by Father Thomas Keating
There is much popular misinformation in people's minds about what contemplation is. Saying what it is not may help to put a perspective on what it is.
The first thing contemplation is not is a relaxation exercise. It may bring relaxation, but that is strictly a side effect. It is primarily relationship, hence, intentionality. It is not a technique, it is prayer When we say, "Let us pray"; we mean, "Let us enter into a relationship with God"; or, "Let us deepen the relationship we have"; or, "Let us exercise our relationship with God": Centering prayer is a method of moving our developing relationship with God to the level of pure faith. Pure faith is faith that is moving beyond the mental egoic level of discursive meditation and particular acts to the intuitive level of contemplation. Centering prayer is not designed to bring you to a "high" such as you might obtain by ingesting Peyote or LSD. It is not a form of self-hypnosis. It is simply a method leading to contemplative prayer. In this perspective, it is the first rung on the ladder of contemplative prayer.
The second thing that contemplative prayer is not is a charismatic gift. The charisms enumerated by Paul have been renewed in our time. These gifts are designed for the building up of the community. One may be a contemplative and a charismatic at the same time. And one may not be a contemplative and still have one or more of the charismatic gifts. In other words, there is not necessarily a connection between the two. Contemplative prayer depends on the growth of faith, hope, and divine love, and deals with the purification, healing, and sanctification of the substance of the soul and its faculties: The charismatic gifts are given for the building up of the local community and may be given to people who are not necessarily advanced in the spiritual journey. The gifts of tongues is the one gift that may be given primarily for one's personal sanctification. It is a kind of introduction to contemplative prayer because, when praying tongues one doesn't know what one is saying.
Another gift is the ability to communicate the experience of resting in the Spirit. If you have already had some experience of contemplation, recognize it as the gift of infused recollection or perhaps even the prayer of quiet. You can resist it if you want to. If you accept it you feel a mild suspension of your ordinary sense faculties and you slip to the floor. If people have never experienced this kind of prayer before, they go down with great delight and stay down as long as they can. I once saw a young man fall backwards horizontally as if he were doing a back dive into a swimming pool. He bounced off a little bench, landed on the floor with a terrific crash, and jumped up, completely unhurt.
Apart from, the gift of tongues, the charismatic gifts are clearly given for the good of others. They include the interpretation of tongues, prophecy, healing, administration, the word of wisdom, and inspired teaching. Prophecy can exist in people who are not holy at all. A classical example is the prophet Balaam, who prophesied what the King wanted to hear rather than what God had commanded him to say. There were many false prophets in Old Testament times. Since charismatic gifts are frequent in our time people tend to get excited about them, it is important to realize that they are not an indication either of holiness or of an advanced stage of prayer. They are not the same as contemplative prayer and do not automatically sanctify the people who have them. On the contrary, if one is attached to them, they are a hindrance to one's spiritual development. Even in the exercise of charismatic gifts, emotional programming is at work. According to Catholic tradition, the straight and narrow path of contemplative prayer is the surest and safest path to holiness. The charismatic gifts are accidental or secondary to that path. Obviously, if one has such gifts, one has to integrate them into one's spiritual journey. But if one doesn't have them, there is no reason to think that one is not progressing. The process of transformation depends on the growth of faith, hope, and divine love. Contemplative prayer is the fruit of that growth and furthers it. Right now the charismatic renewal is in great need of the traditional teaching of the Church on contemplative prayer so that charismatic prayer groups may move on to a new dimension in their relationship with the Holy Spirit. They should introduce periods of silence into the prayer meetings so that shared prayer becomes grounded in the practice of interior silence and contemplation. There is a movement to do precisely that in many prayer groups. If this development fails to take place, the groups risk stagnation. Nothing can stand still on the spiritual journey. These groups need the further growth that the practice of contemplative prayer is meant to provide.
The third thing that contemplative prayer is not is parapsychological phenomena such as precognition, knowledge of events at a distance, control over bodily such as heartbeat and breathing, out-of-body experiences, levitation, and other extraordinary sensory or psychic phenomena. The psychic level of consciousness is one level above the mental egoic stage, which is the general level of present human development.
