I’ve read all kinds of definitions for contemplative prayer including the Catechism of the Catholic Church. I still don’t know fully understand what contemplative prayer is. This “loving gaze” to God (and his returned gaze), is it the warm feeling you get inside? A feeling of peace? Is it a feeling? Is it meant to be more than just a feeling?
Thank you for the question. Contemplative prayer is not a feeling, emotion or anything all that “sensual” to be honest. It can and usually is associated with feelings of inner peace and joy, although in the highest phases St. John of the Cross states that is more like “nada”, or “nothing”.
This is a special form of prayer which is non-discursive and consists of a “simple” gaze upon God without images, ideas or representations distracting one from the focus.
As Dom Cuthbert Butler explained in 1922, "The preliminary condition for contemplation is that the mind has been through a process of spiritual training, whereby it is able to empty itself of images and sense perceptions".
If we’re going to be technical (and contemplation would be slightly different for every person based upon temperament and the will of God) contemplation is broadly divided up into acquired contemplation and infused contemplation and subdivided again within these broad categories into: (1) vocal prayer, (2) meditation, (3) affective prayer, (4) prayer of simplicity, (5) infused contemplation, (6) prayer of quiet, (7) prayer of union, (8) prayer of conforming union, and (9) prayer of transforming union.
Acquired contemplation begins with “affective prayer” and ends at the “infused” stage (5).
Acquired contemplation is the first “part” of the prayer, which one would naturally enter into following meditation (which in Catholicism refers to discursive prayer). It can be attained through human effort aided by grace. Infused contemplation, is the most perfect and it cannot be attained by human effort, rather only God when He finds us ready (normally through meditation and acquired contemplation). He then divests our reasoning faculties of their ability to function for a period of time and gives us an awareness of His being which reason and intellect could never fathom, and so we come into the “imageless Nudity” of the divine being by our will and love alone. Though we cannot attain it through effort, only those who have first attained acquired contemplation can usually ascend to this pure state of prayer, like the wise virgins who kept their lamps lit in the Gospel parable.
Acquired contemplation was described by Dom Cuthbert Butler:
One sets oneself to pray, say for the regulation half-hour; empties the mind of all images, ideas, concepts this is commonly done without much difficulty; fixes the soul In loving attention on God, without express or distinct idea of Him, beyond the vague incomprehensible idea of His Godhead; makes no particular acts, but a general actuation of love, without sensible devotion or emotional feeling: a sort of blind and dumb act
of the "will or of the soul itself. This lasts a few minutes, then fades away, and either a blank or distractions supervene: when recognized, the will again fixes the mind in loving attention’ for a time. The period of prayer is thus passed in such alternations, a few minutes each, the bouts of loving attention being, in favourable conditions, more prolonged than the bouts of distraction.
An excellent way to open oneself up to contemplative prayer, if one feels called too it, is through Lectio Divina. It is an ancient monastic contemplative practice (which the church encourages laity to utilize as well) leading to the fullness of the mystical life.
The early medieval monk Guigo II describes the various level of prayer involved in Lectio Divina as follows:
“…Reading, meditation, prayer, [and] contemplation: lectio, meditatio, oratio, contemplatio. Reading is careful study of [Sacred] Scripture, with the soul’s [whole] attention: Meditation is the studious action of the mind to investigate hidden truth, led by one’s own reason. Prayer is the heart’s devoted attending to God, so that evil may be removed and good may be obtained. Contemplation is the mind suspended -somehow elevated above itself - in God so that it tastes the joys of everlasting sweetness. Reading accords with exercise of the outward [senses]; meditation accords with interior understanding; prayer accords with desire; contemplation is above all senses…”
***- Guigo II (1140-1193), The Ladder of Monks ***
Bishop Hedley of Newport provides us with a very precise description of contemplation, writing in 1876 in the Dublin Review:
"…1. It dispenses, to a very great extent, with the use of sensible
images or pictures in the mind. Instead of "pictures’, the soul seems
overshadowed by a spreading, silent sense as of something near at
hand, vague in outline, colourless and dim; such a sense as might
fall upon one who watches intently some dark curtain which hides
an awful presence.
