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Contemplation & Meditation Lies: Peter of Alcantara, Teresa of Avila

In 1577, St. Teresa of Avila completed what is heralded as her seminal work on mental prayer, meditation, and contemplation in the Interior Castle. This guidebook to the most profound depths of prayer has become the standard against which all serious inquiries into interior progress must be measured. This is the reason that it is to St. Teresa that the Catechism of the Catholic Church poses the question, “What is contemplative prayer?”

It is in the fourth mansion of the Interior Castle that the author of this work, the holy Franciscan Friar, Peter of Alcántara, through his writings and relationship with St. Teresa, collaborates with her in an important exchange that should impact the way we view prayer today.

This collaboration arose from a dispute involving individuals positing to St. Teresa that a soul seeking to advance in prayer should work to manage thoughts or guide the mind to silence or stillness during prayer. Those advancing this idea cited St. Peter’s writings as proof of the veracity of their claims.

Owing to her knowledge of and respect for St. Peter, as he was one of her spiritual directors, St. Teresa desired to ensure that her thinking on the matter was correct. She turned to the text you now hold to resolve the dispute.

After her investigation, St. Teresa, not known for timidity of expression and emboldened by her union with St. Peter, attacked these false teachings with a notable force that should elicit our careful attention.

St. Teresa, in the third chapter of the fourth mansion of the Interior Castle, argued four key points against using any method that is excessively focused on thought management during prayer. In summary, she argues that recollection is a loving awareness of the Lord that comes in the form of a gift and not as a result of spiritual gymnastics. Teresa argues that, as we become absorbed in the Lord, it is insufficient, stifling, frustrating and even dangerous to strive for some inert state of consciousness in which we act against our desire to understand. Instead of a state of consciousness, she encourages us to seek a loving friendship with God:

1)   Deeper prayer does not require that we manage our thoughts (which she calls “human industry”) but that we seek to simply and humbly yield to the work of the Lord. Otherwise, she argues, the result will be that we further exacerbate the normal challenges of prayer.

2)   Deeper prayer comes through a resignation to the will to God. This resignation brings peace, whereas human efforts bring frustration. Psychologically coercing ourselves to inactivity disturbs the true peace that the Lord wants to grant. Peace is a matter of bringing our created will into harmony with the loving Will that created it. Teresa, who understands the delicacy of spousal friendship with the Lord, is aware that on this point true peace requires a completely free response of the heart to the Lord’s self-disclosure. When we do not give space to the heart to make such a free response through petitionary prayer and meditation, we are trying to surmount the movements God Himself has inspired in it. Such coercion always does more harm than good.

3)   “Because the same care which is employed for thinking on nothing, will, perhaps, excite the imagination to think much” instead. The effort to achieve a state of thoughtlessness can exacerbate the soul into thinking in even more distracting ways than otherwise would have been the case. We become aware that we are thinking not to think or else that we have achieved a state of thoughtlessness. But this awareness of our own mental activity or inertia, whether self-congratulatory or condemning, attends not to God or what He discloses but to self. It is locked in an orbit around one’s own big fat ego, unable to break free of its self-awareness even when it is not self-aware.

4)   “Because the most pleasing and substantial service we can do for God is to have only His honor and glory in view, and to forget ourselves, our own benefit, delight, and pleasure.” Pursuing a psychic state can be a preoccupation and distraction when our attention should be on the Lord and on responding to His Presence. This is the same problem addressed in Teresa’s third point, but presented from the perspective of our friendship with God, the perspective out of which she begins her critique. If we are self-occupied with self-awareness or lack of self-awareness, thinking or not thinking, understanding or not understanding, we have already lost sight of the Lord. Our prayer is not a response of love to the One who loves us. Rather than the devotion of friendship and awareness of the otherness of God, rather than being vulnerable to adoration before the wonder of the Lord, we have fixated on things that will never expand the heart or allow it to be humble before Him.

Teresa continues her argument with the admonition that we should not seek to “charm our faculties” into some false state of readiness for God, but that if our mind or faculties are ever to be suspended or managed, then the valid impetus or force to achieve such an end comes from God alone. We need do nothing but simply turn our attention to Him and occupy our minds with Him in prayer, which is the central thrust of this book and of the practice of authentic Christian meditation.

