A description of the soul's journey to full union with God

The Illuminative Way of Proficients


Ch 28 : Contemplative Prayer


Our treatment of docility to the Holy Ghost, of the infinite value of the Mass, of the Communion of proficients, and of the mysticism of The Imitation, prepares us to consider what should be the contemplative prayer of those who advance in the illuminative way.

We treated in Volume I (1) of the mental prayer of beginners, of its progressive simplification, and of perseverance in this interior prayer. In our discussion of the prayer of proficients we shall see, first of all, how St. Francis de Sales sums up the traditional teaching on this point, using the principles of St. Thomas to illuminate his doctrine. Next, we shall see what constitutes the beginning of contemplative prayer in the opinion of St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross, which will enable us to get some idea of how it should develop.


The holy Bishop of Geneva sets forth his teaching on this subject in his Treatise on the Love of God.(2) In the Introduction to a Devout Life,(3) he had already described meditation, which is an act of the understanding by which it makes one or more considerations in order to excite our affections for God and divine things. The mind meditates on a subject with the aid of the imagination and of discourse or reasoning. Resolutions must be made after the affections, and the meditation should end with thanksgiving, with an offering of self, and a petition to God to grant us His grace that we may put into practice the resolutions He has inspired in us.

But if one perseveres in this way, meditation becomes simplified affective prayer in which the various acts tend to fuse into a single act. Thus the faithful soul is gradually raised to contemplation, which is "a loving, simple, and fixed attention of the mind on divine things."(4 ) At this moment the life of the soul is entirely simple and concentrated on the object that it loves; the soul looks with a simple gaze at a perfection of God, especially at His goodness, or the radiation of it in some divine work. (5)

Consequently, says St. Francis de Sales, "prayer is called meditation until it has produced the honey of devotion; after that it changes into contemplation. . . . Thus, as bees draw nectar from the flowers, we meditate to gather the love of God, but, having gathered it, we contemplate God and are attentive to His goodness because of the sweetness that love makes us find in it." (6) In other words, meditation prepares for the act of love of God, whereas contemplation follows it.

From this fact springs a second difference: "Meditation considers in minute detail and, as it were, item by item the objects that are suitable to excite our love; but contemplation gazes with simplicity and concentration on the object that it loves." (7) We no longer linger over one detail or another; we attain to a general view which dwells on God with admiration and love, as the gaze of an artist rests on nature, or that of a child on his mother's features.

A third difference springs from the two preceding: whereas meditation is not made without effort, "contemplation is made with pleasure, in that it presupposes that one has found God and His holy love." (8) Nevertheless contemplation has its hours of dark night in which the soul, now eager for God, keenly feels His absence by reason of the ardent desire it has to possess Him, a desire in which it unites itself in trial to His good pleasure.(9)

St. Francis de Sales concludes: "Holy contemplation being the end and the purpose to which all spiritual exercises tend, they are all reduced to it, and those who practice them are called contemplatives." (10) However, on the subject of the loving recollection of the soul in contemplation, the holy doctor adds: "We do not make this recollection by choice, inasmuch as it is not in our power to have it whenever we wish; it does not depend on our care; but God produces it in us when it pleases Him by His most holy grace." (11)


The teaching of St. Francis de Sales, which we have just quoted, springs from the very notion of supernatural contemplation such as we find it in the works of St. Thomas.

St. Thomas shows in the Summa (12) that contemplation is an act of the intellect superior to reasoning, a simple view of the truth; (13) and, when it is a question not of philosophical contemplation, but of that contemplation which the saints speak of, it springs from love, not only from the love of the knowledge habitual to philosophers, but from the love of God, from charity. (14) It proceeds consequently from living faith enlightened by the gifts of the Holy Ghost, especially by those of understanding and wisdom, which render faith penetrating and sweet.(15) Supernatural contemplation thus conceived supposes the special inspiration of the Holy Ghost, which His gifts dispose us to receive with promptness and docility,(16) as the wide-spread sails on a boat receive the impulsion of a favorable wind; then the boat advances more easily than by the labor of the rowers, a symbol of discursive meditation united to the practice of the virtues. From this point of view, contemplation, because of the special inspiration which it supposes, deserves to be called, not acquired but infused, although at the beginning it may quite frequently be prepared for by reading, affective meditation, and the prayer of petition.(17) The soul thus actively prepares itself to receive the special inspiration of the Holy Ghost, which will at times be strong enough so that discursive meditation will no longer be necessary, as when a favorable wind is strong enough to make the boat advance, the work of the rowers may cease.

