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Questions about Contemplation

October 15, 2011 by  
Filed under Centering Prayer, Contemplation, Dan Burke, Prayer

The encounter of contemplation is such an unexpected and memorable experience, shouldn't one be content with leaving it to God if it would ever be repeated? I see people trying centering prayer, Taize prayer, etc. to try to achieve it. It somehow seems wrong to try to ‘get' something that's purely a gift.

Is acquired contemplation the same experience as infused contemplation?

Books like the Interior Castle confuse and intimidate me. How do you know when you're ready to read such things?

You have asked a few questions and made a few observations that are very important. The answer to your first question is “yes” you should leave it to God. The encounter in contemplation does not come from our will but his. It would be like having a much-beloved relative give us a hug and then not letting go as if we could contain or prolong that initial surge of warmth and tenderness. Love is not something to be grasped or contained but simply to be known and lived when it is made alive to us by the mercy of God. The desire to hold on is a natural one but not one that we should entertain. When we feel these touches of grace we simply should yield to God, express our gratitude, and continue to pursue Christ.

You are also correct that “contemplation” cannot be achieved with a method or approach to prayer. We can sew the seeds of contemplation by living lives of grace and expressed love for God and neighbor and by regularly participating in prayer and the sacraments. However, regardless of how well we prepare the soil and plant the seeds, God determines the harvest. You are right – true contemplation is purely a gift, not something we can “do” or “achieve.”

Regarding acquired versus infused contemplation, this is an academic distinction that is confusing to most. Suffice it to say that digging into this topic won’t yield much benefit. The key is that we should pursue Christ in prayer and in the way we live. As we progress in the cultivation of silence, meditation, and virtue, he will, in his wisdom and his time, draw us more deeply into prayer. It is living the life of love that we should be concerned with and then we will discover what the distinctions really mean as we experience them.

With respect to the Interior Castle, the way you know if you are ready is simply to take up and read. The best version is The Interior Castle Study Edition. This edition will provide a brief introduction to each chapter and then a brief summary at the end of each chapter. These treatments provide context for unfamiliar terms or ideas that can otherwise be confusing. Still, I would first recommend Father Thomas Dubay’s Prayer Primer: Igniting the Fire Within. Once you read this, you will be better prepared to deal with more advanced ideas of prayer. Then, as you are reading St. Teresa again, you could also pick up Father Dubay’s book on the topic of contemplation entitled the Fire Within. In this book, he does a masterful job of synthesizing the teachings of St. Teresa and St. John on the topic of prayer and contemplation. It can be a heavy read for some but well worth the effort.

Be encouraged. You are asking the right questions. I have no doubt that God is calling you into a deeper relationship with him.

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About Dan Burke

Dan is the President of the Avila Foundation, the parent organization of, the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation, Divine Intimacy Radio and Divine Intimacy Radio - Resources Edition, Into the Deep Parish Programs, the Apostoli Viae (Apostles of the Way) Community, and the FireLight Student Leadership Formation Program, author of the award-winning book, Navigating the Interior Life - Spiritual Direction and the Journey to God, Finding God Through Meditation-St. Peter of Alcantara, 30 Days with Teresa of Avila, Into the Deep, Living the Mystery of Merciful Love: 30 Days with Thérèse of Lisieux, and his newest book The Contemplative Rosary with St. John Paul II and St. Teresa of Avila. Beyond his "contagious" love for Jesus and His Church, he is a grateful husband and father of four, the Executive Director of and writer for EWTN's National Catholic Register, a regular co-host on Register Radio, a writer and speaker who provides online spiritual formation and travels to share his conversion story and the great riches that the Church provides us through authentic Catholic spirituality. Dan has been featured on EWTN's Journey Home program and numerous radio programs.

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  • 4verderbers

    Do you know of a book that is like The Better Part that covers Acts? I’m studying Acts and it is very powerful. There is so much in it that I think a Catholic perspective would be helpful. 

