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An Answer to a Question: What is Contemplation?

Recently, Dan received an interesting question and after we talked about it, I asked whether I might respond.  Here is the question:

“Is the terminology for prayer different from Ignatian to that of Carmelite spirituality? I'm a Secular Carmelite and I just went on an Ignatian retreat. My understanding of contemplation was that it was a complete gift with no activity on our part. However, the director defined it when you use your imagination when entering into a scene from scripture.”

When it comes to the practice of mental prayer or contemplation, nuanced but complementary differences run through the writings of St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross and other spiritual writers.  They are all 16th Century pioneers of the renewal of the practice of mental prayer in the life of the Church.  They were convinced that mental prayer is a gift from God.  They share an awareness of how important the Scriptures are and they all see a role for using imagination when prayerfully reflecting on the Scriptures.  Because of their own transforming encounters with the Lord, they are also aware that Christ comes to the soul over and above its psychological activities, that at best our efforts only prepare the way and open up space for God to do something astonishing in us.

Contemplation means to see and to gaze.  It is an activity in which the heart is captivitated and the mind dazzled by the splendor of the truth.  As a form of mental prayer, contemplation is submitted to the discipline of faith.  It sees obscurely as through a mirror. The most humble and frail prayer tends toward mystical contemplation but because faith is a gift, not all contemplation reaches all the way to prayer. In Patristic and early monastic literature, contemplation, study and sacred reading were used nearly interchangeably.  For St. John of the Cross, there is something for us to listen to because God is constantly sending all kinds of messengers to us.  The Lord invites us into deeper friendship through the beauty of creation, through the truth of the Gospel, and sometimes, in a more beautiful way, He speaks to the soul more than a preacher or angel intends to say.

Whether or not one uses one's imagination, contemplative prayer begins by attending, listening to a conversation that is taking place in reality between God and the things He has made.  Any use of the imagination is only to help us listen to the Word of the Father. Contemplation has already been raised into the world of Christian prayer when it ponders the saving truths of our faith revealed in the sacred humanity of Christ Crucified.  St. Teresa of Avila described the prayerful engagement of the powers of our soul in devotion to the Lord as “drawing water from the well.”  The well is the depths of our hearts and the water – tears of devotion whether physical or spiritual. Our imagination can be implicated in this work.

Beautiful monastic frescoes and ancient mosaics throughout Europe and the Middle East suggest that Christians have engaged their powers of imagination in this kind of mental prayer for millennia.  Your retreat director seems to have been indicating this prayerful engagement of the imagination in his description of contemplation.  St. Ignatius seemed to love to engage the imagination in “interior composition of place” in his Biblical meditations. By using his imagination to picture a biblical scene, he situated himself in its drama to implicate himself in the saving truth.  Similarly, in her autobiography, we find St. Teresa describing techniques which engage the imagination in prayer as well.  Even before her conversion, before falling asleep, she was in the habit of imagining herself in the Garden of Gethsemane and would spend time keeping watch with the Lord at night.  Such holy exercises of the heart are ordered to cultivate a holy friendship with the Lord.

This engagement of imagination or memory or intellect in the beautiful stories of our faith is not the highest form of mental prayer known to the saints of the 16th Century. Christian contemplation terminates where neither efforts to imagine nor efforts not to imagine can take us.  Christian contemplation is ultimately eschatological: it anticipates the vision of the saints in glory.  Such prayer is in the form of a gift — a sheer grace —  because the vision it anticipates is the ultimate gift of all. Thus, mystical contemplation does not reach completion in any activity we initiate but instead is taken up into a supernatural movement initiated by the Holy Spirit — a divine inflow, a river of living waters.  When we prayerfully ponder the inexhaustible riches of Christ, these exercises (and all the trials and hardships that go with them) are meant to make us vulnerable to the inflow of the Holy Trinity into our souls.  Our efforts to use our imagination help us listen — for echoing in the depths of our hearts is the unending hymn of  myriads of angels gathered in praise around the Throne of the Lamb.

