Confused about contemplation definition, can you help?

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.

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