I need a clear definition of contemplation

I’ve read what the Catechism says, and I’ve read things from St. Teresa, and I have Googled the subject endlessly, but I can’t seem to find a clear definition of contemplation.

From what I understand, vocal prayer is formulaic prayer, like saying a Hail Mary. Mental prayer is more carrying on an informal conversation with God. Contemplation is still something I don’t understand, though.

Anyone have a clear definition for me? Thanks in advance.


Some relevant excerpts:

Contemplation. — The idea of contemplation is so intimately connected with that of mystical theology that the one cannot be clearly explained independently of the other . . .” [which would explain your difficulty]

"First of all, a word as to ordinary prayer, which comprises these four degrees: first, vocal prayer; second, meditation, also called methodical prayer, or prayer of reflection, in which may be included meditative reading; third, affective prayer; fourth, prayer of simplicity, or of simple gaze. Only the last two degrees (also called prayers of the heart) will be considered, as they border on the mystical states. Mental prayer in which the affective acts are numerous, and which consists much more largely of them than of reflections and reasoning, is called affective. Prayer of simplicity is mental prayer in which, first, reasoning is largely replaced by intuition; second, affections and resolutions, though not absent, are only slightly varied and expressed in a few words. To say that the multiplicity of acts has entirely disappeared would be a harmful exaggeration, for they are only notably diminished. In both of these states, but especially in the second, there is one dominant thought or sentiment which recurs constantly and easily (although with little or no development) amid many other thoughts, beneficial or otherwise. This main thought is not continuous but keeps returning frequently and spontaneously. A like fact may be observed in the natural order. The mother who watches over the cradle of her child thinks lovingly of him and does so without reflection and amid interruptions. These prayers differ from meditation only as greater from lesser and are applied to the same subjects. Nevertheless the prayer of simplicity often has a tendency to simplify itself, even in respect to its object. It leads one to think chiefly of God and of His presence, but in a confused manner. This particular state, which is nearer than others to the mystical states, is called the prayer of amorous attention to God. Those who bring the charge of idleness against these different states always have an exaggerated idea of them. The prayer of simplicity is not to meditation what inaction is to action, though it might appear to be at times, but what uniformity is to variety and intuition to reasoning. "

Thanks for the link. :slight_smile: but I’m still unclear. :shrug: When the author used the example of the mother gazing lovingly at her child in the crib, I thought I understood it. But if that’s what contemplation is, then I wonder why there are volumes written on it and exercises recommended to leave oneself open to it. It seems to me like it’s a natural thing that probably almost everyone experiences, just like almost every mother experiences gazing lovingly at her child in the crib.:hmmm:

Here’s a definition from Fr. Thomas Dubay:

“. . .contemplation is a divinely originated, general, nonconceptual, loving awareness of God. At times this is a delightful, loving attention, at times a dry, purifying desire, at other times a strong thirsting for Him. In the beginnings it is usually delicate and brief, but as it develops it becomes burning, powerful, absorbing, prolonged. Always it is transformative of the person.”

-From Fire Within: St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, and the Gospel On Prayer, p. 70

You can read much of Fire Within on google books. Click the link to go directly to the Chapter five: “What is Contemplation?

You are getting there. I have been studying prayer, specifically contemplation for about a year and a half now and you have come to the same conclusion as I. The main thing to take to heart is, it is so spiritually personal, that to each it will be described differently, hence the published volumes. It is something that one wishes to share with everyone, yet only has human words to describe it, therefore falls drastically short.

Cease “studying” it as something that is tangible, accept that it must be “sensed” spiritually. It is more than just wonderment and awe. Which is that connection between a Mother and Child. This is connection of heart and soul with the One who refers to himself as “I AM WHO AM”.

Many Saints never experienced it. Those that have been blessed with it, experienced serious withdrawals (dark night of the soul, if you will), for once experienced the soul is constantly searching for that connection and is extremely unhappy until it is united once again with its Creator.

Once you have experienced it, you will do anything to get there again!

I hope that my summation of what I have put together out of all the volumes that I have read helps just a little. Just keep praying.

As for a definition, the prior posts cannot be improved upon.

Since the idea of a mother gazing at her sleeping child speaks to you - go with that! Some people don’t understand that, but since you do, wonderful!:thumbsup: It’s love, even yearning for Him. He takes it from there, if He so Wills.

Very helpful definition and link. :thumbsup: Thank you.

Good point. I just got finished with the Book of All Saints, and it was interesting to see how many of the saints had relatively simple and often dry prayer lives.

There is something that is both frustrating and yet strangely comforting about that idea, isn’t there? :heaven:

My dear friend

You can try the catholic dictionary. If you want a real brief answer then contemplation is to just look at God and love Him. That’s one type that’s easy to do I think.:slight_smile:


Contemplation is hard to define, as are the highest forms of love - and for the same reason. Both are experiences and realities of union - the union of two in a oneness that does not negate or dissolve either one, yet is a new oneness of two.

Your definitions of other forms of prayer, I would revise.

Vocal prayer includes both formula prayer (Our Father, Hail Mary, …) and spontaneous prayer (prayer uttered and offered from the heart and mind in one’s own words).

Mental prayer, or discursive meditation, is the engagement of the mind with revealed Truth of God, for the purpose of knowing God, in order to love God, in order to live God - to serve Him in this world, and in the next. (There are “grades” of meditation - affective prayer grows out of discursive meditation; the prayer of simplicity grows out of affective prayer. The prayer of simplicity is also called ‘acquired contemplation’, and other names as well - but this is radically different from infused contemplation described below.)

Vocal prayer and meditation are grades of ascetical prayer - prayer that can be done with ordinary grace, the grace available to all believers.

(Infused) Contemplation is ‘mystical’ prayer; it is beyond ascetical prayer. It is a grade of prayer, of union and of love, that requires a new act of God in the soul - new, extraordinary grace is needed. In (infused) contemplation the union of prayer, the union with God in love, is experienced in a radically new, deeper, more personal and more intimate and complete way. (Infused) Contemplation is not what we can do - God must initiate this - but it is our part to prepare, to wait, and to receive with a fully open and obedient heart.

Here is a link that can help:
Spiritual Theology - Grades of Prayer

I hope this can help. It is so very important to see that prayer in intended to grow! God is calling us into a deeper, more intimate and more personal relationship with Him, in prayer and in life.


This story that I heard many years ago describes contemplation:
Every day a man wearing his work clothes came into the church and sat in the back.
After some time, he would leave. This continued day after day.
The priest wondering about this unkempt man approached him one day and asked what he was doing.
“I look at Christ (the crucifix) and Christ looks at me.”

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