Facts, faith, and contemplative knowledge

posted in: Prayer and Virtue | 9

Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, author of The Three Ages of the Interior Life.

What is the relationship between knowledge and contemplation? How much should we concern ourselves with news events? How can we trust God when bad things happen? I have been meditating on all these questions and more lately, and would like to share my musings with you.

Growing in knowledge

Centering Prayer advocates such as Fr. Thomas Keating tend to downplay the knowledge of God. Fr. Keating calls receptivity “an attitude of waiting for the Ultimate Mystery. You don’t know what that is. But as your faith is purified, you don’t want to know” (Open Mind, Open Heart, 20th Anniversary Edition, p. 66). This is false. It’s like saying the more a man loves a woman, the less he desires to know about her. How absurd!

What actually happens when a man falls in love is this. He sees a woman and notes something attractive about her. She is beautiful, she is smart, et cetera. He wants to get to know her better. The two spend time together. As their intimacy grows, they share their life stories, their memories, their hopes, their fears. The man moves beyond desiring more facts about his beloved to desiring her self. He desires to know her intimately, literally to know her from the inside.

Facts now take second place. But they are not lost. If he ceases to care about the details of his wife’s life, in some sense he ceases loving her. Facts still matter, but different facts than struck him at first. Perhaps it was her gorgeous hair that first attracted him. Now they are old and her hair is gray and thinning. He loves her still. She was young and robust. Now her health is compromised. That does not change his love. He cares for her person, which is so much deeper than her appearance, her likes and dislikes, her talents. He has a deeper knowledge, a knowledge from experience, a knowledge of her essence. He knows and understands her much better, not less. He still cherishes everything about her, but the physical becomes less important to him.

This is akin to the knowledge of God that comes by faith.

The knowledge of faith

Contemplative knowledge is knowledge that comes by faith. It is true knowledge of God, deeper than the knowledge of facts about Him. Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange summarizes the teaching of John of the Cross in this way:

“St. John of the Cross tells us that obscure faith enlightens us. It is obscure because it makes us adhere to mysteries we do not see; but these mysteries, which are those of the inner life of God, greatly illumine our intellect, since they do not cease to express to us the goodness of God, who created us, raised us to the life of grace, sent His only Son to redeem us…” (The Three Ages of the Interior Life, Ch. 26).

He goes on to say about the knowledge of faith:

“It is very superior to the senses and to reason; it is the proximate means of union with God, whom it makes us know infallibly and supernaturally in obscurity.”

Fr. Thomas Keating implies that as we become contemplatives we know longer care whether God is a Trinity, whether Jesus came to save us, whether He is Love personified. That’s like saying the man at the height of his love no longer cares about his beloved’s hopes, fears, and desires, or the memories they share.

In contemplative knowledge, we know God Himself. We know Him from the inside, because we have been drawn up into His life. We know Him as a whole. Articles of Faith are part of that whole, but the whole is beyond them. The Articles of Faith can never express the fullness of the God we have come to know. Yet, those facts are still true, and we love them more than ever, because we love Him more than ever.

Vain curiosity

We need to distinguish between the Articles of Faith, however, and theology, especially theological speculation. Some of us are tempted toward inordinate curiosity. We want to learn all there is to know about God. So we read the Summa, and so on. Here is something we need to understand: Unless God calls you to be a theologian or teacher of theology, seeking intellectual knowledge about God can become a hindrance to spiritual growth.

Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange criticizes “heavy and stupid intellectual curiosity” (again paraphrasing John of the Cross). He calls it “a mania of collecting” that St. Thomas Aquinas attributed to spiritual sloth. It can lead to pride and folly. He writes:

“This type of work, instead of training the mind, smothers it, as too much wood smothers a fire. Under this jumble of accumulated knowledge, they can no longer see the light of the first principles, which alone could bring order out of all this material and lift up their souls even to God…”

All this knowledge can lead to blindness through pride. Do we really desire to know God better, or just to know facts about Him, facts with which we can correct others or pride ourselves in understanding?

St. Paul was one of the most learned men of his time, but his learning did not help him to recognize the Messiah. Later, he wrote, “When I came to you, brethren, I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:1-2).

It’s not that this knowledge of facts or speculation about God is bad. It’s that as far as union with Him is concerned, it’s useless. And to reach that union, we must let go of every useless thing. We need to come to the point where it no longer matters to us whether there will be animals in Heaven, for example. Or what happened to the lost tribes of Israel. Or even how God’s Providence and man’s free will interact.

How much more do we need to let go of current events or politics or scientific theories or history (unless, of course, God specifically calls us to such knowledge)!

Trust and tragedy

How can we trust God amid the daily suffering we bear, the tragedies in our families and friends or nation? How can we avoid being anxious or distraught when we choose to sin? The answer is the same: let go of focusing on the parts and focus on the whole.

Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange says:

“If we followed this rule, the consideration of details would no longer make us lose sight of the whole, as so often happens, just as trees seen too near hinder one from seeing the forest. Those who say that the problem of evil cannot be solved and find in it an occasion of sin, are absorbed in the woeful verification of certain painful details and lose the general view of the providential plan in which everything is ordained to the good of those who love the Lord.

