This post originally ran in two parts at Contemplative Homeschool. I have edited it slightly here.
Contemplation for Carmelites is the summit of the spiritual life on earth. It is (or should be) the goal of all Christians. But there is a lot of misunderstanding about what contemplation is. The word is used in so many senses, both in secular and religious circles.
The most common definition of “contemplate” is “think about” or “meditate on.” In this sense, we can contemplate virtually anything.
Pére Marie-Eugene, OCD, gives a great explanation of three types of natural contemplation in I Want to See God.
First, there is aesthetic contemplation. This is when our senses experience beauty and we respond to it with emotion. The classic example is looking at a sunset. A deep communication goes on between the beautiful thing and our heart. We no longer meditate on the details of the object, but simply gaze with love. We soak it in. We feel we have touched something transcendent.
The second type of natural contemplation is intellectual. A philosopher or scientist who has spent years looking for a key idea or law, suddenly finds it. At that moment, he stops inquiring. His intellect is stilled. He delights in his discovery.
Thirdly, there is theological contemplation. This occurs when you are enraptured by a divine truth or a scene from the Gospels. The truth is so awesome, you just want to drown yourself in it. Again, the details fade. Something beyond them has moved your heart. You might experience this in your prayer time, but it is not yet supernatural.
There is a fourth type of natural contemplation, which we could call personal contemplation. A new mother, holding her infant for the first time, saves the counting of fingers and toes for later, being totally caught up in her love for her child. Or two lovers gaze at each other in awe, saying nothing, even thinking nothing for that moment. Personal contemplation is especially akin to supernatural contemplation.
Christian contemplation versus eastern meditation
Non-Christian contemplation consists of an impersonal awareness. Zen Buddhists practice a meditation or contemplation that is agnostic. God does not come into play. Transcendental meditation, which comes from Hinduism, consists in losing one’s personality in an impersonal, all-encompassing deity. Both these varieties of contemplation are achieved by practitioners’ own actions, which lead to an altered state of consciousness. Centering Prayer also falls into this category.
Christian contemplation is completely different. It is a loving gaze at God who is Love. Supernatural in origin, it can’t be produced through techniques. Modern writers often use the modifier “infused” to indicate that God pours contemplation into the soul.
Meditating on Sacred Scripture (the Bible) can produce theological contemplation, also called acquired contemplation. Christian meditation teaches us to know and love Jesus, thus preparing us to open our hearts fully to God’s love. It helps us form the habit of quieting our souls before God, focusing on Him instead of ourselves. See an example of Christian meditation.
God initiates supernatural contemplation
When a soul dedicates herself to prayer, especially Christian meditation, as well as growth in virtue, she greatly pleases God. God then initiates–in His own time–a deeper love-communion with her.
“In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us…” (1 John 4:10). Love begins with God. God bestows His love upon the soul and lifts her up, so that she may also gaze upon Him in love. She communes with God beyond words, concepts, and images. This is a foretaste of Heaven, when we will see and love God as He is (see 1 John 3:2).
Complete union with God rarely comes all at once. Instead, there are stages of contemplation. St. Teresa explains these in Interior Castle. As the soul is cleansed from sin and improper attachments to created things, she opens herself more fully to God’s love. Prayer and virtue grow together. True contemplation produces a marked growth in virtue. Sins that seemed unconquerable before are suddenly vanquished.
Natural contemplation can prepare the soul for supernatural contemplation, but it cannot produce it. Nor can eastern religious techniques. Contemplation proper is the action of God. He desires to bestow it on every human being.