Contemplative prayer is often used in the general sense in referral to any from of prayer that is akin to resting or basking silently in God’s Presence, but also in the technical sense in mystical theology.
The Catechism’s use of ‘contemplative prayer’ uses it in regards to the general sense, whilst inferring its technical meaning.
Traditionally speaking there two grades of prayer: ordinary prayer and mystical prayer. Ordinary prayer (not to be confused with ‘not important’, since it’s vital in the Christian life) is prayer which can be attained by human effort aided by grace. Mystical prayer cannot be attained by human effort aided by grace, but is wrought solely by God’s grace whom bestows such prayer on those whom He wills. The accepted teaching is that we can dispose ourselves however for mystical prayer, through being recollected and living moral and sacramental lives.
These are the types of ordinary prayer which we all can practice:
-Meditation: A from of mental prayer, which is the intellectual reflections on mysteries of the faith: i.e. on the life of Jesus, on the Incarnation, on Mary’s role as Mother of God etc.
-Affective Prayer: A form of mental prayer which is more explicitly ‘prayer from the heart’ than ‘the head’. Thus unlike meditation it involves less thinking, more intuition, resolutions, and ‘bursts’ or ‘surges’ of the heart in affection.
-Recollection: A form of mental prayer which is also called ‘acquired contemplation’. It involves more stillness and quiet, and involves the notion of ‘in-gathering’ all of one’s faculties -intellect and will- in gazing simply and lovingly at God, resting in His Presence. Gazing here in the metaphorical sense, since one’s eyes might be closed. Often people confuse this form of prayer with what is ‘infused contemplation’.
These are the degrees of contemplative prayer which one cannot induce at-will, but only God can grant:
The prayer of quiet: Otherwise known as infused contemplation or infused recollection. During this prayer the imagination can often roam wildly says St. Teresa without our being able to help it. It’s to rest in God’s Presence like an infant in a mothers arms. A loving attentiveness which gently pulls and draws the soul toward God like a magnet says St. Francis de Sales.
The prayer of full-union: A stronger form of contemplative prayer, distinguished from the former since it involves the absence of all distractions.
The Ecstatic-Union: Ecstasy where the senses are fully suspended, and new knowledge is infused into the soul. This is often more ‘rough’ on the body the mystics says - not so gentle but more like a spiritual ravishing.
The Transforming Union/Mystic Marriage: Ecstasy in general become less frequent, and it is a habitual union with God, where the soul is habitually conscious of God’s Presence in a special way (more so than a similar awareness possessed since the ‘prayer of quiet’/‘full union’). This grace is often accompanied by a vision of ‘a mystic marriage’ but not necessarily. Very few souls attain this level.
Note A: The Dark Night of the Senses is the transition between the way of ordinary prayer and contemplation. The Dark Night of the Spirit, is the entire process of purification that takes place between the prayer of quiet and the mystic marriage, states Poulain based on St. John of the Cross.
Note B: The higher forms of prayer do not exclude lower forms of prayer.
In brief contemplation is often used in the generic sense, so that it really means what meditation or recollection is according to the above description. Yet Contemplation strictly speaking is a form of prayer infused by God. It is called the beginning of mystic prayer since the term mystic in the strict sense means: prayer which we cannot be attained by human effort or strain. But we can dispose ourselves to receive such a grace. It’s okay to use contemplation in both the general and technical sense, but it helps to remain aware of their difference.
Eastern spiritualities use these terms differently to how the Catholic Tradition understands them and uses them, and centering prayer is a subtle form of quietism (a condemned form of heresy) which tries to induce the state of contemplation (in the technical sense) through human effort - it’s really a form of self-hypnosis. It is not in accord with authentic Catholic practice and one must be cautious of certain texts ‘out there’. It’s best to begin with spiritual classics like ‘The Way of Perfection’, ‘Introduction to the Devout Life’ and ‘Interior Castle’.
Objectively the best form of prayer is contemplation, and ultimately the mystic marriage; but subjectively - this is what applies to us - the best form of prayer is any prayer that God wills for us that moment.
Addition: The Contemplative and Active States of Life
Traditionally here are two states of life: the active and contemplative. The active includes religious orders involved in active apostolates such as working in hospitals, preaching missions etc. The contemplative refers to those enclosed religious - cloistered nuns and monks. The lay man who lives in the world generally falls under the active state.
However every state of life involves a blend of both the activity of Martha and the contemplation of Mary. Thus those termed actives are those primarily ‘active’ and those termed contemplative are those primarily who spend their day in prayer. Some orders refer to themselves as active-contemplative since they are balanced between the two with an emphasis on the contemplative; whilst others call themselves contemplative-actives, since they are mainly active but a fair amount of time in spent in prayer, perhaps more than other ‘more active’ orders.
A handy link: newadvent.org/cathen/04324b.htm