Baloney (“Acquired Contemplation”)

This is a slightly technical post, but several times I get to call the thoughts of some people baloney, so you may be interested nonetheless.

Sometime around 1620, according to the reports that I know of (but I could have bad information), the word “acquired contemplation” was invented. Now, of course, contemplation can have a variety of meanings. We can have a view, resting above any particular reasonings and lived through admiration or wonder, of many things: a symphony, a landscape, a concept in our profession, a philosophical principle or conclusion, a theological truth argued rigorously… or just the truths of faith in themselves. These are just questions of words. We can call lots of activities contemplation.

But around 1620, the word “acquired contemplation” was invented by a Carmelite named Thomas of Jesus. This new word “acquired contemplation” rapidly took on a variety of meanings. In general, a contrast was made. “Acquired contemplation” meant a contemplation that has for object the truths of faith, looked at with admiration and simply, but which derives from our own forces and does not have as its governing mode the inspiration of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit; the ability to summon this contemplative view is “acquired” after much labour in meditating. In other words, this “acquired contemplation” is contrasted to “infused contemplation”, which is a contemplation given and governed directly by the Holy Spirit (in a manifest, no longer latent, operation of his Gifts). An “acquired contemplation” is within our power, for it is not dominated and governed by a manifest regime of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit; on the other hand, an “infused contemplation” is totally out of our control to bring to mind (though we can do things that help prepare), to call down, or to do. One is “acquired” and resides within us, in some way. The other, though touching the centre of our heart incredibly deeply, is beyond our power and is passive on our part, for it belongs to a regime wherein not only the substance of what is considered or endured is supernatural, but also the way or mode (the Gifts of the Holy Spirit dominating).

On the supposition that an “acquired contemplation” exists, it has often been, in a schematic of the spiritual life, placed after meditative prayer and before infused-contemplative prayer. Thus, we would have an intermediate step between prayer where our activity dominates and prayer where God’s activity dominates: that intermediate step being “acquired contemplation”, a passivity we can summon and, I guess, in some sense dominate by mode, if not by substance.

Another, more ridiculous use of the word “acquired contemplation” is that it is normal or ordinary in Christian life and that “infused contemplation” is not normal and is extraordinary.

The trouble with either use of the word is that the “difference” appeared around 1620 (notwithstanding the statements of even saints like Edith Stein claiming that John of the Cross, who was definitely in heaven by that time, “had certainly heard of the term ‘acquired contemplation’ even if he didn’t use it himself”: God only knows where my beloved Teresa Benedicta got that idea, when we cannot trace the term “acquired contemplation” to John’s own century!). The word is not used by Augustine, pseudo-Dionysius, Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas, Teresa, and John of the Cross before 1620, nor is it used by Francis de Sales after 1620. The idea or “distinction” isn’t used by them, either. Neither the word nor the notion. They spend pages and chapters and books clarifying the meaning of meditation as prayer in which reason, which we control, passes from consideration to consideration; contemplation as being a passivity (on our part) in which we become active by a mode altogether of the Holy Spirit’s doing; and that something happens to transition between the two types of prayer. So why in the world would an “acquired contemplation” exist? Or, if it does exist, why would anyone think it’s part of the normal development of grace in the life of Christians, that it’s a normal part of the spiritual journey? These teachers didn’t bother with it. So why would it be very important? Do we really want to suggest that all of them were wrong?

Long before I had any theological grounding in these subjects and long before I had read half the authors tagged in this post, I heard about “acquired contemplation” for the first time. I thought it had to be baloney. What kind of strong meat is this that purports to leave me hanging after meditation, before God condescends to clean me up in contemplation and help me on the way to union with him? No strong meat at all! It’s just baloney. What kind of God is this “acquired contemplation” describing? Does he not love me enough to clean me up as soon as I’m ready? And what is the link between “acquired contemplation” and the living tradition and the great teachers of the Catholic Church? None; no link. The word was invented in 1620, and those declared Doctors after this date declined to use the word or concept altogether.

When the Doctors say contemplation they mean what these other people mean by “infused contemplation” (so do I). They don’t bother with an “acquired contemplation” (neither do I). For their own terminology, all contemplation in Christian prayer is either infused directly by God or it comes not at all.

Of course, it is abundantly true that there are ways in which I could “contemplate” a theological experience or truth on my own, just as I could “contemplate” a symphony or a landscape. If we want to call this an “acquired contemplation”, that’s a matter of words. But this all has nothing to do with progress in the spiritual life, per se. It’s extraneous (dependent but extraneous). There is no normal step between meditation and “infused” contemplation, for example. Any effort to add another step is unfaithful to the Doctors, especially Teresa, John of the Cross, and Francis de Sales, with their detailed descriptions of stages of prayer. It is either unfaithful in the choice of words or the choice of meaning.

One could be unfaithful in a choice of words if one calls certain meditative practices “acquired contemplation”. And that’s fine. But it’s a bit weird. I, for one, don’t think the vocabularies of the Doctors need this particular improvement. If such an “acquired contemplation” exists, it is not the way all Christians will be able to pray, and it describes only a subset of meditative practices, i.e., practices where the faculties are put to use (here, at least the will is forced to suppress other faculties). If such an experience exists, it exists for some souls because of their particular temperament, mental constitution, strength, past experiences, or other contingent factors. It’s not a normal or normative thing. No need to concern ourselves overly with it. The word “meditation” could do just fine. Adopting the term “contemplation” for these practices could also lead to abuses and confusions in which we try to force contemplative prayer and the suppression of faculties before God gives it. (Saint Teresa, especially, warns at length against this.) Better to avoid the problem!

On the other hand, one is unfaithful in meaning if one claims that there is, in the spiritual life, normally an “acquired contemplation” which is absolutely not meditation nor infused immediately by God: either an “acquired contemplation” alternative to (infused) contemplation or an “acquired contemplation” intermediary between meditation and (infused) contemplation. Such a choice would be manifestly unfaithful to Teresa, John, and Francis, those great teachers of union with God in love. For them, there is no prayer that isn’t tending towards infused contemplation, nor is there a step in-between meditation or (infused) contemplation. One meditates or one contemplates; there is no intermediary step or stage, for one word describes activity where the mode or way of putting the prayer into action comes from us and the other describes a mode (Gifts of the Holy Spirit dominating) which does not. In the final analysis, one can’t answer a yes/no question with maybe. And the goal is contemplative prayer, increasingly intimate and continuous; so there’s no ultimate alternative either!

One can eat one’s “acquired contemplation” if one wants. But it remains baloney. It’s not part of the full meal in Christ. The full meal is meditation to infused, out-of-our-control, Gift-dominated contemplative prayer… and beyond. No baloney necessary.

Some related posts:


3 thoughts on “Baloney (“Acquired Contemplation”)

  1. Pingback: “Contemplative in the Mud” | SOUL FOOD MINISTRIES

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