This special inspiration of the Holy Ghost given to make us taste the mysteries of faith, uses the connaturality or sympathy with divine things that is rooted in charity.(18) This special inspiration gives rise in us to an act of infused love and of living, penetrating, and sweet faith, which shows us how revealed mysteries, although still obscure, wonderfully correspond to our deepest and loftiest aspirations. These acts of love and of penetrating and sweet faith are said to be infused, not only because they proceed from infused virtues, in this case from the theological virtues, but because they suppose a special inspiration of the Holy Ghost, and because we cannot move ourselves to them with the help of common actual grace. In this case God moves us, not by inclining us to deliberate, but to acts above all discursive deliberation.(19) For example, on reading the Gospel of the day at Mass, some expression that we have read many times is illuminated and captivates us, such as the words of Jesus to the Samaritan woman: "If thou didst know the gift of God!" (20) In like manner a preacher vividly experiences this illumination we are speaking of when at first he feels deeply his powerlessness to preach the Passion in a fitting manner on Good Friday, and then receives the animating breath which vivifies his thought, his will and his feelings, that he may do good to souls.

At times contemplation rises toward God by a straight movement from a sensible fact, for example, from a parable such as that of the prodigal son, to the wonderful vision of the divine mercy.(21) At other times contemplation rises by an oblique movement, for example, from the mysteries of salvation, from those of the childhood of our Savior and of His passion, to the living and profound thought of eternal life.

Lastly, there is occasionally contemplation, called circular, of the infinite goodness of God which radiates on all things, on all the mysteries of salvation. This prayer is a very simple, most loving gaze, which reminds one of the circular flight of the eagle high up in the air, hovering as it gazes at the sun and its radiation over the horizon.(22)

These principles thus formulated by St. Thomas illumine the traditional teaching on contemplative prayer which we found expressed in the works of St. Francis de Sales. This same teaching appears also in a concrete and experiential form in the writings of St. Teresa.


The passage from acquired to infused prayer is illumined in the light of what St. Teresa wrote about the last of the acquired prayers which she calls "the acquired prayer of recollection," (23) and about initial infused prayer, which she calls "supernatural or passive recollection." (24)

The saint describes the last or the highest of the acquired prayers as follows:

It is called (active) "recollection," because by its means the soul collects together all the faculties and enters within itself (25) to be with God. The divine Master thus comes more speedily than He otherwise would to teach it and to grant the prayer of quiet. For, being retired within itself, the spirit can meditate on the Passion and can there picture in its thoughts the Son, and can offer Him to the Father without tiring the mind by journeying to find Him on Mount Calvary, or in the garden, or at the column.

Those who are able thus to enclose themselves within the little heaven of their soul where dwells the Creator of both heaven and earth, and who can accustom themselves not to look at anything nor to remain in any place which would preoccupy their exterior senses, may feel sure that they are traveling by an excellent way, and that they will certainly attain to drink of the water from the fountain, for they will journey far in a short time. They resemble a man who goes by sea, and who, if the weather is favorable, gets in a few days to the end of a voyage which would have taken far longer by land. These souls may be said to have already put out to sea, and though they have not quite lost sight of land, still they do their best to get away from it by recollecting their faculties.

