What's the difference between prayer, meditation, and contemplation?
These three terms have been used rather loosely by the church over the past several centuries, but each of these terms designate very specific acts. Although the word prayer has always been a somewhat generic word used as an umbrella to cover virtually all communication between the profane (the physical world) and the holy (the spiritual world), it also carries with it a specific style of communication.
Prayer, in its specific meaning, means to ask or beseech God for something or another. A slightly broader understanding would include any sort of "talking" with God. Most people who pray at all are most familiar with prayer. Table grace, bedtime prayers, crisis pleas, and so on all fall under this definition of the word. Certainly prayer is the best known form of communication with God.
But prayer only covers a very small segment of the "divine communication" field. Meditation was popularized by the Transcendental Meditation movement a couple decades ago (TM was characterized by people sitting in lotus positions chanting "ooohhhhhmmmm"). Many --most -- churches viewed TM as tantamount to dabbling in the occult, and so mediation became a "dirty" word in many circles. However, meditation had been practiced by the Israelites long before TM. In Joshua 1.8 we read, "The book of law shall not depart from your mouth; you shall meditate on it day and night." The Hebrew word translated as meditate carries with it a sense of mumbling or murmuring, though the murmuring was meant to be the points of the law. In the early church, however, meditation could be compared to TM.
The practice of meditation includes the intent concentration on an object worthy of consideration. Most often, in the church, this would be a particular passage of scripture. Some of the more popular passages have been short phrases such as "Lord Jesus, have mercy upon me, a sinner" and "Be still and know that I am God." Generally, these phrases are repeated (murmured) and every other thought is purged from the mind so full concentration can be brought to bear on this single-minded devotion. The purpose of meditation is to offer devotion to God, to obtain deep understanding, and to garner tranquility. Many who practice this form of prayer claim they reach a spiritual presence and union with God.
Contemplation is generally considered the most difficult form of prayer to achieve, in essence because one can not really "achieve" it. In contemplative prayer, one seeks to empty their very being, allowing God to fill them with God's presence and love -- allowing them to become one with God. Unfortunately, this state of union, or "one-ed-ness" as the 14th century mystic Julian of Norwich would call it, is elusive. The more we try to clear our head of thoughts, the more we become aware of the thoughts in our head. For those fortunate enough to experience one-ed-ness, they find that it's been lost at the moment they become aware its been found! The more one strives for it, the further away it gets. The more one puts into it, the less room there is for God to come into them. Contemplatives have found that full union is a gift from God, not something achievable through their own doings.
So why engage in contemplative prayer? Because the practice itself offers an opportunity to re-center and focus. But even more, contemplatives claim that nothing can compare to those times when the fullness of contemplation is realized. They describe overwhelming feelings of being loved, a sense of peace beyond understanding, vivid images or pictures which carry meaning for themselves or loved ones. In the words of Jesus, arguably the premier contemplative, they experience his sentiments, "I and the Father are one" (John 10.30).
Prayer, meditation, and contemplation then are quite different in focus and practice. And yet all three strive to achieve something that seems to be an innate need for all humanity -- the need for communion with the divine. For those willing to risk the known, much peace can be discovered in the unknown.