Meditation Vs. Contemplation

Wikis > Meditation Vs. Contemplation


Contemplative prayer is a central concept and practice in the monastic life. Since contemplation involves experiences beyond words and thought it is very difficult to explain in words. For this reason mystic poetry and mystic allegory are often used to convey the flavor of contemplative experiences. In this essay we will examine the non-poetic and non-allegorical writings of several monastic authors in an attempt to explain the difference between meditation and contemplation.

As discussed in the essay entitled consolations in the fourth mansions, Teresa of Avila explains that the earliest glimmers of deep contemplative experience starts as a “warmth” or “comfort” that touches the Christian pilgrims as the travel into their soul. This initial experience is often very a subtle, quiet and barely perceptible state. She also points out that thoughts and imaginations are also present, in competition for the person’s attention, and that these wandering and usually very unspiritual thoughts should not be fought, but instead “ignored” and the attention gently brought back to seeking and loving God, desiring that His will be done in our lives.

Of course, it is good to recall that wandering thoughts and carnal imaginations are not removed by God, and are allowed by God even though we desire to get rid of them, because they keep us humble and they remind us of our fallen state. Thus the individual who journeys inward will eventually sense some sort of inward presence of God that is different from the earlier transformation that occurred through study and the gaining of knowledge about God. Something that is beyond effort, is spontaneous and unearned, is attractive, is “other than us” and conveys a sense of eternity and Holiness.  These new, subtle, barely felt touches seem now to occur despite the fact that our mind is busy thinking, not because it is thinking.  These new states are the beginning of contemplation.

Therefore, the monastics teach that when new Christians (or novice monks) start their journey they will naturally use verbal means of seeking God, but after a time (often a very long time) they should let go of these earlier methods of seeking when they start to perceive this new deeper experience.

The earlier methods (also common in protestant believers after being born again) include Bible reading, reading the writings of previous “saints” (or, in Protestant circles, the writings of the “heroes of the faith”), systematic Bible study, commentaries, Theology books, sermons, spiritual discussion with individuals and in groups, and verbal prayer. Verbal prayer, for example intercession, can be silent (done in the mind, and hence sometimes called mental prayer) or out loud (vocal prayer), rote or spontaneous. These early methods also include meditation.

Meditation classically refers to deeply thinking about a passage of scripture. So, for example, a person could read about the life of Joseph in the Old Testament. Then they could think about Joseph’s life. They could imagine what it would feel like to be betrayed and abandoned by one’s brothers. They could imagine being falsely accused, and what it would be like to spend a long time in prison based on this false accusation. And, we could reflect on how all of Joseph’s suffering was for a purpose and was ordained of God. We could begin to realize that we have many elements of Joseph’s life in ourselves.  All of this would constitute “meditating” on Joseph’s life.

Now, all of these verbal methods are valuable and can be engaged in profitably for many years. These are God’s methods and a person never completely stops using them. Nevertheless, at some point, (and this can be decades) people usually find that the value of these methods begins to diminish. They also find it increasingly difficult to continue theses exercises. They lose interest in what previously was filled with zeal and life. Generally speaking older Christians become lukewarm because they no longer have a viable devotional life. The monastic teaching is that this waning energy is God’s way of moving a person beyond a verbal, and thought based, relationship into a non verbal, intimate, romantic and much more edifying spiritual relationship. And, as said above, with a little training a person can begin to feel the glimmers of this presence of God in the heart. Thus, when interest wanes, and/or non verbal spiritual sensations begin to emerge, a person should not worry but should move away from the verbal to the non verbal. Often this entire process is described by the phrase “moving from meditation to contemplation”.


We will now look at some of the more famous teachings on this subject. We start with Chapter 13, book 2 of “The Ascent of Mount Carmel” by John of the Cross:



Wherein are set down the signs which the spiritual person will find in himself whereby he may know at what season it behooves him to leave meditation and reasoning and pass to the state of contemplation.

