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Contemplative Prayer

Most Christians are convinced that prayer is more than the outward performance of an obligation, in which we tell God things he already knows. It is more than a kind of daily waiting attendance on the exalted Sovereign who receives his subjects’ homage morning and evening. 

And although many Christians experience in pain and regret that their prayer gets no further than this lowly stage, they are sure, nonetheless, that there should be more to it. In this field there lies a hidden treasure, if only I could find it and dig it up (Hans Urs von Balthasar, Prayer, Ch. 1).

Prayer is hard. 

It is hard to understand, hard to make time for, hard to know if one is doing it correctly. Contemplative prayer may be even harder; it is, for sure, more mysterious. 

Today, we go through some of the basics of contemplative prayer, taking two Doctors of the Catholic Church as our guide: The Doctor of Prayer, St. Teresa of Avila, and the Doctor of Mysticism, St. John of the Cross. 

The Definition

Let us begin with a basic definition of contemplative prayer:

For contemplation is naught else than a secret, peaceful and loving infusion from God, which, if it be permitted, enkindles the soul with the spirit of love…(St. John of the Cross, The Dark Night, Bk. I, Ch. X).

Contemplation is, first of all, something that is done to us. It is the infusion of the Divine. Unlike meditative prayer, which brings forth knowledge and love from particular points regarding God, contemplative prayer is a general infusion of God Himself. St. John of the Cross explains:

What the soul, therefore, was gradually acquiring through the labor of meditation on particular ideas has now, as we said, been converted into habitual and substantial, general loving knowledge. This knowledge is neither distinct nor particular, as was the previous knowledge (Ascent of Mt. Carmel, Bk. II, Ch. XIV)(emphasis added).

Contemplation is not particular because God, as He is in Himself, transcends the particular.1 This makes contemplation imperceptible to sense since sense can only grasp the particular. 

Contemplative prayer, then, without the use of any particulars, partakes immediately in that general knowledge of God, as St. John continues:

The moment it (the soul) recollects itself in the presence of God it enters into an act of general, loving, peaceful, and tranquil knowledge, drinking wisdom and love and delight (Ibid.).

Metaphysically Speaking

The distinction between knowing God in this general way and knowing Him through particulars is difficult enough to understand, to merit a short digression.

The essence of things, or their natures, are never presented to us particularly. For example, I have never seen man’s nature: “humanness” or “humanity.” I have only seen particular men and women, particular instantiations of the general nature. 

Yet, I truly know what humanity is. The concept of humanness is in my mind, and I use that concept to distinguish people from non-human things. Thus, the knowledge I have of humanity is a general kind of knowledge.

Now God, who is identical to his essence—being without composition—by revealing Himself, consequently reveals His nature, which as we saw with humanity, is a kind of general knowledge. A “dark and general knowledge,” as St. John of the Cross writes (cf. Ascent of Mt. Carmel, Bk. II, Ch. X).

In short, in contemplation, God reveals Himself directly and supernaturally to us, and in a way imperceptible to sense, since sense can not grasp the essence of things.

Taught by the Teacher

By infusing Himself immediately into the mind, God can teach man without man even realizing it. Moreover, since the will follows the intellect, this knowledge can inflame one with a love for God which one does not even know the cause of. St. John of the Cross describes the experience thus:

When spiritual persons cannot meditate, they should learn to remain in God’s presence with a loving attention and a tranquil intellect, even though they seem to themselves to be idle. For little by little and very soon the divine calm and peace with a wondrous, sublime knowledge of God, enveloped in divine love, will be infused into their souls (Ibid., Ch. XV).

This “dark ray” of God’s truth and goodness, being infused into the soul, is what Catholics call Mystical Theology:

…meaning the secret wisdom of God. For this wisdom is secret to the very intellect that receives it (Ibid., Ch. VIII).

This is the theology taught directly by God Himself.

Getting Practical

Our part in contemplative prayer is that of receptivity, and the emptier the vessel is, the greater will be its capacity for receiving God. St. John explains:

As soon as natural things are driven out of the enamored soul, the divine are naturally and supernaturally infused since there can be no void in nature (Ibid.).

St. John of the Cross will spill much ink over emptying oneself of all particular things (memories, desires, knowledge), insofar as we are attached to them. He will recommend letting go of all that is created, insofar as these things exist in the heart so that the uncreated and general love of God might take their place. In the words of Scripture:

Be empty and see that I am God…(Ps. 46:11)(from the Vulgate).

We should say that contemplative prayer requires mental vigilance, devoted time, and a setting of silence. However, this is not necessarily the case, as St. Thomas writes:

But even in our regard contemplative life is continuous…because in the works of the contemplative life we work not with our bodies (ST. II-II. Q. 180. A. 8)(emphasis added).

Physical activity cannot hinder the act of contemplation because materiality cannot reach into the immaterial. Men cannot “move” angels nor abstract objects such as mathematical or philosophical truth.

Therefore, since the body cannot impair the Divine infusion, being a “contemplative in the world”—as opposed to just in the monastery or convent—is something very possible. 

Is it working?

If contemplation is not sensible, how do we know if we are in a contemplative state? We know it by the fruits.

To take a common example, I cannot see a tree’s roots because they are under the earth. But I can see a tree’s fruit, which is evidence that it does have roots, and that they are working. In a similar way, contemplation gives itself away by its effects, which St. John enumerates thus:

…first, a lack of satisfaction in passing things; second, a liking for solitude and silence, and an attentiveness to all that is more perfect; third, the considerations, meditations and acts that formerly helped the soul now hinder it, and it brings to prayer no other support than faith, hope, and love (Sayings of Light and Love, S. 119).

St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, commenting on St. John, adds to the list, writing:

(the presence of this love produces) not a feeling, but rather a readiness for action and sacrifice, an insertion of one’s own will into the divine will in order to be led by it alone (The Science of the Cross, Ch. X).

St. Teresa of Avila, takes the sign of true contemplation to be, in the words of St. Paul, a desire “to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Phil. 1:23). She explains:

What good thing shall we find in this life, sisters, in which we are deprived of our great Good and are absent from Him? Deliver me, Lord, from this shadow of death…When contemplatives ask for this with fervent desire and full determination it is a very clear sign that their contemplation is genuine and that the favors which they receive in prayer are from God (The Way of Perfection, Ch. XLII).

Contemplation vs. Meditation

It goes without saying that our Doctors consider contemplative prayer superior to meditative prayer. Yet, all of us ought to begin with meditative prayer and then never completely abandon it, as the Doctor of Prayer declares:

…we begin to meditate upon a scene of the Passion — let us say upon the binding of the Lord to the Column. The mind sets to work to seek out the reasons which are to be found for the great afflictions and distress which His Majesty must have suffered when He was alone there. It also meditates on the many other lessons which, if it is industrious, or well stored with learning, this mystery can teach it. 

This method should be the beginning, the middle and the end of prayer for all of us: it is a most excellent and safe road until the Lord leads us to other methods, which are supernatural (St. Teresa of Avila, Life, Ch. XIII).

No matter our method of prayer, let us judge its effectiveness by its fruits, and strive, in whatever way the Lord wills, through means of it, to unite ourselves to Him. For more on prayer, see Infallible Prayer.

1. Cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Prima Pars, Q. 13, A. 9.


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