In any case, psychic phenomena are like the frosting on a cake and we cannot survive on frosting alone. We should not overestimate psychic gifts, therefore, or think that holiness manifests itself in extraordinary psychic phenomena. Such manifestations, including levitation, locutions, and visions of various kinds, have been sensational in the lives of some of the saints. Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, for example, had these experiences. The Christian tradition has consistently counseled avoiding extraordinary gifts when possible because it is difficult remain humble when you have them. Experience teaches that the more extraordinary the gifts, the harder it is to be detached from them. It is easy to take secret satisfaction in the fact that God is giving you special gifts, especially when they are obvious to others.
I have noticed a significant increase in the number of persons experiencing psychic gifts in recent years. In one year alone, I met six people with out-of-body experiences. While asleep or praying, they experienced leaving their body and moving around the house. One man living in Colorado unwittingly found himself in his old home in Massachusetts. No matter how these parapsychological phenomena may be, we should not allow ourselves to be pulled off center by them or to be distracted from our time of prayer. If we wait patiently the phenomenon will pass. If we are doing centering prayer, we should return to the sacred word.
There are actually methods to develop direct control over physiological functions like our breath, heartbeat, and body temperature. I once heard about a young man who had been reading about controlled breathing. Although he knew how to stop breathing, unfortunately he had neglected to read the chapter on how to start breathing again. He never woke up. If you are interested in psychic phenomena, be sure to practice them under an approved master.
Unusual physiological or psychic powers appear to be innate human capacities that can be developed by practicing certain disciplines. But they have nothing to do with holiness or the growth of our relationship to God. To regard them as a sign of great spiritual development is a mistake.
Joseph of Cupertino, a Franciscan friar, was one of the most sensational levitators of all time. He was so much in love with God that at one period in his life whenever he heard the word God he would start rising. When he was in church, he would go right up to the ceiling. This was a little distracting for the other brothers in the community and for those who came to worship. One incident that is well authenticated is worth mentioning. The friars were trying to place a huge cross atop a 100-foot steeple on the church. As often happens with levitators, Joseph uttered a loud cry of delight while taking off. He grabbed the cross, which weighed half a ton, flew to the top of the steeple, put it in place and then returned to earth. His superiors took a dim view of his extraordinary behavior and ordered him to desist. There is a certain amount of self in the exercise of any kind of sensational gift, including the most spiritual. When Joseph was ordered to stop levitating, he went into a deep depression. In his case this was clearly the night of the spirit. And that is what made him a saint, not his flying. Airplanes and birds can do that.
In ways often undiscernable to human beings, God allows parapsychological phenomena to operate, or not to operate, as he sees fit.
In the fourteenth century Vincent Ferrer, one of the great wonder workers of his time, was preaching that the end of the world was at hand. On one occasion a man who was being taken for burial was brought to him. Vincent had been preaching his usual doomsday message, so he took this occasion to warn his listeners that the world was coming to an end soon, and to say that as proof of his warning, he would raise this man from the dead. The dead man stood up. But the world did not come to an end. All prophecy is conditional. God does not commit himself to follow through on His threats. He reserves the right to change His mind if people respond by amending their lives. The prophet often gets left holding the bag; it's one of his occupational hazards.
The fourth thing contemplation is not is mystical phenomena. By mystical phenomena, I mean bodily ecstasy, external and internal visions, external words, words spoken in the imagination and words impressed upon one's spirit when any of these are the work of God's special grace in the soul. John of the Cross in The Ascent to Mt. Carmel considers every conceivable spiritual phenomenon from the most exterior to the most interior and commands his disciples to reject them all. Pure faith, according to him, is the proximate means of union with God.
External visions and voices can be misunderstood. Even saints have misunderstood what God has said to them: Divine communications of an intelligible kind have to be filtered through the human psyche and one's cultural conditioning. In those who are led by this path, such communications are probably authentic eighty per cent of the time but inauthentic the other twenty per cent. Since one can never tell which percentage group a particular communication belongs to, if one follows these communications without discretion, one can get into all kinds of trouble. There is no guarantee that any particular communication to an individual is actually coming from God. Even if it is, it is almost certain to be distorted by one's imagination, preconceived ideas or emotional programming, any one of which can modify or subtly change the communication. The story of a saint who was promised by God that she would die a martyr's death is a classical example. She did indeed die a holy death, but in bed. As she lay dying, she was tempted to think, "Is God faithful to his promise?" Of course He is faithful to His promise. But he doesn't guarantee that we understand Him correctly when He communicates on the level of the imagination or the reason. God meant that she would die with the same degree of love as a martyr of blood. Her martyrdom of conscience was the equivalent in His eyes to the martyrdom of blood. God does not bind Himself to the literal interpretation of His messages. If we take literally what is said, even when what we understand to be a voice from Heaven orders us to do so, we stand a good chance of deceiving ourselves. If we could just return to the sacred word, we would save ourselves so much trouble.