1. “In order that there may be no confusion in this instruction it will be necessary in this chapter to explain at what time and season it behooves the spiritual person to lay aside the task of discursive meditation as carried on through the imaginations and forms and figures above mentioned, in order that he may lay them aside neither sooner nor later than when the Spirit bids him; for, although it is meet for him to lay them aside at the proper time in order that he may journey to God and not be hindered by them, it is no less needful for him not to lay aside the said imaginative meditation before the proper time lest he should turn backward. For, although the apprehensions of these faculties serve not as proximate means of union to the proficient, they serve nevertheless as remote means to beginners in order to dispose and habituate the spirit to spirituality by means of sense, and in order to void the sense, in the meantime, of all the other low forms and images, temporal, worldly and natural. We shall therefore speak here of certain signs and examples which the spiritual person will find in himself, whereby he may know whether or not it will be meet for him to lay them aside at this season.

2. The first sign is his realization that he can no longer meditate or reason with his imagination neither can take pleasure therein as he was wont to do aforetime; he rather finds aridity in that which aforetime was wont to captivate his senses and to bring him sweetness. But, for as long as he finds sweetness in meditation, and is able to reason, he should not abandon this, save when his soul is led into the peace and quietness which is described in the third sign.

3. The second sign is a realization that he has no desire to fix his mediation or his sense upon other particular objects, exterior or interior. I do not mean that the imagination neither comes nor goes (for even at times of deep recollection it is apt to move freely), but that the soul has no pleasure in fixing it of set purpose upon other objects.

4. The third and surest sign is that the soul takes pleasure in being alone, and waits with loving attentiveness upon God, without making any particular meditation, in inward peace and quietness and rest, and without acts and exercises of the faculties — memory, understanding and will — at least, without discursive acts, that is, without passing from one thing to another; the soul is alone, with an attentiveness and a knowledge, general and loving, as we said, but without any particular understanding, and adverting not to that which it is contemplating.

5. These three signs, at least, the spiritual person must observe in himself, all together, before he can venture safely to abandon the state of meditation and sense,  and to enter that of contemplation and spirit.

6. And it suffices not for a man to have the first alone without the second, for it might be that the reason for his being unable to imagine and meditate upon the things of God, as he did aforetime, was distraction on his part and lack of diligence; for the which cause he must observe in himself the second likewise, which is the absence of inclination or desire to think upon other things; for, when the inability to fix the imagination and sense upon the things of God proceeds from distraction or lukewarmness, the soul then has the desire and inclination to fix it upon other and different things, which lead it thence altogether. Neither does it suffice that he should observe in himself the first and second signs, if he observe not likewise, together with these, the third; for, although he observe his inability to reason and think upon the things of God, and likewise his distaste for thinking upon other and different things, this might proceed from melancholy or from some other kind of humour in the brain or the heart, which habitually produces a certain absorption and suspension of the senses, causing the soul to think not at all, nor to desire or be inclined to think, but rather to remain in that pleasant state of reverie. Against this must be set the third sign, which is loving attentiveness and knowledge, in peace, etc., as we have said. (In other words, if a person has no interest in anything, not in meditation or in finding God internally, or even secular things, then the person may merely be depressed. But if the person has no interest in meditation, but very much wants to feel the love of God, and attend to loving God in return, then this person is being moved from meditation to contemplation.)

7. It is true, however, that, when this condition first begins, the soul is hardly aware of this loving knowledge, and that for two reasons. First, this loving knowledge is apt at the beginning to be very subtle and delicate, and almost imperceptible to the senses. Secondly, when the soul has been accustomed to that other exercise of meditation, which is wholly perceptible, it is unaware, and hardly conscious, of this other new and imperceptible condition, which is purely spiritual; especially when, not understanding it, the soul allows not itself to rest in it, but strives after the former, which is more readily perceptible; so that abundant though the loving interior peace may be, the soul has no opportunity of experiencing and enjoying it. But the more accustomed the soul grows to this, by allowing itself to rest, the more it will grow therein and the more conscious it will become of that loving general knowledge of God, in which it has greater enjoyment than in aught else, since this knowledge causes it peace, rest, pleasure and delight without labor.

8. And, to the end that what has been said may be the clearer, we shall give, in this chapter following, the causes and reasons why the three signs aforementioned appear to be necessary for the soul that is journeying to pure spirit.”

For more from John of the Cross see the series beginning with the essay entitled The Dark Night.


