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Are There Really Contemplatives Today?
A careful exploration of some of the important questions that surround today's interest in contemplation, or Christian mystical experience. It touches on the many ways the word contemplation is used today, examines what it means for St. John of the Cross, and tackles the difficult issues of the dark night of sense and whether people today experience St. John's infused contemplation.
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The question, "Are There Really Contemplatives Today?" is a tough one, but I think we can make some progress in answering it if we realize that this question is actually four important questions rolled into one. First, it asks about the wide-spread interest in contemplation, or mysticism, today We are going to take these words to mean the same thing, though I favor the word contemplation because we can give it a slightly more distinctive meaning, especially in relationship to what John of the Cross called mystical experience, or infused contemplation. Our second task is to ask just what contemplation is. It has so many meanings today that unless we try to clarify it, we simply wont know what we are talking about. The third question comes from our title itself, are there actually people today who experience contemplation? The answer, of course, will depend on what we finally decide what contemplation is. And fourth, our question faces us with the challenge of what to do if we are called to contemplation, and just as important, what to do if we are not.
There can be no doubt that we are in the midst of a wide-spread interest and enthusiasm for all things contemplative and mystical. Just about everywhere we look there are books and articles being published, and lectures and conferences being given, about contemplation, and this is an exciting development that I find full of promise, but it is like the first step of a journey. That first step can be a big thrill, but to go ahead and keep on walking and overcome the difficulties of the journey is quite another thing. Our enthusiasm somewhere along the line has to lead to theological reflection, to an increased psychological awareness, and to a sense of the history of the spiritual life. Only if it does these three things will this enthusiasm lead to the creation of a viable contemplative life. It would be a mistake, for example, to imagine that our own interest in the contemplative life today is something entirely new, something that has never happened before in the history of the church, and so the past has no valuable lessons for us.
Yet, I admit that it is hard to believe that the immediate past has much to say. In the Catholic Church before the Second Vatican Council anyone who took any more than a mild theoretical interest in contemplation or mystical experience ran the risk of being considered somewhat odd, or even imprudent, for meddling in dangerous matters. Contemplation was somehow the prerogative of the saints, and no mere Christian beginner could seriously aspire to it. It was all right to study contemplation, but not try to live it. And this attitude prevailed all the whole important theological advances were being made on the nature of the contemplative life and its relationship to the whole of the Christian life with its virtues and gifts. Men like Juan Arintero or Reginald Garrigou-LaGrange were showing that contemplation was meant to be the culmination of the life of prayer. But there was something in the very atmosphere of the Church before the Council that prevented this kind of theory from effecting practice. The contemplative life was a real practical issue for just a few individuals who swam against the tide and suffered feelings of isolation and misunderstandings. Now we have swept away that old attitude and replaced it with the hope that we, too, can be contemplatives. But have we really stopped and asked where this old attitude came from? In other words, our own interest in contemplation today has a history, and if we can unravel this history it might shed some light on the road that leads to the renewal of contemplation. Just why, then, was there such a mistrust of mysticism? Well, part of it could be called temperamental. There are always some people who simply bristle at the idea of contemplation. It is just not their way of proceeding, and they distrust anyone who is inclined that way. It would be hard to name any contemplative of the past, and I mean contemplatives who have been canonized, that someone was not suspicious of at one time or another.
But this is not the kind of distrust of mysticism that I want to talk about. Our current enthusiasm for mysticism today is a kind of compensation for the negative attitude that existed about it in the past. We are finally free to say that contemplation looks like a good thing, in fact, a very good thing, and so lets see what we can do about it. But where did this negative attitude of the past come from? It has its roots almost 400 years ago in the years just following the death of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. Teresa and John had put mysticism on the map in a new way. Certainly there had always been contemplatives in the Church, but Teresa and John added a new ingredient, not to contemplation itself, but to our subjective appreciation of it. They showed how it was a living human experience. They added a sense of psychological introspection which is one of the most important characteristics of our modern outlook. After Teresa and John, we could see how contemplation could be an experience for you and for me. Once John and Teresa had written, and their works began to circulate, many men and women said. "This is really exciting. This is living out the Christian life." And because John and Teresa had posed the question of contemplation so clearly, these same people were compelled to ask, "Am I a contemplative, too? Do I experience what John and Teresa have described?" And out of this genuine interest in contemplation and the questions that arose naturally from the work of the Carmelite saints, a flood of books appeared in the course of the 17th century that were devoted to showing people what contemplation was, and how they could be contemplatives, following in the footsteps of Teresa and John. These books even went so far as to describe easy and quick ways to be contemplative. They proclaimed that just about any Christian, with some effort, and the right method, could become a contemplative. And the whole idea of being a contemplative and following these interior practices that were supposed to lead to contemplation became the rage.
