The MOST Theological Collection: Our Father's Plan: God's Arrangements and Our Response
"Chapter 22: Mystical Rose"
Beyond the realm of the meditations we have described lies a much longer stretch of spiritual growth, leading even to infused contemplation.
At this point we must admit that there is a large difference in the pictures given by reputable theologians. All agree that there are three stages or ways in the spiritual life: the purgative way, the illuminative way, the unitive way. All would agree that the forms of meditation we have just described belong within the first, the purgative way. But after that, disagreement begins.
The key question is this: is infused contemplation1 a normal part of spiritual growth, such that if a person advances very far, he must inevitably meet with it? We find some theologians saying it is a necessary part of growth;2 others deny this, and say that contemplation is something extraordinary,3 not necessarily part of normal development. Both sides try to claim the support of St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila, who are clearly the greatest mystical theologians the Church has produced.
Those who say infused contemplation is a necessary stage say it first appears at the transition from the purgative way into the illuminative way; this first passage they name the dark night of the Senses. Still higher forms of contemplation are found in the illuminative way. But at the end of that way, as a transition again, there is found the dark night of the Spirit, leading into the highest forms of contemplation to be found in this life.
The other school tend to say that the purgative way is the period in which we, and God's grace, are working to cleanse ourselves of our faults; the illuminative way is the period of receiving graces of light; the unitive way is one of rather constant union with God in this life. If infused contemplation appears at all, they say, it is extraordinary, and would be found in the unitive way. These theologians sometimes do speak of the two nights, but they understand them in a much reduced way.
In this chapter we will follow those who hold that infused contemplation is a necessary step in spiritual growth. The reasons for this view will become clearer throughout the chapter.
To make the connection to chapter 21, we recall that at the end of it we saw the prayer of simplicity. We noted too that that prayer tends to develop in such a way that the topic used tends more and more to be restricted to the divinity in an almost abstract way-whereas in the early phases of the prayer of simplicity, almost any religious subject could serve for meditation. We noted too that, temporarily, the soul will find itself unable to meditate much if at all on the Sacred Humanity of Jesus. This is because the soul at that stage is too weak to do that and at the same time advance another step. Later, devotion to His Humanity returns, with great spiritual profit.
Simultaneous with this development in prayer must go growth in humility and mortification. If these do not accompany the development of prayer, that growth in prayer will be mere illusion-we recall again the helpful words of St. Jane de Chantal quoted in chapter 21.
Besides these things there will appear-at quite unpredictable times, even when one is at work-bits of the infused light of the Holy Spirit, sent through the Gifts (we will speak more of these Gifts in chapter 23). One very frequent effect of this light is to give the soul a deep realization, not attainable by usual meditation, of the awful nothingness of all things, even ourselves, compared to God. When such bits of light come, the soul needs to know that if at all possible, it should drop other things, and simply pay attention to and receive the full effects of the light. Other prayer, especially vocal prayer, might disturb this special favor. How long will it last? Only a couple of minutes, ordinarily, although there often are trail-off effects for a still longer time.
Next, if the soul advances further, three signs should appear of approaching infused contemplation.
The first sign is a great aridity, such that the soul finds no pleasure in either the things of this world, or even in spiritual things.4 This can be very wearisome to the soul, and can leave it open to temptations. It can suffer from relatively slight causes. It is important to distinguish this aridity from the aridity that comes from spiritual sluggishness in general. The difference is that one who is spiritually slothful or very sinful does still find pleasure in things of sense, but not in the things of God.
The second sign is the fact that the soul has an awareness of God that returns persistently in spite of distractions.5 No one can have a constant awareness of Him in this life-apart from very special graces-but yet in this second sign, the thought of God returns as it were spontaneously as soon as one is free from necessary occupations that demand one's full attention. This consciousness of God is indistinct and obscure, but yet very real. It leads the soul to want closer union with God. The soul may be inclined too to think it is not serving Him well enough-which will be very true, for the soul even at this point is still only in the purgative way, and has a long road to travel before reaching the peak of spiritual devepment possible in this life.