- It dispenses with reasoning, or what is called ‘discourse’. In
the state of prayer which is called contemplation, the mind remains
steadfast and fixed in one simple gaze.
- This intuition is accompanied by ardent love. An intuition
by which we gaze upon our last end and only good, not in any
abstract way,’ but as, here and now, our complete joy and perfect
bliss, means an intuition of love.
- Whilst contemplation lasts, the soul does not perceive what
she is doing. She is so engaged with God that she does not turn in
reflection upon herself. She does not need to invent motives; she
has attained, for a time, the object and end of all motive. Hence
the dictum of the desert, that he who was conscious he was praying,
was not yet arrived at perfect prayer. Contemplation is ‘perfect’ prayer,
comparatively with the states that precede it; but in itself it is merely the
first resting-place of a mountain region in which height reaches beyond
height until human thought refuses to follow…"
- Bishop Hedley of Newport, Dublin Review, 1876
Are you any the wiser Augustine3?
As for me, I am still all at sea
I gave up long time trying to understand what this type of prayer is and just decided to call it
" Mentally Concentrating on God" :o
Picture it like this friend
A fixed focus on God alone without any distractions and through love, rather than actively thinking about Him because human thought has a limit, whereas love is the gateway into the mysteries. All the rest is commentary and elaboration on this basic concept.
“…We must remember here that John has distinguished three kinds of union with God. By means of the first God dwells substantially in all created things and sustains their existence. By the second, we are to understand the indwelling of God in the soul through grace; by the third, the transforming union through perfect love that divinizes the soul…”
***Saint Edith Stein (1891-1942), The Science of the Cross ***
What peace a rudderless ship to infinite shores.
Thrice the rolling thunder billows, the silence broken.
Deep calling to deep, Love summons! Come!
Trying to absorb all this…
Before the word is spoken, where the word is begotten, effort aside.
Beyond the secret garden, beyond the arid desert, Love summons! Come!
Simply said, contemplative prayer is about hearing God. That is how it works for me. Depending on what God ‘says’ to me, my reaction can be one of gratitude, thanksgiving, joy or even remorse but always ended up grateful.
Contemplative prayer for me is just being in the presence of God, who dwells within me.
St Teresa says, that God communicates best in the depth of our being.
For myself, it is in the depth of my being that He feeds me in ways that words can not express, yet there is no doubt on what His message is, and that message is love.
Thank you very much everybody for your answers and especially to Vouthon for such an informative and detailed answer!
@ odhiambo – did I learn something here? Yes but not fully. I have I become wiser? It wasn’t until the Holy Spirit gave me a taste of a contemplative prayerful experience this morning. I watched yesterday this video about a Eucharistic miracle. After watching it I felt ashamed for having trivial doubts here and there about the presence of Jesus. I received the Eucharist this morning at mass and thought about the miracle articulated in the video. I was filled with emotions! There were tears in my eyes. I usually pray vocally after receiving the Eucharist, but this time I had nothing to say. I was so moved that I just wanted to be still and perpetuate and enjoy the moment. I really did feel Jesus’ flesh joined to my flesh and his blood running through my veins. It was amazing!
Modern Catholic Dictionary:
CONTEMPLATIVE PRAYER. In general, that form of mental prayer in which the affective sentiments of the will predominate, as distinct from discursive reflections of the mind. Or again, it is that prayer which looks at God by contemplating and adoring his attributes more than by asking him for favors or thanking him for graces received.
I thank God for your experience.
I too had a special Mass today. I have in the course of this week been reading a small book, " The Mass Explained" by Cormac Burke. I realised I had not been attending Mass in a prepared state of mind. Today I went to Mass with faith of joining Jesus “as He sacrifices Himself”. Like you, I too, shed a few tears. It was at the Consecration and only realised the fact a bit later as I noticed the book I had been holding had some tear drops and my face was wet.