  • lula

    “Thou shall not tempt The Lord thou God!” Contemplation is a total submission to the “Will of God.” it is “Not my will, but thy will be done!” One is ‘besides oneself’, one is not in control of anything, but is simply in the state of “Being” or “BE”. One is absorbing all that is within and without the SELF. There is no “SELF” it is a temporary time in the presence of “The Infinite.”   When the time is Right, it will happen…. never to force or try to probe into the Mind of God. Never!

    • Thank you for your energy on this topic! Just one caution. When we are at the heights of union with God, we are not absorbed in a way that we cease to be a distinct creation of God. In that sense, our self remains but the only focus of our being is God.

      • lula

        yes, we are”Ourselves”, but we are not in the state of willfulness, other then BE. Time seemed stood still……..ones is in the state of “Wow……..l” it is a gift, not something we can call upon. The ever deepening devotion to the ONE whom one loves….  before one knows it, one is no longer in MOTION of the SELF with any form of Awareness, other then “BE”. it is the state of ecstasy. The Mysticism within the Interior Castle is the FRUIT of the Ecstacies which St. Teresa had most profoundly experienced and understood…   Most people can read it, but to comprehend it totally might be a little difficult. “In my Father’s house there are many mansions.” What one knows is what one knows.

        God bless!

        • Becky Ward


          Would you please try to explain what you mean by this a little more?

          “The Mysticism within the Interior Castle is the FRUIT of the Ecstacies which St. Teresa had most profoundly experienced and understood…”

          It might just be a language issue but I’m not understanding what you mean by “The Mysticism within the Interior Castle”

          Thank you!

          • Just to jump in here… the true test or fruit of any mystical encounter is virtue.

          • Becky Ward


            I have in mind this definition of mysticism,
            and do not see it as fruit, but rather part of the extraordinary experiences St. Teresa received……which led to increased virtue and a deeper prayer life that she shares with us in her writings……..just trying to understand what lulu meant.

          • Becky – This is a solid and trustworthy definition – I agree.

        • Carla

          Lula, just wondering if you are catholic as your speech sounds somewhat like eastern philosophy or new age thought?

      • Your comment adds clarity to the statement given from lula and to the question posed above. We have to be content with the prayer given us by God as we can prepare the soil but be are not in charge of what happens. A good time to read the Interior Castle is when it can shine new light on what you are experiencing in prayer yourself or new light on the prayer of someone you are directing. It’s important not to indulge spiritual gluttony and desire more than what God is giving you, to seek first the Kingdom and let God lead you to the depth of union He sees best for you. The mystical path, although much sought after, does involve some deep challenges.

        • Thanks – I agree with your thoughts as well.

  • Simon

    What is Ignatian contemplation? Is it different from the contemplation that this article explains?

    Thank you.


    • Simon – this is a good question, probably worthy of a post. The Ignatian approach to meditation is often described by those within Ignatian spirituality as “contemplation.” However, for our purposes we use a Carmelite framework because it tends to be easier to understand. As well, the Teresian way brings far more detail and description to prayer than the Ignatian approach. This doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with Ignatian spirituality (it has blessed me personally in many ways) but Ignatius never encouraged the kind of prayer and experience that St. Teresa reveals to us because it is not at the heart of Ignatian spirituality. Ignatian spirituality is more active than it is contemplative. As you can see, this is a complex issue. Please – no responses that imply that I am stating one (in essence) is better than the other (Ignatian vs. Carmelite) – they simply provide different emphases regarding the spiritual and active life of the soul. If you come to this conclusion – read it again… 🙂

  • guest

    I think it’s important to answer the question: is acquired contemplation and infused contemplation the same thing. The answer: no! Acquired contemplation is what the soul of itself can do to gather it’s senses and faculties within to look at and love God. St. Teresa of Avila says (regarding this) not to think much but love much. Infused contemplation, strictly speaking, is a pure gift from God in which the faculty of the will is captivated by God and the soul is aware of His presence within in a vague cloudy kind of way. St. John of the Cross defines contemplation as: “…nothing else than a secret and peaceful and loving inflow of God…
    which…fires the soul in the spirit of love….” (The Dark Night, book
    1, chapter 10, paragraph 6.This is the understanding that was given to me that I found very helpful.

