Contemplation is one of those terms heavily misused today - but before I get into that, a little revision first. The schema I’m proposing for lectio divina is as follows:
READ – Try to memorize the text, get it firmly lodged in your head.
THINK – Apply your intellect to the text to start working out what it means, and how you are going to approach it.
STUDY – Use commentaries and online tools to put the text in context, and understand its literal and spiritual meanings.
MEDITATE – directed reflection on the meaning of the text for you.
PRAY – Tell God what you have drawn out of the text in terms of messages for you, and ask for grace to make the changes necessary in your life.
CONTEMPLATE – the topic of today’s piece!
WORK – Put it all into practice!
What do we mean by contemplation?
There is a lot of confusion around about what contemplation really is today, not least due to advocates of practices such as Centring Prayer, who call things contemplation that really aren’t.
The first point to make about contemplation is that it is not something that can be manufactured from within ourselves, but is a pure gift of God.
The 1912 Catholic Encyclopedia defines contemplative prayer as:
“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…”
Traditionally, contemplative prayer was something to be attempted only after a long apprenticeship in asceticism and meditation, and under the guidance of a Spiritual Director who can assess whether or not the person is really ready. The problem is that the distaste for meditation that can be one of the signs of readiness to embark on contemplative prayer can also be a sign of acedie, or spiritual weariness!
At its higher levels, it leads to mystical union, and there are a number of different stages in it, starting from the ‘prayer of quiet’, a term which captures the essence of the experience at this level, up to the spiritual marriage of the soul with God.
Preparation for contemplative prayer
The key point really is that we can prepare for contemplative prayer through our spiritual practices, but if it comes, it comes in God’s time not ours!
There has been a lot written on contemplation and I won’t try and summarise it here, particularly since it won’t be relevant to most people. It is worth noting that contemplative prayer and mystical experiences can easily be manipulated both by ourselves and the devil, so expert discernment of spirits is necessary here!
The real tests are the fruits of contemplation. St Benedict writes:
“…the monk will presently come to that perfect love of God which casts out all fear; whereby he will begin to observe without labour, as though naturally and by habit, all those precepts which formerly he did not observe without fear: no longer for fear of hell, but for love of Christ and through good habit and delight in virtue.”
The aim is this:
“… our hearts shall be enlarged, and we shall run with the unspeakable sweetness of love in the way of God’s commandments..”