Next we will look at Chapter 19 of “The Spiritual Guide”, by Michael Molinos. One word of clarification is needed here: Molinos is equating “external” with “carnal” in some parts of this chapter. This is not quite fair, since an external person can progress a long way in purification without moving internally. Nevertheless, the highest, and deepest and most intimate aspects of having a relationship with God are, according to the monastic teachings, found only through interior contemplative prayer.



The Difference between the Outward and Inward Man.


1. THERE are two sorts of Spiritual Persons, Internal and External: those who are external seek God by without, by Discourse, by Imagination and Consideration: they Endeavour mainly to get Virtues, many Abstinences, Maceration of Body, and Mortification of the Senses: they give themselves to rigorous Penance; they put on Sack-cloth, chastise the flesh by Discipline, Endeavour silence, bear the presence of God, forming him present to themselves in their Idea of him, or their Imagination, sometimes as a Pastor, sometimes as a Physician, and sometimes as a Father and Lord: they delight to be continually speaking of God, very often making fervent Acts of Love; and all this is Art and Meditation: by this way they desire to be great, and by the power of voluntary and exterior Mortifications, they go in quest of sensible Affections and warm Sentiments, thinking that God resides only in them, when they have them. This is the External Way, and the Way of Beginners, and though it be good, yet there is no arriving at Perfection by it; nay, there is not so much as one step towards it, as Experience shows in many, that after fifty years of this external exercise, are void of God, and full of themselves, having nothing of spiritual Men, but just the name of such.


2. There are others truly Spiritual, which have passed by the beginnings of the Interior Way which leads to Perfection and Union with God; and to which the Lord called them by his infinite Mercy, from that outward Way, in which before they exercised themselves. These men retired in the inward part of their Souls, with true Resignation into the Hands of God, with a total putting off and forgetting even of themselves; do always go with a raised Spirit to the Presence of the Lord, by the means of pure Faith, without Image, Form or Figure, but with great assurance founded in tranquility and rest Internal: in whose infused meeting and entertainment, the spirit draws with so much force, that it makes the Soul contract inwardly, the Heart, the Body and all the Powers of it.


3. These Souls, as they are already passed by the interior Mortification, and have been cleansed by God with the Fire of Tribulation, with infinite and horrible Torments, all of them ordained by his hand, and after his way, are Masters of themselves, because they are entirely subdued and denied; which makes them live with great Repose and internal Peace: and although in many occasions they feel Resistance and Temptations, yet they become presently Victorious, because being already Souls of Proof, and endued with Divine Strength, the motions of Passions cannot last long upon them; and although vehement Temptations and troublesome Suggestions of the Enemy may persevere a long time about them, yet they are all conquered with infinite gain; God being he that Fights within them.

4. These Souls have already procured themselves a great Light, and a true Knowledge of Christ our Lord, both of his Divinity and his Humanity: They exercise this infused Knowledge with a quiet Silence in the inward entertainment, and the superior part of their Souls, with a Spirit free from Images and external Representations, with a love that is pure and stripped of all Creatures; they are raised also from outward Actions to the love of Humanity and Divinity; so much as they enjoy, they forget, and in all of it they find that they love their God with all their Heart and Spirit.

5. These blessed and sublimated Souls take no pleasure in any thing of the World, but contempt and in being alone, and in being forsaken and forgotten by everybody: They live so disinterested and taken off, that though they continually receive many supernatural Graces, yet they are not changed, no not at those inclinations, being just as if they had not received them, keeping always in the in-most of their Hearts a great lowliness and contempt of themselves; always humbled in the depth of their own unworthiness and vileness: In the same manner they are always quiet, serene, and possessed with evenness of mind in Graces and Favors extraordinary, as also in the most rigorous and bitter Torments. There is no News that cheers them; no Success that makes them sad; Tribulation never disturb them; nor the interior, continual and divine Communication make them vain and conceited; they remain always full of holy and filial Fear, in a wonderful Peace, Constancy and Serenity.


