Prayer 12b. Early Contemplation

Prayer is always a response to God, for it is God who creates us and holds us in existence; it is God who ‘has poured his love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us’(Romans 5:5). The Spirit we receive is the Spirit that Jesus shares with his Father. Through this gift we are drawn to share Jesus’ own prayer-communion. Up to this point we have been focusing our attention on the kind of prayer which we experience when we welcome the gift of the Spirit but are still controlling our response. We wish now to begin describing the kind of prayer which we experience when we surrender to God’s Spirit of love and find that we no longer have control over a prayer which comes to us as surprise and as gift.

While praying in our accustomed way, we sense that the movement of our prayer is beginning to change direction. Rather than our stretching out towards God, we experiencing ourselves yielding to God as we experience a gentle drawing inward, what Teresa of Avila calls ‘an interior recollection felt in the soul’(Spiritual Testimonies, 59.3).

‘The soul finds itself calmed, enveloped by another in a mantle of recollection. A gentle force holds it in recollection … The Master himself creates a disposition of silent attention and peaceful submission’(Marie-Eugène, I want to see God, page 8-9).

We can long for this prayer and we can prepare for it by practising being silent as well as through the practice of humility and detachment, but there is nothing we can do to bring about this contemplative prayer. It is for this reason that Teresa calls this prayer ‘supernatural’(The Interior Castle IV.1.1). Teresa uses a helpful image. In pre-contemplative prayer we have been drawing water from the well provided by God, and with God’s help we have been carrying the water to the garden of our soul and watering it. With the gift of contemplation we experience an unexpected welling up of water from a spring deep inside the garden itself (see Life 11.7ff; also The Interior Castle IV.2.3-4).

Authors distinguish four kinds of contemplation. There is aesthetic contemplation: the delight we have when we are experience beauty and sense that we are one with it. We may not know it but it is God who is drawing us into communion with himself through the beautiful things he has made. There is intellectual contemplation: the delight we experience through insight. Again we may not realise it but it is God who is drawing us into communion with himself through the apprehension of truth which is a participation in God’s own Truth. There is a special form of intellectual contemplation which we call theological: the delight we experience in accepting the truths of faith and enjoying what they reveal to us of the God whom we are seeking. And, finally, there is supernatural or infused contemplation, the subject of our present reflections. Supernatural contemplation is that special graced delight we experience in God Himself, beyond whatever reflections of God we may find in creation.

In supernatural contemplation, God is experienced, though not as an object. We cannot know God as an object, for we are incapable of comprehending the divine. But we do experience God as subject, for we experience ourselves as being one in a communion of love with the source of our being. Father Marie-Eugène OCD writes:

‘Out of the darkness of the mystery there arises, through the gifts of the Holy Spirit, a confused light, an I-know-not-what, that makes one find peace and sweetness in the mystery, that holds faith there or brings it back, freeing it from the discursive operations of the intellect and causing it to find rest and support in this light beyond all distinct lights.’ (I want to see God, page 463).

In the gift of contemplative prayer, God’s Spirit draws us along the way of perfection. Once again let us listen to Father Marie-Eugène: ‘The good exterior order and supernatural virtue that reason illumines and inspires are not perfection. There must be that love that reduces reason to folly and submits it to the light and rapture of the Holy Spirit. God alone can make his saints. Before coming under His direct action, one has not entered into the way of perfection’(page 324).

John of the Cross is speaking of this contemplation in Stanza 12 (11) of his Spiritual Canticle:

O spring like crystal!
if only, on your silvered-over face,
you would suddenly form the eyes I have desired,
which I bear sketched deep within my heart.