    • Dear Friend: Just to clarify for the readers – the quote from St. Teresa here about not thinking much but loving much is referring to prayer and contemplation, not acquired contemplation. Teresa never speaks about acquired contemplation because it is foreign to Carmelite thought. When a Carmelite uses “contemplation” they mean what many now call “infused contemplation.” Your answer here is generally a good one.

      • Since we are in the process of clarification, let me add a little bit inasmuch as you made mention of Carmelite thinking and contemplation is the heart of the Carmelite charism.
        Gunter Benker, an O.Carm. friar, has this to say “Contemplation therefore is the most essential and basic value of our vocation because it means nothing less than entrusting ourselves in any situation of our life to the unlimited love of the true God without clinging to any other means of security so that He may heal our wounds, purify our motivations, transform our feelings and our thinking according to the principles of His kingdom, which are so different from what we normallywere taught to believe.” This was a portion of Fr. Gunter’s presentation on contemplation during the proceedings of the International Programme for Carmelite formators in Fatima, Portugal on January 2001.
        What I am trying to say here is when we entrust ouselves to the unlimited love of God without clinging to any means of security, it is an act which begins in us, it is an acquired action. Of course this acquired action cannot happen without God’s grace also but we initiate it. It is impossible to know where acquired ends and when infused begins but that is not important.
        I don’t “read” Teresa’s Interior Castle. I immerse and soak in it. That’s the only way I can learn from it.  

  • Cynthia

    Dan, great posting. Who wrote it? I have read both of Dubay’s works and they are excellant. And I opened The Interior Castle and shut it quickly! So the recommendation of the Study guide for the Interior Castle is a great intermediate step. Like having a good mentor reading along with me! Those times are so precious when the blessed Trinity takes me up into itself and I’m aware of only their embrace . Then, I find that I’m just released…and that’s that…with a smile on my face and joy in my heart. There’s no way that I could “make” that happen. It is a gift of Love from our God.

    • Dear Friend, thank you. I wrote the post.

    • Claire

      I think your description perfectly captures it.

  • LizEst

    Were I going to read the “Castle” for the first time, I would use the Study Edition. From the details on the link, it looks like it just came out in 2010. So, it’s pretty current. What a blessing to have this available. Thanks for this post, Dan…and Happy Lord’s Day!

  • Beth

    Thank you for this post on contemplation. I am about to leave for a retreat and we have been reading Fr. DuBay’s Fire Within. I agree it is a difficult read but I am hoping it will give me a good guideline into a deeper prayer life.

    God bless us all as we strive to live the life of Christ. Your website is super!

  • Rowenalitorja

    Infused contemplation – The Lord reveal Himself to the soul, the devil will not dare to enter nor the Lord allow him to enter. Pure gift from God’s sanctifying grace and not acquire by any human effort.

    • Yes, however, one is never beyond the reach of the enemy and our own sin until we depart this life. Your statement “Pure gift from God’s sanctifying grace and not acquired by any human effort” is right on target.

      • Becky Ward

        “The Lord reveal Himself to the soul, the devil will not dare to enter nor the Lord allow him to enter.”

        My take on this is that she’s referring to the specific moment(s) when God is visiting the soul, and I believe that both St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross speak of times like this when we can be sure that the devil has no influence.

        That said, once the moment is over…..we are immediately exposed again, thus St. Ignatius’ Rules For Discerning Spirits (Second Week) – Rule Three: “What is important to note is the tendency to let down our guard when God grants us such consolations. It is not the consolation in itself that we question but the time after such divine communications. It is hard to know when the self, the values of the world or the weeds that our enemy wishes to sow find their way and contaminate us.”

  • Susan Bailey

    I’m in the middle of The Fire Within – a priest I went to confession with urged me to read it. This book is fabulous. To me it’s like feasting on the finest foods – you read just a little bit each day and chew slowly. Beautiful stuff.

    • rgauthie

      Gee, I wish my priest were suggesting reading in confession.  I read about the saints and how some were such great confessors that people would flock to them to confess their sins, and the confessor would spend hours doing so.  We have twenty minutes a week available for all in the parish to go to confession, and when we do, it is usually so quick and cookie-cutter-ish.  

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