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Chapter 29: Prayer: The Fundamental Category of Christian Action

Appendix 3: Not every Christian is called to contemplative prayer

One can speak of “contemplative prayer” in a wide and a strict sense. In a wide sense, it refers to the loving effort to hear, understand, and assimilate what God has revealed, and to respond to him with attentive praise, thanks, and practical deliberation in the light of faith. Contemplative prayer in this wide sense can be called “meditation.” In a strict sense, “contemplative prayer” refers to what St. Teresa of Avila calls “prayer of recollection” and other types of mystical prayer, up to and including what she calls “spiritual marriage.” In other words, “contemplative prayer” in the strict sense is what modern writers in spiritual theology call “infused contemplation.”15

While every Christian certainly is called to meditation, it would appear that the gift of contemplative prayer in the strict sense is an aspect of their personal vocations for only some. This is important, for, if it is correct, a great deal of modern writing in spiritual theology is misleading and potentially discouraging to the vast majority of Christians—who are not called to contemplative prayer in the strict sense—although it is pertinent and helpful to some.

Meditation, as defined above, is broader than the systematic mental prayer to which the word “meditation” is sometimes limited. Thoughtful and loving participation in the liturgy is meditation, as are prayerful reading of Scripture apart from the liturgy, devout saying of vocal prayers such as the rosary, thoughtful effort to discern God’s will in an important decision, examination of conscience, and other forms of prayer, including systematic efforts to arouse devotion.

As we have seen, both liturgical and personal prayer are essential to Christian life. It follows that meditation in its many forms—what is here called “contemplative prayer in the wide sense”—is essential to Christian life.16

Moreover, every Christian life must not only be prayerful but must have other characteristics usually treated as aspects of the contemplative life. Basically, a Christian must strive to overcome every fault and conform totally to God’s will—must strive, in other words, for perfection. Secondarily, every Christian ought to have some compelling experience of God’s presence and all-powerful love in his or her life. This experience can, however, take many forms, and is by no means limited to those described by the great doctors of mysticism.

Everyone can experience the unshakable firmness of his or her own living faith and the power the Spirit gives to fulfill the law of Jesus. One need only abide in Jesus and desire with the Spirit’s help to do the Father’s will to have these experiences. (One who is impenitent in mortal sin certainly does not experience the Spirit’s power to do what is right, and one who is obdurate is likely to begin to have some doubts in matters of faith.)

There are many other modes in which one can have an awareness of the personal relationship one has by living faith with the Spirit, the Son, and the Father. Devout participants in the liturgy often sense the presence of Jesus—for example, when they listen to or proclaim the word of God, receive or consecrate the Eucharist, receive or give absolution in the sacrament of penance, and so forth. Those who find and accept their personal vocation with living faith and try to fulfill it with constant fidelity very often are aware of the hand of God in their lives, to make things work out and to bring good out of evil. Those who share with the right dispositions in the work of the Church often experience the almost palpable presence of our Lord through his Spirit.

A life directed toward contemplative prayer is an excellent gift for those called to it. It is a special form of religious life (see S.t., 2–2, qq. 180–82). This style of Christian life is a true and simple way to holiness. It yields extraordinary fulfillment, in the form of intense intimacy with God, in an important human good, that of religion. Furthermore, it is a true apostolate of great importance, for it serves the Church by providing the constant nourishment of prayer and the example of prayerfulness, while proclaiming to nonbelievers that the kingdom we seek is not of this world.17

However, the call to contemplative prayer in the strict sense is not universal. In support of this view one can cite the testimony of St. Teresa, a doctor of the Church whose authority is also relied upon by writers in spiritual theology who maintain that everyone is called to “infused” contemplation.

St. Teresa generally refers to the various forms of prayer grouped here as “contemplative prayer in the strict sense” as “favors,” because they are experienced as gifts of the Spirit. At times she speaks of them as if they were charismatic gifts, given more for the benefit of others than for the spiritual welfare of the recipients. Thus: “He doesn’t grant them because the sanctity of the recipients is greater than that of those who don’t receive them but so that His glory may be known, as we see in St. Paul and the Magdalen, and that we might praise Him for His work in creatures.”18 The point is important, for everyone is called to holiness (see LG 39–42), but if the relationship between holiness and favors is not essential, not everyone is necessarily called to contemplative prayer in the strict sense.

While saying that favors are quite helpful if one happens to receive them, Teresa also says that God “is not obliged to give them to us as He is to give us glory if we keep His commandments. Without these favors we can be saved, and He knows better than we ourselves what is fitting for us and who of us truly loves Him.”19 The only thing essential to Christian perfection is perfect conformity of one’s will to God’s will. This is possible without favors: “There are many holy persons who have never received one of these favors; and others who receive them but are not holy.”20

Teresa explains with great clarity that not all souls are suited to contemplation. Considering the life of Carmelite nuns, which is directed toward contemplative prayer, she says: “. . . it is important to understand that God doesn’t lead all by one path, and perhaps the one who thinks she is walking along a very lowly path is in fact higher in the eyes of the Lord. So, not because all in this house practice prayer must all be contemplatives; that’s impossible. And it would be very distressing for the one who isn’t a contemplative if she didn’t understand the truth that to be a contemplative is a gift from God; and since being one isn’t necessary for salvation, nor does God demand this, she shouldn’t think anyone will demand it of her.”21

True, a few chapters later Teresa seems to contradict this statement by suggesting that all (Carmelite nuns) are called to the contemplative state. However, it seems to me her point is that no one is excluded from the favors of contemplation, no one is forbidden to strive for the greatest intimate experience of God, and no one who so strives will go unrewarded. Precisely how each one’s striving will be rewarded is another matter: “You must always proceed with this determination to die rather than fail to reach the end of the journey. If even though you so proceed, the Lord should lead you in such a way that you are left with some thirst in this life, in the life that lasts forever He will give you to drink in great plenty and you will have no fear of being without water. May it please the Lord that we ourselves do not fail, amen.”22 In other words, all—that is, all Carmelite nuns—share in a life directed toward contemplative prayer in the strict sense, but in some cases the hoped-for fruit will be given in this life only in respect to the one thing necessary: never to fail the Lord.23 The favors of contemplation will be received only in heaven.

