What is the Difference Between Meditation and Contemplation?

There’s no use getting caught up on words. Words are just signs that point to the reality.

But the reality, as I understand it from throwing myself quite foolishly into the writings of Saint John of the Cross, is this.

In meditation, we do some mental work. We might, for example, read the Gospel. Then we might think on the Gospel, maybe write some lines about it or form some thoughts about it with regards to what God is saying to us. What practices of meditation we do depends on our state of life, our experiences, and the ideas and people God has made us familiar with. They are just whatever “works” for us or “appeals” to us. For example, Charles de Foucauld was constantly drawn to the Gospel. Both he and Thérèse composed meditations while sitting before the Eucharist. Saint Damiaan spoke in the honest and perturbing way of a saint:

I confess to you, my dear brother, the cemetery and the hut of the dying are my best meditation books, as well as for the benefit of my own soul as in view of preparing my instructions.

And John Paul II was drawn strongly to the Rosary. All are meditative practices. All are different meditative practices. There is some raw material. And there’s a practice, an activity.

Contemplation is about something else.

“Contemplation” is a word used to describe a different reality. We could also use the word passio divinorum, “suffering divine things.” (Saint Francis de Sales said that contemplation is “a loving, simple and permanent attentiveness of the mind to divine things.”) We can choose our words. The words don’t matter much. The reality matters more. Words just point to a reality.

The reality that contemplation describes is, as John of the Cross says,

naught else than a secret, peaceful, and loving infusion from God which, if it be permitted, enkindles the soul with the spirit of love. (Dark Night, Bk 1, Ch 9, #2)

Alphonsus says, in the same spirit,

Contemplation is very different from meditation. In meditation, God is sought after by a discursive effort; in contemplation there is no effort of this kind as God has been found and is gazed at.

Contemplation is not a practice. It’s something that happens either consciously or (I think) unconsciously in the higher parts of the soul. It’s a gift from God. It’s an infusion straight from God-is-Love to our soul. It’s a gaze. It’s an infusion. It’s not an effort. It’s a kind of divine peace amid our chaos.

And one of the key recommendations of the saints is to place meditation at the service of contemplation. Saint John of the Cross says it thus:

Therefore directors should not impose meditation on persons in this state [of contemplation], nor should they oblige them to make acts or strive for satisfaction and fervor. Such activity would place an obstacle in the path of the principal agent who, as I say, is God, who secretly and quietly inserts in the soul loving wisdom and knowledge, without specified acts… (Living Flame, St 3, #33)

Saint Francis de Sales says it thus:

If, while saying vocal prayers, your heart feels drawn to mental prayer, do not resist it, but calmly let your mind fall into that channel, without troubling because you have not finished your appointed vocal prayers. The mental prayer you have substituted for them is more acceptable to God, and more profitable to your soul. I should make an exception of the Church’s Offices, if you are bound to say those by your vocation – in such a case these are your duty.

If God calls us to leave aside meditation for some moments or more or less frequently, in order to focus on contemplative love, then the answer is always to be yes.


22 thoughts on “What is the Difference Between Meditation and Contemplation?

  1. This is superb. At last a fine explanation of the difference between meditation and contemplation. It’s very difficult to find such a simple and clear picture. Thank you, it’s a real charism to be able to write this.

    • Truth be told, I’ve just overheard the conversations of the Doctors of the Church (John of the Cross, Francis de Sales, Alphonsus Liguori) and copied notes according to what ears Jesus has given me. I’m nothing better than a well taught but badly behaved eavesdropper. =)

      If you like this post, you may also enjoy the post (provocatively) titled “One Danger of Holy Week”: https://contemplativeinthemud.wordpress.com/2012/04/03/one-danger-of-holy-week/

      (I actually wrote this post on “What is the Difference…” before the post on “One Danger” and, during Holy Week, wrote a related post to suit the situation I was feeling my way through at the time.)