If we remember St. Ignatius' experience at Manresa where he wrote the Spiritual Exercises,  his difficult spiritual and physical trials in that cave culminated in a mysterious vision which took him far beyond the power of human imagination.  His vision of the ineffable mystery of the Trinity became the secret mystery animating his whole life and mission.  What was his experience?  How does one “see” the Trinity?  Whatever this is, it is something more than the imagination at work.  Sometimes, when we prayerfully reflect on that hidden glory the Lord secretly whispers, our hearts are caught up in something fully beyond the conscious powers of our soul to grasp.  The silent music of Christ's heart draws our souls.  Our being, like a sponge, finds itself plunged into adoration before a mystery it does not understand, before which it is utterly humbled.  One spark of this hidden fire and our lives are changed forever.

What captured the heart of St. Ignatius and what touched the soul of St. Teresa bear profound relation with each other.  When St. Teresa sought counsel for dealing with certain attachments that were tormenting her, she went to a Jesuit spiritual master.  She needed someone who was filled with mystical wisdom, that loving awareness of God, so that she could have confidence in what God was doing in her.   This priest of the Society of Jesus had deep confidence in the love of God.  Rather than directing her to prayerful meditation on some Biblical passage, the Jesuit recommended instead that she prayerfully raise her heart in song.

Teresa of Avila - TransverberationHis counsel worked.  As she sang with her heart, Veni Creator Spiritus, a heart-piercing rapture purified her soul.  This mystical contemplation was not something she produced by her own efforts to imagine or not to imagine – it was an astonishing gift that God is waiting to lavish on us when at last, with vigilant hope, we make ourselves vulnerable to the power of the Holy Spirit.  In fact, Carmelite and Ignatian approaches to mental prayer in the 16th Century were complementary, profoundly rooted in a transforming encounter with the same saving mystery.  Even today, when a spiritual director or retreat master has surrendered himself to the beautiful wisdom St. Teresa and St. Ignatius came to know, the spiritual exercises, techniques, and methods he or she might recommend  — even when it is just a song — can prepare us to welcome such spiritual gifts with the same humility and radical availability to God the great saints of the 16th Century help us to see.


Art: La transverbération de Sainte Thérèse (The Transverberation of St. Teresa [de Avila]), Josefa de Ábidos, 1672, PD-US, Wikimedia Commons.

Editor’s Note: For more of Anthony’s insights on prayer, don’t miss his new book, Hidden Mountain Secret Garden, an experience like no other. Anthony has an unusually profound understanding of mystical theology and lives a life of deep prayer. Among his many accomplishments and responsibilities, Dr. Lilles now teaches theology for the Avila Institute.

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About Anthony Lilles

Anthony Lilles, a graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville, completed his graduate and post-graduate studies in Rome at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas. He and his lovely wife, Agnes, are blessed with three children and live in California, where he is the Academic Dean, and Associate Professor of Theology, St. John's Seminary, Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and Academic Advisor at Juan Diego House, House of Formation for Seminarians. For over twenty years, Dr. Lilles worked for the Denver Archdiocese directing parish religious education, R.C.I.A. and youth ministry, as well as serving as Director of the Office of Liturgy for the Archdiocese and as Coordinator of Spiritual Formation for the permanent diaconate. In 1999, he became a founding faculty member of St. John Vianney Theological Seminary where he was Academic Dean for nine years and Associate Professor of Theology. He is a Board Member for the Society of Catholic Liturgy. Dr. Lilles has provided graduate level courses on a variety of topics including the Eucharist, the Sacraments of Healing, Church History, Spiritual Theology, Spiritual Direction and on various classics of Catholic Spirituality. His expertise is in the spiritual doctrine of Blessed Elisabeth of the Trinity and the Carmelite Doctors of the Church: St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross and St. Thérèse of Lisieux. In 2012, Discerning Hearts published his book "Hidden Mountain, Secret Garden: A Theological Contemplation on Prayer," a compilation of discussions with seminarians, students, and contemplatives about the spiritual life. He collaborated with Dan Burke on the books "30 Days with Teresa of Avila" and "Living the Mystery of Merciful Love: 30 Days with Thérèse of Lisieux". And, his book "Fire from Above" was published in 2016. Among his many accomplishments and responsibilities, Dr. Lilles now teaches theology for the Avila Institute. He blogs at

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  • Clare Noemi Santiago Malave

    This is the kind of analysis I wish to ponder more of.The different kinds of spirituality and prayer. Being brought up catholic or like I’ve heard on the radio, a craddle catholic. I’ve been exposed to various religious orders, but have not yet discovered which should I pursue personally. Franciscan, escolapian, marianists, passionist, carmelites, etc., How can I pick one that will help me the most in my spiritual journey home.