John is aware of the importance of theological contemplation, and so of the silver-plating of dogma. The formulas which express in words the truths revealed by God are not empty; they clothe the substance of divine truth itself which is revealed in them. If we submit humbly to dogma, grace can lead us to penetrate the mystery it expresses. However, it is one thing to delight in the truth of faith. It is another to experience the gaze of the One for whom our hearts long. John comments: ‘Faith gives us God, but covered with the silver of faith. Yet it does not for this reason fail to give Him to us truly. Were someone to give us a gold vase plated with silver, he would not fail to give a gold vase merely because it is silver-plated … The truths of faith are called 'eyes' because of the remarkable presence of the Beloved which the soul experiences. It seems that He is now always looking at it … Over the sketch of faith is drawn, in the will of the lover, the sketch of love. When there is union of love, the image of the beloved is so sketched in the will, and drawn so intimately and vividly, that it is true to say that the beloved lives in the lover, and the lover in the beloved. Love produces such likeness in this transformation of lovers, that one can say each is the other and both are one. This is because, in the union and transformation of love, each gives possession of self to the other, and each leaves and exchanges self for the other. Thus each one lives in the other and is the other, and both are one in the transformation of love. This is the meaning of Saint Paul's affirmation: I live, not I, but Christ lives in me [Galatians 2:20].’

In contemplation our attention is not on any insights which we may receive, important though these can be. Nor should we allow ourselves to be distracted by any accompanying psycho-somatic phenomena that might occur, however impressive these might be. (We will return to the subject of apparitions, words, ecstasy etc in a later reflection). God, who is uniting himself to us in love, wants our whole attention.

In contemplation we are being transformed into love by the all-consuming love which is God. Like a drop of water we are being drawn into the ocean of God’s love and are being absorbed into it. Teresa writes: ‘The important thing is not to think much but to love much’(Interior Castle IV, 1.7). Accompanying this experience of love, there is joy, as well as a sense of belonging, communion, and peace. This is the love for which we are made and for which we long. The communion in love which we experience is experienced as gift. We are quite aware of the fact that the silence, the stillness, the welling up of joy or gratitude or sorrow or pleading, is not something that we are organising. It wells up unexpectedly and our hearts know that it is from God.

Contemplation can come to any person at any time, for God invites everyone to the intimate communion for which we are created. In his The Awakening Heart, Gerald May writes: ‘Contemplation happens to everyone. It happens in moments when we are open and undefended and immediately present’(page 193).

Contemplation comes naturally to children, for they have not yet begun to find and develop their ego. However, we cannot remain children all our life. To become ourselves and to mature as persons we need to discover and develop our ego. We are not extensions of our parents, nor are we to avoid the freedom of being our unique selves by being caught up in and remaining in co-dependent relationships. Central to finding ourselves is discovering who God is for us and how God has chosen to relate to us. This necessarily involves activity of the memory, the imagination and the mind. To discover who we are and to discover the wonders of the divine presence and action in our lives, it is natural and necessary for us to enter into the kinds of prayer that we have been discussing up to this point, in which we ponder the mysteries of our faith, the history of God’s action in the world, and above all the story of Jesus. We will have moments of contemplation, when the divine invades us in ways that are beyond either our control or our comprehension, but for the most part our prayer will be a journey of discovery in which, step by step, we come to know and love God more.

However, as we mature and as we become more committed to prayer, we need to listen to Jesus as he tells us that we will find our selves only when we learn to ‘lose’ ourselves (Matthew 16:25), and that we must become like a little child if we are to enter into the domain of love into which he is inviting us (Matthew 18:3). There comes a time when we are ready to let go the ego that we have developed and to surrender in love to God. It is when we begin to surrender in this way that we begin to experience intermittent moments of contemplation.

In these graced moments everything is experienced as a sacrament of the divine; everything is ‘charged with the grandeur of God’(G.M. Hopkins). In these graced moments we experience a new kind of presence in which we are not alone but are embraced by the One who gives harmony to the music of creation and ‘in whom all things hold together’(Colossians 1:17). Our mind rests in the True that is given, the True that is beyond the truths which we discover through the efforts of reason and logic to which we are committed. Our will rests in the Good that is given, the Good who is beyond any efforts we are making to live a consistently moral life. Our feelings rest in the Beautiful that is given, the Beautiful that is beyond anything that we might appreciate by our own efforts. We can receive these graced moments in the measure that we are willing to let go control and entrust ourselves wholly to God. Whereas before we experienced ourselves seeking and striving, now we experience ourselves welcoming. This communion is offered to everyone who is willing to surrender to love. Teresa of Avila writes:

‘It is certain that God gives himself in this way to those who give up all for him. He shows no partiality. He loves everyone. Nobody has any excuse, no matter how miserable they may be, since God so acts with me in bringing me to this state’(Life 27.12; also Way 19.15).