The situation then had some important parallels to the situation today. There was genuine enthusiasm, a genuine interest in the contemplative life, and in the writings of Teresa and John, and the desire to do something practical about actually becoming a contemplative. So in certain ways these people in the course of the 17th century were our forerunners. They were experimenting with the same kinds of questions that we are experimenting with today. So we should take a special interest in what happened to them. Well, unfortunately, this 17th century enthusiasm got carried away with itself. It really didnt pay enough attention to what St. John and Teresa called contemplation, but rather, it read them through the tinted glasses of their own desires to be contemplatives, and they ended up calling contemplation things they were not, and ascribing to John and Teresa things they never said. In short, this 17th century enthusiasm didnt really do its homework, and the final upshot was what became known as Quietism, and these mistaken views about contemplation in turn provoked the negative reaction about contemplation that we are still experiencing in the Church today, and which was particularly strong in the Church before the Council. There is that old saying that says that if people dont know the past, they are condemned to repeat it. Well, lets hope that doesnt happen to us. The last big enthusiasm about contemplation ushered in an anti-mystical atmosphere that lasted for centuries. Imagine how we would feel if we imagined that people in the 21st or 22nd centuries would point to us and talk about those people in the Church after the Second Vatican Council who had such a beautiful opportunity to renew the contemplative life, and they blew it. Somehow we have to get back to the authentic contemplative traditions of the Church, and this means building a road back to people like John and Teresa, which is not as easy a task as it may first appear. The history of spirituality that stretches between us and them is filled with unexamined questions, detours, and even dead-ends. And so we have our work cut out for us. Paradoxically, if we want to really go forward into the future, we have to have a firm grasp on the past. We have to take the best of the past in terms of the best of these contemplative traditions, and then, on that sure foundation, add our own distinctive kinds of theological reflections and our own particular kinds of psychological awareness. We cant repeat the past because the kind of consciousness we have today is not exactly the same that existed in the time of John and Teresa. It has been expanded by the discovery of depth psychology, and so these discoveries of the unconscious have to become part of our new outlook on contemplation.
The first task we face in building this road that stretches into the past and into the future is to ask what contemplation is. The word contemplation is used in so many different ways today that unless we clarify them we will end up in confusion. There will be simply no way we will ever answer our question of whether there are contemplatives today. Contemplation, for example, can mean leading a recollected life in which we have time to devote to the life of prayer. So we speak of contemplative orders, or the contemplative vs. the active life, and so if this were our definition of the meaning of contemplation, we would have to say that there were any number of people today who are contemplatives. They have made a distinctive and noteworthy effort, whether in religious life or outside of it, to have time for the life of prayer, and not let the pressing activities of life in this world dominate everything. But this is not what John of the Cross meant by contemplation, and it is a much too general kind of definition to serve us well today.
Contemplation can mean, and has meant in the past, a loving gaze at the truth, a slow savoring of it. For example, we might be in some process of reasoning or study, and then arrive at an insight or intuition that pleases our minds. We finally see something, and so, if this is what is meant by contemplation, there can be physicists who are contemplatives, or biologists, for in any discipline this kind of contemplation arises. And there can be contemplatives in this sense in the life of prayer where meditation naturally leads to moments of this kind of contemplation. But, again, this is not what St. John meant by contemplation.
