What is contemplation? Part 2

posted in: Prayer and Virtue | 8
Ordination of Frs. Michael Mary and Joseph Marie
Fr. Michael Mary and Fr. Joseph Marie, M. Carm., prostrate themselves during their ordination Mass.

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.

Connie Rossini

8 Responses

  1. Rev. Paul Berghout

    Great site! You help with my homily prep:Transfiguration: 3 Keys to a Mountain Top Prayer Life
    Notice that when you climb up a mountain, you are leaving behind your camp, your situations, your life, and the whole perspective changes to that of a bird’s view. It is no more about how you see things but about how God see things. When you are in the presence of God, the problems may not have changed below but how you see the problem will change.
    #1). Preparing to leave base camp—When we are ready to climb the mountains of fear, hurt, pride, and ignorance… “It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves” (Sir Edmund Hillary)…..to grow in virtue and do one’s daily duty and avoid even venial sins.
    What’s the difference between a Mountain Climber and a Golfer? Golfer goes: Whack, Shoot! Climber goes : Shoot, WHACK!
    i.e. I need to put things in perspective because I have a disease of perception.
    When repentance and compunction fills your soul, the world will lose its magic attraction and will become more distasteful to you in a good way.
    #2) (Plan of Action): The second key to mountain top prayer life is to Go Forth,….leave base camp…as our First Reading says. “Go Forth” is in the imperative; i.e.,
    Abraham’s journey to the Promised Land was no routine expedition. Instead it was the start of an epic voyage in search of spiritual truths, a quest that was to constitute the central theme of all biblical history.  It was a complete break from his environment: Leaving for a distention as yet undisclosed. On top of that, he left behind a prosperous commercial area to settle in a more primitive land. 
    The message in step is to be willing to make a determined turnabout from preoccupation with is worldly world to life centered on the Trinity. 
    Going forth in prayer—
    Surrendering your desires to God’s desires. Tune out of your world, your emotions and tune yourself to hearing from God. Prayer’s purpose is union with God. First meditate on Scripture, especially the Psalms. Stop when you find a verse striking or interesting. Stay there. Soak it in. God might give the gift of contemplation. It is good to be the possessor of some mountain-top experience by God’s gift of contemplation.
    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.

    Peter said, “It is good for us to be here” he was experiencing the beauty and ecstasy of God and heaven.

    humor: A certain missionary on a study trip to the Holy Land was visiting Jaffa (Joppa) where Peter was residing when he baptized Cornelius (Acts 10). The breath-taking beauty of this small seaside town was such that it inspired him to come up with this joke:

    At the transfiguration Peter offered to build three tents, one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah. Jesus said, “And what about you, Peter?” And Peter replies, “Don’t worry about me Lord, I got a better place in Jaffa.”

    3) POA (Plan of Action): The second key to mountain top prayer life is to carry the transformation down below in daily life:, the transfiguration is explicit — its all about glory and the spectacular, but: ”Mountaintops are for views and inspiration, but fruit is grown in the valleys.”

    The purpose of the Transfiguration was to strengthen Christ and Peter, James, and John, for his Passion, and to help in the transformation of the apostles themselves.

    The teaching document on vowed religious life, Vita Consecrata, used the Transfiguration of Jesus to describe the special relationship they have with Jesus because the disciples in the account enjoyed a profound moment of contemplative awareness.

    i.e. When you have knowledge, you use a torch to show the way.When you are enlightened, you become the torch. Move from information and knowledge toward wisdom and awareness. Peter wanted to capture and freeze the mystical experience: We must not make tents, we must be tents.

    The first duty of the consecrated life is to make visible the marvels wrought by God in the frail humanity of those who are called.

    They bear witness to these marvels not so much in words as by the eloquent language of a transfigured life, capable of amazing the world. To people’s astonishment they respond by proclaiming the wonders of grace accomplished by the Lord in those whom he loves. To the degree that consecrated persons let themselves be guided by the Spirit to the heights of perfection they can exclaim: “I see the beauty of your grace, I contemplate its radiance, I reflect its light” The Consecrated Life: Vita Consecrata, 20.

    In sum: As somebody has wisely said, “If you were to see a butterfly, it would never occur to you to say, `Hey, everybody! Come look at this good-looking converted worm! Why not? After all, it was a worm. And it was `converted.’ No, now it is a new creature, and you don’t think of it in terms of what it was. You see it as it is now—a butterfly.”

  2. Are you living a contemplative life?

    […] back and forth among these stages, rather than proceeding from one to the next in a straight line.) Supernatural contemplation begins in the third or fourth mansion. But contemplative living can begin at our first conversion, […]

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