The New Seeds of Contemplation
Since contemplation is the union of our mind and will with God in an
act of pure love that brings us into obscure contact with Him as He
really is, the way to contemplation is to develop and perfect our
mind and will and our whole soul. Infused contemplation begins when
the direct intervention of God raises this whole process of
development above the level of our nature: and then He perfects our
faculties by seeming to defeat all their activity in the suffering
and darkness of His infused light and love.
Back to Apprentice Weavers
But before this begins, we ordinarily have to labor to prepare
ourselves in our own way and with the help of His grace, by deepening
our knowledge and love of God in meditation and active forms of
prayer, as well as by setting our wills free from attachment to
About all these things many books have been written. There are
all kinds of techniques and methods of meditation and mental prayer,
and it would be hard to begin to talk about them all. That is why I
shall talk about none of them except to say that they are all good
for those who can use them and everyone who can get profit out of
systematic meditation should not fail to do so, as long as he is not
afraid to lay the method aside and do a little thinking for himself
once in a while.
The trouble with all these methods is not that they are too
systematic and too formal: they need to be both these things, and it
is good that they are. There is nothing wrong with methods. The
trouble lies in the way people use them -- or fail to use them.
The purpose of a book of meditations is to teach you how to think
and not to do your thinking for you. Consequently if you pick up
such a book and simply read it through, you are wasting your time.
As soon as any thought stimulates your mind or your heart you can put
the book down because your meditation has begun. To think that you
are somehow obliged to follow the author of the book to his own
particular conclusion would be a great mistake. It may happen that
his conclusion does not apply to you. God may want you to end up
somewhere else. He may have planned to give you quite a different
grace than the one the author suggests you might be needing.
And then there are people who only think of meditating when the
book is explicitly called "Meditations." If you called it something
else they would assume they were just supposed to read it without
attempting to think.
The best thing beginners in the spiritual life can do, after they
have already acquired the discipline of mind that enables them to
concentrate on a spiritual subject and get below the surface of its
meaning and incorporate it into their own lives, is to acquire the
agility and freedom of mind that will help them to find light and
warmth and ideas and love for God everywhere they go and in all that
they do. People who only know how to think about God during fixed
periods of the day will never get very far in the spiritual life. In
fact, they will not even think of Him in the moments they have
religiously marked off for "mental prayer."
LEARN how to meditate on paper. Drawing and writing are forms of
meditation. Learn how to contemplate works of art. Learn how to
pray in the streets or in the country. Know how to meditate not only
when you have a book in your hand but when you are waiting for a bus
or riding in a train. Above all, enter into the Church's liturgy and
make the liturgical cycle part of your life -- let its rhythm work
its way into your body and soul.
The reason why meditation and mental prayer do not serve their true
purpose in the lives of so many who practice them is that their true
purpose is not really understood.
Some people seem to think that the only reason for meditating on
God is to get some interesting ideas about Him. It is true that one
of the elementary purposes of meditation is to strengthen all our
religious convictions and give them a deeper foundation of faith and
understanding: but that is only the beginning. That is only the
threshold of meditation.
Others suppose that the function of meditation is to show us the
necessity for practicing virtues and to produce in us the courage and
determination to go ahead and do something about it. That is true.
This is another elementary fruit of meditation. But it is only
another step on the way.
A less serious error -- for now we come closer to the truth -- is
that meditation is supposed to produce in us greater love for God.
Whether or not this concept is satisfactory depends on what you mean
by loving God. If you think meditation has done its work when it has
made you 'say' you love God or 'feel' that you love God, then you are
MEDITATION is a twofold discipline that has a twofold function.
First it is supposed to give you sufficient control over your mind
and memory and will to enable you to recollect yourself and withdraw
from exterior things and the business and activities and thoughts and
concerns of temporal existence, and second -- this is the real end of
meditation -- it teaches you how to become aware of the presence of
God; and most of all it aims at bringing you to a state of almost
constant loving attention to God, and dependence on Him.
The real purpose of meditation is this: to teach a man how to work
himself free of created things and temporal concerns, in which he
finds only confusion and sorrow, and enter into a conscious and
loving contact with God in which he is disposed to receive from God
the help he knows he needs so badly, and to pay to God the praise and
honor and thanksgiving and love which it has now become his joy to
The success of your meditation will not be measured by the
brilliant ideas you get or the great resolutions you make or the
feelings and emotions that are produced in your exterior senses. You
have only really meditated well when you have come, to some extent,
to realize God. Yet even that is not quite the thing.
After all, anyone who has tried it is aware that the closer you
get to God, the less question there can be of realizing Him or
anything about Him.
And so, suppose your meditation takes you to the point where you
are baffled and repelled by the cloud that surrounds God, "Who maketh
darkness His covert." Far from realizing Him, you begin to realize
nothing more than your own helplessness to know Him, and you begin to
think that meditation is something altogether hopeless and
impossible. And yet the more helpless you are, the more you seem to
desire to see Him and to know Him. The tension between your desires
and your failure generate in you a painful longing for God which
nothing seems able to satisfy.
Do you think your meditation has failed? On the contrary; this
bafflement, this darkness, this anguish of helpless desire is a
fulfillment of meditation. For if meditation aims above all at
establishing in your soul a vital contact of love with the living
God, then as long as it only produces images and ideas and affections
that you can understand, feel and appreciate, it is not yet doing its
full quota of work. But when it gets beyond the level of your
understanding and your imagination, it is really bringing you close
to God, for it introduces you into the darkness where you can no
longer think of Him, and are consequently forced to reach out for Him
by blind faith and hope and love.
It is then that you should strengthen yourself against the thought
of giving up mental prayer; you should return to it at your appointed
time each day, in spite of the difficulty and dryness and pain you
feel. Eventually your own suffering and the secret work of grace
will teach you what to do.
You may perhaps be led into a completely simple form of affective
prayer in which your will, with few words or none, reaches out into
the darkness where God is hidden, with a kind of mute, half-hopeless
and yet supernaturally confident desire of knowing and loving Him.
Or else, perhaps, knowing by faith that He is present to you and
realizing the utter hopelessness of trying to think intelligibly
about this immense reality and all that it can mean, you relax in a
simple contemplative gaze that keeps your attention peacefully aware
of Him hidden somewhere in this deep cloud into which you also feel
yourself drawn to enter.
From then on you should keep your prayer as simple as possible.
When it becomes possible to meditate again, meditate. If you get
an idea, develop it, but without excitement. Feed your mind with
reading and the liturgy, and if the darkness of your simple prayer
becomes too much of a tension -- or degenerates into torpor or sleep -
- relieve it with a few vocal prayers or simple affections, but do
not strain yourself trying to get ideas or feel fervor. Do not upset
yourself with useless efforts to realize the elaborate prospects
suggested by a conventional book of meditations.