Again, we can see the difference between this condition and the ordinary aridity coming from laxity or sin. The ordinary aridity does not lead to the increased desire to serve God, or to the persistent return of the thought of Him.
Finally the third sign is inability to carry out the older form of discursive meditation, in which the mind or imagination moved from one point to another.6 In strongly developed cases, it will seem as though the mind and imagination will not move. A person might even be unable to comprehend a book. Yet, outside of prayer, one can carry on ordinary duties well enough.7 However, in many cases, especially less well developed cases, the soul will find it possible at times-still within the area of the three signs-to return to the older forms of discursive meditation.8
This great aridity betrays the fact that God Himself is at work in the soul. Humans by their own efforts, aided by the usual actual graces, can go only so far in the work of purification of the soul. Then, for further development, God must take over, in such a way that the soul is more passive. (We will see more of this activity/passivity question in chapter 23.)
When the stage is thus set by the three signs, infused contemplation itself may appear. It can come about in either of two patterns. In one pattern, the prayer of simplicity may as it were melt into infused contemplation, blending with it. For the prayer of simplicity, in its more developed forms, involves a loving gaze at God. However, that gaze in the prayer of simplicity is produced actively by the soul, with the aid of ordinary actual graces; the gaze of infused contemplation is passive, produced by the operation of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit.
In the other pattern, there is a more sharply defined pattern of the onset of infused contemplation. The soul suddenly finds welling up in it from the depths of the spirit a perception of contact with God which is much different from the consolations we saw in chapter 17, which are basically from the sensory realm. There is no image of Him, nor is there any sound from Him. It is all obscure, and in the darkness of faith, yet it comes in such a way that we could almost say the soul feels the presence of God. We hesitate to use the word feels, for this is not at all in the region of sense, though there may be an overflow into the sensory area, if the contemplation comes in what is called a sweet, as contrasted with an arid, form.9
This experience can come during a time of prayer; it can equally well appear during other times, even when the person is somewhat busy-though not totally absorbed-with routine things. We note here that the tendency for the thought of God to recur persistently sets the stage for this happening.
When it does come, the person, even without instruction, will seem to know almost instinctively that it is important to drop all else and simply pay attention. Even vocal prayer, even interiorly worded prayer, would be an obstacle. This phenomenon is called ligature, meaning a sort of binding.10
We said the soul should hold itself attentive, for it is quite possible for it to interrupt the contemplation by doing other things, or even by distractions, which are possible even at this point.11 (Even though the soul may enjoy the contemplation, especialy if it is in sweet form, yet the body may find no comfort in it unless there is a strong overflow, as it were, into the sensory region.)
How long does this contemplation last? A rather short time ordinarily, much like the case of the bits of infused light we spoke of earlier. When will it return again? It will come when God wills-for we can do nothing to bring it on. In fact, we should not even attempt to do so-out of fear of illusion, or going counter to the will of God. For while we should desire to grow ever more in pleasing Him, we should not desire a particular means at a particular time-as we saw in chapter 20. That we must leave up to Him.
St. John of the Cross, in a context in which he speaks of infused contemplation, even says:
These words imply of course, that infused contemplation is a normal part of spiritual growth, for if the soul does its part, God will not fail to grant it.
Do only those in monasteries or convents experience this contemplation? Not at all. Some persons in the world meet with it, those who are devoted to God and who use, so far as is compatible with their state in life, the means we have been explaining. Obviously, there will be differences in the form these things take between souls in contemplative houses, and those engaged in the world.13
After this passage is completed in the way in which God wills, the soul enters into the illuminative way, in which a higher form of contemplation appears, which is called the prayer of quiet, in which the perception of contact with God is comparable to that of a hand placed on a table.
