Contemplation is for everyone. This is the traditional doctrine of Saint Teresa, Saint John of the Cross, Saint Francis de Sales, among others. In this, they’re following teachings of pseudo-Dionysius, Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas, Saint Catherine of Siena, among others. And it’s not just a doctrine. It’s a matter of the Gospel penetrating our lives.
Why is contemplation for everyone?
Saint Thomas defines contemplation as a simple intellectual view of the truth, above any particular reasoning, drawing of conclusions, or going from point to point, accompanied by admiration (wonder). One of the key notes here is that of admiration or wonder. When Saint Thomas says that contemplation is “intellectual”, he doesn’t mean academic. He just means that the “view” resides in the higher parts of the soul, rather than at a discursive, piece-by-piece level. This is not academic at all. It’s open to everyone. It’s simple in itself.
That’s one way to define contemplation. And that’s a good grasp on the reality. Of course, the choice of word doesn’t matter very much. It’s the reality that matters more. This definition of contemplation could apply in many ways. We could contemplate the sea or a flower, an idea in our discipline, a conception of a work of art as an artist, and so on. Christian contemplation is contemplation that presupposes faith (and hence hope and love) and dwells on the revealed mysteries of faith. It dwells on them by suffering their divinity inside a human person. Christian contemplation is a simple view, distinct from various meditative views, of God. It is, as Saint Thomas says of faith in itself, inchoatio vitae aeterna, an inchoate experience of eternal life, for it is an inchoate experience of the life of God himself (see Jn 3:36; 5:24, 39; 6:40, 47). Now, why wouldn’t everyone be called to this? Everyone is called to eternal life; everyone is called to the Church of Heaven. So why wouldn’t everyone be called to take a road that gets closer and closer to the destination?
Of course, not everyone is called to contemplation right now (see this post, for example); God gives graces only when it is good for us and we are ready. We might not be ready right now. There is a distinction between knowing that the road passes through a forest and knowing that any particular person is at the edge of the forest right now. But, in fact, the road passes through the forest. The development of Christian life, progress in Christian living, passes through contemplation and leads to the quasi-continual unity of contemplation and action, of prayer and activity, in a more simple and more alive love of God. Contemplation is not a separate, extraordinary mystical grace separated from the normal way of sanctity. Not at all. Contemplation normally comes part and parcel with Christian perfection, the journey to it, and the achievement.
A few quotes from other Doctors of the Church should suffice to put this in place. ^^
Saint Teresa remarks (Interior Castle, IV, ch 3) that
all of us… are called to contemplation…
though not enough prepare for it and accept it and know how to receive it without hindering God’s work within us. Or again in the Way of Perfection (ch 20):
His mercy is so great that He hinders no one from drinking of the fountain of life [i.e., contemplative prayer which quickens our life]… Indeed, He calls us loudly and publicly to do so. He is so good that He will not force us to drink of it.
The call is open and public: “taste and see” (Ps 34:8)… but will we accept the invitation in this life or wait for the next? Saint John of the Cross, in the prologue to the Ascent of Mount Carmel, remarks that he proposes
a solid and substantial doctrine which is addressed to all, on condition that they decide to pass through nudity of the spirit.
He then spends the book describing the passage from meditative prayer, to the first stages of contemplation (which may be so dark that the soul is unaware that it is even contemplating our Lord), to the greater stages of union with the Heart of Jesus and the Blessed Trinity dwelling within:
After the first steps on the path of virtue, when the Lord desires to make these souls enter the dark night, to lead them to divine union, there are some who do not go any farther. Sometimes the desire to do so is lacking, or they are not willing to be led into the night; sometimes it is because they don’t know what they ought to do; sometimes they seek in vain a guide who can lead them to the summit. It is truly heartrending to see how many souls… are content with inferior relations with God.
And that’s exactly what he says applies to all who willingly accept the journey and the Cross that it is: the journey towards union in this present life. He intends to draw a map for those who wish to attain such union in love that, though they may, without consciousness or voluntariness, sin venially, may nonetheless be prepared for Heaven and united in will with God: prepared, not waiting for purgatory after death to be washed up. He gives a plan of a “new creation” (2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15), a totally new life which does not merely perform “damage control” on our sins but actually rebuilds the sacred house which is our soul and body in Christ’s most sacred image. And contemplation is in the midst of that plan.
Likewise, Saint Francis de Sales’ great descriptions of contemplative prayer find their place as a rung in the ladder of his great Treatise on the Love of God, giving the unmistakable conclusion that, under normal conditions, all normally should pass by there on the way to purification and the Church of Heaven.
Contemplation, then, is part of, and increasingly part of, Christian perfection, i.e., progress in the spiritual life.
But when we say that contemplation is “part and parcel” with Christian perfection, there are some things we don’t mean.
- We don’t mean that all the extraordinary phenomena like prophecies, visions, miracles, raptures, and ecstasies (“the weakness of ecstasy” as Saint Hildegard called it) are part of the normal way of sanctity. Those are extras. They’re exterior. They don’t cut to the deepest interior of love. They may come from our particular bodily or temperamental weaknesses in handling the influx of grace. They may serve as tangible signs (1 Cor 14:22) for ourselves or others, either in the present or in memory. But they’re not the thing. The thing is transformation in Christ: love in ever-expanding dimensions, for God is infinite Love. And if one is to think Christ’s thoughts, do his will, and be like him, nothing less than a quasi-continual state of prayer will do, and this can only be so if its basis is contemplative, for no other prayer is continually open to receive from heaven.
- We don’t mean that everyone must pursue a contemplative way of life, without an emphasis on action. Far from it, for contemplation gives new life to action and all the virtues.
- We don’t mean that every person’s contemplation will be equally manifest. Perhaps some will see God more in their neighbours and thus, in response, appear to be more active than the one who prays in the cloister and thus works for the Body of Christ in a more withdrawn, but more manifestly contemplative, way. Contemplation can even be more or less manifest to the one undergoing it.
The variety of gifts given by our good God – which is to say, at least in part, the variety of emphases the Lord makes in the distribution of the seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit – mean various manifestations of the central truth of contemplation. But this variety does not take away from the essential link between contemplation and the Christian journey. The variety of saints is great. However, they do all point to the notion that we may, in this present life, “pray continually” (1 Thes 5:17) and “taste and see” (Ps 34:8) our God in a way that is supernatural, truly above the limits of the human person in itself. And it is this interiority that they find in contemplating their God, brightly or darkly, which changes them into the icons which they are. All the saints were changed and matured in contemplation.
Saint Hildegard, Saint Catherine of Siena, Saint Thérèse, and Marcel Văn describe the souls of creation as a variety of flowers, some big, some small, some more colourful, some less, and so on. But all seeds in the garden ought to grow into flowers. The point is never that some ought to get by without growing in beauty and without growing to their own particular maturity. The point is that the manifestation of these interior principles of contemplation varies as the garden of flowers varies. But it is still the same interior principle, the same life, the same Gospel.
The invitation is open. Holiness is asked of all and offered to all. Normally, contemplation is part of this. There is a cost to be counted. There is a path to follow. There is a Cross to embrace. And all of that has contemplation in its midst.
Some related posts:
- Edith Stein Summarizing the Teaching on the Beginning of the Dark Night
- Is Every Christian Called to Contemplation?
- The Necessary Logic of Dark Nights According to Saint Alphonsus
- How Far Along the Spiritual Journey Can Non-Christians Go?
- What is the Difference Between Meditation and Contemplation? (In the Easter Vigil)