“The excessively meticulous study of details makes us depreciate the first global view of things; when the latter is pure, however, it is already elevated and salutary. Thus when a Christian child sees the starry sky, he finds in it a splendid sign of the infinite grandeur of God. Later on, if he becomes absorbed in the scientific study of the different constellations, he may forget the view of the whole, to which the intellect must finally return the better to comprehend its loftiness and profundity. It has been said that if a little learning withdraws a person from religion, great learning brings him back to it.”

And when he comes back to it, he must then let his great learning go.

Every event of our lives, every event of history, is only one tree in the forest of God’s plan, which has been working itself out since the dawn of creation. We cannot hang on to the trees. If we dare to let go, dare to know nothing except Christ, He will raise us up to where we can see the whole forest. For the forest is within God, and in contemplation we come to know Him from the inside.

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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9 Responses

      • Inez

        Hi, I’m very thankful to you Connie for all the simple and easy to understand information about the spiritual life… I have one question to ask you. If a person is experiencing natural contemplation i.e Asthetic, Intellectual, Theological, or personal and if he reveals it to a third person other than the spiritual director, is there a possibility that God can withdraw this gift of contemplation from the person and never give it back to him again??? Thank you….

        • Connie Rossini

          Hi, Inez. Natural contemplation is just that… natural. It is not a gift of God more than any other natural capacity we have. It is produced by human action and can certainly be shared with others. If you receive infused/supernatural contemplation, then it is best to keep that secret. However, many new contemplatives don’t understand this at first, and I think God is patient with them. It’s really more an effect of humility, that infused contemplation makes one humble so that one desires to hide one’s gifts and to hide oneself from all but God. If such an impulse is missing, I would begin to question the experience.

          • Inez

            Thank you….so much connie for answering my question patiently… What if a person experiences all this in prayer for almost 3 years (I mean the natural contemplation or visions during Mantal prayer or wisdom of God) and suddenly one day it is all gone and for many months (1year) you don’t feel anything, it all just looks like a dream… And also you don’t know or feel or experience anything in your soul…but sometimes you do feel The strong pull or thirst and Gods presence in your soul, ….is this a dark night or is it something else…..thank you…may God bless you and your family….

  1. Connie Rossini

    Inez, when this happens, the person should try to return to discursive meditation. Read a little bit of Scripture and see if it moves him. If it does, well and good. Continue that. If it doesn’t move him, and if he in fact can’t even seem to focus on the passage or draw any conclusions about it — maybe it even seems to make no sense to him — that could very well be a sign of the passive night of the senses. John of the Cross gives 2 more signs to help. One would not only feel no consolation in prayer, but no desire for or *lasting* pleasure in things other than God. In other words, no pull back towards the world or becoming lax in little things. Finally, the turning toward God should be habitual, not just now and then one feels a pull towards God. There is an intense longing for God, but He appears to be distant or hiding. Of course, these signs begin subtly and build. If one has all three signs, it is very possibly the passive night of sense. Still, it helps to have a spiritual director or another objective person to discuss this with in detail so he is not deceived. If one cannot meditate or even experience the prayer of simple gaze/acquired recollection, it is time to let God take over one’s prayer and be content just to simply say His name now and then or gently use one’s imagination now and then if one can. Otherwise, sit in silence and let God work.

  2. Inez

    Thank you very much connie… Actually I have a spiritual director but he is a charismatic priest lacking in spiritual knowledge, I told him all this but he said that, this has happened because of sin…. He tells me to listen and do whatever the Holy Spirit tells me to do…..And he lives very far, and also since I am married, working and have a child it is really very difficult for me to communicate with him. At this stage I can tell you that I’m confused, I asked a Dominican priest about the dark night of the senses, but he told me that he never heard of this night (he knews about the dark night of the soul). One carmelite priest told me that, the spiritual life (growth) is only for priests and nuns and not for married people.
    Connie The last thing I can remember before all this started is I saw internally in me a storm and I’m in the middle of the sea, it’s very dark, nothing is visible and I’m drowning (May 2017)… Thnkyou

  3. Roger

    Hi Connie
    I found your site here by looking for what contemplative knowledge is. I’m quite sure that it’s knowledge of God that is given by the Lord himself to the practitioner of contemplative prayer, but I’m trying to find an authoritative source for that kind on answer. Evagrius Ponticus writes about contemplative knowledge but so far I haven’t found where he says that this knowledge is the knowledge of God. I have St. Teresa of Avila’s autobiography and Union With God according to St. John of the Cross, by Fr. Gabriel, that I hope to read this coming winter. Maybe I’ll find the authoritative answer I’m looking for in one of those two books.

    It’s amazing that both Fr’s Keating and Freeman say that God is unknowable. I totally disagree with their opinion. God has gifted my wife and I with knowledge of himself in many different ways, and the fact that we can indeed know God is verified in Prv.9:10, Jer.9:23-24 and 31:33-34, Dn.11:32, Hos.6:3, Jn.17:3, Rom.1:18-20, ICor.10:5, Eph.1:17, Phil.3:7-8 and 10-11, 2Pet.3:17-18, 1Jn.4:7 and 5:20.

    I was at a Centering Prayer group a while back when this subject came up and I was the only one there who believed that God is knowable. I knew this from experience and when I got home I confirmed it with Scripture.

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