Summary: This article intends to complete our understanding of Contemplation and its conditions. It is divided in two parts. The first one narrates the history of Contemplation in the 20th Century. The second part offers important practical theological additions to the common understanding of Contemplation. This article is of utmost importance.
We need mystagogues of contemplation in the Church. There is such a thirst… and so many do not know what the Lord desires to give us, how he can transform us. We need to be aware of the “old fashioned” way of presenting it which is not entirely correct. I am alluding to what we read sometimes: “Contemplation is a pure, unmerited Gift from the Trinity”, and learning how “to dispose our hearts in order to receive it”. Contemplation is fundamental. But up to the present time it is not understood properly. This weakens the Church tremendously. The Lord desires to give it to us. It has a secret in order to be received. The secret is in the writings of the Saints and Doctors; it is practical, but we still continue to focus on “unmerited” and “dispose ourselves”, as if God were moody… unpredictable. It is very damaging indeed not to understand God’s desire to give himself to us and how to receive it Him”.
In this article I will try to elaborate on my remarks above mentioned above. We need to be always hungry to learn and enter more deeply into the contemplative life.
In such spiritual matters it is important be patient and resilient in trying to learn. Thank-you for accepting my challenge. These are important dispositions we need to keep throughout our life till the end, in order to continue to receive the hidden Wisdom of God, deeply deposited in Christ. Christ is immense, and every day we can both learn and receive from Him! Actually, that will be our “job” for all eternity, and because of God’s richness it will never be boring.
Contemplation in the Twentieth Century
Let us first bring to mind the recent history of contemplation. Of course, it is “my” version of the facts, but one can check them out later and see for himselself.
Note: I do belong to the French Carmelite School of the South of France. It was relatively unknown until recently when a great figure from there was Beatified: Bl. Fr. Marie Eugene of the Child Jesus OCD who wrote “I Want to See God” and “I am A Daughter of the Church”: a great summa of Spiritual Theology. I do more precisely follow Fr. Louis Guillet OCD, who was initially a disciple of Fr. Marie Eugene and later a colleague (None of his works have been published in English unfortunately). I say this because there are slight differences between them, doctrinally. Fr. Louis was very learned in St. John of the Cross.
During the first part of last century the Church underwent a renewal in Spiritual Theology. But this renewal didn’t bear all the expected and legitimate fruits. Why? Because one of the central subjects of Spiritual Theology i.e. Contemplation (at least seen in the classic way as you mention above – nothing wrong with that), was discussed very energetically amongst all the various schools of Spirituality: the Jesuits and the Dominicans taking the lead, but without a clear outcome. Each kept his point of view. I won’t go through the long story, but in sum the aim was to know and determine if “contemplation” is acquired or infused. The clash was powerful and the fight was voiced in the respective journals of these schools of theology.
Some recent commentators, writing the history of this debate, say that the different parties ended up finding common ground and an agreement, which is really puzzling, because it is not true. The confrontation petered out towards the end of the 1940s, not because they had found a solution to define and determine what Contemplation is (it would have become common knowledge and it would have influenced Vatican II), but because the combatants got tired of not progressing and not reaching common ground! This phenomenon does happen in the Church when things have not yet reached maturity. Sadly, this is how it is. Just think of the theological battles on the Immaculate Conception down the centuries. It takes time to mature.
Why did they fail? Many reasons could account for this. One noticeable aspect of the discussion is that it remained on an intellectual level. I don’t mind this, theology is important. But Spiritual Theology should also always be concerned with its practical aspect: implementing the theory and the complete theory, otherwise it becomes a sophism and is but a loss of time and energy.
Another noticeable aspect is the absence of a deeply renewed understanding of Contemplation. Fighting over the positions taken or opinions held by the various schools, quoting the main ancient authors doesn’t always help. Dividing Spiritual Theology into theoretical concepts, although apparently healthy for the life of the Church, on the contrary proved largely sterile. Common ground was never found!
Note: Let me briefly add that when talking about “schools of spirituality” prior to dividing the wealth of the Church into different schools, we need to have people largely agreeing on a minimum of common ground. But we are still in this “frozen” state to the present day. In fact, it has been a true miracle to find a – still weak – initiative in the direction of Spiritual Theology in the fourth part of the Catechism! The project resulting in the New Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992) initially and for various drafts didn’t have a fourth part, dedicated to prayer, i.e. using Spiritual Theology! Shocking but true! And the author of the fourth part is essentially one man, Fr. Jean Corbon! It shows the size of the theological crisis.
The end result was that their views have become part of our Church history, a powerful intellectual theoretical debate on a very important subject in spiritual life with no concrete results! More significant is the fact that if we don’t have the answer to what contemplation is, we will struggle to receive the Grace of God! To put it baldly – an “abortion” occurred – the elephant didn’t even give birth to a mouse, it didn’t give birth to anything! This is sad.
