Questions about Contemplation

The encounter of contemplation is such an unexpected and memorable experience, shouldn’t one be content with leaving it to God if it would ever be repeated? I see people trying centering prayer, Taize prayer, etc. to try to achieve it. It somehow seems wrong to try to ‘get’ something that’s purely a gift.

about contemplationIs acquired contemplation the same experience as infused contemplation?

Books like the Interior Castle confuse and intimidate me. How do you know when you’re ready to read such things?

You have asked a few questions and made a few observations that are very important. The answer to your first question is “yes” you should leave it to God. The encounter in contemplation does not come from our will but his. It would be like having a much-beloved relative give us a hug and then not letting go as if we could contain or prolong that initial surge of warmth and tenderness. Love is not something to be grasped or contained but simply to be known and lived when it is made alive to us by the mercy of God. The desire to hold on is a natural one but not one that we should entertain. When we feel these touches of grace we simply should yield to God, express our gratitude, and continue to pursue Christ.

You are also correct that “contemplation” cannot be achieved with a method or approach to prayer. We can sew the seeds of contemplation by living lives of grace and expressed love for God and neighbor and by regularly participating in prayer and the sacraments. However, regardless of how well we prepare the soil and plant the seeds, God determines the harvest. You are right – true contemplation is purely a gift, not something we can “do” or “achieve.”

Regarding acquired versus infused contemplation, this is an academic distinction that is confusing to most. Suffice it to say that digging into this topic won’t yield much benefit. The key is that we should pursue Christ in prayer and in the way we live. As we progress in the cultivation of silence, meditation, and virtue, he will, in his wisdom and his time, draw us more deeply into prayer. It is living the life of love that we should be concerned with and then we will discover what the distinctions really mean as we experience them.

With respect to the Interior Castle, the way you know if you are ready is simply to take up and read. The best version is The Interior Castle Study Edition. This edition will provide a brief introduction to each chapter and then a brief summary at the end of each chapter. These treatments provide context for unfamiliar terms or ideas that can otherwise be confusing. Still, I would first recommend Father Thomas Dubay’s Prayer Primer: Igniting the Fire Within. Once you read this, you will be better prepared to deal with more advanced ideas of prayer. Then, as you are reading St. Teresa again, you could also pick up Father Dubay’s book on the topic of contemplation entitled the Fire Within. In this book, he does a masterful job of synthesizing the teachings of St. Teresa and St. John on the topic of prayer and contemplation. It can be a heavy read for some but well worth the effort.

Be encouraged. You are asking the right questions. I have no doubt that God is calling you into a deeper relationship with him.

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Art for this post on questions about contemplation: Partial restoration detail of Vision of the Holy Trinity [with St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila (and Beatriz of Ahumada in feature image)], anonymous Brazilian painter, 17th century, PD-US author’s life plus 100 years or less, Wikimedia Commons.

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