October 18, 2011

What is Contemplation?

Christian Contemplation or "mental prayer" is a loving gaze through the eyes of faith at the mystery of God revealed in Christ Jesus.  To say that this happens through faith means that this exchange of glances between men and God is transitory and imperfect, and yet a true anticipation of what is to be revealed to us in glory.  As if looking through a dark class or catching a reflection in a mirror, this kind of prayer provides a foretaste of the wisdom God yearns to share with us in heaven.

Such prayer is necessary because the heart is made to be captivated by the loving gaze of God who is captivated by humanity. This holy exchange of glances - between the eyes of the heart and the eyes of God - is at once the most human, tender, intimate, reciprocal, vulnerable and divine of self-disclosures.  So vast the unexplored horizons of this prayer, the greatest discoveries in this frontier of human existence still wait to be made.  Those who devote their whole lives to pursuing contemplation marvel at how much more immense the mystery they behold actually is than what they first imagined.

Progress in such prayer is through the mystery of the Cross.  Cross centered contemplation in fact transforms the inner man because it opens up the deepest recesses of the heart, the suffering abyss of human misery, to the loving goodness of God.  It is a prayer which allows God to continually question everything about one's manner of life.  It is an unfolding conversation with the Risen Lord which constantly gives one real confidence to persevere in faithfulness to Him and to more strongly cling to Him in one's own weakness.

Contemplative prayer yields a kind of knowing which changes the whole of one's life.  This movement of heart ignites a love stronger than death and illuminates the mind with the very splendors of God. Seeking the loving eyes of God reflected in - or carried on - the propositions of our faith, this prayer baptizes itself in sacred reading, and baths the imagination in the Scriptures through meditation.  

Study of the Sacred Page is called the soul of theology because prayerful reading and careful reflection on the Holy Bible is devoted to seeking this gaze of God.  For those who patiently seek it, His divine glance is marvelously revealed in the inspired and inerrant canon of Sacred Scripture. Such study never reaches prayer if it is only concerned with accumulating information and discerning difficult to interpret texts. For such sacred study to become contemplative, the mind must be knelt in prayer. In this posture of adoration and humility, all thought, imagination, memory, and affectivity can converge together in a humble glimpse into the Ineffable. Here one finds faith's perfection in a humble participation in God's own knowledge of Himself. Far beyond our natural means of knowing, when the mind is humble before the truth, the Holy Spirit raises the created capacities of the human intellect above themselves, and fills them with overflowing meaning and fullness.

Transcending all psychic states, our psychological faculties come to rest in this deep silence - because it is a kind of knowing which does not primarily involve our natural operations.  If this explanation is inadequate, the loving knowledge at stake confounds all psychological descriptions or attempts at explanation.  In the most subtle of moments, like lighting, eternal Truth flashes through all levels of consciousness and into depths of which we are not conscious. This delicate communication illuminates everything from within with such blinding brightness. Even the greatest saints remember little else than the most overwhelming love. What these saints do remember mere words cannot convey.

Essentially supernatural, a sheer grace, this wisdom is far above every other kind of knowledge.  The greatest mystics describe it as a knowing which is "not knowing."  Doctors of the faith identify this kind of love imbued knowledge with that of the Bride of the Canticle of Canticles who knows nothing but her Beloved.  St. Paul speaks of knowing nothing but Christ and Him Crucified.  This knowing is not darkened but puts on the mind of Christ which knows nothing but the loving goodness of the Father.  It is a renewal of the mind to such heavenly glory that it thinks thoughts no longer subject to sin or death.

Contemplation is the most humanizing of all the kinds of knowledge there is -- because men and women are made in the image and likeness of God, and the more they participate in God's knowledge, understanding and wisdom, the more they realize their true dignity and identity.  Most devout Christians do not know that they have been entrusted with this inestimable treasure. Even the devout remain only vaguely conscious of the gifts lavished on them in their prayer.

Yet it is not necessary to be aware that one is contemplating to enter deep into this wisdom from on high and at the same time many rob themselves of true understanding because they are too self aware.   Indeed, one finally begins to live by surrendering to this loving exchange called contemplation. As St. Irenaeus explained, "God's glory is man alive - and the life of man is the vision of God."


  1. Thanks for writing. I find it so immensely weird that I lived an entire half of a life without ever hearing or reading anything to speak of about what contemplation is. How could such a powerful thing be so generally unmentioned?

  2. Just curious which mystics called Contemplation "Mental Prayer"? Anything that I have read distinguishes between Meditation or Mental Prayer and Contemplative Prayer. Even the Catechism of the Catholic Church makes that distinction. Most mystical theologians write about the 9 grades of prayer. See Spiritual Theology by Jordan Aumann O.P. and The Three Ages of the Interior Life by Garrigou Lagrange.

  3. Thanks for your question. From my own limited research it appears that most French and Spanish mystics understood oracion mental or oraison mentale as equivalent to the Latin "contemplatio" and "oratio contemplativa" and "oratio mentalis." The Catechism of the Catholic Church official English translation starting in #2709ff uses "contemplative prayer" and "contemplation" to translate the Latin "oratio contemplativa" which it identifies with Teresa of Avila's "oracion mental" from book 8 paragraph 5 of La Vida. She uses the term here in a broad sense to cover the full range of the degrees of prayer. My former professor, Father Jordan Aumann, O.P. does not maintain a strict distinction between meditation and contemplation (see the end of his discussion on affective prayer in his chapter on the degrees of prayer in Spiritual Theology) but the Catechism does suggest that meditation or "prayerful reflection" leads to mental prayer or contemplation in #2708.

    1. Dr Lilles, thank you for your comprehensive reply.

  4. Dr. Lilles I really like your posts and updates and always await for it. God Bless !

  5. Thanks for writing. I find it so immensely weird that I lived an entire half of a life without ever hearing or reading anything to speak of about what contemplation is.

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