It is important to remember that we can experience contemplation in the midst of activity as well as in the stillness of prayer, for whenever we are doing God’s will we are open to his gift of Himself in this way. Our focus, however, is on contemplative prayer rather than contemplative action, though we are mindful of the call of Saint Dominic to share with others what we have received in contemplation (‘contemplata tradere’) and of Saint Ignatius of Loyola to be contemplative in all that we do (‘in actione contemplativus’).

If we are willing to remain open to these graced moments when God draws us to himself beyond all our thoughts and feelings, and if we resist the temptation to take control of them or to possess them or to attempt to reproduce them by our own efforts or techniques, God’s longing to be in communion with us is such that transient experiences of recollection tend to deepen so that the soul finds itself wrapped in quiet prayer. In an earlier chapter we spoke of a simple form of pre-contemplative prayer in which we held ourselves quietly in the presence of God: a prayer of simple regard. In some ways the prayer we are describing here is similar. The essential difference is that this experience of contemplative prayer (called by Teresa the ‘Prayer of Quiet’) is one which we can only receive and welcome as a gift. As noted earlier, we can desire it and prepare for it, but we cannot bring it about. Gerald May writes: ‘Any attempt to create a contemplative attitude will lead to frustration or, worse, to self-delusion’(The Awakened Heart, page 194).

When we were in control of our prayer we worked for such quiet, now the quiet wells up from the mysterious depths of the soul. We are drawn into an experience of prayer from within. In pre-contemplative prayer we found ways of quietening down our imagination, memory and mind. Now, surprised by grace, these same faculties ‘are absorbed and are looking as though in wonder at what they see’(Teresa, The Interior Castle IV.2.6). Now, the water that is refreshing the garden of the soul ‘comes from its own source, which is God’(The Interior Castle IV.2.4; see IV.2.3). Thinking of God as being in the centre of the soul radiating out the fire of his love, Teresa states: ‘the warmth and the fragrant perfumes spread through the entire soul’(The Interior Castle IV.2.6). Now, the touch of God leaves us dissatisfied with any other pleasure. Our souls long for the communion experienced in the silence and stillness granted us by God.

Now, our prayer is no longer guided by our previous experience or any efforts of our mind or will. We are conscious of ourselves being moved and inspired. We are conscious of surrendering ourselves in love. God is leading us on the way of love. ‘Contemplative prayer is allowing the Source of love to bring us toward the place which is our home’(May, page 195).

We do not want to give the impression that now all is light and love. We are the recipients of a wonderful grace of communion, but we are not yet in heaven. In contemplative prayer we are in the presence of the sacred mystery which we speak of as ‘God’. We are, therefore, in touch with the One who is at the heart of, and yet beyond, everything. Being transcendent, God cannot be contained or controlled. Being immanent, God opens us up to the real world: our own real world in all its grace and disgrace. Contemplative prayer, therefore, opens us to ‘the joys and hopes’ but also to ‘the griefs and anxieties of the people of our time, especially of those who are poor or afflicted in any way’(Vatican II, The Church in the Modern World, n.1). It opens us ‘to the suffering and brokenness of the world as much as to its joys and beauty’(May, page 193). We should not expect it to be otherwise, for prayer engages us with the ultimately Real.

It is in contemplative prayer that God is transforming our souls so that, like Saint Paul, we will be able to say: ‘I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me’(Galatians 2:20). Our mind is being transformed into the mind of Christ, Our heart is becoming his heart. It is his communion of love which we are being invited to experience. Like a log in a fire this will require a profound purification, with much blackening and hissing till our whole being is transformed into fire by the all-consuming fire of God’s love. Letting go our ego can be painful. Let us look now at some of the difficulties which we can encounter in the early stages of contemplative prayer.