The effects of these events have been devastating for the Church. Evidence of the long-term effects remains until today. Of course we need to add the pressure exercised by Psychology and other Sciences specially from 1965 onward.
If Council Vatican II has benefitted “at times” from even sixty years of research (in the case of Liturgy) in different fields (Ecclesiology, Exegesis, Fathers of the Church, Ecumenism, Theology itself,…) it has never really benefited from the aborted renewal in Spiritual Theology. Even the main spiritual input of the Council – i.e. the universal call to holiness – didn’t come from Spiritual Theology (as it should have) but from Ecclesiology, namely: since the Church is holy, then all members are called to Holiness. It doesn’t come from defining a goal, namely: what holiness is and what are the means to reach it i.e. specific to Spiritual Theology.
It is patently obvious that the concept and practice of “contemplation” has simply disappeared (with rare exceptions) from the documents of the Church since then. A paradox! On the one hand we think that Council Vatican II has invited us to holiness, but de facto, we have no clue as to what it is and how to reach it.
Today you might hear about it in fervent circles, but all they can do is have recourse to the books and manuals of 1930-40 of one of the schools, especially the Dominican one.
All the above is history and facts, which you can verify later. If some odd historians (we start now to write the history of the previous century) state that we have found a solution, I would like to know it. If you check in any book, starting with the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a definition of Contemplation, of course you will always find mention that it is infused, or at least that from a certain point onwards it is infused. But you won’t have any other information about it.
Here is what the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us about Contemplation: “Contemplation is a gaze of faith, fixed on Jesus. “I look at him and he looks at me”: this is what a certain peasant of Ars in the time of his holy curé used to say while praying before the tabernacle. This focus on Jesus is a renunciation of self. His gaze purifies our heart; the light of the countenance of Jesus illumines the eyes of our heart and teaches us to see everything in the light of his truth and his compassion for all men. Contemplation also turns its gaze on the mysteries of the life of Christ. Thus it learns the “interior knowledge of our Lord,” the more to love him and follow him.” (CCC 2715)
As one can see, there is no definition. The text remains very vague or general about the action of God and the action of the human being involved in contemplation.
At this juncture I invite you to have a look at the articles on Contemplation published on the website of the School of Mary. Under “Articles,” “Christian Contemplation” will be found.
However, here I will try to give you few important points to bear in mind when addressing “Contemplation”.
What is Contemplation?
“Contemplation” in general terms can be seen either as the supernatural communication of God to us that happens during prayer (or outside of it), or seen as a new phase in spiritual growth, i.e. an infused intensification of the work of the grace of God in us. In this sense, entering into this new contemplative phase is part of the normal development of our Baptism.
In the first place, “contemplation” can’t be mixed with “supernatural phenomena” that might accompany it but are not essential to it. So, we need to distinguish between “normal contemplation” (for everybody) and “extra-ordinary” phenomena (not necessary).
If contemplation is a new phase in the deepening of our spiritual life, and if contemplation is infused, this means that this phase is preceded by another one: meditation. “To Meditate” means to use our mind to extract spiritual thoughts, and go from thought a to thought b, to c, to d… therefore going from a to d. For the working of the mind, meditation uses the “General help of the grace of God”. Indeed the subject meditated is spiritual, say: “God’s Love”, “God’s Providence”, but the way we meditate on it, involves an effort of the mind, to extract and find lights. It is a slow method but is needed in the phases that come before Contemplation. One can read St. Teresa of Avila’s Autobiography in order to see how she classified “meditation” as the first way of “watering the garden”, leaving the other three ways to be specifically supernatural, i.e. involving contemplation.
Now, let us move on to the more precise elements in order to understand Christian Contemplation.
One of the fundamental theological elements, often not mentioned, is the distinction in the way the Grace of God works in us and through us, between the “General help of the Grace of God” and the “Particular help of the Grace of God”. (For more in-depth analyses see articles: here and here also) This distinction is key in revealing some important aspects of Contemplation:
1- Two beings do meet: God and us. Both are free, and their freedom, free will, initiative, should be respected.
2- God constantly gives his General Help. Nothing can be done without the grace of God but this type of Grace (the General Help) is constantly given to us (regardless of sin). It is a general grace that helps us ask for the Help of God (the particular help of the Grace of God). Note in the articles what St. Thomas Aquinas says about it and the extended explanations St. Teresa of Avila gives them in the two forms of their implementation: “Prayer of Recollection” (using the General Help) and the Prayer of Quiet (when, with our use of the general help, God pours out his Particular help). (see Way of Perfection, chapters 26, 28-31)
3- The characteristics of the General Help and the Particular help. (see articles)
Now, at this juncture I can explain the most important point regarding my observations on what you have said, according to what I call the “old-fashioned and incomplete way”.
