…a reader asks:
Dear Father John, I’ve heard that the prayer of simplicity is a kind of a bridge from meditation to contemplation. Can you help me to understand what this experience of prayer might be and how one might know that God is leading them down that path?
In Part I, we discussed mental prayer in general, meditative mental prayer and the unity underneath the various prayer methods. Today, we will continue the discussion by examining contemplative mental prayer, some characteristics of contemplation and the beginnings of infused contemplation.
Contemplative Mental Prayer
When juxtaposed with meditation, the term contemplation usually refers to what theologians refer to as infused contemplation. This is what begins to happen as we mature in our spiritual lives. We continue to dedicate time to mental prayer, but instead of being so busy and active, instead of mental prayer being our own quest for God, God himself intervenes more directly and immediately. God himself starts doing the majority of the “work” in our mental prayer, and we become much more receptive than active. This is why it is called “infused.” God gives this kind of prayer to the soul. He infuses a divine absorption into the soul. Instead of the soul reaching out to find God, God reaches into the soul and gives himself to the soul. We become receivers more than reachers. As St. Paul puts it: “the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Romans 5:5).
Some Characteristics of Contemplation
As you can imagine, when by God’s grace our prayer becomes characterized primarily by infused contemplation, our spiritual growth happens much more rapidly and easily. This is when the spiritual life becomes truly joyful, and we begin to experience greater degrees of spiritual freedom. St. Teresa of Avila uses the image of watering a garden to explain the difference. In early meditation, we work hard to water the plants with the consolation of prayer by dipping a bucket into a well and then carrying it to the different parts of the garden. Slow, painstaking, hard work – but effective. In advanced, infused contemplation, God makes it rain over the garden. Much more effective, much less of our own, natural effort.
The transition between primarily meditative mental prayer and infused contemplation is gradual, subtle, and mysterious. Since infused contemplation is something that God does, we cannot force or command it to happen. God makes it happen when we are ready, and he usually makes it happen little by little. The first experiences of infused contemplation may escape our attention completely, in fact. When the transition begins to happen, our job is simply to receive it and cooperate with it; to avoid putting obstacles in the way. That is not always easy – living in the midst of mystery does have its confusing aspects after all. But God will help us, and the Doctors of the Church have given us pointers. Here is where the prayer of simplicity comes in.
The Beginnings of Infused Contemplation
The first inklings of infused contemplation usually take the form of a divinely given, interior loving awareness of God. The awareness is usually very quiet, but it doesn’t flow from our own reasoning or imagining or feeling – it comes from on high. It may last for only a minute, or five minutes. It can appear in the form of a sweet consolation in response to God’s presence, or a dry, dark desire for greater intimacy with God, or even a passionate thirst that just can’t be satisfied or even put into words: “As the deer longs for streams of water, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, the living God. When can I enter and see the face of God?” (Psalm 42:2-3). Since this infusion comes from God and isn’t the result of our own efforts, it often surprises or confuses us. If we are used to discursive meditation, we may think that it is some kind of distraction and that we should go back to our reasoning and imagining – go back to our quest. But really what our soul needs at that point is simply to be quiet and let God embrace us, to welcome God. When the interior loving awareness wanes, then we can go back, renewed, to our quest.
After we have become aware of those first inklings of infused contemplation, we may be tempted to dedicate our prayer time to making them happen again. This is where an exaggerated focus on contemplative techniques and methods (like centering prayer) can lead us astray. Remember, infused contemplation is a pure gift from God. It flows from his love being poured out into our open, loving hearts. Unlike eastern, non-Christian meditation techniques, infused Christian contemplation cannot be concocted. We can ask God for it and welcome it when it comes, but in the meantime, we need to continue doing our part. We need to watch out for the temptation to start using techniques to try and manufacture the gift, instead of staying focused on simply loving the Giver.
In Part III, we will look at the prayer of simplicity as “acquired contemplation” as well as other signs of growth in prayer and a recommendation for a more in-depth reading on this subject.
Art: Teresa of Avila, Peter Paul Rubens, 1615, Photographed by David Monniaux, CCA-SA 3.0 Unported, Wikimedia Commons.