Contemplation can mean all the stages of prayer beyond formal meditation. Then a person would be a contemplative if he or she passed beyond meditation or never had an inclination for it, and spent their time in prayer in other ways. We might be inclined, for example, not to reasoning, but to more affective ways of praying by means of inner aspirations or in trying to practice the presence of God, or in exercising more or less wordless liftings of the mind and heart to God, or withdrawing inside ourselves and recollecting ourselves in our own center, or inner spirit, to be free to be with God. All these things are undoubtedly good things, and many people experience them as part of the natural evolution of their life of prayer. And we could even say that in relationship to formal meditation they are more contemplative, and further, they embrace a lot of the kinds of contemplative exercises that are being talked about today. But is this really what St. John meant by contemplation? I dont think it is. We are certainly free to call contemplation any one of these things we have been talking about. But I think it is important to ask what St. John and St. Teresa really meant by contemplation. This doesnt mean that once we understand what they said we have no other recourse but to follow the pathway they laid down. But it is crucial we have a secure starting point for renewing the contemplative life, and we can hardly do better than with the people like John and Teresa who inaugurated the question of contemplation in a new and distinctive way.
One of the keys to understanding what St. John meant by contemplation is to understand what he meant by meditation. I dont think he meant what we mean today. Meditation wasnt just a formal process of organized thoughts or reflections that proceeded in logical steps and ended up in conclusions and loving resolutions. It wasnt something that popped out of a book of meditations. For St. John meditation was something a lot wider. It meant all the kinds of prayer we can do whenever we will to do them. It meant whatever we can do by the exercise of our minds and hearts. So St. Johns meditation embraced many of the things we call contemplative exercises today because we can do these exercises pretty much when we will.
What was contemplation for St. John? If meditation embraced the whole area of active doing, the things we could do with the aids of grace, there is a whole stage of prayer which is not active, but which is fundamentally passive. If meditation proceeds by way of ideas and distinct acts of the will, there is another kind of experience which is a general and loving knowledge, which is not the fruit of the working of the intellect and will, but is a free gift of God received in the depths of our spirits. This is infused wisdom, or contemplation, or mystical experience. It is not us seeking the presence of God. It is God making His presence felt. So, on the one hand, St. John talks of a discursive action that is wrought by means of images, forms, and figures that are fashioned and imagined. And he speaks of the path of meditation and reasoning, and this all stands in contrast to the way he speaks about contemplation. For example, talking of the soul receiving contemplation, he says: "For God now begins to communicate Himself to it, no longer through sense, as He did aforetime, by means of reflections which joined and sundered its knowledge, but by pure spirit, into which consecutive reflections enter not." When St. John talks of contemplation he is talking of a loving, general knowledge of God, or a general and loving attentiveness or knowledge of God. Contemplation for St. John is pure and serene light, a secret, peaceful and loving infusion from God.
So St. John carefully describes both meditation in this wide sense, and contemplation, and what is more, he describes the transition from meditation to contemplation. It is this part of St. Johns work that is particularly important for us today, for it contains many of the vital principles that will help us answer whether there are contemplatives today and, more importantly, whether we are being called to the contemplative life, and what we can do about it.
John had a keen appreciation of the state of conversion, that is, the fervor or what we could call the sensible spirituality that beginners in the spiritual life experience. They often have a sense of consolation, a palpable feeling that God is present. They find sweetness and satisfaction in spiritual exercises, and for St. John this sweetness and pleasure plays an important role in detaching them from the things of the world. Today this sensible spirituality, or state of conversion, can come about through different channels, like the Cursillo or Charismatic renewal, or some other way in which we become converted and take a serious interest in the spiritual life. But this is a state that is not destined to last. It is too mixed with our own senses and inclinations and desires. Once it has served its purpose, which is to draw us from the things of this world, it is time to move on, and the next step St. John called the Dark Night of Sense. And this night can even happen suddenly as God draws us closer to Himself.