Why was this so important to Teresa then, and why is it important to us now? We live in a period that is just as obsessed with methods of prayer and false teaching on prayer as it was then. In keeping with our lower nature, we look for secret, easy formulas to success; five ways to a better this, and four quick and easy ways to a better that. As with modern weight loss schemes, these methods leave the wallet thinner and the soul no closer to the fulfillment of what it truly needs and desires. St. Peter of Alcántara’s work is as sure an antidote to much of the false teaching of our day as it was in his own.

St. Peter’s insights on prayer are far more profound and far-reaching than the size of this text might suggest. The reader will find not only help in satisfying the short-term need for insight on how to grow in prayer, but also a window into perspectives on prayer that should challenge and enrich the reader for years to come.

In particular, St. Peter is not afraid to call us to a deeper commitment to self-denial and ascetical practices as we pursue a deeper life of prayer and devotion. Many in our time criticize or downplay traditional asceticism, but if we believe St. Teresa’s account of St. Peter’s appearance to her after his death, it seems that God also approved of his approach. We also have affirmation of his ascetical counsels affirmed and even more deeply explored in the writings of St. John of the Cross.

One of the greatest benefits of our time with respect to theological clarity is St. John Paul II’s gift of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. In part four entitled Christian Prayer, we have a beautiful and concise summary of all of the most important aspects of the Church’s understanding of prayer. Here, in the Catechism, we see distinctions made between three expressions of prayer: vocal prayer, meditation, and contemplation. This clarity allows us to better understand the progressive nature of the development of prayer and corrects a number of past and present errors. It also sheds light on and reinforces St. Peter’s use of the terms “meditation” and “contemplation.”

St. Peter’s use of the term “meditation” falls squarely in line with the Catechism wherein it reveals:

2705  Meditation is above all a quest. The mind seeks to understand the why and how of the Christian life, in order to adhere and respond to what the Lord is asking. The required attentiveness is difficult to sustain. We are usually helped by books, and Christians do not want for them: the Sacred Scriptures, particularly the Gospels, holy icons, liturgical texts of the day or season, writings of the spiritual fathers, works of spirituality, the great book of creation, and that of history–the page on which the “today” of God is written.

2706 To meditate on what we read helps us to make it our own by confronting it with ourselves. Here, another book is opened: the book of life. We pass from thoughts to reality. To the extent that we are humble and faithful, we discover in meditation the movements that stir the heart and we are able to discern them. It is a question of acting truthfully in order to come into the light: “Lord, what do you want me to do?”

2707 There are as many and varied methods of meditation as there are spiritual masters. Christians owe it to themselves to develop the desire to meditate regularly, lest they come to resemble the three first kinds of soil in the parable of the sower. But a method is only a guide; the important thing is to advance, with the Holy Spirit, along the one way of prayer: Christ Jesus.

2708 Meditation engages thought, imagination, emotion, and desire. This mobilization of faculties is necessary in order to deepen our convictions of faith, prompt the conversion of our heart, and strengthen our will to follow Christ. Christian prayer tries above all to meditate on the mysteries of Christ, as in lectio divina or the Rosary. This form of prayerful reflection is of great value, but Christian prayer should go further: to the knowledge of the love of the Lord Jesus, to union with him.

St. Peter also clearly acknowledges meditation as a transitional form of prayer (as do all faithful spiritual theologians) that draws us ever more deeply into relationship with God. With God’s grace, we eventually transition out of this mode of prayer, into a more simple prayer, and then to what is known as infused contemplation. St. Peter clarifies this process. In his discussion of contemplation, he uses the term “contemplation” to refer to either acquired/natural contemplation or affective meditation. However, he is particularly clear on this matter in his eighth counsel on meditation, where he reveals the right understanding of a kind of contemplation that is much different than what can be known in meditation and is in keeping with St. Teresa’s understanding of contemplation.

for post on false teachingsThe importance of this clarity is a matter of significance in our time. As Ignatian spirituality has emerged as a dominant expression today, a particular form of Ignatian meditation has become very popular. This approach to prayer has and will continue to bear much fruit in the lives of those who diligently engage with the practice, especially in the manner proposed by St. Peter. It is a form of prayer that is important to help beginners emerge through and then out of the purgative phase of spiritual growth into the illuminative phase. This transition, most clearly revealed in the writings of St. John of the Cross, is one whereby the pilgrim, once deeply blessed by meditation, leaves it behind in favor of a contemplation wherein God rewards their diligent ascesis and devotion by drawing them into a form of prayer that has little to do with human will or action and much more to do with God’s work of transformative grace in the soul.

Much more can be said about the value of this great gift of meditation to the Church. This text is so clear that the reader should have little trouble finding the gems that God has in store for all who truly desire to grow in relationship with Him in prayer.

