Now we begin to look at contemplative prayer as Teresa of Avila sees it. The fourth mansions are the transition from prayer that is produced by the soul to prayer that God gives the soul. In this post, I want to look at what Teresa says about consolations versus delights. This is from the first chapter of the fourth mansions.
Consolations are produced naturally by the soul. We can’t say that God has no part in them, for everything that brings us closer to him is in some way his gift. But they are completely different from delights, which he gives without our doing anything to receive.
It’s so important not to mistake consolations for infused delights!
How can we tell the difference? I am going to use an analogy here, and I don’t want you to get side-tracked by it. In 1 Corinthians 14, St. Paul writes about speaking in tongues in this way (my paraphrase): the speaker may be praising God in a tongue of men or angels, but if I can’t understand him, it’s gibberish to me. That doesn’t make his prayer gibberish in itself, but until I learn the language he is using, or someone interprets it for me, I get nothing out of it.
Now, this is just an analogy I want to use. Don’t get hung up on speaking in tongues right now–that’s not my point. My point is that infused contemplation is like speaking in tongues in this aspect: until a person has experienced it, he won’t understand it. It is beyond concepts and words. But if he has experienced it, he will understand.
So, how can we know if we are experiencing infused delights of contemplation, or merely consolations? We can study what consolations are. We can say what infused contemplation is not.
Infused contemplation is not:
Peaceful feelings. Peaceful feelings can be produced in many ways. We can feel peaceful looking at a sunset, practicing Buddhist meditation or Centering Prayer, gazing at a baby’s face, or enjoying a glass of wine. We don’t need a special gift of God for this. These feelings are not infused. They are natural. Sometimes when we pray, we might feel really at peace, and this can help us desire God more and inspire us to follow him more closely. Well and good. That doesn’t mean we are experiencing contemplation.
Strong desires for God. Now, I have to be careful here, because there is a dark, dry yearning for God that is infused. But on a purely natural level, we can desire God just as we can desire anything else. I’m going to make this personal. Due to my temperament, I sometimes in prayer experience what Hannah said, “My heart leaps up with joy to the Lord.” I feel like my desire for God is so strong that my heart is going to leap right out of my chest and I can hardly stand it. I used to think this was a contemplative desire. Now I realize this is a purely natural desire. I felt something similar when I was dating my husband-to-be.
Tears and other emotions. Other people might cry during prayer, feeling that their tears come from nowhere and they cannot stop them. But Teresa says that these tears are not contemplation either. They are the response of our passions to a desire for God. Again, they might inspire us to strive to follow him more closely, but they don’t necessarily have a lasting effect on us. We could cry in a similar manner over completely worldly things–or good things that fall short of God.
Locutions, revelations, etc. We shouldn’t confuse the contemplative life with supernatural phenomena like private revelations. The Devil can counterfeit revelations, but he can’t produce the effects of contemplation. We can also easily deceive ourselves, thinking our own pious reflections are revelations from God.
Fr. Thomas Dubay writes:
When a newcomer to the life of prayer begins to receive sense pleasure in it, he ought not to allow himself to be carried away. It comes and it goes, and in any event it is neither perfection nor sanctity. Second, all should realize that, at any time, progress in pursuing God does not consist in enjoying Him more but in doing His will more completely.” (Fire Within, 234).
Doing his will more completely. That is the first true sign of contemplation, We’ll end here for this time, and next time look at the signs that we are truly experiencing infused contemplation more fully.