Discalced Carmelite Friars

Province of St. Therese

Poet and Contemplative

“From the abundance of his spirit [the poet] pours out secrets and mysteries rather than rational explanation” (Prologue, The Spiritual Canticle).

“In contemplation God teaches the soul very quietly and secretly, without its knowing how, without the sound of words” (Chapter 39, The Spiritual Canticle).

In the spirit of St. John of the Cross, this blog reflects on the contemplative experience and the poetic experience, sometimes separately and distinctly, sometimes in common, as mutually enlightening.

I will also post to this blog, from time to time, my own poetry, with a short interpretive note attached.

~ Fr. Bonaventure Sauer, OCD

What is Contemplation? -- a Recap

        There are, I think it safe to say, only a few out there in cyber-land who've been wondering what's become of this blog these past couple of months.  Maybe it's dried up under the summer sun and withered on the vine--or so a few of you might have been wondering.  Well, be that as it may, among the possible few who perhaps have been so wondering I count myself.  I've been wondering, too.
        You see, it's been a rather distracted summer for me, with distractions both good and bad.  But then I guess that's what summer's all about, isn't it?  We let ourselves get distracted and don't feel too bad about it.  And so it was that, amid these distractions, I let this blog slip away, off into idleness.
        But here I am again.  And as summer, ever so tentatively, begins to break, and as thoughts of autumn stir in the heart, I'm determined to return to this blog and jump back in, grab hold, and get it up and going again.


        So, where was I?  I was discussing contemplation.  And I want to continue along that line.  But, before moving on, I feel I ought to pause a bit, get my bearings, and recap.  Here goes, then.

        Contemplation is a word which, for Carmelites, refers to a particular experience of the presence of God in prayer.  This experience is deeply interior and intimate and, being particular, has certain characteristics to it--characteristics which can, at least in general, be described.
        In my last post on this topic, therefore, I mentioned some of these characteristics, drawing upon the reflections of St. John of the Cross as found in "Stanza 3" of The Living Flame of Love.  These general characteristics are, by way of a recap:
        --an interior attitude or disposition of receptivity towards the divine presence,
        --which receptivity manifests itself as an inner tranquility, a silence of mind and heart, a detachment from all ideas or concepts or images about God, considered as possible objects for meditation or devotion,
        --and, then, if only briefly, the divine response to this receptivity, namely, a welling up from within of a direct awareness of God's presence, of what John of the Cross calls a simple, delicate, loving knowledge of God.
        As regards this last point, what is meant by knowledge is, for one, a simple awareness that God is here with me, right here, right now, not as an idea made present by means of my thinking about God, of my holding on to this of that concept or image of God in my mind.  Rather, the knowledge is that of an awareness of God being present in himself, so to speak--present, that is, in the bestowal of divine love, of divine blessing or favor--what we call grace--and of divine sublimity, beauty, and peace.
        Put this way, contemplation can sound pretty mystical--in the sense in which people often use that word.  But it's not, not really.  In fact, it's really rather ordinary as spiritual experiences go, one which many, probably most people have had at some point or other in their lives.  But to practice prayer in such a way that this contemplative experience of God becomes, while not commonplace, certainly more or less regular and recurring in one's prayer life--that is what is unusual, although it's mystical either, not in the way that that word is used in common parlance.


        Obviously, enumerating a few general characteristics of that particular spiritual experience which Carmelites call contemplation is only a beginning, a place to start.  It orients us for further reflection.  To spell out these characteristics in this way, though, does offer the prayerful person a not insignificant help towards understanding.  Of course, it doesn't explain anything, even if explanation were possible, which it probably isn't.

        Why is that?  Because the experience is, for one, deeply personal--by which I mean that it is of the person in his or her interiority, in the uniqueness of his or her personal being.  One can generalize about it only at the loss of immediacy and specificity. 
        Also, the experience is wholly subjective.  It happens within that particular dimension of human experience, subjectivity, in much the same way that aesthetic experience does.  The experience can't, in other words, be reduced to one or another of its objective causes or conditions.  These objective conditions are there, of course, but they don't cause the experience, and they can't fully account for it.
        The contemplative experience of God in prayer, as brief and fleeting as it may be, engages the person in all aspects of his or her being--physical, mental, emotional, cultural, social, intellectual.  It also takes place within the concrete here-and-now of the person's life.  What happened yesterday, what may very well happen tomorrow, how I am feeling today, what I am thinking about, my relationships with others, my hopes and dreams and longings, my past spiritual experience as it continues to have its effect on me, the overall shape and texture of my prayer life and of my religious formation (or lack thereof)--it all helps to define my subjective self and so has its impact on the present moment of contemplative experience.  Yet, given this obvious truth, it's also true that no single objective factor--nor even all of them together--can explain, let alone account for, the experience.
        Thus, when it comes to the contemplative experience itself, we are really left with simply trying to describe it by highlighting certain distinguishing characteristics.  Such a description can do no more than elicit from the reader an acknowledgment of their authenticity.  "Yes," the reader says, "I know what you're talking about, for what you say is the way it is for me."  That's the best we can hope for.
        Of course, beyond a mere description of the experience we can talk about the place and significance of contemplative experience within the overall journey of one's practice of prayer--of what is called the prayer life.  We can talk about contemplation as a moment--an event, if you will--in this journey.  That is what St. Teresa of Jesus does in the "Fourth Dwelling Places" of The Interior Castle.
        We can also talk about this experience in terms of its enduring effects in life, the way in which it helps to reshape how we think about and respond to and understand the world and others.  These are the fruits of contemplation, and they are profound and deeply, truly transformative.  To employ a particular turn of phrase, the fruits of contemplation amount to the many ways in which, through this experience of God, we find ourselves becoming more and more contemplative persons--that being the distinguishing manner in which we, more and more, go about our lives.  Of course, it is not immediately apparent just what being a contemplative person means.  It is shorthand for a kind of endpoint, a kind of ultimate ideal--namely, a vision of human spiritual perfection.  And that vision is not at all clear.  But St. Teresa of Jesus pursues just such a line of reflection in the "Fifth Dwelling Places" of The Interior Castle.

Written by Fr. Bonaventure Sauer, OCD
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