every time you’ve prayed with your hands using rosary beads, every time you’ve done the Stations of the Cross or a Holy Day procession or another kind of prayer walk, each time you’ve genuflected before an altar or bowed before receiving communion, each time you’ve blessed yourself or someone else with holy water, each time you lit a prayer candle in some holy place, and each time you prayed while serving others – making sandwiches or prayer shawls or delivering furniture or food – you have been engaged in tactile prayer. And if you’ve opened your heart to God while walking a labyrinth or while making origami cranes as prayers of peace or making or using an advent wreath or other sacred art or even dinner with your hands, yup, that’s tactile prayer, too. In this family of practices, we’re using the material to move toward the transcendent, and that is something that Jesus did all the time in the Gospels so, friend, be not afraid.
Today I’ll talk a bit about my own experience with tactile prayer and I’ll model contemplation for you using my rosary beads as well. As you choose a contemplative way to pray this week, just remember that because we are all unique, beloved children of God, that your experience will and should be totally different from mine. Contemplation is a means toward direct communion with God who loves you, so this is not a time to judge but just to be.
It wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I understood why anyone would ever pray the rosary. It seemed repetitive and sort of brainless to me, just another example of Catholics working to ‘earn’ the answers to their prayers and I couldn’t get my head around a stingy God who was counting and keeping track of all those Hail Marys, miserly keeping score as he handed out graces. And though I hadn’t yet had a label for it, I had by then seen some churchy people practicing their Catholic faith in what seemed to me like a really unhealthy way – racking up the beads and novenas and sacraments and indulgences in a way that made them feel ‘better’ than other people, and which can lead to a mostly undiagnosed form of OCD called scrupulosity that actually keeps us apart from God because in this mindset we can believe that we humans are the ones doing all the work, like a lever making God do something for us. If you were born and raised Catholic, I bet you knew someone like that, and that experience may have impacted the way you practice your faith today.
Anyway, by grace one day, I came upon Fr. Frank McFarland, a priest on Boston Catholic Television, who framed the rosary for me in a completely new way. He’d say, “Think of it as a lasso which gathers you in with Jesus and His Mother for a period of time and just let them read your mind and heart.” Or he’d say, “Don’t worry about every word of every bead.” “Don’t judge the time you spend in prayer.” “Just sit on a bench with God.” And Fr. Frank had lots of metaphors for the Holy Spirit, too – like when we open ourselves to him it’s like plugging into electricity or feeling effects from a breeze or a balm, or light or heat from the sun. I had never heard a priest speak this way before that, and it really made a difference for me. On his broadcasted rosaries which are still played on BCTV decades after his death (and I’ll link these in the show notes for you, friend), well, Fr. Frank would pray the rosary from various settings inside and outside of church walls. He’d give an introduction and a short reflection before each mystery and decade of the rosary, and we’d just pray together in a way that felt less like pressure and more like communion. So much of how he framed prayer has informed my faith today and Fr. Frank is very high on the list of people I can’t wait to meet when I get to Heaven.
