A Catholic Monthly Magazine

Active Contemplation

Fr John Kelly

by Fr John Kelly ocso

'Contemplation' has a number of meanings in current English. But I would like to discuss its meaning in spirituality. What do spiritual writers mean by 'contemplation', 'contemplative prayer' etc.?

I think that in Christian spirituality the various meanings of 'contemplation' can be reduced to two. There is the wider meaning of 'contemplation' that we find in the Fathers of the Church, and a narrower meaning of 'contemplation' associated with Saints Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross and others.
What is the difference between the two types of contemplative prayer?

'Contemplation' in the wide sense is concerned mainly with prayer, spiritual reading and reflections that stir up our love for God. In this 'contemplation' we use all our faculties so as to achieve closer union with God. Hence I am calling it 'active contemplation.'

'Contemplation’ in the narrower sense is a type of prayer wherein God does nearly all the work. We are led by the Spirit into quietude or passivity. We do not use our faculties to any great extent. We will devote a second article to this type of passive contemplation.
In this first article I wish to treat of 'contemplation' in the wide sense. Aquinas in his Summa devotes many pages to the contemplative and active life. He summarises the patristic teaching on contemplation. He quotes mainly Saints Gregory the Great and Augustine in support of his doctrine. Other Fathers are also quoted but less frequently.

For Aquinas and the Fathers 'contemplation' means lovingly reflecting on God's word and on the mysteries of the faith. Love motivates us to ponder on both Christ and his love for us. All our faculties are used to enkindle in us the fire of charity. It is love of God or charity, says Aquinas, that moves us to contemplate, but the contemplation of divine things in turn increases and nourishes our love. The intellect, our thinking, our feelings and the affections of the will can all serve this type of contemplation. Indeed the imagination and the senses can be used to stir us up to deeper love of God. Ignatius of Loyola is in tune with the patristic doctrine of contemplation when he emphasises the use of the senses and imagination to stir us up to know, love and praise God all the more.
Much liturgical prayer is composed with a view to stirring up the feelings and affections of all the participants. When the Fathers talk about 'contemplation' they usually use the language of feeling. They use words like 'sweetness', 'delight', 'love', 'being loved', 'ardent desire', 'being inflamed with love', 'taste and see that the Lord is sweet'. 'Contemplation' seems to bring pleasure, joy and spiritual consolation.

Benedictine Monks singing compline

As I have already said, the whole human person is involved in this type of contemplation. All of the faculties can make a contribution. What is outside us can also stimulate us to love God more. Gifted singers, good music, beautiful art, a well performed liturgy, can all contribute to the contemplative experience of those present at the Eucharist.

The church certainly intends to offer all the help possible to lead its members to “full conscious active participation” in the liturgy. She promotes as best she can 'contemplation' among all the participants.

It should be noted that church documents often speak of 'contemplation' and they almost always speak of it in the active sense in which it was understood by the ancient Fathers and Aquinas. In Sacrum Concilium, N.2, we are told that the church is 'eager to act and yet devoted to contemplation…in her… action is subordinate to contemplation'. This teaching occurs in the liturgical document of Vatican II. The Council obviously considered the liturgy an experience in 'contemplation'. I might observe that it only deserves to be called 'contemplation' if our minds and hearts are in harmony with what we are doing and saying.

Since the liturgy is for everyone the whole church is contemplative and active. Hence every member is called to love God and to act out of love for God in daily life.

If we give 'contemplation' this active meaning and see it as an exercise in the affective love of God, we can say that everything that contributes to the love of God also contributes to contemplation. Spiritual reading, personal prayer, hymns, psalms, inspiring sermons, DVDs. CDs etc. can all rouse us up to greater knowledge and love of God which is what contemplation is all about.

In his treatment of contemplation Aquinas insists repeatedly that what gives value to all our activities, whether contemplative or active, is the degree of charity with which they are performed. Charity is what primarily determines the value of all that we do. Hence the value of our contemplation will depend on the degree of charity that inspires it. Thérèse of Lisieux tells us that to do something small, with great love, is more pleasing to God than doing something much greater with less love.

However, contemplation, if it is genuine, should nourish our love for God and help it to grow. Indeed true contemplation is little more in practice than the exercise of our affective love for God.

We can also say that loving contemplation of God is the ultimate purpose of human existence. God made us to love him affectively and effectively in this world and in the next. It is prayerful contemplation that nourishes our affective love. Contemplation generates love and love in turn generates contemplation. That is why the Fathers tell us that contemplation starts in this life and will reach perfection in the life to come. We could express this in other words by saying that the vision of God and the love of God are inextricably interconnected in the happiness of heaven. In this world we see God in a dark manner. Hence our contemplation and the love that flows from it, are imperfect.

To sum up, 'contemplation' is understood by the Fathers of the church and official church documents as loving communion with God. It is based on faith as it generates love. All our human faculties, intellect, will, imagination, feelings and our five senses can all make a contribution to this contemplation. The word of God, beauty, art, music can all help. 'Contemplation' can be a delightful activity.

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