Contemplative Prayer and Sacrifice


Greetings! I’m engaged in a mini-debate on a protestant end-times forum. The person I’m debating with had linked to a site that listed all the ways the “emergent church” movement was corrupting Christianity. Among the dangers he listed as coming from the “emergent church” movement were things like contemplative prayer. I disagreed, and used the example of contemplating the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. The other person chided me for choosing that image:

When I think about those things I get emotional & saddened but why not meditate upon the defeat of Satan @ the Cross? Envision the King of Kings and Lord of Lords sitting upon His throne getting ready to kick some petuti & establish His kingdom on earth?

She then linked to the Lighthouse Trails Research Project page on “Contemplative Prayer” and asked if that was what I was thinking about. I have to admit, it was not. I mean, there was some good stuff there from Thomas Merton, but there was also stuff from some Bhuddist writers and some Catholic writers that I believe are now considered suspect. I then saw their definition of Contemplative Spirituality:

Contemplative Spirituality: A belief system that uses ancient mystical practices to induce altered states of consciousness (the silence) and is rooted in mysticism and the occult but often wrapped in Christian terminology. The premise of contemplative spirituality is pantheistic (God is all) and panentheistic (God is in all).

It bothers me that they are listing numerous Catholic mystics as “Christian” mystics (including St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross) and appear to be throwing all contemplative spirituality out with the bathwater. It bothered me even more that I could not come up with a definition for my friend on how I grew up with Contemplative Spirituality from a Catholic viewpoint that shows it’s different from what this LTRP is saying.

Then it struck me: when I first thought about contemplative prayer, I thought about the Crucifix, with the body of a suffering Christ affixed to it. Her response was to “accentuate the positive” (as it were.) Could that be the difference, in that Catholic contemplation nd spirituality as a whole does have an emphasis on suffering?

So my question is this: Does the Catholic emphasis on suffering (or rather, on the loving acceptance of suffering) as an essential part of Catholic spirituality make Catholic contemplative spirituality fundamentally different from what the Protestants see as contemplative spirituality?



I’ve seen the site you linked. IMO, at least, I wonder what fruit can come from debate there. As we see from time to time on even these very forums when there seems to be extreme polarization . . . personal experience with contemplation (or the lack of it) is often the great chasm that can’t be bridged. And in many cases there’s simply no desire to find common ground or accept the concept of truth that lies beyond one’s own personal experience. IMO, hearts must be open before hearts can be changed. :slight_smile: Finally, there’s probably nothing less contemplative than a debate on contemplation . . . if we stopped to think about it. :slight_smile:

And these were issues that our own Doctors knew very well. St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila were often at a loss to explain contemplation in a way that could be understood by those without direct experience. In some ways they considered their “lack of ability” to communicate (in their personal opinion) a great weakness . . . something utterly beyond them. So they left the matter in God’s hands.

But to answer your question, yes, the Catholic viewpoint on contemplation is deeply rooted in suffering. It is a profound entering into the way of the Cross . . . not something that should be desired by the merely curious or faint of heart. While yes, sometimes there are consolations and delights, the entire point of it is purification of one’s selfish clingings to bring the soul into union with God. And in this union “opposites” can’t coexist . . . so something has to give . . . and that means us. :slight_smile: In fact, St. John’s night of spirit is sometimes described as purgatory lived while here on earth. And in the most profound cases, these sufferings become “reparative” - meaning that suffering is no longer a means of one’s own purification but it is embraced for the salvation of souls. Think of St. Therese’s (Little Flower) trial of faith in her last days or the more recent example of Mother Teresa.

Dave :slight_smile:


Dave said it well! :thumbsup:

You’re debating with people who have no clue on what contemplative is and have set up a mental block against it.

Your defense will only leave you frustrated. I know I’ve been there. :rolleyes:

Instead, do more contemplative prayer yourself and grow closer to Christ, who will give you the answers you seek and won’t need to be defended.



Amen to both of you!

It does indeed get frustrating trying to convey something to someone who is determined to condemn something with which they have no personal experience. There just seems to be that mental block that anything we don’t personally understand cannot really exist and therefore must be “wrong” in some way. :frowning:

I usually find a peace in those who have truly “experienced” God rather than just knowing “about” God that can allow that each of us will experience God as God finds us able to at any given time. While those who do have experience will usually attempt to convey that experience, as Jim notes it usually ends up an exercise in frustration, with incredibly devoted and holy people essentially being portrayed as at least near heretics by some who just have not yet been blessed, through no fault of their own, to have experienced such union.

