Discalced Carmelite Friars

Province of St. Therese

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“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? -- Contemplation as Experience and as Prayer

        One can have contemplative experiences in ways not explicitly religious, although most of us would still consider such experiences spiritual, using that word to describe them, and making a distinction between the spiritual and the religious. (As an aside, I would draw the line of this distinction somewhat in this way, namely, that the spiritual is a dimension of the human person, while the religious pertains to our formation in a particular religious tradition and community, a religion.)
        Contemplative experience, as I was saying, can take non-religious forms.  For example, we are admiring a painting, or reading a good book, or listening to music, and we fall into a state of absorption.  We become wholly caught up in it.  The music, for example, seems intently present to us, thoroughly engaging, and expressive, even a bit mind-boggling, and all in a deeply personal way.  The music, in other words, seems to be happening inside us.  The sound is still present, of course, but it seems only the occasion for the music.  The music, rather, is a communication of meaning--indeed, a loving knowledge--that takes place within the realm of the human spirit.
        Something similar can happen when we contemplate the beauty of some scene or object of nature.  This sort of contemplation is different from an act of carefully, minutely studying a natural object.  And it is different from simply admiring natural beauty in this or that of its many manifestation.  Rather, it is an experience that seems suddenly to befall us in the presence of natural beauty--namely, the experience of being inwardly stricken, as it were, by a revelation of nature's presence, of its being, be that presence and being one writ large, like the rolling farmland of central Illinois, or small and focused, like a pine cone as it hangs, adorned in sunlight, from the branch of a pine tree.  In such moments one falls into a wordless state of wonder, and this simple revelation of nature's being seems intensely real.  One sees the pine cone vibrantly, as it were, with a kind of loving knowledge.
        I could give other examples--like the tenderness of mutual presence, one to another, that can sometimes happen between spouses after lovemaking.  None of these experiences are, in themselves, explicitly religious, although they are clearly part and parcel of that overall pattern of life that we call religion.  Thus, religion does determine a good part of how we think and talk about such experiences.  But in themselves they are spiritual, not religious, using the distinction I mentioned above.  They are, we could say, actualizations of the human spirit.  What they lack--what keeps them from being fully contemplative in the Carmelite sense of the word--is an interior, subjective awareness of the presence and quiet action within of the divine spirit.  They are not--or not yet--a moments of personal communion of the human with the divine spirit.


*

        It is my conviction that contemplative experience in the fullest, Carmelite sense of the word--as an experience that is had in relation not solely to, say, a work of art, or an instance of natural beauty, or another person, a spouse or close friend, but in relation to God, to the Eternal, the Transcendent, the Holy, the All-Embracing--that this sort of fully contemplative experience is, in itself, pretty common, at least among those with any spiritual sensitivity to them.  The problem is that the experience, when it happens to us, seems like a fluke in the larger course or context of our lives.  We don't know what to do with it.
        For one, we lack a religious formation by means of which to assimilate or integrate it into life.  Or, if we do have such a formation, we lack a personal prayer life through which we can sustain it, let it reverberate, so to speak, and so work its will on us.  Or, if we have such a prayer life, we lack one that is sufficiently disciplined and mature.  Our practice of prayer is not interior enough.  It is not sufficiently rooted in the movements of the heart and mind, and in the capacity--a learned skill--to bring these movements into an inner quiet in the here-and-now.
        The goal, of course, is to go from (a) such contemplative experiences as they might befall us in life to (b) repeated moments of contemplative prayer within our daily practice of prayer--our practice, that is, of a prayer that lends itself to, and disposes us for, such moments of contemplation.  It is, then, at this point, through our progress in the prayer life, that we go, by way of a religious faith and practice, from contemplative experience to contemplative prayer--which is to say, from spiritual experiences to a spirituality.
        And it is ultimately spirituality--which cannot exist independently of, nor divorced from, religious faith and practice--that converts contemplative experience into contemplative prayer.  And it is ultimately contemplative prayer that transforms us, over time, into being contemplative persons.



Written by Fr. Bonaventure Sauer, OCD
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