The Catechism of the Catholic Church #29


May 25, 1997

Brother John Raymond


People talk about going out into the woods and "contemplating" nature. The word contemplation is used to mean "ponder" but has attached to a sense of profound or deep thought — an interior experience.

When one talks about "contemplative prayer" some of the above meaning still applies. St. Teresa of Avila describes it as "a close sharing between friends...taking time frequently to be alone with Him Who we know loves us." (CCC #2709) The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives many descriptions of this type of prayer. One of the reasons for the struggle to describe contemplative prayer is that it is a gift of grace. (Cf. CCC #2713)

Some mystical writers speak of "infused contemplation." Basically, they are referring to the type of prayer wherein the Holy Spirit takes over. Whereas vocal prayer and meditation involve an "active" effort on our part, contemplation is a "more passive" experience. St. Teresa described it best by saying that the former is likened to a person going to a well to fill a bucket with water — it involves hard work. She then compares infused contemplation to rain — one just receives it. Yet, all the time spent in vocal prayer, all the effort to pray, enables one to arrive at the point of receiving infused contemplation.

When St. Margaret Mary prayed she was guided by the Holy Spirit in such a way that she "saw" what Our Lord wanted her to meditate on. Others have described this prayer as it grows as a progressive capturing or riveting of the senses, the will and the intellect on God. Perhaps it can be likened to that "love at first sight" experience. You just become totally fixed or absorbed in the other person.

This type of prayer is known to bring along with it great strides in a person's practice of virtue. St. Therese of Liseaux in talking about the spiritual life in general said it's like a little child trying to climb the stairs. He or she keeps trying but just can't get past the first step. Then an adult comes buy and lifts the child all the way to the top of the stairs. So contemplation is like an elevator ride up in the practice of virtue.

Not all experiences of contemplative prayer are paved with roses! The Catechism tells us, "Contemplative prayer is a communion of love bearing Life for the multitude, to the extent that it consents to abide in the night of faith. The Paschal night of the Resurrection passes through the night of agony and the tomb — the three intense moments of the Hour of Jesus which His Spirit...brings to life in prayer." (CCC #2719) So remember, when you stop to pick roses and smell them, the thorns go together with the flowers.

Also, the Catechism gives us different descriptions of contemplation. Contemplation can be considered a "gaze of faith, fixed on Jesus." (CCC #2715) St. John Vianney used to see a man spending hours in prayer before the tabernacle in a church. He asked him what he was doing during this time. His answer was simply "I look at Him and He looks at me." (ibid.)

It is an intense time of prayer. God the Father strengthens our inner being with grace through His Spirit. Thus Christ is able to dwell in our hearts through faith more fully. And we become more grounded in love. (Cf. CCC #2714) By contemplation our surrender to the Father's loving will as children of God grows in an ever greater union with Jesus. A person experiences the love by which he is loved and "wants to respond to it by loving even more." (CCC #2712) It is a time of silence, of hearing the Word of God.