If this recollection is genuine it is easily discerned, for it produces a certain effect that I cannot describe, but which will be recognized by those who know it from personal experience. The soul seems to rise from play - for it sees that earthly things are but toys - and therefore mounts to higher things. Like one who retires into a strong fortress to be out of danger, it withdraws the senses from outward things, so thoroughly despising them that involuntarily the eyes close so as to veil from the sight what is visible, in order that the eyes of the soul may see more clearly. Those who practice this prayer almost always keep their eyes shut during it. This is an excellent custom for many reasons. . . . The soul appears to gather strength and to dominate itself at the expense of the body. . . .By persevering in the habit [of recollecting itself] for several days, and by controlling ourselves, the benefits that result will become clear. We shall find that when we begin to pray the bees (symbol of the different faculties) will return to the hive and enter it to make the honey without any effort on our part, for our Lord is pleased to reward the soul and the will by this empire over the powers in return for the time spent in restraining them. Thus the mind only requires to make them a sign that it wishes to be recollected, and the senses will immediately obey us and retire within themselves. . . . When the will recalls them they return more quickly, until after they have re-entered a number of times, our Lord is pleased that they should settle entirely in perfect contemplation.(28)

These last words refer to infused prayer, prepared for by active prayer or the acquired prayer of recollection, just described and also called simplified affective prayer.(27) The very slow and loving meditation on some of the petitions of the Our Father is a good preparation for it.(28) Thus acquired prayer prepares the soul for infused prayer.(29)

St. Teresa describes initial infused prayer, that of supernatural or passive recollection, which precedes the prayer of quiet, as follows:

This is a kind of recollection which, I believe, is supernatural (like the prayer of quiet). There is no occasion to retire nor to shut the eyes, nor does it depend on anything exterior; involuntarily the eyes suddenly close and solitude is found. Without any labor of one's own, the temple of which I spoke is reared for the soul in which to pray; the senses and exterior surroundings appear to lose their hold, while the spirit gradually regains its lost sovereignty. . . .

But do not fancy you can gain it [this recollection] by thinking of God dwelling within you, or by imagining Him as present in your soul. . . . By the divine assistance everyone can practice it, but what I mean is quite a different thing. Sometimes, before they have begun to think of God, . . . the soul is keenly conscious of a delicious sense of recollection. . . . Here it is not in our power to retire into ourselves, unless God gives us the grace. In my opinion, His Majesty only bestows this favor on those who have renounced the world. . . . He thus specially calls them to devote themselves to spiritual things; if they allow Him power to act freely, He will bestow still greater graces on those whom He thus begins calling to a higher life.(30)

The saint adds: "Unless His Majesty has begun to suspend our faculties, I cannot understand how we are to stop thinking, without doing ourselves more harm than good," (31) for then we would remain in idleness or the somnolence of the quietists.

"The supernatural recollection" which St. Teresa describes in the preceding passages is clearly a mystical prayer, the beginning of infused contemplation, for which simplified affective meditation prepares the soul.(32)

What we have just said about the beginning of infused contemplation according to the teaching of St. Francis de Sales and St. Teresa conforms perfectly to what St. John of the Cross teaches when, in The Dark Night,(33) he treats of the night of the senses, or the passive purification of the sensible faculties, which in his opinion marks, as we have seen,(34) the transition from the purgative to the illuminative way. In The Dark Night he says expressly: "The night of sense is common, and the lot of many: these are the beginners." (35) And he adds: "The soul began to set out on the way of the spirit, the way of proficients, which is also called the illuminative way, or the way of infused contemplation, wherein God Himself teaches and refreshes the soul without meditation or any active efforts that itself may deliberately make." (36) The work of the virtues should certainly continue at times even to heroic acts, but prayer becomes increasingly simplified, and the soul ought especially to be docile to the inspiration of the Holy Ghost.

