There are three major categories of contemplation. The first, which I wrote about last week, is natural contemplation. The second is the contemplation practiced in non-Christian religions. The third is supernatural contemplation. It is this third type of contemplation that St. Teresa of Ávila, St. John of the Cross, and other Carmelites refer to when they use the word “contemplation.”
Christian contemplation versus eastern meditation
Non-Christian contemplation consists of an impersonal awareness. Zen Buddhists practice a meditation or contemplation that is agnostic. God does not come into play. Transcendental meditation, which comes from Hinduism, consists in losing one’s personality in an impersonal, all-encompassing deity. Both these varieties of contemplation are achieved by practitioners’ own actions, which lead to an altered state of consciousness.
Christian contemplation is completely different. It is a loving gaze at God who is Love. Supernatural in origin, it can’t be produced through techniques. Modern writers often use the modifier “infused” to indicate that God pours contemplation into the soul.
Meditating on Sacred Scripture (the Bible) can produce theological contemplation, sometimes called acquired contemplation (although I no longer use this term, since it was not used by the doctors of the Church and it can confuse people; St. Teresa’s term is acquired recollection). Christian meditation teaches us to know and love Jesus, thus preparing us to open our hearts fully to God’s love. It helps us form the habit of quieting our souls before God, focusing on Him instead of ourselves. See an example of Christian meditation.
God initiates supernatural contemplation
When a soul dedicates herself to prayer, especially Christian meditation, as well as growth in virtue, she greatly pleases God. God then initiates–in His own time–a deeper love-communion with her. “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us…” (1 John 4:10). Love begins with God. God bestows His love upon the soul and lifts her up, so that she may also gaze upon Him in love. She communes with God beyond words, concepts, and images. This is a foretaste of Heaven, when we will see and love God as He is (see 1 John 3:2).
Complete union with God rarely comes all at once. Instead, there are stages of contemplation. St. Teresa explains these in Interior Castle. As the soul is cleansed from sin and improper attachments to created things, she opens herself more fully to God’s love. Prayer and virtue grow together. True (infused) contemplation produces a marked growth in virtue. Sins that seemed unconquerable before are vanquished by grace.
Natural contemplation can prepare the soul for supernatural contemplation, but it cannot produce it. Nor can eastern religious techniques. Contemplation proper is the action of God. He desires to bestow it on every human being.