Open Mind Open Heart
The Contemplative Dimension
of the Gospel

by Father Thomas Keating

Chapter 3 

The History of Contemplative Prayer
 in the Christian Tradition

Part II

    The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius, composed between 1522 and 1526, is extremely important in order to understand the present state of spirituality in the Roman Catholic Church. Three methods of prayer are proposed in the Spiritual Exercises. The discursive meditations prescribed for the first week are made according to the method of the three powers: memory, intellect and will. The memory is to recall the point chosen beforehand as the subject of the discursive meditation. The intellect is to reflect on the lessons one wants to draw from that point. The will is to make resolutions based on that point in order to put the lessons into practice. Thus, one is led to reformation of life.

    The word contemplation, as it is used in the Spiritual Exercises, has a meaning different from the traditional one. It consists of gazing upon a concrete object of the imagination: seeing the persons in the Gospel as if they were present, hearing what they are saying, relating and responding to their words and actions. This method, prescribed for the second week, is aimed at developing affective prayer.

    The third method of prayer in the Spiritual Exercises is called the application of the five senses. It consists of successively applying in spirit the five senses to the subject of the meditation. This method is designed to dispose beginners to contemplation in the traditional sense of the term and to develop the spiritual senses in those who are already advanced in prayer.

    Thus, Ignatius did not propose only one method of prayer The unfortunate tendency to reduce the Spiritual Exercises to a method of discursive meditation seems to stem from the Jesuits themselves. In 1574 Everaud Mercurian, the Father General of the Jesuits, in a directive to the Spanish province of the Society, forbade the practice of affective prayer and the application of the five senses. This prohibition was repeated in 1578. The spiritual life of a significant portion of the Society of Jesus was thus limited to a single method of prayer, namely, discursive meditation according to the three powers. The predominantly intellectual character of this meditation continued to grow in importance throughout the Society during the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Most manuals of spirituality until well into this century limited instruction to schemas of discursive meditation.

    To comprehend the impact of this development on the recent history of Roman Catholic spirituality, we should keep in mind the pervasive influence that the Jesuits exercised as the outstanding representatives of the Counter-Reformation. Many religious congregations founded in the centuries following this period adopted the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus. They received at the same time the spirituality taught and practiced by the Society Hence they also received the limitations imposed not by Ignatius, but by his less enlightened successors.

    Ignatius wished to provide a spiritual formation that was an appropriate antidote to the new secular and individualist spirit of the Renaissance and a form of contemplative prayer adapted to the apostolic needs of his time. The Spiritual Exercises were designed to form contemplatives in action. Considering the immense influence of the Society for good, if it's members had been allowed to follow the Spiritual Exercises according to Ignatius' original intent, or if they had given more prominence to their own contemplative masters like Fathers Lallemant, Surin, Grou and de Caussade, the present state of spirituality among Roman Catholics might be quite different.

    Other events contributed to the hesitation of Roman Catholic authorities to encourage contemplative prayer. One of these was the controversy regarding Quietism, a set of spiritual teachings condemned in 1687 as a species of false mysticism by Innocent XII. The condemned teachings were ingenious. They consisted of making once and for all an act of love for God by which one gave oneself entirely to Him with the intention never to recall this surrender. As long as one never withdrew the intention to belong entirely to God, divine union was assured and no further need for effort either in prayer or outside of it was required. The important distinction between making a one-time intention (however generous) and establishing it as a permanent disposition seems to have passed unnoticed. A milder form of this doctrine flourished in France in the latter part of the seventeenth century and became known as Semi-Quietism. Bishop Boussuet, chaplain to the court of Louis XIV, was one of the chief enemies of this attenuated form of Quietism and succeeded in having it condemned in France. How much he exaggerated the teaching is difficult to ascertain. In any case, the controversy brought traditional mysticism into disrepute. From then on, reading about mysticism was frowned upon in seminaries and religious communities. According to Henri Bremond in his book The Literary History of Religious Thought in France, no mystical writing of any significance occurred during the next several hundred years. The mystical writers of the past were ignored. Even passages from John of the Cross were thought to be suggestive of Quietism, forcing his editors to tone down or expunge certain statements lest they be misunderstood and condemned. The unexpurgated text of his writings appeared only in our own century, four hundred years after its writing.