What I call the “old fashioned way” is in fact an unearthing of some teaching from before Vatican II, during the time of the renewal and the huge debate, teaching essentially coming from the Dominican school of thought. This is one of the essential elements that is still adhered to today.
Usually when dealing with the workings of the grace of God, i.e. the infused characteristic of contemplation, we say the following: God gives it to whom He wants, when He wants, the way He wants. When we state this, in fact we are underlining the essence of Contemplation, i.e. the fact that it is a total and utter free gift from God; we are underlining the total sovereignty of God’s initiative and free will. Nobody can force Him to give himself!
This is a fundamental Truth and nobody can challenge this.
But this is only one Truth about God, not the whole truth about Him.
If after having stated God’s sovereignty we stay silent, we incur the risk of deeply ingraining in the heart and mind of people that at the end of the day, since God is free, and gives his gifts the way He wants, that not only do we need to wait for His action in us, eternally, humbly, but also we imply that He seems a bit moody and unpredictable. But saying this I do not intend to offend God in any way whatsoever. On the contrary I am trying to save another fundamental Truth that cannot be divided from this one:
a) There are steps (stages and not just acts) that should be achieved in order to be ready to receive Contemplation. Consequently, we need to be aware of this and invite people to achieve them. This point requires enormous attention from the Church and the case study of St. Teresa of Avila here is hugely instructive. We need to study her second conversion, where after almost twenty years of religious life (including fifteen to seventeen years of practice of the Prayer of the Heart) no fruits resulted. The elements of her conversion are universal, they constitute a fundamental teaching for the whole Church. They show us that because she wasn’t doing certain things, her supernatural life (her contemplative life) was jeopardised and could have lasted her entire life. (read article on her Conversion) (More articles on St. Teresa of Avila)
b) God is immensely thirsty to give Himself to us. (Important articles on God’s Love for us) In this sense He is not unpredictable or moody. So, we need to ask ourselves: why is He waiting? What am I not doing?
c) Since contemplation is the meeting of two Beings, Him and us, and that each is free, I might not be doing right now, what is needed in order to open my heart and receive his Grace! At the end of the day what is contemplation? It is receiving God’s Grace. A higher grace? Yes, but His Grace. Nothing else. The direct and personal intervention of the Holy Spirit. (see this article)
d) In order to receive contemplation, providing we have achieved the stages that precede it (see Second Conversion, St. Teresa’s Second Conversion elements), we need, during prayer to realise, fulfil, implement, different elements:
1- Acknowledge God’s immense Thirst to give Himself to us (this is contemplation) (see articles)
2- The necessity, as an adult decision, to switch from “adult behaviour” to “child behaviour” during prayer: the simplicity of the child, his trust, the fact that he entrusts everything to God.
3- Understand Mary’s fundamental role. (see article)
4- Offer ourselves to Her. Knowing that she immediately takes us and immerses us in Christ.
Being immersed in Christ IS Contemplation. We receive the Holy Spirit.
As a conclusion: yes, contemplation is a pure gift from God, yes, it is unmerited. Yes, this is true. But God is divinely (infinitely, immensely, utterly) keen and eager to give himself to you (the “Crazy” love” as St. Catherine of Sienna puts it.). Right now, He is present, while you read these lines, He wants to give Himself to you. You can switch right now to child mode, it is your adult decision (with the general help of His Grace, constantly given to you and that you can use at any time), you can right now offer yourself to Mary unconditionally, … you are immediately taken by God.
Mary is the huge secret leading to a guaranteed contemplation (see the article on this point in St. Teresa of Avila). Notice, I had the extreme audacity to say: “guaranteed”. It seems to contradict the initial Truth we all agree on: God gives himself to whom He wants, when He wants, the way He wants. But this is to forget the hidden secret of the Grace of God: His immense yearning and his incapacity to say “no” to Mary. He is the one who built Mary from Jesus’ Heart on the Cross. He came to dwell in the Immaculate Mary. He never left us. It is in Her that the Holy Spirit works without an obstacle! Hence the “guarantee” of success if we enter in Her, if we entrust ourselves to Her like little children. You “block” God, you “force Him” to give himself to you! In fact, you seduce Him. You used the almighty power of seduction that Mary has over God. This is God’s will.
To understand how all the elements that help “trigger” Contemplation are “blended” together, in action, I personally consider that the Act of Oblation of St. Therese of the Child Jesus is the best Teaching. Please do read it, meditate upon it and more so, practise it. See these two articles: St. Therese’s Act of Oblation and Mary’s Fiery Prayer.
Can we deprive the people of God of all these practical Truths?
Series of Articles to Read:
– On The Prayer of the Heart (How to obtain Contemplation)
– On St. Teresa of Avila (How Contemplation was triggered and lived by her)