SpiritualDirection.com / Catholic Spiritual Direction

Contemplation and Meditation… What is the difference?

Dear Father John, How is contemplation different than meditation?
catholic-prayerContemplative prayer consists of a more passive (and more sublime) experience of God. If Christian meditation is the soul's inspired quest to discover God (our work of seeking God), contemplation is God's lifting of the soul into himself (God's work of embrace), so that it effortlessly basks in the divine light. The key distinction here is that contemplation, in the strict sense, is purely the work of God. Meditation, though aided by God and predicated upon the grace and work of Christ, is the result of our seeking him. That basic distinction is often blurred, causing confusion, because both contemplative and meditative prayer have multiple forms. Therefore, it may be worthwhile to clarify further.

In general, meditative prayer can be mostly discursive or mostly affective. A discursive meditation follows a more logical development, analyzing a truth of the faith or a scripture passage in order to discover an insight or deepen one’s Christian understanding. That discovery or deepening leads the soul out of analysis and reflection and into conversation with God – acts of thanksgiving, praise, contrition, or petition. An affective meditation puts less emphasis on analysis or reflection, and more emphasis on the conversation, the acts of thanksgiving and praise that flow from the soul’s spiritual (not necessarily emotional) affections. Sometimes a mere glance at a biblical phrase can stir up a strong affection in the soul, and that is enough for the soul to enter into conversation with God; this is a (mostly) affective meditation. Other times, a long period of reflection, of analytical searching, finally yields an affection that leads to conversation; this is a mostly discursive meditation.

In certain seasons of the spiritual life, and often as the soul increases in spiritual maturity, meditation naturally becomes more affective. When a soul finds itself regularly and easily entering into contact with God, with hardly any discursive effort, this is often called the “prayer of quiet” or the “prayer of simplicity.” The soul finds itself easily gazing silently at the grandeur of God. Because so little effort is required in this kind of almost exclusively affective meditation, it is often called contemplative prayer. This is a common and valid use of the term. But it can cause confusion, because in a strict sense, and in the writings of mystics and theologians, contemplative prayer (“infused contemplation” is the technical term) goes even beyond this adoring gaze. We can gaze at the ocean and experience a deep sense of wonder, but it is another thing altogether to be submerged in the water. Infused contemplation is when God submerges us in himself; we no long gaze at God from without, but experience an ineffable union with him. Think of the piece of iron that is thrust into the fire and takes on the qualities of the fire.

And so, the most active type of mental prayer (as opposed to vocal prayer) is discursive meditation, which dovetails with affective meditation, which in turn culminates in the prayer of quiet, in which the soul enters effortlessly into extended acts of thanksgiving, praise, contrition, or petition. This is so effortless that it is akin to and often called contemplation. Infused contemplation, however, actually goes to a new level, lifting the soul out of itself and into the divine.

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college, he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller, "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". His most recent books are "Spring Meditations", "Seeking First the Kingdom: 30 Meditations on How to Love God with All Your Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength", and "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions". Fr. John currently splits his time between Michigan (where he continues his writing apostolate and serves as a confessor and spiritual director at the Queen of the Family Retreat Center) and Rome, where he teaches theology at Regina Apostolorum. His online, do-it-yourself retreats are available at RCSpirituality.org, and he answers questions about the spiritual life at SpiritualDirection.com.

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