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  4. I was going to put this to your recent post with St. Thomas, but its more in line with this post: Check out reply to objection 2 specifically: http://www.newadvent.org/summa/3180.htm#article6

    “on the part of the soul, ere it arrive at this uniformity, its twofold lack of uniformity needs to be removed. First, that which arises from the variety of external things: this is removed by the soul withdrawing from externals, and so the first thing he mentions regarding the circular movement of the soul is “the soul’s withdrawal into itself from external objects.” Secondly, another lack of uniformity requires to be removed from the soul, and this is owing to the discoursing of reason. This is done by directing all the soul’s operations to the simple contemplation of the intelligible truth, and this is indicated by his saying in the second place that “the soul’s intellectual powers must be uniformly concentrated,” in other words that discoursing must be laid aside and the soul’s gaze fixed on the contemplation of the one simple truth.”

    • Wow, this is a good text! A bit dense for me, but a very good find! Thanks! =)

      I think in easier words (for my benefit), this means that contemplation is “simple” and/or “simplifying”. And it’s “simple” and/or “simplifying” as regards (first) the senses and (second) our own reason (and will, presumably).

      One thing that’s interesting here, for me, is that this corresponds exactly to the two “dark nights” of Saint John of the Cross: the first night of purifying and simplifying the senses, the second night of purifying and simplifying the deeper spiritual roots of the soul (reason, will). We get “simpler” in respect to both part of us. The saints are so often in remarkable agreement about stuff like this! It’s quite amazing for me. =)

      (Do you think I’ve understood the text or read something wrong here? Some days are bad for dense reading!)


      Also… If I recall correctly, I’ve read a helpful comment or commentary by either Jacques Maritain, Charles Journet, or Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange on these distinctions of “circular”, “straight”, and “oblique”. I’ll see if I can find it!

        • From Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, ‘The Three Conversions in the Spiritual Life’, Ch IV:

          “… the division of the three stages of the spiritual life [made by Catherine of Siena and John of the Cross] corresponds perfectly to the three movements of contemplation described by St. Thomas after Dionysius: (1) The soul contemplates the goodness of God in the mirror of material creatures, and rises to Him by recalling the parables which Jesus preached to beginners; (2) The soul contemplates the divine goodness in the mirror of intelligible truths, or the mysteries of salvation, and rises to Him by a spiral movement, from the Nativity of Christ to His Ascension; (3) The soul contemplates sovereign Goodness in itself, in the darkness of faith, circling round again and again, to return always to the same infinite truth, to understand it better and more fully to live by it.

          “It is certain that St. John of the Cross follows this traditional path [also]… but he describes the progress of the soul as it is found in [predominantly cloistered] contemplatives.”


          St. John of the Cross insists at length on the two transitions from one type of spiritual experience (purging and cleaning up the senses, then purging and cleaning up the deeper spiritual roots of the human person). Thus there are three stages (before the “dark night of the senses”, after the “dark night of the spirit”, and a stage in between), though we can, of course, be partly in, partly out, up and down, and all over the three stages! These three stages are just a general idea to give us a map: both our senses and the deeper roots of us need to be cleaned up. That’s the important part. And it affects the way we pray and contemplate.

          I think Father Garrigou-Lagrange is basically saying the same thing that we said before regarding contemplation being “simple” and/or “simplifying”. But he adds that the Dionysius quote is a part of Catholic tradition and followed very closely by the “Mystical Doctor”, too.

          Hope this is of worth! =)

          • Ahh I’ve always wondered if the stages were an exact thing, or if we can have our toes dipped in all over the place lol

            Yes, it is certainly of worth.

          • Yes, Saint Catherine of Siena, for one, explicitly states that we can be all over the place. Though, of course, “more or less” in each “stage” at a given time. And considering that we shouldn’t want to dispense with parts of the Gospel, given any association of some part of the Gospel with some “stage”, that makes sense. =)

            [in reply to circlecitadel]

          • > “I’ve always wondered if the stages were an exact thing, or if we can have our toes dipped in all over the place”

            Also, in his book Memory and Identity, Blessed John Paul II emphasizes the ability to be “all over the place” in the purgative, illuminative, and unitive ways, while still realizing a kind of progress. =)

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