Hopefully at some point the Church will overcome some of its fear that mystics will lead people down some doctrinally faulty road of incorrect personal interpretation. Until then though, I fear that their misgivings will continue to give some the impression that contemplation and mysticism just really aren’t for Catholics.



So my question is this: Does the Catholic emphasis on suffering (or rather, on the loving acceptance of suffering) as an essential part of Catholic spirituality make Catholic contemplative spirituality fundamentally different from what the Protestants see as contemplative spirituality?

It is not love of suffering per se…rather it is love of God’s Will no matter what it may be. Although often I think it can be worded as “love of suffering”. Suffering is an evil; however, God does permit sufferings since out of it He can bring a greater good - which is the Catholic understanding (theology) of suffering and God’s Will. It is not so much at times a wrong understanding as a difficulty putting something into words.
It is easy to love God’s Will when things are going our own way, but one really proves one’s love of God and His Will in embracing the cross. This is a declaration implied to The Lord that one trusts that out of suffering He will bring about a greater good…hence the more intense the suffering or cross, the greater the good The Lord will draw. Undoubtedly the mystical love of God is very very intense, hence the “love of the cross”…this is still, I think, a stirring of the passions in desire and desires. Love of God’s Will in a spirit of detachment and disinterest and spiritual detachment and disinterest and in complete Peace is the mystical way, to my understanding.

But suffering per se is not a good it is an evil.


Well said, Barb.

Suffering is the desert experience. There are different sufferings, different parts of the desert to go through. God took Abraham through the desert, God took Jesus through the desert. If we have the will to follow, God will allow us go through the desert. God ask Abraham for Isaac, God ask Jesus for his very life. God ask us for our whole heart and all. When He ask for our sacrifice, are we ready to give?

Do we still want to see His face? Do we still want to experience the divine? Do we still want to follow?


Following is a wonderful expression of the type of suffering born from the bright light of contemplation. This is drawn from today’s office of readings from the Liturgy of the Hours for the feast of St. Augustine.

The saints refer to this type of suffering as “self-knowledge” . . . the glory and grandeur of God on the one-hand, our own nothingness in relation to Him on the other. This profound understanding of God and self is a principal fruit of contemplation . . . painful and purgative, yet at the same time joyous and burning with love.

[quote=Confessions of St. Augustine]Urged to reflect upon myself, I entered under your guidance the innermost places of my being; but only because you had become my helper was I able to do so. I entered, then, and with the vision of my spirit, such as it was, I saw the incommutable light far above my spiritual ken and transcending my mind: not this common light which every carnal eye can see, nor any light of the same order; but greater, as though this common light were shining much more powerfully, far more brightly, and so extensively as to fill the universe.

The light I saw was not the common light at all, but something different, utterly different, from all those things. Nor was it higher than my mind in the sense that oil floats on water or the sky is above the earth; it was exalted because this very light made me, and I was below it because by it I was made. Anyone who knows truth knows this light.

O eternal Truth, true Love, and beloved Eternity, you are my God, and for you I sigh day and night. As I first began to know you, you lifted me up and showed me that, while that which I might see exists indeed, I was not yet capable of seeing it. Your rays beamed intensely on me, beating back my feeble gaze, and I trembled with love and dread. I knew myself to be far away from you in a region of unlikeness, and I seemed to hear your voice from on high: “I am the food of the mature: grow, then, and you shall eat me. You will not change me into yourself like bodily food; but you will be changed into me”.

Accordingly I looked for a way to gain the strength I needed to enjoy you, but I did not find it until I embraced the mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus, who is also God, supreme over all things and blessed for ever. He called out, proclaiming I am the Way and Truth and the Life, nor had I known him as the food which, though I was not yet strong enough to eat it, he had mingled with our flesh, for the Word became flesh so that your Wisdom, through whom you created all things, might become for us the milk adapted to our infancy.

Late have I loved you, Beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved you!
Lo, you were within,
but I outside, seeking there for you,
and upon the shapely things you have made
I rushed headlong – I, misshapen.
You were with me, but I was not with you.
They held me back far from you,
those things which would have no being,
were they not in you.
You called, shouted, broke through my deafness;
you flared, blazed, banished my blindness;
you lavished your fragrance, I gasped; and now I pant for you;
I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst;
you touched me, and I burned for your peace.

