Dear Dan, my spiritual journey seems to be leading me deeper into contemplative prayer. Is it important for me to find a director who is experienced in contemplation, or is it okay for me to have someone who is compatible with me in other areas but not necessarily in this?
Dear friend, you have asked several good questions. That said, there are also a few questions that need to be answered so that we can avoid common confusion about advanced states of prayer.
What is contemplation?
Sometimes, it can be very helpful to identify what something is not before you explain what it is. Because there is so much misinformation about contemplation in modern literature, we will use this as a starting point.
Contemplation is NOT:
- a method of prayer.
- something we generate on our own or through a sit, breathe and repeat a sacred word formula.
- oneness or fusion with a cosmic force or principal or the universe.
- a good feeling during prayer.
- the same as or synonymous with meditation.
- something that we can in any way originate, intensify, or prolong by anything that we do.
- an exercise in self-contemplation, stillness, silence of the mind, or self-emptying.
- a new or alternate realm of consciousness.
- a turning inwards on ourselves.
- an annihilation of self, resulting in total union with God wherein the self no long exists as a distinct creature.
- a looking within to discover authentic wisdom, creativity, and power.
- a detachment in any way from the person and incarnational reality of Christ.
So, what is contemplation? Here’s a definition I provided in my book Navigating the Interior Life that is in keeping with Catholic tradition:
Contemplation is an infused supernatural gift, that originates completely outside of our will or ability in God, by which a person becomes freely absorbed in God producing a real awareness, desire, and love for Him. This often gentle, delightful, or even intense encounter can yield special insights into things of the spirit and results in a deeper and tangible desire to love God and neighbor in thought, word, and deed. It is important to note that infused contemplation is a state that can be prepared for, but cannot in any way be produced by the will of a person through methods or ascetical practices.
Ok, with that out of the way, let’s move on to your questions.
Is it important to find a director that is experienced in contemplation if you are at that stage of prayer?
It is optimal to have a director that is advanced in prayer to an equal or greater degree than we are. However, the factors that inhibit or enable contemplation can be understood by any competent spiritual director regardless of their direct experience. If they are well grounded in mystical and ascetical theology and are faithful themselves, they can probably help you in your journey. If you must settle for a less experienced director, it can be helpful to self-educate on the topic. Check out our Resources area for reading recommendations.
Is it ok to have someone who is compatible with me? (You didn’t ask this one directly but it is worth consideration.)
Believe it or not, it is not necessary to have someone who is “compatible” with you. In fact, it is best to have a director who is different than you and who will challenge you to think and in ways that you may have never considered. Sometimes a challenging spiritual direction relationship can be a catalyst for unexpected growth assuming that it is a healthy relationship. In my case, my I selected my current spiritual director because I sensed that she would pose a challenge for me. I was right. Thus far it has been the most productive spiritual direction relationship I have had.
I hope these answers help you along your journey. Be assured of our prayers as you seek to deepen your love and service to our Lord and His people!
Art for this post on whether or not it is OK to have a spiritual director not as advanced in prayer as one is: Abrazo de Santa Teresa de Jesús, Santa Catalina de Siena y Santa Clara (Embrace [or Hug] of Saint Teresa of Jesus [St. Teresa of Avila], St. Catherine of Siena and St. Clare [of Assisi], Anonymous Castillian Painter, second half of the 17th century, PD-US author’s life plus 70 years or less, Wikimedia Commons.