When one experiences effortless, spontaneous, and especially moving states of prayer, one is more than usually conscious that prayer and all of Christian life is a grace. One tends to forget that excellence in any line of activity—for example, participating in a sport, doing theology, or writing poetry—flowers into acts with these qualities. It would be surprising if experts in prayer did not at times experience such gifts. As for the so-called infused character of contemplation, one can reduce this quality to the common character of Christian life as divine grace, based upon what truly is infused—namely, the love of God poured forth in our hearts by the Holy Spirit—together with the unique experienced qualities of some forms of prayer.24

St. Augustine’s conception of the relationship between this life and heaven was heavily influenced by Neoplatonism. Many mystical writers also express themselves within a Neoplatonic conceptual framework. Thus they aim at a pure union with God, a union in which the “earlier stages” of prayer are left behind and human action is minimal. An aspect of the Neoplatonic influence on Christian life is the emphasis upon an individualistic, interior spiritual life. One withdraws from other people and from action into oneself, and within oneself seeks to ascend to God.

In modern times, the one-sidedness of a Neoplatonically influenced view of spiritual life has been distorted further by the common, dualistic conception of the human person. Many people suppose that their souls are hidden somewhere inside them, and that God is hidden somewhere inside their souls. Christian spirituality is systematically misinterpreted in line with this view; for example, St. Paul’s statement that our Lord Jesus lives in him (see Gal 2.19–20) is taken as a motto for the pursuit of interiority, whereas it should stand for the transformation of one’s whole life in Jesus. Jesus lives in us when we participate in the liturgy, when we share in the work of the Church, when we do the works of love, as well as when we engage in meditation.

The ideal of Christian life taken for granted by many modern writers of spiritual theology is that of the religious living in a cloister. This ideal involves exclusive dedication to the good of religion; every other human good is regarded as mere means. The religious life is excellent, but married people with families and professions ought also to be dedicated to other human goods, not only as means to more intense intimacy with God, but also as their contribution to fulfillment in the Lord Jesus—that is to say, as part of the ultimate end itself.25

15. Vatican II frequently uses the words “contemplate” and “contemplation”: SC 2, 103; LG 6, 41, 46, 64, 65; PC 5, 7, 16; DV 7, 8; GS 8, 15, 56, 57, 59, 82, 83; CD 35; AG 15, 18, 40; UR 15, 17, 21; PO 13. Many of these uses refer simply to thinking, even secular thinking, about something; others refer to a prayer act, but to one which is either plainly not contemplation in the strict sense or not clearly such; some refer to the “contemplative” in the technical sense; perhaps a few refer to contemplation in the strict sense (see PC 5; AG 18; UR 15), but in contexts concerned either with a certain vocation or with a particular function of the Church as a whole. Contemplation in the strict sense may be essential to the life of the Church, but it does not follow that it is essential for every Catholic, any more than the sacraments of matrimony and holy orders are.

16. St. Thomas, Summa contra gentiles, 4, 22, makes it clear that contemplation in the wide sense is essential to Christian life, since the Holy Spirit leads us with the cooperation of our own intelligence and freedom. Spiritual writers who use a chapter like this to support the thesis that everyone is called to “infused” contemplation distort its obvious sense, with the discouraging implication that only a very small number of Christians (those who receive this gift) are led by the Spirit.

17. See “Instruction on the Contemplative Life and on the Enclosure of Nuns” (“Venite seorsum”), 15 August 1969, in Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, ed. Austin Flannery, O.P. (Northport, N.Y.: Costello, 1975), 656–75. This document says that “a certain degree of withdrawal from the world and some measure of contemplation must necessarily be present in every form of Christian life” (661). The Sacred Congregation cannot refer here to contemplation in the strict sense, for it talks about something essential to every form of Christian life, not about a universal invitation to “infused” contemplation.

18. St. Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle, I, 1, 3, in The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D., and Otilio Rodriguez, O.C.D. (Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 1980), 2:285.

19. Ibid., IV, 2, 9 (326); the passage referred to earlier in the paragraph is in III, 2, 11–12 (313–14).

20. Ibid., VI, 9, 16 (417).

21. St. Teresa of Avila, The Way of Perfection, XVII, 2 (in the cited edition, 99).

22. Ibid., XX, 2 (114).

23. The Interior Castle, V, 3, 7 (350–51).

24. A good treatment of this point: Louis Bouyer, Cong.Orat., Introduction to Spirituality, trans. Mary Perkins Ryan (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1961), 76–81.

25. See Thomas Verner Moore, The Life of Man with God (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1956), 217–28, for descriptions of persons who apparently lead very holy lives without contemplative prayer in the strict sense.