Open Mind Open Heart
The Contemplative Dimension
of the Gospel

by Father Thomas Keating

Chapter 3 Part I

The History of Contemplative Prayer
 in the Christian Tradition

    A positive attitude toward contemplation characterized the first fifteen centuries of the Christian era. Unfortunately, a negative attitude has prevailed from the sixteenth century onward. To understand the situation in which we find our churches today in regard to religious experience, an overview of the history of contemplative prayer may prove helpful.

    The word contemplation is an ambiguous term because over the centuries it has acquired several different meanings. To emphasize the experiential knowledge of God, the Greek Bible used the word gnosis to translate the Hebrew da'ath, a much stronger term that implies an intimate kind of knowledge involving the whole person, not just the mind.

    St. Paul used the word gnosis in his Epistles to refer to the knowledge of God proper to those who love Him. He constantly asked for this intimate knowledge for his disciples and prayed for it as if it were an indispensable element for the full development of Christian life.

    The Greek Fathers, especially Clement of Alexandria, Origen and Gregory of Nyssa, borrowed from the Neoplatonists the term theoria. This originally meant the intellectual vision of truth, which the Greek philosophers regarded as the supreme activity of the person of wisdom. To this technical term the Fathers added the meaning of the Hebrew da'ath, that is, the kind of experiential knowledge that comes through love. It was with this expanded understanding of the term that theoria was translated into the Latin contemplatio and handed down to us in the Christian tradition.

    This tradition was summed up by Gregory the Great at the end of the Sixth Century when he described contemplation as the knowledge of God that is impregnated with love. For Gregory, contemplation is the fruit of reflection on the word of God in scripture and at the same time a gift of God. It is a resting in God. In this resting or stillness the mind and heart are not actively seeking Him but are beginning to experience, to taste, what they have been seeking. This places them in a state of tranquility and profound interior peace. This state is not the suspension of all action, but the mingling of a few simple acts of will to sustain one's attention to God with the loving experience of God's presence.

    This meaning of contemplation as the knowledge of God based on the intimate experience of His presence remained the same until the end of the Middle Ages. Ascetical disciplines were always directed toward contemplation as the proper goal of every spiritual practice.

    The method of prayer proposed for lay persons and monastics alike in the first Christian centuries was called lectio divina, literally, "divine reading", a practice that involved reading scripture, or more exactly, listening to it. Monastics would repeat the words of the sacred text with their lips so that the body itself entered into the process. They sought to cultivate through lectio divina the capacity to listen at ever deeper levels of inward attention. Prayer was their response to the God to whom they were listening in scripture and giving praise in the liturgy.

    The reflective part, pondering upon the words of the sacred text, was called meditatio, "meditation". The spontaneous movement of the will in response to these reflections was called oratio, "affective prayer". As these reflections and acts of will simplified, one moved on to a state of resting in the presence of God, and that is what was meant by cantemplatio, "contemplation."

    These three acts--discursive meditation, affective prayer and contemplation--might all take place during the same period of prayer. They were interwoven one into the other. Like the angels ascending and descending on Jacob's ladder, one's attention was expected to go up and down the ladder of consciousness. Sometimes one would praise the Lord with one's lips, sometimes with one's thoughts, sometimes with acts of will, and sometimes with the rapt attention of contemplation. Contemplation was regarded as the normal development of listening to the word of God. The approach to God was not compartmentalized into discursive meditation, affective prayer and contemplation. The term mental prayer, with its distinct categories, did not exist in Christian tradition prior to the Sixteenth Century.

    Around the Twelfth Century a marked development in religious thought took place. The great schools of theology were founded. It was the birth of precise analysis in regard to concepts, division into genera and species, and definitions and classifications. This growing capacity for analysis was a significant development of the human mind. Unfortunately this passion for analysis in theology was later to be transferred to the practice of prayer and bring to an end the simple, spontaneous prayer of the Middle Ages based on lectio divina with its, opening to contemplation. Spiritual masters of the Twelfth Century, like Bemard of Clairvaux, Hugh and Richard of St. Victor, and William of St. Thierry, were developing a theological understanding of prayer and contemplation. In the Thirteenth Century methods of meditation based on their teaching were popularized by the Franciscans.

    During the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries, the Black Death and the Hundred Years' War decimated cities, towns and religious communities while nominalism and the Great Schism brought on a general decadence in morals and spirituality. A movement of renewal, called Devotio Moderna, arose in the Low Countries around 1380 and spread to Italy, France and Spain in response to the widespread need for reform. In an age when institutions and structures of all kinds were crumbling, the movement of Devotio Moderna sought to utilize the moral power issuing from prayer as a means of self-discipline. By the end of the Fifteenth Century, methods of mental prayer, properly so-called, were elaborated, becoming more and more complicated and systematized as time went on. But even while this proliferation of systematic methods of prayer was taking place, contemplation was still presented as the ultimate goal of spiritual practice.

    As the Sixteenth Century progressed, mental prayer came to be divided into discursive meditation if thoughts predominated; affective prayer if the emphasis was on acts of the will; and contemplation if graces infused by God were predominant. Discursive meditation, affective prayer, and contemplation were no longer different acts found in a single period of prayer, but distinct forms of prayer, each with its own proper aim, method and purpose. This division of the development of prayer into compartmentalized units entirely separate from one another helped to further the incorrect notion that contemplation was an extraordinary grace reserved to the few. The possibility of prayer opening out into contemplation tended to be regarded as very unlikely. The organic development of prayer toward contemplation did not fit into the approved categories and was therefore discouraged.

    At the same time that the living tradition of Christian contemplation was diminishing, the Renaissance brought new challenges for the spiritual life. No longer were the social milieu and religious institutions supportive of the individual. There was the need to reconquer the world for Christ in the face of the pagan elements that were taking over Christendom. It was not surprising that new forms of prayer should appear that were ordered to an apostolic ministry The new emphasis on apostolic life required a transformation of the forms of spirituality hitherto transmitted by monastics and mendicants. The genius and contemplative experience of Ignatius of Layola led him to channel the contemplative tradition, which was in danger of being lost, into a form appropriate to the new age.

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