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I am confused about the definition of contemplation, can you help me understand?

August 22, 2011 by  
Filed under Carmelite Spirituality, Contemplation, Prayer, Sr. Laudis

Dear Sister Carmen, after reading some modern writers and Saint Teresa of Avila I am confused about contemplation. It seems like there is some confusion or lack of concern about definitions. When I read one writer it sounds like contemplation is something I can get to by following a series of steps (breath, sit, repeat) and then when I read St. Teresa she seems to be talking about something completely different. Can you help me understand what true contemplation is and maybe why this conflict exists?

Contemplation is an intriguing word, isn’t it?  It draws you in, leaving you wondering.  Trying to explain contemplation is somewhat of a dilemma. Why? Well, on the one hand, we are cautioned not to worry about our current level of prayer. It’s somewhat like the expression “Are We Having Fun Yet?” We can start saying “Have I Reached Contemplative Prayer Yet?” Something doesn’t ring true if we need to ask that question, it seems to me. Then, on the other hand, as we begin to take our prayer life seriously and grow to love prayer, it might just happen that we will discover new dimensions to prayer and they can leave us wondering what is going on. Sometimes, contemplation is what is going on!  We really want and need to ask a spiritual director to help us understand.

Here is a short answer about contemplation.  First of all, I’m of the opinion that contemplation is described NOT defined. There are some prayer “techniques” that can help us relax. They are not contemplation. There are some “exercises” that are suggested to help us pray but they are not, nor do the cause, contemplation. When a mother gazes silently at her child or we gaze silently at a beautiful sunset, that is a type of contemplation, though not infused or what we are speaking about here (these are examples of natural contemplation).  Infused contemplation is a pure gift from God and this is the contemplation St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross write about.  How can something so simple as infused contemplation, be so hard to describe?

When St. Teresa was asked to describe prayer, especially infused contemplative prayer, she ended up by using analogies as Our Lord did in the parables. What human word or human definition could possibly capture the infinite, the “super” natural? And she didn’t just dive right in and write about contemplation. Rather, she wrote about sin and its hold on us and how we must break free. She spoke of drawing water from a well, or a water wheel, or an irrigation system, or from gently falling rain.  Then she says that prayer is like that and oh, which one is contemplation? – of course, contemplation is very much like the analogy of gently falling rain.

Again, St. Teresa illustrates prayer by telling the story of an interior castle (the human soul) and says prayer is like that. There is a moat filled with creepy-crawlies and a bridge you need to cross over and a door you need to knock on, and once past that door there are seven mansions within the castle.  The castle itself is brilliant and clear like a diamond and the extraordinary light illuminating comes from the King who dwells in the inmost, seventh mansion.

St. John of the Cross also uses analogies.  What is contemplation? Well, it is like climbing a mountain – the mountain of Mt. Carmel – and he writes many books to explain what happens during that climb – the dark night of the senses, the dark night of the soul and many others. Each experience gets a whole book. Finally, he writes of the living flame of love (in poetry form) and then proceeds with a commentary on this poem to explain the highest contemplation.

To answer your question more directly, then, understand that in speaking of contemplation, it is necessary to understand the definitions of all the words connected with contemplation. For example, what is the human soul?  What are its faculties? How and where does God reside within it?  This is important because the human soul is purely spiritual, and is the center of our imagination, memory, understanding, and will. 

Why does it take St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila so many words to describe (noticed I don’t say define) infused contemplation?  It is because contemplation greatly affects each of the faculties of the soul.

So, to answer your question, I would like to share with you, if you would like, the path of prayer from conversion to contemplation, using examples from St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, who have made the journey and provided for us a kind of roadmap.  Until next time, Sister Carmen Laudis, OCD

To learn more about Sister Carmen you can read this post or to learn about her community go to

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  • Anonymous

    Quoted from above: “First of all, I’m of the opinion that contemplation is described NOT defined.”  (I love this!)

    Thanks Sister, this post is full of solid, practical advice.  Much appreciated!

  • C K Kumar

    To my understanding, to contemplate is to keep a concept or idea or a visual in our mind and review it continuously. This would help in moving the same from our conscious mind to the subconscious and deeper minds.

  • Anonymous

    Dear Friend: What you speak about is natural contemplation. In the realm of mystical theology the definitions are not the same. Infused contemplation in particular is purely the work of God. It does not come by any act of the will or intellect.

  • Anonymous

    As I read this I feel like a little child listening to an adult conversation- it is intriguing and I so hope to hear more, but also to grow up and understand someday, too!

    • Sherry

      I felt the same way as you did. It’s like I was listening to my parents talk and being soothed by their voices, secure in their love. I am a new convert and long to understand and know more about prayer.

