Mystical Contemplation and the Gift of Knowledge
In mystical contemplation, the gifts of wisdom, knowledge, and understanding move the soul in delightful ways that it does not understand. Divine light and warmth enkindle the depths of the soul and completely captivate the mind. Reason does not lead the way but is led to silent surrender with great spiritual fruitfulness. Here, the limits of human intelligence are not surmounted, but the power of reason is bowed down in adoration.
When this fire from above enkindles the mind, something is communicated that is not merely informative, but transformative. Souls baptized in this hidden radiance often wonder whether they are wasting their time. And yet, mysteriously, their confidence and devotion are set ablaze with a love they cannot explain. This transformation is not limited to one’s life but is extended throughout one’s culture and continues to extend into the future.
The saints who make this prayer their own became a source of life for others because they draw from the source of life Himself. This can happen again today for those willing to take up the discipline of withdrawing into silent adoration through what we study. Being drawn to wonder-filled silence is the beginning of spiritual maturity.
The mind is vaguely aware of everything in relation to God all at once (the gift of knowledge) and is confirmed in all manners of judgment about what God is not (the gift of understanding). These supernatural moments of understanding and knowledge mediate a transforming personal encounter with God in ways that purify and intensify our lives. The expanse and depth of these life-giving mysteries in the soul avail it to a sense of the whole (the gift of wisdom).
Entering the prayerful silence of Christian spirituality is like being lifted to a peak to gaze on vast horizons of life otherwise inaccessible to created reason. This is the complete opposite of mindlessness in prayer. Yet this conscious awareness leaves the soul in speechless adoration, humbled before the glory of divine life that shines forth in the world. The more this glory humbles us in this sacred silence, the more it generates in us and through us.
According to the experts on prayerful silence and this knowledge: The Word proceeds from Silence, and we strive to find Him in his Source. This is because the Silence here in question is not a void or a negation but, on the contrary, Being at Its fullest and most fruitful plenitude. That is why it generates; and that is why we keep silent.
This statement is pregnant with spiritual theology, at least in its original sense as theology flowing from a living encounter with God. While some thinkers believe that progress has been made in bringing sanctity and theology together again, contemporary theology yearns to be filled with such mystical knowing. This is why theologians should be men and women of prayer.
Saint Teresa of Ávila describes mystical knowing as a gaze into the eyes of the One who was wounded for our sakes. It is a loving awareness of God’s presence. She uses images of water, fire, and silk to convey the new life, love, and industry it establishes within.
For Catherine of Siena this knowledge is a conversation with the Father about one’s life and the life of the Church. It advances by venerating His Son with kisses from His feet to His lips — the bridge from our misery to the Father’s mercy. It leads to a deep plunge into the wounds of Christ for the sake of the Church.
For Elizabeth of the Trinity, this knowledge is musical. It is the praise of glory. Those who possess it are able to sing in their hearts the same song of praise Jesus offered to the Father on the Cross. It has the dimensions of redemptive and glorifying love of God and man.
All these saints are agreed that such knowledge is a sheer gift that we can fully receive only by spending time in prayer and by taking our own crosses. Even after two thousand years of great saints, theologians, and mystics, theological contemplation remains a vast, barely known frontier of human existence, for most of the inexhaustible riches of Christ are still waiting to be discovered.
This knowledge is theological contemplation, the most demanding and life changing of all human knowledge. It is mystagogical in character because it helps those who already are initiated into the life of the Church to acquire an even-deeper relationship with the Lord. The world needs Catholics to grow in this kind of contemplation.
This article is from a chapter in Fire from Above, which is available through Sophia Institute Press.
Art for this post on Mystical Contemplation: Modification and partial restoration of Saint Jérôme en prière dans une grotte (Saint Jerome in Prayer in the Cave), Pieter Cornelisz van Slingelandt, 1656, PD-US author’s life plus 100 years or less, Wikimedia Commons. Cover of Fire from Above, used with permission.