    • Dear Clare – the best way is to pick up key works in any of the traditions that interest you. If their saints draw your heart to Christ, then keep reading!

    • Anthony_Lilles

      Clare –
      Dan has a great point… the best way is just to start with what you can find closest to you… if it is by a saint or doctor of the Church, you will always find something edifying. Sometimes, however, a particular founder of a religious order or a particular doctor of the Church will stir your devotion in a special way. When you find this, then the best thing is to keep reading.

      Happy Easter!

  • LizEst

    Thank you for this very important write-up. Would you please kindly address the circumstances of those whose imaginative powers have not been as well developed as others? Likewise, would you address those whom the Lord has seen fit to suspend those imaginative powers for a considerable length of time?

    • Anthony_Lilles

      You are welcome. What you want me to address may need to be handled in a separate post. But for now, God works in so many mysterious ways, and He knows the limitations of our imagination. He is the One who is source and cause of prayer – so He is sovereign to raise up our imagination in prayer or not to. It is true that God sometimes submerges the imagination in total darkness for a long period of time. Sometimes, He does so by means of external trials that make it nearly impossible to ponder on the words of the Bible. Other times, He permits internal distress where the imagination does not cooperate in prayer at all but seems to work against it – like a rebellious child in Church. This can last for months and years. Under these circumstances, there is no sense in trying to use our imagination in prayer. Instead we must simply choose to believe in the Lord’s merciful love and offer our hearts to Him in the midst of such trials – and believe that if He wants us to use our imagination, He can give us the grace to do that, but since He is not giving this particular grace, He must be giving something even better.

      • LizEst

        Thank you for this explanation, Dr. Lilles. Too bad all directors don’t understand this. Much damage can be done otherwise by trying to force someone to do something they cannot. Is this what is known as the apophatic way?

        • Anthony_Lilles

          I like your observations and you are right about situating the effort to pray without the imagination in terms of apophatic contemplation or apophasis. Some writers call this the apophatic way (as opposed to the cataphatic way) or the via negativa (as opposed to the via positiva). The idea is that whatever we can imagination or think about God, the glory of His love is so much more beyond what our psychological powers can achieve. When our natural powers fail before this wonder, God takes our adoration deeper into the mystery.

          It can be a mistake to consider apophasis only in terms of a method or technique. Sometimes, in an excessive zeal to master techniques and ways of prayer, there are those who forget that prayer is a simple movement of trust and love. That is why spiritual directors must be extremely careful about imposing the use of certain kinds of methods. The indiscriminate imposition of various kinds of meditation (whether apophatic or cataphatic) can weigh the heart down with all kinds of unnecessary burdens.

          In an effort to move us away from an unhealthy preoccupation with various methods in prayer, the Fathers of the Church would sometimes speak of negating negation or an apophasis of the apophatic way. This is sometimes called radical apophaticism. They were not trying to advance esoteric nihilism, but they were trying to get contemplatives to focus on the simplicity of heart mental prayer demands.

          Whether we use our imaginations to stir devotion or we allow the mystery of Christ’s humanity to plunge our imaginations in silent wonder, the key is humble simplicity, the child-like trust that ought to be there when we approach the merciful love of God.

          • LizEst

            Radical apophaticism (negating negation or apophasis of the apophatic way)! First time I’ve heard of this. Thank you for the primer…and God bless you. Blessed, Holy and Happy Easter to you and yours!

  • Connie Rossini

    Two of my first blog posts were on the different meanings of contemplation. My take was specifically Carmelite, and a bit more pedestrian than yours, but may be helpful to some readers. Here’s the second post, on supernatural contemplation:

    • Anthony_Lilles

      Thanks for this — and I enjoyed your posts. Good work!