    • Mary@42

      JoFlemmings, I am with you on this one. And like you, I hope to learn more even if time is not on my side.

  • Totus2us

    Thank you Sister Carmen.  Wonderful post!

  • MarianCatechistMO

    Prayer and contemplation is one of my favorite subjects. I am so drawn to understanding it better. Thank you, Sister, for your beautiful and insightful post. I will be anxiously awaiting the future postings.

  • Jeaton2118

    For those of us exploring Ignatian spirituality, contemplation is a bit different.  It is more a case of placing ourselves in a particular Biblical scene and becoming a part of it.  Experiencing the scene with all of our senses and our imagination is what constitutes contemplation for Ignatius.

  • Smutero36

    as a contemplative iam impressed by the post God bless

  • Anonymous

    Dear Friend: In a sense this is true. Even so, I believe St. Ignatius experienced infused contemplation during his life which is distinct from discursive and affective meditation that is often referred to as “contemplation” in the Ignatian tradition. This came in part as a result of his preparation by the Lord in the approach that you describe. The Ignatian method is a good one and is a great benefit to those seeking to deepen their love for Christ. In fact, Fr. Bartunek’s approach in “The Better Part” and “A Guide to Christian Meditation” is very Ignatian though Father Bartunek refers to it as “meditation.” The key to avoiding confusion is that this post is talking about infused contemplation which is purely a gift from God.

  • Smaghsoodloo

    Please share more about this form of prayer. I’m looking forward to reading more.

  • Pingback: The Definition of Contemplation: Q and A |

  • Mg Logan

    Contemplative prayer is like a touch from the super natural. It comes and is a surprise experience from God and has always left me feeling deeply loved and encouraged by God.

  • Anonymous

    Here’s a note from Sister Carmen to you all, “Sister Carmen here.  It is great hearing from all of you; my hope is to think and pray about your comments and include some feedback to you in subsequent posts.  It is interesting – this being asked to participte in something on the blog – and I hope our contribution will help your discussions and provide some thought-provoking concepts.  Of course, infused contemplation is a gift, and God wants us to ask Him for it. “Our souls are restless, O Lord, until they rest in Thee” is the way St. Augustine puts it.  Until next time, Sr. Carmen Laudis”

  • MarytheDefender

    I am not sure if I have experienced this. Often enough lately, I wake up in the middle of the night and I just know that He is there. I can feel His presence so strongly within me and without me. I am so grateful, joyful, peaceful! Is this what is meant by infused contemplation? I am not really sure.

  • Anonymous

    Dear Friend, awareness of God’s presence is a very good thing. However, it is not possible to gain a clear understanding of God’s work in your life through a few sentences in a combox. If anyone does answer this question for you in either the affirmative or negative sense, you can bet that it would be a good idea to steer clear of their input. The best thing to do is to talk with your spriitual director.

    • Maria

      I tried to get a spiritual director but he is often busy and compared to the advice I get here I am not sure he understands me. I had another director on a retreat before who understood me better. He is abroad now and hope to meet him mid-September. I wish I could know for sure! Thank you for your advice!

      • Anonymous

        I understand, I just moved and it took me two months to find someone…

        • Maria

          Thank you very much for your understanding and encouragement!

      • Anonymous


        What a blessing you describe!!.

        Trust in God’s mercy and love for you.

        Many of the saints struggled in getting good spiritual direction too………’re in good company.  If you pray for God to provide you a spiritual director He will send you one………and until then, perhaps He is teaching you to rely more on Him.

        Rarely on the spiritual journey do we know anything for certain.  Thus, the well-known book, “The Cloud of Unknowing”.  It’s all about Trusting God….he loves us; and if we are doing our very best to listen, learn, and grow in love, he will use even our stumbles and falls to teach us, and lead us to the place He has prepared for us.

        We have a commercial here in the northwest for an insurance company. Their motto is; “You’re in good hands with Allstate.”  Better than Allstate, You’re in good hands with Jesus!!

        God Bless!

        • Maria

          Thank you so very much for your kind and encouraging words! Truly I think He does want me to trust in Him because for some reason or another whenever I try set a spiritual direction meeting something prevents it from happening. Plus often enough something He tells me in prayer is affirmed by a family member, friend, Gospel, homily or article shortly after! :D Thank you again!

          • Anonymous


  • Mary

    It’s beautiful to read about so many people striving to become better acquaited with God.  The more time we spend in surrendered prayer, the more intimate we become with Christ.  Christ loves us infinitely and yearns for our relationship with him to be mutual.  Christ is infinitely patient with us and all our human goals.  We just need to continue to surrendered our humanity in order to have space for divinity.  When we are able to unmask our human attachments we make it possible for Christ to live in us on the authentic path he intended.  Thank you for bringing me much hope on our jouney.