The MOST Theological Collection: Vatican II: Marian Council
"Chapter 17 - Mystical Rose"
If by imitating Mary's pondering in her heart, we advance in meditation, we will be likely to find that after some time, our meditation will tend to simplify. How soon this will take place will vary in individual cases, and according to several factors. Most prominent among them will be our mortification, the alignment of our wills with the will of God, our love of lowliness. and our habitual recollection.
In this simpler form of meditation, as we described it in the last chapter, we find that we can hold just a single simple thought before our minds, realizing it ever more deeply, and responding in our wills by an attitude appropriate to the thought, e.g., an attitude of adoration. When the soul reaches this stage, this process, in cycles as it were, can be repeated, using just the one thought, for fifteen to thirty minutes.
But there are far reaching realms of development possible even beyond this point. Some souls reach what is called infused contemplation. And there are many stages and degrees within it too. It is not only not wrong, it is good for anyone who is in earnest about pleasing God as fully as possible, to desire to reach this infused contemplation. Actually though it is found in only a minority of souls, yet it is more frequent than is commonly supposed. Some have it without knowing what is happening. For this reason, the help of a director, who is both learned in theology, and experienced in these matters, is very important. Many theologians think it is impossible for any soul to reach full maturity, spiritual perfection, without experiencing infused contemplation. Such seems to be the view of St. John of the Cross1 and St. Teresa of Avila, Doctors of the Church, who knew it well both theologically and from personal experience.
St. John of the Cross seems to say it will definitely occur at the end of the first major phase of the spiritual life, which is called the Purgative Way. In the Purgative Way, a man does what he can to rid himself of his faults, even mere imperfections. The work cannot be completed without a special action of the Holy Spirit. That of course, is always given if one makes himself not indisposed to it.2 The appearance of infused contemplation in well defined form marks the border, the transition from this Purgative Way into the Illuminative Way, with its higher forms of contemplation. That Illuminative Way ends in a severe trial, which St. John calls the Dark Night of the Soul. Beyond it lies the still more marvelous realm called the Unitive Way, in which is found the greatest possible perfection to which a soul can attain in this life. Mary surely must have attained that. For, as we have already seen, Pope Pius IX said that her holiness or spiritual perfection even at the start was so great that "none greater under God can be thought of, and no one but God can comprehend it."
But to return to our attempt to picture the development of meditation. When one has reached the simple form of meditation described earlier, and has continued in it for some time, a further simplification normally takes place. When one began this simple form of meditation, he could use a great variety of thoughts for it. But with further progress, he will find that the only thought will seem to be the Divinity itself, without any mental image. Within this stage, there will sometimes come as it were rays of infused light: one suddenly "sees" divine truth as never before, and has a remarkably new kind of awareness of God. It is a sort of simple, loving gaze at Him. It is not produced by human activity, but by the special action of the Holy Spirit. The soul itself is basically passive, as it were, doing no more than holding its eyes open.
Such flashes may come at any time, not only during a regular meditation period. In fact, in some souls, they are more apt to come at the most unexpected and unpredictable moments, perhaps when one is walking down the stairs, or even when he is busy with something else.
Oftentimes there is a warmth of love that is felt, but it is totally different from the feelings or consolations described in chapter 14. These mere consolations are as it were on the surface; the warmth of this light of the Spirit wells up3 from within the depths of the soul, and from there overflows, sometimes, into the realm of mere feeling. There is nothing else in human experience like it. As a result, if one has never had such an experience, it is impossible to convey a clear impression of it. It is similar to the problem of giving a colour blind person a good mental image of a rainbow: since it is based on things entirely outside his experience, he cannot really picture it, even though one may give him the figures for the wave lengths of the various colours.
Sometimes there is no warmth, nothing like a feeling at all; the soul may be in a state of spiritual dryness.