  • Phew, this is way, way beyond me. But hey, she won’t be frightened. God sure can – and does – reach the simple souls like this one where they can understand Him. Consolation for me comes in the knowledge that Jesus entrusted one of His greatest Message for mankind to a simple young girl who had had barely three years of formal education. And thanks to her great holiness, total surrender to Jesus and co-operation with God’s Grace, we are preparing to celebrate the Feast of the Greatest Attribute of God – His Divine Mercy.

  • Thank you for this clear explanation. You clear up so well the differing use of “contemplation” and also endear St. Ignatius to me more deeply! For sometime, I had thought that I didn’t like Ignatian spirituality, because I loved Theresian spirituality and couldn’t see them as compatible. But as I progressed through coursework at the School of Spiritualiy at the Cenacle, learning a little more about St. Ignatius and coming to understand a little more about his Spiritual Excercises, I realized that they were not opposing spiritualities. I was surpised when I realized that they did in fact compliment each other! And St. Ignatius wasn’t just some tough old soldier, but a man of deep feeling and emotion. Then I began to feel I could relate to him and to be open to the great treasures he gave the Church.

  • $1650412

    WOW! COOL! (I know that is so not a profoundly spiritual or intellectually gifted response, but really what Prof L. describes here seems so accessible, possible and so available to the lover of God, that in any context or era- it inspires jubilation!) :o)

    • RobinJeanne

      Love your ENTHUSIASM… which originally meant… inspired/possessed by God.

    • Plunkett O Ravenous

      True contemplation it so contemplate, to see, the face of Christ in all others – not least your ;enemy.

  • Thank you for this wonderful overview. I had not heard the story about St. Teresa’s seeking help for some stubborn attachments and the advice her Jesuit director gave her. That part is especially meaningful to me.

    A question – when it comes to the mind being “dazzled by the splendor of truth” – does that mean that in contemplation the mind can be “dazzled” without comprehending what it is the person is captivated by? Or should contemplation be accompanied by some profound new insight or understanding? I’ve heard of people having a sudden infusion of a new and deeper understanding of some aspect of the faith and they were told this was a “contemplative moment.” Should all contemplative prayer be accompanied by this kind of deep insight?

    • Anthony_Lilles

      Dear Becky,
      You ask whether the mind can be dazzled in contemplation – it can be in way that you describe. There is always a new knowledge or understanding — but it is more than we think we know, more than we think we understand and this also includes that infused understanding you refer to. This is because by a special grace given in mystical contemplation we know in a manner that participate in God’s knowledge — and this is beyond our natural powers of knowing. We understand with God’s understanding eventhough it exceeds our natural powers to understand in this way. So in relation to our natural knowlege and understanding we feel like we do not know anything at all. But supernaturally, in ways we do not understand, there is a new knowledge in us, a knowledge which is a foretaste of something God has in store for us.

      Saint John of the Cross calls it an obscure, general and loving knowledge. It is also referred to as mystical wisdom and even mystical theology. It is a life changing awareness of God’s presence — the more we have this wisdom, this renewal of the mind, the more we offer our lives as a living sacrifice.

      Otherwise, we do not need to worry about what we experience or do not experience in prayer because what really matters is what God is doing in us and that we are welcoming Him and surrendering ourselves to His loving presence — and we know we are doing this as our lives become more converted, as we reflect His glory more and more in each moment He entrusts to us.

      In Christ.

      • Dear Anthony,

        Thank you so very much for taking the time to respond; this answer is immensely helpful to me. I recall reading this post a month ago when it was first published and not understanding at all what was meant by “the mind being dazzled by the splendor of truth.” Now I think I understand the concept you were conveying – that the mind is dazzled but won’t necessarily know that it has received something new…that one can experience God in prayer without knowing what was received during that time of infused prayer.

        May God richly bless you for the work you do. I’ll be praying for you, your family and your students.

        God bless,

  • Jorge…

    Thank you! Thank you very much!!!

    I was in a dillema because of this: I had my first experience with God in the ignatian spirituality, but I entered in the Shalom Catholic Community,which uses the teaching of Saint Teresa. And didn’t know how to integrate the both in my life because of subject contemplation.
    Now, I can understand clearly: I can enjoy the experience of both!

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