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Saint Bernard’s Four Kinds of Contemplation

February 8, 2014 by  
Filed under Anthony Lilles, Contemplation, Prayer

At the end of his treatise on contemplation (also known as his treatise On Consideration), Saint Bernard of Clairvaux observes the dimensions of Christian mental prayer. Specifically, when Saint Paul prays in Ephesians 3:18 that we might come to comprehend and be filled with the breadth and length, height and depth of the fullness of God revealed in the love of Christ, Saint Bernard sees four kinds of contemplation.

For Saint Bernard, God's breadth is His eternity, His promises. His length is His love, His works. His height is His power, His majesty. His depth is His wisdom, His judgments. Bernard goes on to teach that our meditation on the promises by faith covers the eternal length of God, Himself; our remembrance of all His blessings is a contemplation of the breadth encompassed by the Trinitarian mystery; contemplation of the Lord's majesty is a glimpse of the heights Divinity; and that our examination of divine judgments gazes on the very depths of the Invisible God. Christ's sacrifice of Himself on the Cross reveals this whole mystery Saint Bernard describes and makes it accessible to us in such a way that it can fill our whole being to the point at which love transforms our whole existence through prayer.

When Saint Bernard dwells on these “kinds” of contemplation, he is free from the psychological subjectivism that trumps most discussions on prayer today.  This experienced based discussion inverts the discussion on prayer away from God Himself and onto the accomplishments or achievements of the person who prays. No longer aware of the object of our contemplation, the conversation gets lost in outcomes and results. Ink is wasted, not on the Mystery that Saint Paul and Saint Bernard invite us to glimpse, but instead on breaking through into new kinds of consciousness.

When we are not free from subjectivism, from an experience oriented approach to prayer, it is easy to be entrapped. That is to say, if we are not careful, we might never escape the gravity of our own big fat ego.

This is why those seeking a new state of consciousness do not need sacred doctrine – they do not need to be guided by the shining brilliance God has revealed because they satisfy themselves on that which cannot truly salvifically illumine the labyrinth of their hearts. To see the truth about ourselves and about God, we need a light that is not our own, that shines above us, that is a gift humbly received. We must not be naive in regard to the power our own pride to project what it thinks it understands about God onto itself, and vice versa. Lucifer was fascinated with his own light in this way to his own peril. This is a deadly trap of self-deception.

Against this contemporary tendency, Saint Bernard does not describe states of consciousness or methods of meditation when he offers his four kinds of contemplation. He is completely focused on the mystery that the prayer of faith clings to, the splendor that it strains to see. He refers to good fruit that the heights and depths and horizons produce in the soul. He is aware that the contemplation of these things is truly salvific. Yet, everything he presents as the effects of the contemplation points back to the wonders it beholds. It is about communion, relationship – not merely enlightenment and consciousness.  It is to this end, to the ultimate end of the whole divine economy, that Saint Bernard has the freedom of heart to distinguish contemplative prayer in terms of what not only should be discussed but what should also be sought out with every effort of our heart: the works, the promises, the majesty, the wisdom of the One who loved us to the end.


Art: Saint Bernard, about 1469, Taddeo Crivelli, 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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  • Camila

    Dr. Lilles,

    With splendid clarity, once more, you eloquently articulated what is often so difficult for me to put into thought, let alone words. Thank you.

  • ThirstforTruth

    And now I understand more fully the error of Thomas Merton in especially his later writings ( a subject dealt fully with in earlier posts). It is filled with this psychological subjectivism. Praise God for those who have preserved the wisdom of St Bernard and other true contemplatives.

    • Dear Thirst – I am delighted that you made this connection. You are exactly right. Have you considered becoming a student at the Avila Institute?

      • ThirstforTruth

        Oh, my dear man! You over-estimate me! I am well into my septuagenarian years and have trouble remembering what day it is! But I will consider your suggestion as a compliment. Who knows what God has planned for me in my remaining years on earth. It would be a worthy challenge but……

        • No sir – we have a number of students over 70…

        • Camila

          “Planted in the house of the Lord,
          they shall flourish in the courts of our God.

          They shall bear fruit even in old age,
          they will stay fresh and green,

          To proclaim: “The Lord is just;
          my rock, in whom there is no wrong.”

          (Psalm 92:14-16)

          • LizEst

            So true! God bless you, Camila! Happy Lord’s Day!

  • patricia

    Contemplation or should I say Christian contemplation brings us into the biblical mysteries of God in which I believe no other Christian contemplation is possible. Contemplation brings us to conversion or at least it should turns us towards God. I believe the sacraments given to us by God brings us deeper in participation in the mysteries of God. Scriptures liturgy of hours help to develop our hearts like Christ heart. The more and more I take spiritual theology and really seek Gods truth that is often obscured by the world, the more and more have I see Gods mysteries his sacraments are outside time and space in which more and more we grow and live a sacramental life the more we understand and deepen ourselves into the biblical and sacramental mysteries of almighty and awesome God, the Holy Trinity.

  • DianeVa

    Thank you for making this so clear. Although I desire and thirst for reading the beautiful writings and wisdom of all the saints and contemplative’s, I feel it more of sharing in the grace, the fruit of their contemplations and encounters with God. There are as many encounters and experiences to share as there are people and thoughts! I cherish others words, and I feel moved by their sharings as wise as they are, yet nothing can compare to the words that God is saying personally to me in prayer. I often write in my journal….””Lord, I can’t put it into words, there are not enough words to convey my thanks for saving me and living in communion with me!” Inadequate I know, but God knows my heart and the words I wish to whisper back to Him!

  • “…if we are not careful, we might never escape the gravity of our own big fat ego.” I had to laugh because this is so true. It takes me back to the beginning of Genesis when Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit because they bought the con that they would be gods. When I read this post everything fell into place concerning the New Age errors and all the other goofy self-centered teachings out there. It truly is awful to have a heart yearning for God that gets directed back to self as the end point. That gravity of ego keeps us rooted in the earth and prevents us from soaring to the heights. Thanks for this post. It’s given me a frame of reference to analyze any strange new thing about prayer coming my way.

  • Jesusa Chamlangen

    Thank you for this post. its good to meditate on this subject matter. it helps us to know God better.

  • Mancipium Mariae

    Great article Anthony. Contemplation of God has taken second place to our searching for consciousness and subjective experience. This has been a great danger in the Ignatian experience when the focus has been on consolation or desolation. Rather than oppose contemplation of divine truths to subjective experiences, I believe that it is very important to keep our attention on the divine mysteries first and foremost and only secondarily to notice and reflect on how our affectivity is affected by what we contemplate. I have found this a more wholesome approach to let contemplation of divine truths transform and train my emotions. Thanks for reminding me to keep the focus on the divine. God bless.

  • Michael Brooks

    It’s unfortunate that many equate searching for consciousness/subjective experience with that of Contemplation of God.

    • LizEst

      So true, Michael. The journey of faith and prayer is one of complete trust in the Lord even without sensible consolation. He is always, always there for us, sustaining us and loving us no matter what. Can we not do the same for Him? That’s the kind of faith and prayer, the humility, that draws God. God bless you, Michael.

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