Note from Dan: This excerpt is taken from my newly published version of St. Peter of Alcántara’s great work on Prayer and Meditation entitled “Finding God Through Meditation.” If you would like a signed copy of this book (by me, not St. Peter), CLICK HERE. Your donation for the book will go to the formation of priests, religious, and the faithful poor. If you would just like to buy a copy from Emmaus Road Publishing, CLICK HERE.

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Art for this post regarding false teachings on meditation and contemplation: Detail of Teresa of Avila, François Gérard, 1827; San Pedro de Alcántara (Saint Peter of Alcántara), Luis Tristan, 1st quarter of 17th century; both PD-US author’s life plus 100 years or less; both Wikimedia Commons. Cover of Finding God Through Meditation used with permission.

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About Dan Burke

Dan is the President of the Avila Foundation, the parent organization of SpiritualDirection.com, 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, and his newest books Finding God Through Meditation-St. Peter of Alcantara, 30 Days with Teresa of Avila, Into the Deep and Living the Mystery of Merciful Love: 30 Days with Thérèse of Lisieux. 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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  • RobinJeanne

    What comes to my mind is a book I read, well half-way read, called the “Cloud of Unknowing”. What I mostly remember about it was the “emptying the mind” I don’t know if it was disturbing my soul or just seemed impossible… but I lost interest. Is this one of those books one should read with caution or not at all. Some parts were quite inspiring, though I can’t remember any examples.

    • http://www.spiritualdirection.com/ Dan Burke

      RobinJeanne – the Cloud is not a serious problem in and of itself. The problem is with those who misuse it by not following the authors own admonitions regarding ascesis. Many have misused the text due to an ignorance or poor understanding of the more broad prayer tradition of the Church. Many also misuse it to justify their false practices and teachings. I find this ironic as the author notes a group of folks that they call the “Devil’s contemplatives” and this group resembles perspective and behavior of those who use the Cloud to justify a kind of centering prayer that has no resemblance to Catholic tradition (as noted in this introduction). I don’t recommend it because we have plenty of the best teaching in the Catechism and the Doctors of the Church. There really is no need for the Cloud for those who are not students of spiritual theology.

      • http://blog.davidtorkington.com/ David Torkington

        Dan,
        I have been a lone voice for so long in the wilderness promoting true contemplation as opposed to its counterfeit, that I can hardly believe that there is another who promotes true Christian Prayer and Spirituality. Please do look at my writing on the subject in two of my blogs in particular.
        http://wp.me/P4XZDB-cw and http://wp.me/P4XZDB-eQ I write extensively on the subject.
        My view of the ‘Cloud’ is that it is indeed written for people advanced in contemplation beyond first fervour/beginnings, and it is misused by people trying to justify a ‘mantra’ type of prayer, more of the Eastern tradition, which is simply not Christian. We are Christians, we begin with meditation and learning about the person of Christ, then when we are drawn beyond, we learn from our great tradition and our Christian mystics, and the obscure working of the Holy Spirit how to move on into contemplative prayer. We do not start with mantras, or centering prayer. Those who advocate such methods have lost their way and are taking good people into a dead end. . Thank you for your blog.
        David

        • LizEst

          So glad you’ve found us, David. Check out our site. We have many posts on this subject. Please tell your friends and readership. Thank you…and God bless you!

          • http://blog.davidtorkington.com David Torkington

            Thank you.

        • http://www.spiritualdirection.com/ Dan Burke

          Well said. Thank you for your work. We should talk.

        • http://www.spiritualdirection.com/ Dan Burke

          Great to have you with us David – or it is great to be with you!

          • http://blog.davidtorkington.com David Torkington

            Thank you Dan. Great to be here

      • RobinJeanne

        I think then I have much maturing to do and as you said there are many good clear Catholic books on pray and relationship with the Lord.

    • Jeanette

      Years ago, I read ‘Cloud of Unknowing’ too, RobinJeanne, and I put it away as it made me a bit uneasy. I believe it was the Holy Spirit that prompted me to do so. I believe your ‘loss of interest’ was a safeguard, glory be to God! God bless you.

  • http://contemplativehomeschool.com Connie Rossini

    “In keeping with our lower nature, we look for secret, easy formulas to
    success; five ways to a better this, and four quick and easy ways to a
    better that.” Great insight! Teresa of Avila took the name Teresa of Jesus for a reason. She told her nuns to always keep Jesus at their side during prayer. She would have roundly condemned methods of Centering Prayer that focus on human activity, even though its advocates like to appeal to her. I guess that’s like her contemporary adversaries appealing to St. Peter of Alcantara.