At first this kind of prayer appears only occasionaly, and for a few moments at a time, perhaps for the time needed to say one Hail Mary. In some persons this grace comes abruptly, when not expected. They are suddenly seized with an unusual recollection, so that the divine seems to penetrate them. Then suddenly it vanishes. The intensity of this prayer also varies from time to time.
After the first appearances of this grace it may not be had again for a long time, even for some years. The interruption may come from lack of fidelity in the soul, or simply because God so wills. In others there are not these interruptions.
Even when this stage is reached, the soul is still far from the peak of growth that is possible in this world. Hence a further, more terrible purification, largely passive, is needed, which is called the dark night of the Spirit. In it commonly great trials and temptations come-against any virtue, even faith or hope or purity. Not a few comentators think temptation against purity was the "thorn of the flesh" of which St. Paul speaks in 2 Cor 12:7.
This night may run for years. It is needed because the first night, that of the senses, worked chiefly on the faults that are rooted in the sensory area, still leaving in place many faults whose roots lie deep in the spirit. The object is to bring the soul to such a point that it can be moved only by the Holy Spirit, though the Gifts (more on this in chapter 23).14
When the soul finally emerges from this severe night, it moves on into the highest forms of contemplation possible in this world, leading to the transforming union, in which not only the will, but all faculties of the soul are in effect taken over by the divine action.
As we indicated in passing, there are some souls in which the contemplation comes in an enjoyable or sweet form; in others, it is arid, that is, lacking in pleasure, though this does not exclude a sort of satisfaction at least on the fine point of the soul (cf. chapter 17 on this latter). St. Thérèse of Lisieux sems to have been that type of soul, and she liked to think the Blessed Virgin was such also.
Another kind of contemplation is often referred to as "Marian contemplation." We can use the term either to mean that which the Mother of God had, or the contemplation in which other souls may perceive her.
St. Luke tells us more than once that Mary pondered these things in her heart. Ineffabilis Deus, in which Pope Pius IX, defined the Immaculate Conception makes the matter clearer. Speaking of her holiness at the very beginning, at the moment of her conception, the Pope tells us that the Father
That is: Even if we say that God could make a creature capable of understanding her holiness, yet, as a matter of fact, He has not done that. Not even the highest of the archangels or the seraphim can comprehend it-only He Himself can. It is evident then, that she began where other souls leave off at the end of a life of surpassing virtue. What her contemplation must have been is, then, beyond our ability to grasp. And yet this did not keep her from doing her duties in the home at Nazareth in such a way that those who saw her would not suspect, even though she was clearly a specially good person.
There is also a contemplation, reported by a few souls, in which the Blessed Mother seems to be part of the object of infused contemplation. Theologically, this is clearly quite possible. If a soul in infused contemplation is given as it were direct contact15 with God, then, since Mary is more closely united with Him than any other being, more closely than the highest angels and the Seraphim, it follows that if God so wills, the soul could be given a perception of her along with that of God. This clearly happened in the case of Venerable Marie of St. Thérèse, a 17th century mystic in the Netherlands. She writes that she was given "a contemplation, an enjoyment of Mary inasmuch as she is one with God and united to Him. In tasting God, I taste also Mary, as if she were but one with God."16 Father Emil Neubert, in his outstanding work, Life of Union with Mary, says that since the definition of the Immaculate Conception, there have been more souls than before favored with special union with Mary.17 His book is a splendid guide for those who wish to develop, on any level, a Marian spirituality.
Venerable Marie even says she at times experienced a contact with St. Joseph in a similar way.18 This is clearly theologically possible, since now in the glory of Heaven, St. Joseph is most closely united with God. In fact, there is no reason why God could not, when and if He so willed, grant a contact with even lesser souls that have reached the divine vision.
When and whether a soul attains this special favor of Marian contemplation, is, of course, entirely the decision of our Father. It is obviously not a necessary part of the spiritual ascent the way basic infused contemplation is. In regard to Marian contemplation, as in all things, we should be entirely pliable and conformed to His will.