An Answer to a Question: What is Contemplation?

Recently, Dan received an interesting question and after we talked about it, I asked whether I might respond.  Here is the question:

“Is the terminology for prayer different from Ignatian to that of Carmelite spirituality? I’m a Secular Carmelite and I just went on an Ignatian retreat. My understanding of contemplation was that it was a complete gift with no activity on our part. However, the director defined it when you use your imagination when entering into a scene from scripture.”

When it comes to the practice of mental prayer or contemplation, nuanced but complementary differences run through the writings of St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross and other spiritual writers.  They are all 16th Century pioneers of the renewal of the practice of mental prayer in the life of the Church. They were convinced that mental prayer is a gift from God. They share an awareness of how important the Scriptures are and they all see a role for using imagination when prayerfully reflecting on the Scriptures. Because of their own transforming encounters with the Lord, they are also aware that Christ comes to the soul over and above its psychological activities, that at best our efforts only prepare the way and open up space for God to do something astonishing in us.

Contemplation means to see and to gaze. It is an activity in which the heart is captivated and the mind dazzled by the splendor of the truth. As a form of mental prayer, contemplation is submitted to the discipline of faith. It sees obscurely as through a mirror. The most humble and frail prayer tends toward mystical contemplation but because faith is a gift, not all contemplation reaches all the way to prayer. In Patristic and early monastic literature, contemplation, study and sacred reading were used nearly interchangeably. For St. John of the Cross, there is something for us to listen to because God is constantly sending all kinds of messengers to us. The Lord invites us into deeper friendship through the beauty of creation, through the truth of the Gospel, and sometimes, in a more beautiful way, He speaks to the soul more than a preacher or angel intends to say.

Whether or not one uses one’s imagination, contemplative prayer begins by attending, listening to a conversation that is taking place in reality between God and the things He has made. Any use of the imagination is only to help us listen to the Word of the Father. Contemplation has already been raised into the world of Christian prayer when it ponders the saving truths of our faith revealed in the sacred humanity of Christ Crucified.  St. Teresa of Avila described the prayerful engagement of the powers of our soul in devotion to the Lord as “drawing water from the well.” The well is the depths of our hearts and the water – tears of devotion whether physical or spiritual. Our imagination can be implicated in this work.

Beautiful monastic frescoes and ancient mosaics throughout Europe and the Middle East suggest that Christians have engaged their powers of imagination in this kind of mental prayer for millennia. Your retreat director seems to have been indicating this prayerful engagement of the imagination in his description of contemplation. St. Ignatius seemed to love to engage the imagination in “interior composition of place” in his Biblical meditations. By using his imagination to picture a biblical scene, he situated himself in its drama to implicate himself in the saving truth. Similarly, in her autobiography, we find St. Teresa describing techniques which engage the imagination in prayer as well. Even before her conversion, before falling asleep, she was in the habit of imagining herself in the Garden of Gethsemane and would spend time keeping watch with the Lord at night.  Such holy exercises of the heart are ordered to cultivate a holy friendship with the Lord.

This engagement of imagination or memory or intellect in the beautiful stories of our faith is not the highest form of mental prayer known to the saints of the 16th Century. Christian contemplation terminates where neither efforts to imagine nor efforts not to imagine can take us. Christian contemplation is ultimately eschatological: it anticipates the vision of the saints in glory. Such prayer is in the form of a gift — a sheer grace — because the vision it anticipates is the ultimate gift of all. Thus, mystical contemplation does not reach completion in any activity we initiate but instead is taken up into a supernatural movement initiated by the Holy Spirit — a divine inflow, a river of living waters. When we prayerfully ponder the inexhaustible riches of Christ, these exercises (and all the trials and hardships that go with them) are meant to make us vulnerable to the inflow of the Holy Trinity into our souls. Our efforts to use our imagination help us listen — for echoing in the depths of our hearts is the unending hymn of  myriads of angels gathered in praise around the Throne of the Lamb.

If we remember St. Ignatius’ experience at Manresa where he wrote the Spiritual Exercises, his difficult spiritual and physical trials in that cave culminated in a mysterious vision which took him far beyond the power of human imagination. His vision of the ineffable mystery of the Trinity became the secret mystery animating his whole life and mission. What was his experience? How does one “see” the Trinity? Whatever this is, it is something more than the imagination at work. Sometimes, when we prayerfully reflect on that hidden glory the Lord secretly whispers, our hearts are caught up in something fully beyond the conscious powers of our soul to grasp. The silent music of Christ’s heart draws our souls. Our being, like a sponge, finds itself plunged into adoration before a mystery it does not understand, before which it is utterly humbled.  One spark of this hidden fire and our lives are changed forever.

What captured the heart of St. Ignatius and what touched the soul of St. Teresa bear profound relation with each other. When St. Teresa sought counsel for dealing with certain attachments that were tormenting her, she went to a Jesuit spiritual master. She needed someone who was filled with mystical wisdom, that loving awareness of God, so that she could have confidence in what God was doing in her. This priest of the Society of Jesus had deep confidence in the love of God. Rather than directing her to prayerful meditation on some Biblical passage, the Jesuit recommended instead that she prayerfully raise her heart in song.

Teresa of Avila - Transverberation -- what is contemplationHis counsel worked. As she sang with her heart, Veni Creator Spiritus, a heart-piercing rapture purified her soul. This mystical contemplation was not something she produced by her own efforts to imagine or not to imagine – it was an astonishing gift that God is waiting to lavish on us when at last, with vigilant hope, we make ourselves vulnerable to the power of the Holy Spirit. In fact, Carmelite and Ignatian approaches to mental prayer in the 16th Century were complementary, profoundly rooted in a transforming encounter with the same saving mystery. Even today, when a spiritual director or retreat master has surrendered himself to the beautiful wisdom St. Teresa and St. Ignatius came to know, the spiritual exercises, techniques, and methods he or she might recommend — even when it is just a song — can prepare us to welcome such spiritual gifts with the same humility and radical availability to God the great saints of the 16th Century help us to see.


Art for this post which asks the question “What is contemplation?”: La transverbération de Sainte Thérèse [de Avila](The Transverberation of St. Teresa [of Avila]), Josefa de Óbidos, 1672, PD-US author’s life plus 100 years or less, published in the U.S. prior to January 1, 1923, Wikimedia Commons.

Editor’s Note: For more of Anthony’s insights on prayer, don’t miss his book, Hidden Mountain Secret Garden, an experience like no other. Anthony has an unusually profound understanding of mystical theology and lives a life of deep prayer. Among his many accomplishments and responsibilities, Dr. Lilles now teaches theology for the Avila Institute.

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