John of the Cross and the contemplative life

posted in: Prayer and Virtue | 2
File:Georges de La Tour 011.jpg
St. Jerome by Georges de La Tour (Wikimedia Commons). Prayer and mortification are the keys to preparing for the gift of infused contemplation.

What is the contemplative life? What does it entail? What is its purpose? Let’s start our study of St. John of the Cross’s spirituality with these questions.

Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen writes in Union with God According to St. John of the Cross:

[The contemplative life] is the form of Christian life that tends to intimacy with God by means of the assiduous exercise of prayer and mortification.”

The Catholic Encyclopedia at New Advent defines it this way:

A life ordered in view of contemplation; a way of living especially adapted to lead to and facilitate contemplation, while it excludes all other preoccupations and intents.”

The means or the end?

We tend to think that only contemplatives–that is, people who have experienced infused contemplation–live a contemplative life. That is a misunderstanding. It is a common one, though. For example, Fr. Thomas Keating, one of the founders of Centering Prayer, writes:

We should distinguish contemplative prayer from contemplative life. The former is an experience or series of experiences leading to the abiding state of union with God. The term contemplative life should be reserved for the abiding state of divine union itself, in which one is moved both in prayer and in action by the spirit.” (Open Mind, Open Heart, 13-14)

Fr. Keating erroneously makes contemplation the means to the contemplative life. This is exactly backwards. The contemplative life is a preparation for contemplation.

Why bother to point this out? Am I just being judgmental towards Fr. Keating, as I am often accused? No, this distinction is important. If we think the contemplative life is the result of contemplation, rather than the preparation for it, we might put off ordering our lives as we should.

This is, in fact, one of the biggest problems with Centering Prayer (although the problems are legion). Centering Prayer requires no reformation of one’s life, yet it is proposed as a fitting preparation for contemplation. Catholicism has traditionally seen two necessary preparations for infused contemplation–and neither one involves indiscriminately silencing one’s thoughts and feelings.

Means to divine intimacy

The means to intimacy with God are prayer and mortification. If you are seeking intimacy with God through prayer and mortification, you are living a contemplative life. The beginner, the proficient, and the perfect all live this life, each at his stage.

But what do we mean by prayer and mortification? Or, more specifically for this series, what does St. John of the Cross mean by them?

It will take the entire series to fully explore this question. For now, let’s return to Fr. Gabriel:

Mortification, also called abnegation, renunciation, and sacrifice, having for effect the detachment of the soul from created things, frees the soul’s capacity to love from every obstacle that could retard its impulse toward God. Prayer, which consists essentially in an affectionate colloquy with God, kindles divine love in the heart, where mortification has prepared the place. If we detach our heart from created things, it is not simply to place it in a void, but to fill it with love.(Union with God, my emphasis)

We detach ourselves from sin and from creatures. This means that we obey the first commandment. We have “no other gods” before or besides the Triune God. We see things in their proper order. We use them in accordance with God’s will. We joyfully give them up, if He asks that sacrifice of us.

Turning away from all thoughts or feelings in prayer has little or nothing to do with this detachment. This will become clearer as we continue our study.

Prayer in John’s teaching

John of the Cross is primarily known for his teaching on detachment. But he also, along with St. Teresa of Avila, taught about the necessity of fidelity to prayer. And how does one begin to pray, according to his teaching?

One begins, not by trying to sit in complete silence of the faculties, but by meditating on the Gospel.

Again, erroneous prayer forms mistake the means for the end. They read John’s writings about infused contemplation being beyond all thoughts and feelings, and they think the way to attain it is to get rid of all thoughts and feelings. This is a terrible distortion of John’s teaching.

John is in complete accord with Teresa and with all the doctors of the Church. Prayer, especially meditation on the life of Christ, together with mortification, is the way to holiness. Which is another way of saying that living the contemplative life is the best preparation for infused contemplation.

Connie Rossini

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Hi, I'm a Catholic writer and homeschool mother of four boys. I practice Carmelite spirituality. Check out my Books page for publications to help your whole family grow in holiness.

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2 Responses

  1. Kim

    Thank you for these posts. They are so very well written. As I read, I just keep thinking “yes, yes, yes!”. This is exactly what I experience in my own life! I like to think of contemplation as a seamless life with God. He permeates every aspect of what I do and who I am. God bless you and your mission.

    • Connie Rossini

      Kim, I’m so glad you like the posts–and even gladder that you are living what John describes! People often think I’m crazy for saying a run a “contemplative homsechool” with 4 boys. It doesn’t mean things are always quiet–quite the reverse. But it does mean our homeschool and family life are ordered toward contemplation.

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