Lastly, we quote various passages from the fourth mansions of “The Interior Castle”, by Teresa of Avila:


“Most of the souls which dwell in the Mansions already described (the first 3 mansions) are familiar with feelings of devotion, for they labor with the understanding almost continuously, and make use of it in their meditations. They are right to do this, because nothing more has been given them (that is, prior to their receiving the supernatural consolations that mark the beginning of contemplation). They would do well, however, to spend short periods in making various acts and in praising God and rejoicing in His goodness and in His being Who He is, and in desiring His honor and glory. They should do this as well as they can, for it goes a long way towards awakening the will. But, when the Lord gives them this other grace, (the supernatural consolations) let them be very careful not to reject it for the sake of finishing their customary meditation.”

“As I have written about this (transition from meditation to contemplation) at great length elsewhere, (chapter 12 in ‘Life’ by Teresa of Avila) I will not repeat it here. I only want you to be warned that, if you would progress a long way on this road and ascend to the Mansions of your desire, the important thing is not to think much, but to love much; do, then, whatever most arouses you to love. Perhaps we do not know what love is: it would not surprise me a great deal to learn this, for love consists, not in the extent of our happiness, but in the firmness of our determination to try to please God in everything, and to endeavor, in all possible ways, not to offend Him, and to pray Him ever to advance the honor and glory of His Son and the growth of the Catholic Church. Those are the signs of love.”

So, Teresa tells us that when the first glimmers of supernatural consolations begin that this marks the beginning of the move from meditation to contemplation. She points out here that a heart set on loving God and desiring to please Him will do more to advance this transition than to look for consolation. Thus expressing love to Him and sincerely desiring His honor and glory is more beneficial than asking to be able to sense His presence. Or, as someone has said, we have to move from seeking the gifts to seeking the giver.

Remember too, as discussed in two levels of consciousness in the fourth mansions, that these early glimmers of God’s presence are very subtle, and often overwhelmed by the noise of distracting thoughts. We should not suppose that the transition to contemplation, once begun, will be rapid or easy. She reminds us, in great detail, that inward prayer is difficult because it is often dry and that many inward trials will oppose our effort to move closer to God. Thus, to avoid discouragement, and to promote progress, she recommends focusing on loving God for Himself, with humility and gratitude. She counsels against “trying” to silence thoughts and “sense” the presence of God.  Instead, Love Him, trust Him and wait for Him to reveal Himself. Thus she gives this advice:

“It is by humility that the Lord allows Himself to be conquered so that He will do all we ask of Him, and the first way in which you will see if you have humility is that if you have it you will not think you merit these favors and consolations of the Lord or are likely to get them for as long as you live. “But how,” you will ask, “are we to gain them if we do not strive after them?” I reply that there is no better way than this one which I have described (when she earlier counseled loving God for Himself and not seeking consolations). There are several reasons why they should not be striven for:

The first is because the most essential thing is that we should love God without any motive of self-interest.

The second is because there is some lack of humility in our thinking that in return for our miserable services we can obtain anything so great.

The third is because the true preparation for receiving these gifts is a desire to suffer and to imitate the Lord, not to receive consolations; for, after all, we have often offended Him.

The fourth reason is because His Majesty is not obliged to grant them to us, as He is obliged to grant us glory if we keep His commandments, without doing which we could not be saved, and He knows better than we what is good for us and which of us truly love Him. That is certain truth, as I know; and I also know people who walk along the road of love, solely, as they should, in order to serve Christ crucified, and not only do they neither ask for consolations nor desire them, but they beg Him not to give them to them in this life.

The fifth reason is that we should be laboring in vain; for this water does not flow through conduits, as the other (that is, meditation) does, and so we gain nothing by fatiguing ourselves if it cannot be had at the source. I mean that, however much we may practice meditation, however much we do violence to ourselves, and however many tears we shed, we cannot produce this water in those ways; it is given only to whom God wills to give it and often when the soul is not thinking of it at all.

We are His, sisters; may He do with us as He will and lead us along whatever way He pleases. I am sure that if any of us achieve true humility and detachment (I say “true” because it must not be in thought alone, for thoughts often deceive us; it must be total detachment) the Lord will not fail to grant us this favor, and many others which we shall not even know how to desire. May He be forever praised and blessed. Amen.”

We will next discuss an example of the supernatural purification that comprises stage two of monastic purification, by looking at Revelation of Self that occurs when we  see God.