Meditation and Contemplation
Both St. Ignatius and St. John of the Cross use the same terminology. They call meditation when a soul thinks or uses their imagination in prayer, willfully choosing to exercise their mental faculties. Contemplation is what they call infused prayer. It is not controlled or made to happen by anything we do. It is for God alone to enter and leave the soul without cause.
How do we achieve contemplation?
St. Teresa of Avila says that we simply persevere in prayer and in the practice of virtue, which includes avoidance of sin, and God Himself will determine when we are ready for contemplation. Contemplation, being infused prayer, is God infusing His very self and allowing us to experience His presence which He manifests to varying degrees depending on the depth of the contemplation. At the lower and beginning levels there is the prayer of quiet, which St. Teresa describes as a simple loving glance of the soul upon God. At the higher levels things like ecstasy where the soul experiences an all encompassing presence that overwhelms the soul and it no longer can be aware of its own body or its surroundings. This is where St. Paul says, “whether I was in or outside my body I do not know.” While it is true it is a gift, it is also true that we prepare for this gift by perseverance in prayer and in the practice of virtue.
In the purgative level, as St. John of the Cross explains, God gives us sensible consolations in prayer, we feel His presence in our senses. But in contemplation we feel Him in our spirit not in our senses. Many souls, as St. John explains, do not persevere in prayer when God begins to purify us from our attachments to sensible consolations. This is not a punishment for gaining attachments; it was God’s intention in giving us sensible consolations in order to teach us that it is better to have sensible consolations of feeling His presence than the sensible consolation of sinning through our senses. Therefore, He attaches us to Himself and creates in us a preference for Him over sin since the consolations from Him give us peace and lasting joy instead of guilt and shame that we get from sin. It is then inevitable that we gain attachments to them and they serve a purpose but in the long term they will become harmful if we retain them as we advance in our union with Him and so we need purification from these attachments and that is what St. John calls the night of the senses.
Contemplation, St. John tells us, is in itself purification as it is the presence of God which purifies us from imperfections as a fire burns off impurities. I say all of this to show that the effects of meditation and contemplation are different and so it becomes necessary to distinguish between the two. One could say that meditation is the ordinary form of prayer as it is something we can freely choose without God intervening in a supernatural way to make happen, something we can not say about contemplation. Meditation disposes us well for contemplation and is necessary to advance in prayer. Contemplation is supernatural and is controlled completely by God and advances our union with Him, purifying us of our faults and drawing us closer to Him, attracting us by experiencing His love in His presence. Love transforms and therefore prayer transforms us because prayer is the main means we have of experiencing his love for us in a deep and personal way.
To try to put this into context, the spiritual masters tell us that there is a natural progression of a soul to union with God, that of which we know the saints attained and which is holiness. Our prayer corresponds with this as it has a natural progression as well and is tied to our union with Him.
Prayer corresponds to union
St Thomas Aquinas tells us that first is the active life, then the contemplative life and then after that one is called either to be a pure contemplative or an apostolic/contemplative. The active life corresponds to the purgative level where the soul feels God’s presence in prayer in the senses, which makes sense since the active life is very sensible by its nature. When a soul goes through the night of the senses and into the illuminative phase a soul has begun to have lower levels of contemplation and now experiences His presence directly affecting his intellect and receives many lights and illuminations about God and His truths and gains much fruit in spiritual reading. The more he enters into the illuminative the more contemplative he becomes in prayer preferring quiet and stillness to vocal prayer and often his spiritual reading moves him to meditation and meditation turns into contemplation. This does not mean he becomes a monk, this can happen in any state of life. Then as he goes into the night of the spirit, as he now needs purification of the spirit as he did of his senses before in the night of the senses, now attached to his spiritual consolations; this soul now begins to go toward being either a pure contemplative or an apostolic one; it becomes manifest to him in his desire to love and serve God as his motive is a clear and pure one as he has been sufficiently purified of self motives. As he enters the unitive level he now experiences God’s presence almost continuously and has a great peace and contemplation becomes the norm when he goes into prayer no matter how he begins prayer or what type it is, whether it is vocal, liturgical, meditation or spiritual reading. Everything he does in relation to God seems to prompt God to come to him this way even writing about Him or giving spiritual direction or having holy conversations with friends. He now loves God not only with his whole heart and soul, as in the purgative level, or with his whole mind as in the illuminative, but now with his whole strength as well. It takes giving of one’s whole strength to persevere through all the trials and purification of the interior life and of prayer. But the great thing is God knows us all and so I don’t need to have the strength of the great saints, God will only take me to my limits as He knows and so no matter how much strength we do or don’t have we can reach the heights of union with God as well as the heights of contemplation.