I am glad you now know what it is to contemplate God. “seek and you will find”
I also had a special mass and communion. Maybe there is someone going around?
JOHN OF RUYSBROECK
WHEN we have thus become seeing, we can behold in joy the eternal coming of our Bridegroom; and that is the second point of which we would speak. What is this coming of our Bridegroom which is eternal?
It is the new birth and a new enlightenment without interruption; for the ground from which the Light shines forth, and which is the Light itself, is life-giving and fruitful, and therefore the manifestation of the Eternal Light is renewed without ceasing in the hiddenness of the spirit. Behold, every creaturely work, and every exercise of virtue, must here cease; for here God works alone in the high nobility of the spirit. And here there is nothing but an eternal seeing and staring at that Light, by that Light, and in that Light. And the coming of the Bridegroom is so swift that He is perpetually coming, and yet dwelling within with unfathomable riches; and ever coming anew, in His Person, without interruption, with such new brightness that it seems as though he had never come before. For His coming consists, beyond time, in an eternal NOW, which is ever received with new longings and new joy. Behold, the delight and the joy which this Bridegroom brings with Him in His coming are boundless and without measure, for they are Himself. And this is why the eyes with which the spirit sees and gazes at its Bridegroom, have opened so wide
that they can never close again. For the spirit continues for ever to see and to stare at the secret manifestation of God.
His light is better than life!
Much can be said about Contemplation …and “contemplative prayer”. The CCC is yes a good place to start.
Can Contemplative Prayer be said to be a looking and loving? Yes.
It can be noted that there is acquired contemplation…and infused contemplation.
And to confuse things (unintentionally) there are *various authors and various schools *who use term “contemplation” differently…in their writings (over the centuries)
(and I am meaning here even only those who writers and schools that do not depart from faithfulness to the Church or who are not Christians to begin with -the term gets used in various ways among them as well).
Though a basic outline that I use to explain things is that it can be said that there is acquired contemplation --which can be on a philosophical level (read Josef Pieper on “natural contempation”) or on the theological level …and there can be even the ordinary kind like that of a mother “contemplating” her sleeping child or our contemplating nature. These are a true contemplation.
And there can be “acquired contemplation” in the sense of a kind of contemplation in prayer where things become more of a intuitive gaze (to look and love) etc (such as prayer of simplicity). (within which too God might begin to give infused contemplation as well).
And then there is “infused contemplation”…infused by God. Which also involves looking and loving.
But as I noted --there is various different orthodox uses of the terms over the centuries and various schools…
For me Contemplation is just being in the presense of God within my soul. When I first stared I used a mantra like Jesus, love ect… to calm thre mind from distractions and to quiet the mind which is never really quiet. Over time, as my mind gradually accepted that I was not thinking every thought was important, my mind did get quiet for a few seconds at a time. I also used a Icon to glaze on but as time went by I hardly do that and now just sit quietly without thinking much and just loving much. Hope that helps. I will say that there are many different ways of thinking as to contemplative prayer, each has its own merits.
Not really surprising considering we are all members of the same Body.
CP is to be in the immediate presence of God, to know Him directly, intuitively. While we can seek it, this experience cannot be appropriated by us-its totally a gift from Him, not something we’re naturally capable of attaining. The immediate affect is a sense of absolute peace, well-being, elation, enthrallment: it’s to know love, to be engulfed in it, infinitely huge, unconditional love and acceptance on an ineffable scale. No one can convey this prayer, this knowledge, to another: it’s to see what no eye has seen, to know what no mind can imagine, referring to 1 Cor 2:9.
And as unfathomably superior as one intuits this Being to be, the experience brings with it an almost strange sense of familiarity, as in being with family, as if one is completely, totally home in a sense and to a depth we never before imagined was even possible. It’s to be in a place we’ve never been and yet to never be more at home, to never really know we were lost until now we’ve finally been found.
True, the gift of contemplation is from God. However, to receive it, we have to be open to it.
Also, there is acquired contemplation which we can receive through “quiet prayer.”
Either way, if you don’t pray, don’t expect the grow in your spiritual journey.