    • http://www.spiritualdirection.com/ Dan Burke

      Dead on target as usual Connie Rossini

      • Patricia

        Glad you are well and here today, Dan!

  • http://www.spiritualdirection.com/ Dan Burke

    Phillip – great insights here – well done. I would like to reemphasize that the emphasis in the Christian East is not quieting for the sake of quieting, or a quieting as a sound method, or a quieting as or with an intention, but a focus of the mind and heart on God. Many confused Catholic authors misread the tradition on this key point and claim the Christian East as backing for their teaching about quieting the mind. The secret to unlocking the Eastern mind on this is to ask them how they quiet the mind. It is not by “letting thoughts go” as is commonly taught but by repeating the Jesus prayer – focusing all their attention on Christ!

    • Phillip (TheMasterBeadsman)

      That is very true, Dan. Some of the great Eastern Christian mystics actually had a recommended reading list, with a specific order, so that one wouldn’t fall into such confusion. The whole point of any form or method of prayer is union/communion with God, not emptying the mind.

      I’m glad to hear that your health seems to be improving! God bless.

      • LizEst

        I like that “with a specific order”! I think they were on to something. Thank you for that Phillip. God bless you!

        • Phillip (TheMasterBeadsman)

          My pleasure, Liz. 🙂

      • Br Rob JJMP

        Hi Phillip I had 5 years listening at seminary. I d love to see this list.

  • Patricia

    Love your last two sentences!

  • Mary Anne

    Dan, I just purchased the kindle edition of your latest book. I am looking forward to a break in my day so that I can start reading it!

  • Phillip (TheMasterBeadsman)

    I will have to dig in to my sources a bit. There isn’t one specific list, but a small handful of them. They have a couple of general themes: 1) start with the Russian authors, 2) move on to the Greek authors. The general notion is that since the Russians are closer to us in time, culture, and location, they are often easier to grasp than the Great Greek Fathers. Nil Sorsky is almost always one of the first recommended authors. My only caution with reading him is that his writings are specifically geared towards monastics, and so some of what he says is simply not applicable to lay married folk (same word of caution goes for most of the other Eastern Christian “Fathers”). St. Basil of Poiana Marului – a Romanian mystic who is a central figure in bringing the Jesus Prayer to Russia – is also one of the first people on the “recommended reading” list. He wrote a number of introductions to various writings contained in the “Philokalia.” If you read “The Way of a Pilgrim,” there is also a recommended order for beginners reading the “Philokalia.” Great news on that front. That order is available in book format under the title “Writings from the Philokalia: On the Prayer of the Heart.”

    I have my own recommended order of reading, but I hesitate to share it simply because it is still in the fine-tuning phase. 🙂

    • Patricia

      Thank you!

  • Jedidiah Tritle

    Great article, and very important to know in order to refute near-pagan (or pagan) practices like “centering prayer” and the like.

  • Caroline Mills Lawry

    You know I love your stuff. This is just such a good and clear statement about true and false prayer. I have your new book and like Mary Anne, will be looking for some time to read it. If it’s anywhere near as good as Navigating the Interior Life, I can’t wait. BTW I’m taking this article to my spiritual director when I see him next week. He has been telling me this in one way or another for some time.

  • MBinSTL

    I found the Fifth Treatise of Fr. Rodriguez’ masterwork, The Practice of Perfection and Christian Virtues, to be an indispensable guide in the beginning stages of a daily routine of mental prayer that may, by God’s grace, flower into contemplation:

    https://archive.org/stream/PPCV-Manresa#page/n273/mode/2up

  • Sista T

    thank you for your insight

  • Sista T

    Personally, I found my Rosary and The Blessed Mother Mary, ever before me in mediatation keeps the door open to recieve the Lord in the secret mysteries in which He chooses to reveal

  • nwaiting2

    I would never disagree with St. Teresa especially on interior prayer. The intellect is tricky but the humility of the soul in stillness aspires to its beloved with His aide. There is a warm inexplicable comfort. The Saint,she,knows.

  • http://www.spiritualdirection.com/ Dan Burke

    Warwick – I believe that the reason the CDF has not yet acted on this matter is because the primary practitioners and teachers in this realm are very difficult to deal with theologically. They typically affirm the truths of the faith with one side of their mouths, and then deny it with false teachings on the other. The web of theological confusion is profound and difficult to unravel. Pray for an effort under way now to do just that.

