A Catholic Monthly Magazine

About Contemplation in General

Fr John Kelly

by Fr John Kelly ocso

In the former chapters I explained that ‘contemplation’ in the Christian tradition takes two main forms. Firstly, there is ‘contemplation’ as understood by the Fathers of the Church and official church documents. This contemplation is mainly active. When we contemplate in this way we use our faculties and feelings to the full. The second type of contemplation, which is mainly passive, is described especially in the writings of the two great Carmelite doctors. Many other spiritual writers, especially in recent centuries, also deal with passive contemplation.
In this third article I would like to add some further general remarks which, I hope, will throw more light on contemplation.
No one’s prayer is wholly active or entirely passive. It is a matter of the predominance of one type of contemplation in one’s prayer. Francis de Sales was dealing with a nun whose prayer seemed to be almost totally passive. She had no inclination to make any explicit acts in her prayer. So as to keep her on the right track he instructed her to at least recite the Creed every day. He rightly considered that we must never completely abandon vocal prayer.

At the other end of the spectrum are those who babble prayers unceasingly (Mt. 6). Such people need to learn to unite themselves to God in silence, at least sometimes. Surely the church, when it introduced periods of silence into public prayer, was indicating that silence is a dimension of union with God for everyone. In other words a certain amount of passive prayer is appropriate for everyone. I think that the silences are not intended primarily for personal reflection. If we use them for reflection we are no longer silent interiorly. I believe that silence, especially if it is interior, is food for our spirits. It builds us up spiritually in a hidden way.

The Best Type of Contemplation

It was often assumed in the past that passive prayer was a ‘higher’ form of prayer than mere active contemplation. We used terminology like ‘high prayer’, ‘advanced in prayer’ etc. Various stages of growth in prayer were drawn up by spiritual writers. While granting that there was some validity in these descriptions of prayer it seems that we also need to keep our feet on the ground. Teresa of Avila says that ‘if one’s contemplation doesn’t produce the fruits of virtue pay no attention to it’. We should remember also that it is love alone that gives value to our prayer. If Our Lady made one brief aspiration it would give more glory to God than hours of contemplation by a lesser saint. Where there is great love there is great prayer. Needless to say, love must not be identified with feelings of love. Our love is often greatest when, in the midst of temptation, we remain faithful to God. Jesus’ love was at its best on the cross. The best prayer then is the prayer said with most love.
Only God knows who has the most love. However, there will probably be little love of God in one’s life unless one gives oneself to prayer. Prayer and love are inextricably interconnected. Indeed prayer is largely the exercise of affective love. In prayer we develop loving intimacy with God and we also get the grace to live in union with him by a life of virtue.
It is possible to go through the motions of prayer, without having true authentic prayer. Jesus warns us not to heap up empty phrases as the pagans do for they think that they will be heard for their many words (Mt. 6, 7). Having issued this warning Jesus gives us the ‘Our Father’ to teach us how we ought to pray properly. If we internalise the ‘Our Father’ we will have genuine prayer.

The Essence of Prayer

We should go to prayer, intending to give ourselves wholly to God; this should be our primary intention. Let us formulate it in another way. We go to prayer in order to accomplish God’s will for us. We desire to do his will so as to please him. This intention to please God endures throughout the prayer time unless we deliberately take our attention off God and focus it on something else that attracts us and gives us pleasure. Prayer ceases when we deliberately seek our own pleasure in place of what pleases God. In this case we abandon prayer and God so as to obtain pleasure for ourselves.
Hence it is essential to all prayer, whether vocal or contemplative, active or passive, to start out with a right intention and not deliberately indulge in distractions during our prayer. We can be tormented with distractions but so long as we drop them when we become aware of them, and return to God our prayer is good. So long as our will is directed to God, our prayer is good, no matter how we feel.
Many people suffer aridity for years and they are tempted to doubt the value of their prayer. It seems to be one long dark desert - a dark tunnel with no light at the end of it. Such people must continue the forty years journey in the desert and not lose hope. Dry unfeeling prayer of the will can be very pleasing to God. Francis de Sales writes somewhere, ‘I prefer dry fruit’. He also says of such dry prayer, ‘our affections should be strained through the fine point of the will’.
Perhaps we could sum up this article by saying that we must follow the Spirit’s guidance. We must make sure that our wills are on God and that our prayer is nourishing our love of God. Growth in affective love is the goal and purpose of all prayer. This affective love, if truly present, will manifest itself in the practice of the virtues, practised so as to please the one we love.


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