St. John writes: "Consequently, it is at the time they are going about their spiritual exercises with delight and satisfaction, when in their opinion the sun of divine favor is shining most brightly on them, that God darkens all this light and closes the door and spring of the sweet spiritual water they were tasting as often and as long as they desired. For since they were weak and tender, no door was closed to them. God now leaves them in such darkness that they do not know which way to turn in their discursive imaginings; they cannot advance a step in meditation, as they used to, now that the interior sensory faculties are engulfed in this night. He leaves them in such dryness that they not only fail to receive satisfaction and pleasure from their spiritual exercises and works, as they formerly did, but also find these exercises distasteful and bitter. As I said, when God sees that they have grown a little, He weans them from the sweet breast so that they might be strengthened, lays aside their swaddling bands, and puts them down from His arms that they may grow accustomed to walking by themselves. This change is a surprise to them because everything seems to be functioning in reverse." (The Dark Night, Book I, Ch. 8, #3)
In St. Johns mind this beginning of the night of sense was widely experienced, especially by people who had seriously applied themselves to the life of prayer. "This usually happens," he writes, "to recollected beginners sooner than to others, since they are freer from occasions of backsliding and they more quickly reform their appetites for worldly things. A reform of the appetites is the requirement for entering the happy night of the senses. Not much time ordinarily passes after the initial stages of their spiritual life before beginners start to enter this night of sense. And the majority of them do enter it, because it is common to see them suffer these aridities." (The Dark Night, Book I, Ch. 8, #4)
Does this mean that St. John is saying that if we experience this dark night we are being called to contemplation? No, he isnt. And understanding why he isnt has always been one of the obstacles to understanding what he means by contemplation. What St. John has been talking about could be called the dark night in the wide sense. We enter the dark night when we fall into these aridities.
But there can be many reasons why we fall into these aridities, and so many outcomes to this dark night of sense. So John continues his discussion of the dark night by immediately talking about his famous three signs. "Because of the origin," he writes, "of these aridities may not be the sensory night and purgation, but sin and imperfection, or weakness and lukewarmness, or some bad humor or bodily indisposition, I will give some signs here for discerning whether the dryness is the result of this purgation or of one of these other defects. I find there are three principal signs for knowing this." (The Dark Night, Book I, Ch. 9, #1) So there is really a dark night in the wide sense a falling into aridities, and then a dark night in the narrow sense, or a purgation that leads to contemplation.
Lets look at these three signs as John describes them in The Ascent of Mount Carmel. "The first is the realization that one cannot make discursive meditation nor receive satisfaction from it as before. Dryness is now the outcome of fixing the senses upon subjects which formerly provided satisfaction. As long as one can, however, make discursive meditation and draw out satisfaction, one must not abandon this method. Meditation must only be discontinued when the soul is placed in that peace and quietude to be spoken of in the third sign."
He continues: "The second sign is an awareness of a disinclination to fix the imagination or sense faculties upon other particular objects, exterior or interior. I am not affirming that the imagination will cease to come and go (even in deep recollection it usually wanders freely), but that the person is disinclined to fix it purposely upon extraneous things." (The Ascent of Mount Carmel, Book II, Ch. 13, #2 and 3)
These first two signs are the negative ones. We cant meditate, and this inability does not stem, as far as we know, from lukewarmness or deliberate imperfections.
But it is the third sign that is the key. This is the positive sign. "The third and surest sign is that a person likes to remain alone in loving awareness of God, without particular considerations, in interior peace and quiet and repose, and without the acts and exercises (at least discursive, those in which one progresses from point to point) of the intellect, memory and will; and that he prefers to remain only in that general, loving awareness and knowledge we mentioned, without any particular knowledge or understanding." (The Ascent of Mount Carmel, Book II, Ch. 13, #4)
The third sign is more than a sign. It is the very presence of contemplation, itself. The dark night of sense in the wide sense can lead in different directions. The dark night in the narrow sense leads to contemplation. In fact, it is caused by the beginning of contemplation. The third sign is vital. We can experience an inability to meditate, we can make an honest judgment that this inability has not come about because of our laziness or imperfections, but this still doesnt mean we are on the road to contemplation. There could be unconscious causes for both these signs. St. John described them under the headings of bodily indispositions and melancholy.