These bits of light at first are very brief, may come at any time, and are not always necessarily restricted to just the simple perfection of the Divinity itself: they may result instead in a hitherto unknown (to that person) depth of realization of other spiritual things, e.g., the nothingness of creatures. But when there is further progress, the soul will perceive only the Divinity itself, without any image, in a vague sort of way, with the impression of a contact with God as real and concrete as one has when, for example, he puts his hand on a table.
When such an experience is well developed, there is usually a sort of instinct that tells one not even to move, for fear that would disturb or drive away the special experience. In fact, one feels that even to use any words for prayer, even mentally, would be out of place. Later, of course. regular prayer is in place, is called for. But not at that instant. The loving gaze itself is a lofty form of prayer.
Obviously, there is much room for self-deception or auto-suggestion here. To avoid that, one needs much to have a learned and experienced director, if he is to be had.
St. John of the Cross gives some signs4 to help determine whether a soul has really reached this infused contemplation. First, there is a great aridity: the soul finds no pleasure in creatures. But neither does it have any consolation from divine things: all is barren. As a result, although formerly the person may have found it not too difficult to make sacrifices, to practice mortification, now these things are more difficult. Yet, in spite of this arid state, there is a persistent awareness of God. Distractions of course come, but the awareness comes back persistently, of its own accord (actually, it is the work of the Holy Spirit) after the distraction. This consciousness of God is indistinct and obscure, without any image. Yet it is very real. Along with this awareness goes a greater desire, though without pleasure, to serve Him well. In this, of course, the soul is growing, growing in the darkness of faith.5 Added to these two signs is an inability to practice meditation in the step-by-step process described in chapter 16. Of course, many souls never do find that step-by-step procedure very well adapted to them. So this third sign is less useful.
It is necessary to find all of these signs before we can have any confidence in thinking we are dealing with a well-developed case of infused contemplation. For an aridity can come from attachment to creatures, from sin. But when an aridity is coupled with the second sign we have mentioned then we know it must have a different source.
We have mentioned that in infused contemplation there is no image of God in the mind of the recipient. Not only is no image called for, but any image would be a hindrance. Souls at this point find even the thought of the Humanity of Christ an obstacle.6 Now that Sacred Humanity is the very instrument of our salvation, and surely is not in itself an obstacle. Rather, this phenomenon comes from the fact that the soul is in a transitional stage. It is still too weak, as it were, to hold simultaneously to the newly found contemplation and still be able to think of the Humanity of Christ. Later, when it has gone farther, that problem will disappear. The case is similar with the thought of Mary.
But we should add that although to think of Mary in a physical way would be a hindrance, there is another way in which the soul may be aware of her. Some cases7 have been reported of an infused contemplation in which the presence of Mary is perceived, as united to the Divinity. After all, she is more closely united with God than any other creature. So, when the Divinity itself becomes the object of contemplation, there is no inherent reason why she, so united to Him, could not be also part of that object. In such a case, of course, she is perceived without any image, with no thought of her bodily nature, even though that has been glorified by the Assumption. One simply finds her included in the vague but intensely real object of the loving gaze. Of course, not all souls that reach infused contemplation also have this special contemplation of Mary, not even all those who are specially devout to her. When and if that is to be granted is the prerogative of the Holy Spirit to decide.
Beyond the first experience of infused contemplation lie many higher forms, as we have said. A soul that has reached the point we described has absolutely no reason to consider itself a Saint. St. John of the Cross says that such a person is still only at the outer edge of the lowest of the three Ways, the Purgative Way. To reach full perfection, there is still a long road to travel. Part of it may be in the pleasures of the warm form of contemplation, but much of it is certain to be enmeshed in trials, terrible trials and temptations. At least the soul now knows to a slight degree what God is, for it has received a dim glimpse, as if the veil between this world and the next were opened just a little. Can it still fall back into sin and go backward spiritually? Sadly, the answer is yes. It must count much on the help of Mary, to avoid that, and to advance ever further until the endless day dawns, when there will be not just the vague dim awareness of contact, but brilliant, face to face vision.