Carmelite Contemplative Prayer


I would like to see if someone can provide me with a purely and historically rooted defnition of contemplative prayer in the carmelite tradition. Please remember that Centering Prayer discussions are banned - I am not looking for modern distortions of contemplation, but one that is historically rooted and specifically carmelite.



This web site has lots of stuff;

Also, St. John’s Spiritual Canticle, is the essence of Contemplation.



One of my favorite quotes from “The Cloud of Unknowing” is: “Contemplatives rarely pray with words. When they do it’s with few.” And I think that’s one place where a lot of people get hung-up on the whole CP thing.

Following up on Jim’s links about St. John of the Cross I would add these brief comments regarding “words” in prayer:

  1. The theme of Book 2 of “The Ascent of Mount Carmel” has to do with the active night of spirit . . . detaching ourselves from the spiritual things/ideas etc we cling to. A big part of this has to do with our thoughts, opinions, ideas, expectations and so on . . . all those mental images and inner dialogues that tend to run on auto-pilot in the back of our minds. When these thoughts are not directed toward love of God or neighbor (in the guise of the duties of the present moment) they have the potential to hinder our union with God. This leads me to another favorite quote: “Thoughts spoil everything” (Brother Lawrence-Carmelite lay brother).

  2. The means to combat these thoughts and turn off the inner dialogue goes by many different names: Prayer of Simplicity, Prayer of the Heart, aspirations or arrow prayers just to name a few. This is one of the key ways we can practice self-denial in a spirtual way rather than the mortification of sense that is the theme of Book 1 of “The Ascent.”

These are very brief prayers containing just a few words that we return to many times throughout the day when we notice our thoughts have strayed . . . especially if we are mentally clinging to something. For example, a passage from today’s morning prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours particularily caught my attention: “The God of my joy.” This is my on-going prayer for today - intermixed with whatever more spontaneous aspirations that flow from this. Tommorow who knows where the Spirit will lead my prayer.

  1. As prayer tends toward the passive, it gets even more wordless . . . until it becomes imageless, formless and containing no particular thoughts at all. We simply rest in His presence. At such times wordy prayers work against where the Spirit is leading. Paraphrasing St. Teresa’s teaching on the Prayer of Quiet, “we should use no more than a single word at such times like gently puffing on a candle to keep it lit.”

Dave :slight_smile:


DBT - Your thoughts here are very helpful. Where does your quote from St. Teresa come from “we should use no more than a single word at such times like gently puffing on a candle to keep it lit.”? (I would be grateful for a book, page reference if you have it handy) Again, keeping in the historic tradition, how do you avoid floating into current error of emptying the mind which is different than being absorbed in God, or moving into non-Christian prayer traditions?


Good questions, Life. St. Teresa is insistant on the centrality of the Sacred Humanity of Christ. So meditation - which may or may not lead to contemplation - should focus on that Mystery of the God-Man, gently considering an event of His Life (and when distracted likewise gently return to the point of our meditation). Thus, Christ is the Foundation on which our prayer is built; it is not built on a nameless longing for spiritual fulfillment.

If you haven’t already discovered it, Fire Within, by Fr. Thomas Dubay is an excellent presentation on the writings of St. Teresa and St. John and their insights on the life of prayer.


I’ll check tonight when I get home. It’s either in her discussion of the 4th dwelling in “Interior Castle” or around the 28th chapter or so of “The Way of Perfection.” Please note, however, we’re talking about infused prayer, specifically the Prayer of Quiet.

Just my own personal opinion, but I find “single word” prayer to be difficult until the heart and mind is sufficiently recollected . . . relatively free from the mental distractions that plague us all. And that is where aspirations in the manner previously addressed are so helpful . . . they constantly bring our hearts and minds back to God. The active feeds the passive which, in turn, re-inforces the active. It’s a continual process.

Another name for all of this - not to get things bogged down in terminology - is active recollection or acquired contemplation. If you’re looking for Carmelite sources that are a good “how-to” guide for living the things St. John talks about in “The Ascent” I always recommend “The Practice of the Presence of God” by Brother Lawrence.

