What is Contemplation? – Dr. Lilles explains mental prayer.

(From Dr. Lilles’ Blog, he teaches Spiritual Theology at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary)

Monk in Cell

Contemplation, also called “mental prayer” by the great mystics of the Catholic Church, is a loving gaze through the eyes of faith at the mystery of God revealed in Christ Jesus. Contemplation is captivated by the loving gaze of God who is captivated by humanity. In a transitory and imperfect manner, like looking through a dark class or catching a reflection in a mirror, this kind of prayer provides a foretaste of the wisdom God yearns to share with us in heaven. This holy exchange of glances – between the eyes of the heart and the eyes of God – is at once the most human, tender, intimate, reciprocal, vulnerable and divine of self-disclosures. So vast the unexplored horizons of this prayer, the greatest discoveries in this frontier of human existence still wait to be made. Those who devote their whole lives to pursuing contemplation marvel at how much more immense the mystery they behold actually is than what they first imagined.

Contemplative prayer yields a kind of knowing which changes the whole of one’s life, igniting the heart with love stronger than death and illuminating the mind with the very splendors of God. Progress in such prayer is through the mystery of the Cross. Cross centered contemplation in fact transforms the inner man because it opens up the deepest recesses of the heart, the suffering abyss of human misery, to the loving goodness of God. It is a prayer which allows God to continually question everything about one’s manner of life. It is an unfolding conversation with the Risen Lord which constantly gives one real confidence to persevere in faithfulness to Him and to more strongly cling to Him in one’s own weakness.

Mental prayer seeks the loving eyes of God reflected in – or carried on – the propositions of our faith. There was a time when sacred reading, meditation, and prayer were understood as converging together in this humble glimpse into the Ineffable. Study of the Sacred Page is called the soul of theology because prayerful reading and careful reflection on the Holy Bible is devoted to seeking this gaze of God. For those who patiently seek it, His divine glance is marvelously revealed in the inspired and inerrant words the canon of the Sacred Scriptures contains. Such a study, such contemplation, participates by faith in God’s knowledge of Himself.

Contemplation is the most mysterious of all the modes of knowledge the created capacities of the human intellect can be raised to in this life. Transcending all psychic states, our psychological faculties come to rest in this deep silence – because it is a kind of knowing which does not primarily involve our natural operations. If this explanation is inadequate it is because in part the loving knowledge we are trying to consider confounds all psychological descriptions or attempts at explanation. In the most subtle of moments, like lighting, eternal Truth flashes through all levels of consciousness and into depths of which we are not conscious, illuminating everything from within with such blinding brightness that little but the most overwhelming love is remembered and what is remembered cannot be articulated. Essentially supernatural, a sheer grace, it is far above every other kind of knowledge. The greatest mystics describe it as a knowing which is “not knowing.” Doctors of the faith identify this kind of love imbued knowledge with that of the Bride of the Canticle of Canticles who knows nothing but her Beloved. St. Paul speaks of knowing nothing but Christ and Him Crucified. This knowing is not darkened but puts on the mind of Christ which knows nothing but the loving goodness of the Father. It is a renewal of the mind to such heavenly glory that it thinks thoughts no longer subject to sin or death.

Contemplation is the most humanizing of all the kinds of knowledge there is — because men and women are made in the image and likeness of God, and the more they participate in God’s knowledge, understanding and wisdom, the more they realize their true dignity and identity. Most devout Christians do not know that they have been entrusted with this inestimable treasure and remain only vaguely conscious of the gifts lavished on them in their prayer. Yet it is not necessary to be aware that one is contemplating to enter deep into this wisdom from on high and at the same time many rob themselves of true understanding because they are too self aware. Indeed, one has not begun to live if he is ignorant of the divine human knowledge discovered in the loving exchange called contemplation. As St. Irenaeus explained, “The Glory of God is man fully alive – and the life of man is the vision of God.”

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5 Responses to What is Contemplation? – Dr. Lilles explains mental prayer.

  1. golden chersonnese says:

    Many thanks to the CP&S team for the presentation of this wonderful article. I’ve now bookmarked Dr Lilles’ blog, thank you all very much.

    I can’t help but think that so many of our tepid Catholics in the West would jump at the oportunity of living much richer, more faithful lives if they only realised that, in such prayer, transcending all psychic states, our psychological faculties come to rest in this deep silence.

    It makes me think of what the Angelic Doctor, Thomas Aquinas, is reported to have said, after gaining a great insight while saying Mass – All that I have written now seems to me like so much straw. (I’d love to learn the Latin for that.)

    Which makes me think, I miss Brother Burrito. Burrito, I hope you understand that your earlier posts were much enjoyed and, speaking personally, left me embarrassingly speechless but with much to contemplate.


  2. teresa says:

    Dear Golden, I am glad you like this article, I find it very enlightening as well.
    Prayer is often misconceived as the expression of subjective feelings, and I think the author teaches us the right way of contemplation.


  3. toadspittle says:

    Yes, things were different when Burro was alive.


  4. golden chersonnese says:

    Thank you, dear teresa, and I can only say that in more youthful days I saw and knew almost everything that Dr Lilles is pointing to in his marvellous article. That was no doubt God’s great gift to me then, which, I feel, God is now granting me again for a while, or longer, I hope.

    teresa, you are right, such prayer is not at all subjective, but sweeps away all subjectivity. One is not at all aware of oneself, but only of our infinitely loving and giving Maker.

    Call upon him then, and let us see how you get on. He is always most willing, and is only waiting for you. So what are you going to do? (The Cloud of Unknowing)


  5. teresa says:

    Dear Golden, how lucky of you! I still have to learn to pray. While reading the piece above I experienced peace in heart, and I think that is what we want to strive at: the Peace of God.


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