In The Ascent of Mt. Carmel he says, "Neither is the realization of the first and second sign sufficient, if the third sign is not observed together with them. When one is incapable of making discursive meditation upon the things of God and disinclined to consider subjects extraneous to God, the cause could be melancholia or some other kind of humor in the heart or brain capable of producing a certain stupefaction and suspension of the sense faculties. This anomaly would be the explanation for want of thought or of desire and inclination for thought. It would foster in a person the desire to remain in that delightful ravishment." (The Ascent of Mt. Carmel, Book II, Ch. 13, #6)
Unfortunately, the would-be contemplatives in the 17th century did not pay much attention to this aspect of Johns teaching. They saw they could not meditate, and they could not blame this inability on some fault or imperfection they committed, so they said, "Well, here are the first two signs one more to go," and then when they read in St. John passages like: "Actually, at the beginning of this state the loving knowledge is almost unnoticeable. There are two reasons for this: first, ordinarily the incipient loving knowledge is extremely subtle and delicate, and almost imperceptible; second, a person who is habituated to the exercise of meditation, which is wholly sensible, hardly perceives or feels this new insensible, purely spiritual experience," (The Ascent of Mt. Carmel, Book II, Ch. 13, #7) they said, "Aha. I have the first two signs, and St. John is saying that the third is hidden, so I dont experience it. So I really have the third sign, as well. So I am a contemplative." They mistook emptiness for contemplation and didnt continue reading the passage I just quoted, which goes on to say:
"But the more habituated he becomes to this calm, the deeper his experience of this general, loving knowledge of God will grow. This knowledge is more enjoyable than all other things, because without the souls labor it affords peace, rest, savor, and delight."
And they didnt pay attention, as I said, to St. John talking about the psychological reasons why we could experience the first two signs. Today, instead of melancholia, we could talk of the conscious and the unconscious, and the dynamics of psychic energy. The night of sense can be caused by a running out of conscious energy a sort of mid-life crisis of the spiritual life. We have exercised our conscious powers in the life of prayer and now we have lost the ability to do so. Let me try to be more concrete by using St. Teresas water imagery. Meditation is like lowering our bucket into a pool and drawing out the water. Contemplation, in contrast, is a spring bubbling up within us from which we have only to drink. As we actively pray and assiduously lower and raise our bucket, it is only natural for the water in the pool to get lower. We will have to lower our bucket further to reach it. We might, for example, have to increase the length of rope attached to the bucket. We might do this by changing our way of praying and moving to a more affective prayer or a more silent one, or we might work on our psychological integration, which would give us access to new energies that we could then use in the life of prayer. So there are many possible reasons for our inability to pray like we did before.
Lets recall St. John describing how these psychological reasons could incline us to remain in what he calls "that delightful ravishment." Just what does this delightful ravishment mean? If we are unable to exercise our conscious energies in prayer, if we feel like we are energyless, where does this energy go? It doesnt simply disappear, but it falls into the unconscious and activates it. Then we run the risk of mistaking the unconscious which can exercise a kind of delightful ravishment in relationship to the ego, as some sort of contemplative state.
Now we are in a position to begin to answer our question of whether there are really contemplatives today. There are people who live quiet and recollected lives, and call that contemplation. There are people who lovingly gaze at the truth, and call that contemplation. There are people who lead a simplified life of prayer and practice various sorts of recollection, and call that contemplation. There are people who experience the fervent beginning of the life of prayer that sweet water of consolations and call that contemplation. These are those who suffer an inability to meditate for psychological reasons, and call the state they do experience contemplation. There are those who actively negate their thoughts and desires and strive towards a Zen-like state, and call that contemplation. And finally, there are people who experience the contemplation that St. John talks about. No wonder conversations about contemplation get confused!
We are certainly free to use the word contemplation in any way we want to, but at the same time, if we dont clarify what we mean by it, it is going to be much harder to develop a viable contemplative life today. Lets go back to our original question. Are there really contemplatives today in the sense that St. John talks about contemplation? I think the best way in which we can try to answer this question is to describe two positive outcomes of the night of sense in the wide sense, and these two outcomes represent the two most important issues that face any successful renewal of the contemplative life.