    • http://contemplativehomeschool.com Connie Rossini

      Hear, hear. I’ve done a lot of reading lately of sites promoting Centering Prayer and interviews with Fr. Thomas Keating. Keating and his advocates contradict themselves all over the place. In one document they’ll say Centering Prayer is acquired contemplation, in another they’ll use John of the Cross’s signs of authentic (infused) contemplation to back their practices. In one place they’ll claim the CDF document wasn’t talking about Centering Prayer, but in another they’ll speak of prayer in completely pagan terms.

      • http://www.spiritualdirection.com/ Dan Burke

        Connie – this was the original motivation to launch this site in 2009. I was shocked to find that the vast majority of so called Catholic spirituality sites were nothing of the sort as you have also noticed. We are glad that you are a part of a good movement to resurrect faithful Catholic spirituality.

  • Alicia

    Is it possible to know if one has passed from meditation to contemplation. I am a mother with 7 children and I find that I am struck powerfully by God’s truths in the most unexpected moments while driving or cooking or even in the midst of engaging with my children. It’s almost as if I am “passing through” or seeing in the events around me a parallel with God’s relationship with Abraham or His parable of the Wedding Feast. Then I’m led to ponder and I feel as though I have come to know God’s heart better. But I’m not able to sit in a quiet place to do this. I’m just going about the business of running the family. Is this meditation or are these gifts of contemplation?

    • http://www.spiritualdirection.com/ Dan Burke

      Dear Alicia – it is possible to know. However, it is not really possible to determine this via a combox conversation. This is something that requires a spiritual director. You can also use my book, Navigating the Interior Life to help you self-diagnose a bit.

  • SnowCherryBlossoms

    I really loved reading this, it was Heavenly to me after so many hard and some bad articles on the different so-called Catholic websites. Years ago, I started to experience many things during prayer and not knowing whether or not I was being deceived, I prayed for help and the Lord led me directly to St.Teresa, St. John of the Cross and Garrigou LaGrange. He also led me to a wonderful Spiritual Director eventually. I will say this, my two protections were (of course) love of Jesus Crucified and The Blessed Virgin. I experienced so much love and it keeps me steady now, while in the dark arid desert of purgation! Thank you so much for this treasure of an essay, it was very unexpected and greatly appreciated. I know the Lord led me to it!

  • Patricia

    I think we can enter into our virtual fantasy world with centering prayer but also with for me anyway bringing stories of fantasy into theology and growth and development of the soul under spiritual direction. Such in which confused me more than helped me fictitious novels by J.R Tolkien and C S Lewis. I believe sound theology and scriptures are best suited in spiritual direction. Prayer is relationship not individuality. This I am learning more day by day. Relationship with God is more important than process of prayer and technique. God looks more at effort and openness for him. Silence or in noise God is present, in jail working with offenders or in church God is present. When we sin God is present. We are the ones who choose to or no to have a relationship with God.

    Blessings and prayers

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  • jcsmitty

    Years ago I had a spiritual director who was big on centering prayer, but I could never get the knack of it and felt very frustrated. Then I started reading articles critical of it for the very reasons noted in this article. Bottom line, I believe, is the commitment to just spend increasing amounts of time with the Lord, as suggested. I also find Fr. Tim Gallagher’s teachings on Ignatian Spirituality, particularly the Examen, very attractive. I love St. Theresa of Avila and am consoled to hear her take on prayer. I’ll have to research the apparition of St. Peter to St. Theresa that confirmed what he had taught her: I am not familiar with that and find it intriguing.

    • http://www.spiritualdirection.com/ Dan Burke

      You are looking to great resources!

  • Charles Lambdin

    But how do you discern the will of God vs. the turmoil of your own thoughts?

  • Br Rob JJMP

    Hi is St John Chrysostom the spiritual leader for Eastern church

  • Mary P

    I have read the Interior Castle many times. What St. Theresa of Avila wrote

    was absolutely true and confirmed by Peter of Alcantara. You can not avoid distractions as they are part of our human makeup. You are to let them float by and not give them a second thought. Usually, during contemplation; which is a gift from God; God decides when, where and how it will happen.
    Of course like St. Theresa says in the “Interior Castle” that we must be generous with God and have advanced in humility and virtue. Loving conversation with God is anywhere, anytime your heart is lifted up to loving thoughts of God.

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