St. John of the Cross agrees perfectly with St. Thomas when he writes: "Contemplation is the science of love, which is an infused loving knowledge of God." (37) "This dark contemplation is called secret, because it is, as I have said before, the mystical theology which theologians call secret wisdom, and which according to St. Thomas (38) is infused into the soul more especially by love. This happens in a secret hidden way. . . . The faculties of the soul cannot acquire it, it being the Holy Ghost who infuses it into the soul." (39) It is the eminent exercise of the theological virtues and of the gifts which accompany them. If this infused and loving contemplation lasts for a certain time, it is called a state of prayer, a passive state or at least one that is more passive than active, for we cannot produce it, but only prepare ourselves for it. This teaching is identical with that of The Imitation and thus lends additional confirmation to the statement in The Imitation quoted in the preceding chapter: "There are found so few contemplative persons, because there are few that know how to sequester themselves entirely from perishable creatures." (40) In other words, the infused contemplation of revealed mysteries, which proceeds from living faith illumined by the gifts of the Holy Ghost, is in the normal way of sanctity or of heaven, provided we persevere in prayer, carry our cross daily in a supernatural manner, and are docile to the Holy Ghost. Then living faith becomes during prayer penetrating and often sweet, in such a way that we can live profoundly by the revealed mysteries of the redemptive Incarnation, the Mass, the indwelling of the Blessed Trinity in our souls; we can live profoundly by them and taste them; this is the normal prelude of the life of heaven.



1. Cf. Vol. I, chaps. 35 f.

2. Bk. VI, chaps. 2, 3, 5, 6, 7.

3. Part II, chap. 2.

4. Treatise on the Love of God, Bk. VI, chap. 3.

5. Ibid., chap. 6.

6. Ibid., chap. 3.

7. Ibid., chap. 5.

8. Ibid., Bk. VI, chap. 6.

9. Ibid., Bk. IX, chap. 2: "The union of our will with the good pleasure of God is made principally in tribulations"; chap. 11: "On the perplexity of the heart which loves, without knowing whether it is pleasing to the Beloved"; chs. 12-14: "On the death of the will (mystical death) and holy indifference"; chap. 16: "On the perfect denudation of the soul united to the will of God."

10. Ibid., Bk. VI, chap. 6.

11. Ibid., chap. 7.

12. Cf. IIa IIae, q.180.

13. Ibid., a.3, 4, 6.

14. Ibid., a. I; ibid., a.7 ad 1um: "It is through charity that one is urged to the contemplation of God. And since the end corresponds to the beginning, it follows that the term also and the end of the contemplative life has its being in the appetite, since one delights in seeing the object loved, and the very delight in the object seen arouses a yet greater love." Cf. ibid., a.3 ad 3um.

15. Cf. IIa IIae, q.8, a. I, 2, 4, 6, 7; q.45, a. 1, 2, 5, 6.

14. Cf. Ia IIae, q.68, a.1: "The gifts are perfections of man, whereby he is disposed so as to be amenable to the promptings of God." Ibid., a.2, 3, 5.

17. Summa, IIa IIae, q.180, a.3 ad 4um.

18. Ibid., q.45, a.2; a.5.

19. Summa, Ia IIae, q.111, a.2: "Whether grace is fittingly divided into operating and cooperating grace."

20. John 4: 10.

21. 21 Cf. IIa IIae, q.180, a.6: "Whether the operation of contemplation is fittingly divided into a threefold movement, circular, straight, and oblique."

22. A close study of what St. Thomas, following Dionysius the Mystic, says of these spiritual movements in IIa IIae, q. 180, a.6, will show that they must be conceived in the following manner.

By the straight movement, man contemplates God in the mirror of sensible things or in that of the evangelical parables. The soul rises directly from a particularly expressive sensible fact, such as the parable of the Good Shepherd, to the contemplation of the infinite goodness of God.

By the spiral or oblique movement, the soul contemplates God in the Mirror of intelligible truths or of the mysteries of salvation, with which it is already familiar. By a spiral movement, which recalls the flight of certain birds, it rises from the mysteries of the Incarnation, the redemption, the Eucharist, the life of the Church, to infinite mercy which radiates in them. The Rosary prepares us for this spiral movement, which is also similar to the ascent of a mountain by a winding road.

By the circular movement, the soul contemplates God in Himself in the penumbra of loving faith. Here the soul rises above the multiplicity of sensible images and ideas and, under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, is united in a holy manner by a loving and sweet knowledge to the hidden God, whose goodness surpasses all our ideas, and even all the formulas of faith, as the sky includes all the stars which manifest its depths to us.