Dave :slight_smile:



Again, keeping in the historic tradition, how do you avoid floating into current error of emptying the mind which is different than being absorbed in God, or moving into non-Christian prayer traditions?

Emptying of the mind merely means, detaching from the thoughts that draw us away from our intention, i.e. being in the presence of

Contemplative prayer, is not a technique, but a turning of the heart toward God, who dwells within.

The soul who reaches the stage in their spiritual life, where contemplation is desired, has gone through the “Dark Night of Sense,” in that, they are detached from the experiences and pleasures, that other forms of prayer may have given them. They no longer have the spiritual highs that they experienced in say Charismatic Prayer meetings, or at Mass, when a certain favorite hymn is sung. These things no longer give them pleasure. Instead, the soul seeks union with God alone, nothing more.

St. John’s “Spiritual Canticle,” explains it best.

Where have you hidden,
Beloved, and left me moaning?
You fled like the stag
after wounding me;
I went out calling you, but you were gone.

The Beloved is Christ, who touched the soul with His love. This love is like a wound that is pleasing, so the soul went out searching for Him, but he was gone(or so the soul feels). This is the beginning, when the soul first encounters Christ. The taste of His love is sweet and causes a hunger, which the soul seeks to satisfy, and the Lord gives some satisfaction, according to the ability of the soul to eat. They find pleasure in Scripture, spiritual reading and listening to fine preachers. But eventually, they are filled as far as those things can fill, and the soul desires more of the Lord.

Shepherds, you who go
up through the sheepfolds to the hill,
if by chance you see
him I love most,
tell him I am sick, I suffer, and I die.

Seeking my Love
I will head for the mountains and for watersides,
I will not gather flowers,
nor fear wild beasts;
I will go beyond strong men and frontiers.

Here the soul now looks for the Lord, but instead feels the dryness in prayer, which is called the “Dark Night of Sense.” The soul is seeking the Lord, but receives no comfort. The soul prays to the Saints, to help bring him to the Lord.

I won’t go further, you can read the poem and St. John’s commentary, which explains it in detail.

The final part, is union with God. God who dwells within, not God who is out in the woods and fields of experiences outside of union with Him, which is infused contemplation.



You folks are fantastic. I am deeply encouraged to see your truly orthodox views of contemplation. They are also enriching to me personally. I appreciate your emphasis - moving away from any “technique” (modern distortions) and to understanding what “infused” really means.

One Question. Does historic carmelite teaching include “acquired” contemplation? Because I believe this assumes some action on our part, I was under the assumption that it would fall outside of the tradition. However, that said, I don’t have an issue with it - just taking advantage of the obvious depth of your understanding.


Here’s the quote . . .

[quote=St. Teresa, Way of Perfection, Ch 31]It is good to find more solitude so as to make room for the Lord and allow His Majesty to work as though with something belonging to Him. At most, a gentle word from time to time is sufficient, as in the case of one who blows on a candle to enkindle it again when it begins to die out. But if the candle is burning, blowing on it will in my opinion serve no other purpose that to put it out. I say that the blowing should be gentle lest the will be distracted by the intellect busying itself with many words

Again, she’s speaking of when active prayer is giving way to passive prayer (infused contemplation in the form of the Prayer of Quiet). At such times we should let go of our meditation or whatever active ways we were practicing (rosary etc) to simply rest in His presence. Otherwise, we stiffle the action of the Holy Spirit.

Contemplative prayer states in the manner of St. Teresa generally means progressively fewer words . . . until there are none at all. The Prayer of Recollection leads to the Prayer of Quiet and, untimately God willing, the Prayer of Union in which all the spiritual faculties of the soul (intellect, will, memory) are at least momentarily absorbed/suspended by God.

Dave :slight_smile:


Acquired contemplation is a modern term not used (I think?) by the Carmelite masters but certainly known by them. Think of it as “praying without ceasing” . . . the constant turning of our hearts and minds to God just as scripture teaches. So in that sense we are always active. Infused contemplation, on the other hand, is purely His gift in which we do little or nothing . . . hence the term “passive.”



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