All the sacraments are greater than any vision. This is not to say that visions may not have a purpose in our lives, but as John of the Cross preaches, a genuine communication from God accomplishes its purpose instantly. Reflecting on it does not make it any better--but often distorts it--by losing its original clarity. This does not prevent one from mentioning it to a prudent spiritual director to make sure one does not take it so seriously or too lightly If one is told by God to do something, it is especially important not to do anything without first discerning the matter carefully with an experienced spiritual director.
Much more reliable than visions, locutions, or the process of reasoning are the inner impressions that the Spirit suggests in prayer and to which we feel gently but consistently inclined. The more important the event, the more we have to listen to sound reason and consult a spiritual director God's will is not always easy to discern; we have to observe all the indications of it and then decide. In the struggle for certitude however, we perceive more clearly what the obstacles are in ourselves to recognizing His will.
We come now to the question of mystical graces. They are the hardest to distinguish because they are so intertwined with our psyche. By mystical graces I mean the inflowing of God's presence into our faculties or the radiance of His presence when it spontaneously overtakes us. The levels of mystical prayer have been well described by Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. They include infused recollection, the prayer of quiet, the prayer of union, the prayer of full union, and finally, the transforming union. I prefer to use the terms contemplation and mysticism to mean the same thing and to distinguish mystical graces from the essence of mystical prayer. Is it possible to be a contemplative and attain the transforming union without going through the experience of the mystical graces just described?
This is a question that has puzzled me over the years because contemplation as the experience of the inflow of God's grace has generally been considered a necessary sign of the gift of contemplative prayer. However, I continue to meet people who are very advanced in the spiritual journey who insist that they have never had the grace of contemplative prayer as a felt experience of God. Having spent thirty or forty years in a monastery or convent in order to become contemplatives, some of these people are tempted at times to feel that their lives have been a gigantic failure. They wind up in their sixties or seventies believing that since they never had such an experience, they must have done something wrong. Here are people who have given their whole lives to the service of Christ and yet have no internal assurance of having had even the least mystical grace.
The first few times I listened to these people's experiences, I thought perhaps they had never been properly instructed in contemplative prayer, or maybe they had received touches of it in their early religious life and either forgot about it or got used to it. But I have since changed my mind. I am convinced that it is a mistake to identify the experience of contemplative prayer with contemplative prayer itself, which transcends any impression of God's radiating or inflowing presence. I was pleased to see my experience articulated by Ruth Burroughs, a Carmelite nun who has lived her religious life without any experiential awareness of the radiance of God's presence. In Guidelines to Mystical Prayer, she proposes the distinction of lights on mysticism and lights off mysticism. This would explain how, for many persons, their whole contemplative journey is completely hidden from them until their final transformation. This Carmelite nun had two friends, one with a very exuberant mystical life, in an active order and the other a nun in her own cloistered convent who had never enjoyed any conscious experience of contemplative prayer although she had faithfully practiced the discipline of contemplative prayer for forty years. Both wound up in transforming union. Ruth Burroughs extrapolates that mystical grace may be a charism that certain mystics are given in order to explain the spiritual path to others. In any case, her hypothesis rests on the assumption that the essence of mysticism is the path of pure faith. Pure faith, according to John of the Cross, is a ray of darkness to the soul. There is no faculty that can perceive it. One can be having this "experience" on the deepest level beyond the power of any faculty to perceive it. One can only remark its presence by its fruits in one's life. God can be beaming that ray of darkness into someone who is faithful to prayer without his or her being conscious of it at all. In any case, the people in my experience who have the most exuberant mystical lives are married or in the active ministry. Less than five per cent of cloistered contemplatives that I know have the mystical experiences that Teresa or John of the Cross describe. They generally experience the night of sense, and a few experience the night of spirit. Their consolations are few and far between. Those who are in the world doubtless need more help in order to survive. Perhaps God does not help cloistered folks in the same way because He has decided that they have enough support from the structures of their enclosed lifestyle.
What is the essence of contemplative prayer? The way of pure faith. Nothing else. You do not have to feel it, but you have to practice it.
More information can be obtained by reading the book Open Mind Open Heart by Fr. Thomas Keating. It is offered in our Bookstore.