The Contemplative Life--A Definitional Prologue

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I'd like to start my discussion of contemplation by explaining, if not precisely defining what I mean by "a contemplative" or "contemplative life" because it may be quite different than other understandings of the same formulations used by others. By the rule of my order all Carmelites are called to a contemplative life. The Carmelite vocation is a contemplative vocation for all of the members of its family. This may seem unusual because you may think of a contemplative as a vowed religious--and these are certainly contained within the Carmelite family. But the family also embraces those who are not vowed. And even those not vowed are called to the contemplative vocation. A contemplative is one whose prayer life is centered around or focused toward contemplation of God , ultimately with the goal of Union with God. Now this may be expressed differently, and perhaps the Union with God part of this vocation is unique to Carmelites. (Although I tend to think not. It would seem to me that while the terminology might be different, it would not be out of order to think that St. Catherine of Siena--a Third Order Dominican--and thus technically not a vowed religious--achieved this state even if it were expressed in other terminology.) Thus a contemplative is any person who is drawn to contemplate God and who acts upon that impulse, which issues from God Himself.

Now, it is my belief that we are all called to be contemplatives according to the definition I have just offered. But even that needs explanation. What I mean when I say "called to be contemplatives" is that God issues the invitation as a blanket invitation to everyone. Everyone is invited to the party. Amongst all those invitees are groups that God has not only invited, but in a very special way, He has urged them to come to the party. These include the vowed religious contemplatives and the lay contemplatives of orders that have such. These are special invitations or vocations. Not everyone has a contemplative vocation. However, everyone does have an invitation from God to come closer, to spend some time in the throne-room, to--as St. Thérèse so marvelously put it--spend some time on Papa's knee. I think that everyone who answers this call, through grace and the Holy Spirit, can achieve the state of Union with God. For example, I think several Protestant Mystics--George Fox and William Law, among them, achieved the state we might refer to as Union with God. I could be incorrect, but their writings suggest an intimate knowledge of the things of God that comes from one who has achieved such union. Thus I would say, all are called or invited to contemplation, some few are specially urged toward it, but the graces are there for all. We know that we needn't belong to a special order or special way of prayer to achieve contemplation or union because it seems from St. Paul's writing that he was in this state. At the time of St. Paul there were no religious orders as such (at least in infant Christianity.)

So, I hope I have established that (1) there is a universal call to contemplation; (2) there is a separate, clearly definied vocational call to a contemplative life. Anyone who answers (1) could, through grace and the Holy Spirit, lead a contemplative life and achieve union with God, even though they do not belong to any particular order.

Let's stop here for the moment and see if there are any strong objections to or any questions about what I have stated thus far. I shouldn't think that there would be because all of this is pretty straight forward; however, I think it useful to let you know what I have in mind when I use language in a certain way. Because I tend more to metaphorical language, it would be easy to interpret "all are called to contemplation" to be the equivalent of "all are called to a lay relgious vocation." I hope that I have clarified precisely what I do mean by that statement.

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All good so far.

Your definition of "contemplation" might be helpful at this point.

So far clear, but not yet convincing. Keep going.

I follow you, and agree with what you have written so far. I wish that you would also explain what is meant by "union with God" as the goal of a contemplative life. Union, in what sense? Thanks.

It's not clear to me if contemplative life is a vocation, or if it is an aspect of a vocation. Are you saying contemplative life can be a vocation in itself?

By the way - it's nice to know you are back :)

Dear Rob,

Let me think about whether at this stage that is possible or not. The great Carmelite Saints wrote hundreds of pages to talk about exactly what this meant and there is a very succinct defintion I could trot out, but I suspect that it would raise far more questions that it would answer. But perhaps I will bring it out for a walkabout tomorrow.



Dear Steve,

My answer to this will be one of my next posts. It's a great question and worthy of airing to the broader community rather than confining it to the comments box.



Is the idea of a "vocational call" related to the concept of 'charism'?

Would you like to talk about the universal call to holiness as something more fundamental?

Dear Steven,

Thank you for another moving post. Your mention of Protestant mystics makes me wonder whether an ecumenical approach might actually help clear up some rather common confusions about the definition of contemplation by giving us more images and vocabulary. Here are, for instance, a few very insightful quotations from Calvinist authors:

"Contemplation is a prayer in which our entire being is taken hold of by wonder at Godís love."
-- Brother Roger of Taize, meditation, 1 Jan 2004

"The spiritual intense fixation of the mind, by contemplation on God in Christ, until the soul be as it were swallowed up in admiration and delight, and being brought unto an utter loss, through the infiniteness of those excellencies which it doth admire and adore, it returns again into its own abasements, out of a sense of its infinite distance from what it would absolutely and eternally embrace, and, withal, the inexpressible rest and satisfaction which the will and affections receive in their approaches to the eternal Fountain of goodness, are things to be aimed at in prayer, and which, through the riches of divine condescension, are frequently enjoyed. The soul is hereby raised and ravished, not into ecstasies or unaccountable raptures, not acted into motions above the power of its own understanding and will; but in all the faculties and affections of it, through the effectual workings of the Spirit of grace and the lively impressions of divine love, with intimations of the relations and kindness of God, is filled with rest, in 'joy unspeakable and full of glory.'"
-- John Owen, "The Work of the Holy Spirit in Prayer"

"God's excellency, his wisdom, his purity and love, seemed to appear in everything; in the sun, moon and stars; in the clouds, and blue sky; in the grass, flowers, trees; in the water, and all nature; which used greatly to fix my mind. I often used to sit and view the moon, for a long time; and so in the day time spent much time in viewing the clouds and sky, to behold the sweet glory of God in these things: in the mean time, singing forth with a low voice, my contemplations of the Creator and Redeemer. And scarce any thing, among all the works of nature, was so sweet to me as thunder and lightning. Formerly, nothing had been so terrible to me ... But now, on the contrary it rejoiced me. I felt God at the first appearance of a thunderstorm. And used to take the opportunity at such times to fix myself to view the clouds, and see the lightning's play, and hear the majestic and awful voice of God's thunder: which often times was exceeding entertaining, leading me to sweet contemplations of my great and glorious God."
-- Jonathan Edwards, "Personal Narrative"

Would these be pretty close to your definition?


Dear Neil,

As usual excellent quotations. I had in mind several from Edwards of a similar sort, a few from Wesley, some from Watson, and you beat me to the punch on Owens. Law and Andrewes as well. But thank you for contributing such nice pieces--they say it far better than I shall be able to express.





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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on April 22, 2004 7:37 AM.

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