Four Questions 2C-What is Contemplation?

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from the Online Catholic Encyclopedia, 1914

from the article on Contemplation

St. Alphonsus Liguori, echoing his predecessors, defines it thus: "At the end of a certain time ordinary meditation produces what is called acquired contemplation, which consists in seeing at a simple glance the truths which could previously be discovered only through prolonged discourse" (Homo apostolicus, Appendix I, No. 7).

Higher contemplation

To distinguish it from acquired contemplation mystical union is called intuitive, passive, extraordinary, or higher contemplation. St. Teresa designates it simply as contemplation, without any qualification. Mystical graces may be divided into two groups, according to the nature of the object contemplated. The states of the first group are characterized by the fact that it is God, and God only, who manifests Himself; these are called mystical union. In the second group the manifestation is of a created object, as, for example, when one beholds the humanity of Christ or an angel or a future event, etc. These are visions (of created things) and revelations. To these belong miraculous bodily phenomena which are sometimes observed in ecstatics.

Here we have the beginnings of the distinction between acquired contemplation and infused contemplation. You can see that the matter of definitions is not nearly so clear-cut, neat and precise as it might be. However, all of these senses of contemplation are necessary to understand what might be meant by the statement that "everyone is called to contemplation."

To be completely honest, it is my personal belief that a great many more people might achieve both infused contemplation and even mystical Union and spiritual marriage were they inclined to accept the invitation and graces offered toward these ends. Obviously, I cannot know this; however, St. John of the Cross seems also to think it true because many times he addresses those who are "stuck" in a level of prayer and who do not advance because of lack of knowledge about how to effect this advance. But I get ahead of myself. This must all be dealt with in turn, and first we need to complete the definitions. However, this evening or tomorrow I may do a combined treatement of the thrid and fourth questions. The nature of these questions lends itself to such a combined consideration.

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Dear Steven,

It might make sense here to cautiously blur some of the distinctions. There is a very interesting article in the current Review for Religious by Brian V. Johnstone, a Redemptorist priest teaching at the Alfonsiana in Rome, entitled "Keeping a Balance: Contemplation and Christian Meditation."

Fr Johnstone notes that, classically, contemplation has indeed been understood as "pure gift" - without active collaboration. But he also notes that the Benedictine monk John Main, the renowned exponent of Christian Meditation, would write of his own practice of the continuous, quiet repetition of a short prayer, "I am using the term meditation as synonymous with contemplation, contemplative prayer, meditative prayer and so forth." Fr Main, for instance, wrote:

"St Thomas Aquinas says that 'contemplation consists in the simple enjoyment of the truth.' Simple enjoyment! Now it is true that thinking, analyzing, comparing, and contrasting all have their place in the various disciplines, including theology. But contemplation, as St Thomas calls it, meditation as we would call it, is not the time for comparing, or contrasting. Meditation is the time for being. Simple enjoyment. And the simplicity that St Thomas speaks of, its oneness, union."


To make sense of Fr Main's collapsing of the distinction between contemplation and meditation, Fr Johnstone has recourse to St Teresa's idea of "active recollection," in which the disciple prays the Lord's Prayer slowly and "the soul collects its faculties together and enters within itself to be with God." St Alphonsus Liguori calls this "contemplative repose," in which "the soul is focused on some spiritual thought and, absorbed in itself, feels gently attracted to God." The point is that contemplation may take place WITHIN the active form of prayer as the soul feels a passive quieting and is drawn into a greater silence. But St Teresa and St Alphonsus are insistent that the person keep praying during this. Fr Johnstone notes that, in 4th century Egypt, John Cassian also reported that "higher" forms of prayer could emerge through more normal forms of meditation.


When I try to post the rest of what I wanted to say, I get a response that my comment cannot be submitted because of "questionable content" (!). But, I suppose that my point is, if questionable, already clear.


Dear Neil,

Whatever in the world do you suppose that means? I haven't heard that before. I'll ask RC about it and see if he knows. Thanks for reporting it.





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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on April 27, 2004 12:02 PM.

Four Questions 2B--What is Contemplation? was the previous entry in this blog.

Prayer Requests 4/28/04 is the next entry in this blog.

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