23. The Way of Perfection, chap. 28.

24. The Interior Castle, fourth mansion, chap. 3.

25. In this long passage we italicize all that shows that it is an active and not a passive recollection in which the soul recollects itself.

26. The Way of Perfection, chap. 18.

27. In chapter 29 of The Way of Perfection, St. Teresa states clearly the nature of this last acquired prayer and shows that in it there is a disposition to receive infused contemplation: "I advise whoever wishes to acquire this habit (which, as I said, we have the power to gain) not to grow tired in trying gradually to obtain the mastery over herself. . . . I know that, with His help, if you practice it for a year, or perhaps for only six months, you will gain it. Think what a short time that is for so great an advantage as laying this firm foundation, so that if our Lord wishes to raise you to a high degree of prayer, He will find you prepared for it, since you keep close to Him."

In chapter 19 of The Way of Perfection, speaking of infused contemplation and of the living waters of prayer, St. Teresa enunciates this general principle which she later develops in chapters 20-24, 29, 33: "Remember, our Lord invited 'any man' ('Come to Me, all you,' Matt. 11:28): He is truth itself; His word cannot be doubted. If all had not been included, He would not have addressed everybody, nor would He have said: 'I will give you to drink.' He might have said: 'Let all men come, for they will lose nothing by it, and I will give to drink to those I think fit for it.' But as He said unconditionally: 'If any man thirst, let him come to Me,' I feel sure that, unless they stop halfway, none will fail to drink of this living water."

St. Catherine of Siena teaches the same doctrine in her Dialogue, chaps. 53 f.

28. The Way of Perfection, chaps. 30-38.

29. In Christian Perfection and Contemplation (pp. 345-81), we treated at length of this disposition and the general and remote call of interior souls to the infused contemplation of the mysteries of faith. The general and remote call should be distinguished from the individual and proximate call, which may be either sufficient or efficacious.

30. The Interior Castle, fourth mansion, chap. 3.

31. Ibid.

32. Simplified affective meditation, especially as it is found in active recollection, described above (The Way, chap. 28), has quite often since the seventeenth century been called "acquired contemplation." We prefer the expression "simplified acquired prayer," for when the great spiritual writers, especially St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa, speak of contemplation without qualifying it, they always mean infused contemplation, at least initial infused contemplation, although this last may often be preceded by a certain acquired prayer which prepares the soul for it, and which is symbolized by the work of the noria (water wheel) of which St. Teresa speaks (Life, chap. 15 ).

When St. Teresa speaks of "contemplation," she always means infused contemplation. One may be convinced of this by reading the passages in her works where she begins to use this word; cf. The Way, chaps. 18, 19, 20, 21, 25, 27, 31, and The Interior Castle, fourth and fifth mansions. It is also evident that St. John of the Cross is speaking of infused contemplation in The Dark Night, Bk. I, chaps. 8, 9, 14 ff., and also in The Ascent of Mount Carmel, beginning with chaps, 11 and I2 of Book II.

On simplified affective prayer, see also Bossuet's opuscule: Maniere courte et facile pour faire l'oraison en foi et de simple presence de Dieu. The prayer of simplicity described by Bossuet seems to be acquired in its first phase and infused in its second, when the soul receives the special inspiration of the Holy Ghost and when the superhuman mode of the gifts of the Holy Ghost begins to be manifested. Then the soul is rather passive than active; it knows and loves under the special inspiration of the interior Master.

33. Bk. I, chaps. 8 ff.

34 Cf. supra, chap. 4: "The passive purification of the senses and the entrance into the illuminative way: the three signs of initial infused contemplation under the form of arid quiet before consoled quiet." Cf. St. Jane de Chantal, L'Oraison de quietude (CEuvres diverses, Paris, 1876, II, 268).

35. Bk. I, chap. 8.

36. Ibid., chap. 14.

37. Bk. II, chap. 18.

38. Summa, IIa IIae, q. 180, a. I.

39. The Dark Night, Bk. II, chap. 17.

40. Bk. III, chap. 31.