So, this week, I prayed with some beads my Mom gave me, and if you were born and raised Catholic, it would not surprise me a bit to know that you have beads that were given to you as well. It’s kind of beautiful, don’t you think, to have and use beads that literally link you to another person and to their lifetime of prayers – it’s one of the really lovely parts of Catholicism, I think, and a concrete illustration of the communion of saints that we can hold in our hands. Anyway, I sat down to pray in my living room and took out a little broken white cardboard box that contains my beads, a chunk of clay my friends brought me back from Medjugorje, my Mom’s first communion cross necklace, two St. Christopher medals, and a 1976 penny. And friend, I don’t know how all of this stuff ended up in this particular little box but years later, here we are. Maybe you have a little box or space like that, something that reminds you to pick something up and pray. Well, I held the rosary in my right hand and the chunk of clay in my left as I always do, and I prayed. On this day, I did not pray the joyful, sorrowful, luminous or glorious mysteries, though that can be a wonderful way to connect with God through contemplation of the events of the life of Jesus and his mother, but on this day I just opened my mind and heart to them and asked the Holy Spirit to speak into me and to mine and to lead us, meeting each one of us today as a friend. I then ‘gave’ clusters of beads to the people I’m praying for, including you, and this is a form of intercessory prayer of course, but the contemplation piece comes in as I picture God or Mary walking with you or putting their hands on you, or opening good doors for you. As Fr. Frank always said, when we have an inclination to pray, that is always God inviting us first. God moving toward us before we ever move toward him, so looping us all in with what he called the ‘background music of the beads’ was a peaceful and fruitful way to bring us all together into the communion of the saints and with God who loves us. And I pray you feel an effect from that time of prayer, but let’s just remember that contemplation is never something we judge. We just give God the time and open ourselves to him, and it makes my heart happy to know that in some way I can’t fully explain, that in the time it took me to pray those Hail Marys, we were somehow all gathered in God’s presence together.
Tactile prayer has been so helpful for me in the adult practice of my faith. I’ve had visceral experience with God while walking a prayer path or a labyrinth, putting my hands in the ocean and ‘giving’ God my intentions by way of a receding wave, lighting candles in special places like the grotto where I always pray for my son and the little chapel where I pray for my daughter. The time and intention that it takes for me to get myself into these spaces is itself a prayer, as is the lighting of the candle when I get there. All of it just as important as the words I’ll say or write to God when I’m in those sacred spaces.
Friend, it’s my hope that we will begin to see prayer less as something we do and more as a way of being, inside and outside of church walls, wherever we are. Contemplating God while using a form of tactile prayer is a great step toward the instruction we heard from Paul in his first Letter to the Thessalonians, you know, the one about ‘praying without ceasing’. Because when you think of it, this is only possible if we enlarge our thinking about prayer to shift outside the boxes we were given when we were young. God is everywhere, and the act of contemplating or talking or just being with God can be everywhere, too. When we think of it that way, ‘praying without ceasing’ feels less like an impossible chore and more like breathing.
Well, that was a bit of my experience with contemplating God through tactile prayer this week, and, friend, I truly hope that you will have your own with whatever method of tactile prayer you choose. If you’d like to share your experience with me or if you need me for anything, you can always find me on Instagram @kerrycampbellwrites or on my blog at mylittleepiphanies.com. If you’d like to support this podcast financially, there’s a way for you to do that in the show notes, along with links related to the practices I touched on this week, so do check all of that out, but before we go, let’s pray together.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, amen.
God, in this time that is so challenging for so many of us, help us to remember that we have personal access to you, because of your unwavering and selfless love for us. Help each one listening in their experience of contemplation this week – may each one, with courage and with your grace walk through a good door toward a deeper understanding of you in this time. I pray that as we contemplate you using our bodies or movement this week, that we’ll uncover some attribute of you that we might not have known before, and that we’ll experience you anew in a way that you’ve made in love just for us.
In the name of Jesus we pray, amen.
Well thanks for listening today, friend, and I’ll see you next time.
As we explore a variety of methods of contemplative prayer this summer, week six is all about tactile prayer. As you choose way to move with God in contemplation, I pray that you will have a fruitful encounter with God who is crazy about you.
If you’d like to connect with me, find me on Instagram or on my blog. If you’d like to help support this podcast financially, there’s now a way to do just that, and thank you – visit me on my page at buymeacoffee.com! Thanks as always for sharing, subscribing, rating, and reviewing, as this helps our community to grow!
Here are some resources I hope will help you to engage with this week’s topic in a deeper way for yourself:
1. Tactile prayer basics, from building faith: a ministry of Virginia Theological Seminary
2. Recorded rosaries with Fr. Frank McFarland from Boston Catholic Television
3. Song: If I Had a Hammer, by Sam Cooke
4. Song: On My Way, by Louis Armstrong