Dave :slight_smile:


Dave, I well understand the type of suffering you are referring to and agree that is one kind of purgative suffering.

However, it is always my concern about the sufferings we all encounter in our lives. I think about if I am able to say to God “whatever you give I want, whatever you want I give.” I know I cannot. If God ask me to give Isaac literally like He asked of Abraham, I would not be able to raise the knife, I will plea for mercy of not asking for such a thing.

Being a contemplative or not, as Jesus’ followers, we are all supposed to want whatever He gives and give whatever He asks. But for a contemplative, the total obedience is probably more important ----- important for reaching the union. Therefore, I know it is very hard for a person like me to reach the summit.

I don’t know if my points were made clear or if they even made any sense.


And I guess I should probably describe just what this light is that St. Augustine talks about. IMO, it’s not something that is “seen” with either the bodily eyes or the inner eye of the soul as in a vision. Rather, it is a gift of understanding given to our intellect . . . something we just come to “know” through His infused gift of contemplation. Thus, seeing means knowing.

To illustrate, imagine for a moment that a window covers the inner recesses of our soul . . . and this window is covered with all sorts of grime, filth and dirt. From time to time the light shines through this window . . . but it is diffuse and lacks clarity. Sometimes we see; but, perhaps most times, we don’t . . . and least not how He sees.

And this is where contemplation comes into play, for contemplation is the “act” of the consumate window cleaner who carefully sprays Windex on the grime covering our window and slowly polishes out a clean spot. Then, one day, after the slow, careful and methodical buffing away of our weaknesses and imperfections the light shines in with all it’s brilliance and clarity and we “see” – meaning “know” – a little more about God and our true selves. A moment earlier we we’re unware of true reality . . . the next a new and deeper understanding is just “there.”

And in this moment we are simultaneously humbled (for we thought we were serving him well) and exaulted (for we recognize that we have been perfected in some small way). This, IMO, is the painful/joyful/loving suffering of self knowledge St. Augustine describes.

But we can take no comfort or satisfaction in this for as soon as the moment of clarity passes, we have some vague notion that the window cleaner is taking up work buffing out a new spot on the window . . .

Dave :slight_smile:


Who is cleaning the window?:ehh: Surely not ourselves. Tim


Hi Inlight -

True :slight_smile: I just wrote what I did to try and convey some sense of suffering in the context of what is given in contemplative prayer . . . what I think the OP was trying to get at. These painful, very interior sufferings lie at the heart of the Dark Nights. This is what I meant earlier about the Catholic understanding of contemplation being rooted in suffering (ie, purgation) . . . because it is the means by which we are transformed.

Saying the same thing in different ways, perhaps?



You’ve got that right!


It’s interesting you used the window analogy. I refer to it as “the veil being made transparent”. Would that be fitting? Tim


Yes, I would think so. And, BTW, the “idea” isn’t mine . . . it’s St. John of the Cross’ :slight_smile: And it just struck me in today’s LOTH how much St. Augustine expresses the same thing.

Dave :slight_smile:


Yes, I think so. I know what you are saying, I just don’t know how to say what I am trying to say.

Here is a quote from Dialog of St. Catherine of Siena:

“And, as soon as the eye feels the grief and suffering of the heart, she begins to weep with a tender and compassionate sorrow, pitying herself with the spiritual compassion of self-love; for her self-will is not yet crushed and destroyed in everything, and in this way she lets fall sensual tears―tears, that is, of spiritual passion. But, growing, and exercising herself in the light of self-knowledge, she conceives displeasure at herself…….”

This self-knowledge she talks about is the same thing of St. John’s analogy of cleaning the window. That pretty much described what I have felt sometimes ago ── the fear that all my love for neighbors and God may be actually self-love. And this fear has something to do with the realization of my lack of total obedience of being able to say “whatever God gives I want, whatever God asks I give.” This realization of mine was through a painful night experience.

So I know exactly what you are talking about, I just don’t know how to say what I want to express. And I am still not sure I have said it. It is kind of frustrating.


You’re saying it perfectly:thumbsup: I loved your example from St. Catherine! Ah, self-love . . . it gets us all. :o As St. John teaches, opposites can’t coexist . . . thus the pain and suffering of self-knowledge.

Dave :slight_smile:

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