    A further set-back for Christian spirituality was the heresy of Jansenism, which gained momentum during the seventeenth century Although it, too, was eventually condemned, it left behind a pervasive anti-human attitude that perdured throughout the nineteenth century and into our own time. Jansenism questions the universality of Jesus' saving action as well as the intrinsic goodness of human nature. The pessimistic form of piety which it fostered spread with the emigrés from the French Revolution to English-speaking regions including Ireland and the United States. Since it is largely from French and Irish stock that priests and religious in this country have come, Jansenistic narrowness, together with its distorted asceticism, has deeply affected the psychological climate of our seminaries and religious orders. Priests and religious are still shaking off the last remnants of the negative attitudes that they absorbed in the course of their ascetical formation.

    Another unhealthy trend in the modem Church was the excessive emphasis on private devotions, apparitions, and private revelations. This led to the devaluation of the liturgy together with the communitarian values and sense of transcendent mystery which good liturgy engenders. The popular mind continued to regard contemplatives as saints, wonder workers, or at the very least, exceptional people. The true nature of contemplation remained obscure or confused with phenomena such as levitation, locutions, stigmata, and visions, which are strictly accidental to it.

    During the nineteenth century there were many saints, but few spoke or wrote about contemplative prayer. There was a renewal of spirituality in Eastern Orthodoxy, but the mainstream of Roman Catholic development was legalistic in character, with a kind of nostalgia for the Middle Ages and for the political influence that the Church exercised at that time. Abbot Cuthbert Butler sums up the generally accepted ascetical teaching during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in his book Western Mysticism.

    Except for very unusual vocations, the normal prayer for everyone including contemplative monks and nuns, bishops, priests and laypersons was systematic meditation following a fixed method, which could be one of four: the meditation according to the three powers as laid down in the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius, the method of St. Alphonsus (which was a slight reworking of the Spiritual Exercises), the method described by St. Francis de Sales in An Introduction to the Devout Life, or the method of St. Sulpice.

    These are all methods of discursive meditation. Contemplation was identified with extraordinary phenomena; and was regarded as both miraculous and dangerous, to be admired from a safe distance by the average layperson, priest or religious.

    The final nail hammered into the coffin of the traditional teaching was that it would be arrogant to aspire to contemplative prayer. Novices and seminarians were thus presented with a highly truncated view of the spiritual life, one that did not accord with scripture, tradition and the normal experience of growth in prayer. If one attempts to persevere in discursive meditation after the Holy Spirit has called one beyond it, as the Spirit or ordinarily does, one is bound to wind up in a state of utter frustration. It is normal for the mind to move through many reflections on the same theme to a single comprehensive view of the whole, then to rest with a simple gaze upon the truth. As devout people moved spontaneously into this development in their prayer, they were up against this negative attitude toward contemplation. They hesitated to go beyond discursive meditation to affective prayer because of the warnings they had been given about the dangers of contemplation. In the end they either gave up mental prayer altogether as something for which they were evidently unsuited, or, through the mercy of God, found some way of persevering in spite of what seemed like insurmountable obstacles.

    In any case, the post-Reformation teaching opposed to contemplation was the direct opposite of the earlier tradition. That tradition, taught uninterruptedly for the first fifteen centuries, held that contemplation is the normal evolution of a genuine spiritual life and hence is open to all Christians. These historical factors may help to explain how the traditional spirituality of the West came to be lost in recent centuries and why Vatican II had to address itself to the acute problem of spiritual renewal.

More information can be obtained by reading the book Open Mind Open Heart by Fr. Thomas Keating.  It is offered in our Bookstore.