The first one we can call the way of faith and love. There are many people who have undergone a night of sense in the wide sense. They have not been able to continue praying like they once did. The fervor and consolation that they formerly experienced has disappeared. They have suffered a night that strips away the old emotions and old expectations for that sweet spiritual water of consolation, and it leaves them less in their own egos. They are somehow dispossessed of many of the things they thought were vital ingredients of themselves. If we undergo such an experience, and if we can objectively and honestly say that we have reason to believe that we have not received the infused contemplation that St. John talked about, where does that leave us: There are three possibilities. The first is the temptation to say, "Well, I cant pray like I did before. I am left in darkness. I am a failure, and contemplative drop-out. My former life of prayer has disappeared, and the new life of contemplation has not taken its place. So I just better forget the whole idea." Well, this is certainly no solution at all.
The second possibility is for us to do the same thing those people in the 17th century did, that is to say, "I cant pray like I did before, but it is not really my fault, and so this darkness I experience must be contemplation itself." Then we try to rest in this darkness and emptiness, but if it really isnt contemplation, there is nothing to rest in. There is no choice between acting, no matter how simplified this activity may become, and receiving when the grace of contemplation takes hold of us. If we try to rest in nothingness, if we try to create a false passivity, we empty our consciousness of energy, and this energy falls into the unconscious and activates it. Then what can occupy us is not contemplation, but various kinds of delightful ravishment, or in other cases, the vacuum in consciousness draws up material from the unconscious that can take the form of everything from religious visions to seemingly diabolical temptations. Well, this isnt much of an outcome to the night of sense, either.
The third possibility is the road of faith and love. We refuse to give up, we recognize we arent receiving contemplation, and we are not willing to accept any other substitutes. Instead, we reach out in faith and in love to God. We pray as best we can, and we go forward day by day, making the most of the opportunities we have to exercise this faith and love. This state is hard to talk about, but I think in one way or another there are any number of people who have gone through a night of sense and have arrived at it. Because it is so simple and humbling, we tend to overlook its great value. But St. John never said that the proximate means of union with God is contemplation. He said that it was faith, and this is a faith animated by charity. In this way of faith and love we acquire some of the benefits of the night of sense because we lose that sensible spirituality that St. John described as being so full of our own ego. But remain actively praying, even though this activity is very simplified compared to the way we prayed before. We do make distinct acts of love as we reach out in faith and love to God. If we accept this way of praying as a gift of God, and grow accustomed to walking by faith, there is a quiet joy in it, and this joy can spread to our other activities. So this is one of the positive outcomes to the night of sense, even though it is not contemplation in the sense that St. John talks about. Perhaps for some people it may lead to contemplation some day, but it is a kind of prayer that teaches us to leave that decision in Gods hands. As simple as this kind of prayer is, I think that it is important that it get more attention because it shares the essential qualities of faith and love that the contemplative life itself possesses. In fact, it is a central kind of Christian praying.
Now we finally arrive at answering our question of whether there are really contemplatives today in the sense that St. John uses the word. I think there are, but God, alone, knows how many and where they are. I wouldnt be surprised if they were not where we would expect to find them and not like we would expect them to be. They undergo the dark night of sense in the narrow sense, and this dark night is the dawning of contemplation, itself, and it assails the soul as a dark and purgative fire. Its object is not only to reform our all too human ways of praying, but it is to purify and transform our inner spirits so they can receive the gift of infused contemplation itself. In fact, the light of contemplation, because it is such a pure light, and because our spiritual sight is so imperfect, appears as darkness to our inner spirits. The dark night of sense in its wide interpretation is meant to lead to a state by which we walk by faith. And those called to contemplation go by faith and love, as well.
It would be a bad mistake to imagine that the light of contemplation somehow lifted them beyond faith. The truth is quite the contrary. Contemplation is a loving union that comes through faith animated by charity. But the people who receive infused contemplation not only walk by that simple way of faith and love, which is one of the outcomes of the dark night in the wide sense, but they undergo that special dark night, which is the beginning of contemplation, itself. This means that at times the light they experience is brighter than what we experience if we go by this active road of faith and love. But at the same time the darknesses they experience are blacker and more painful. And I said, only God knows how many people he is calling to live the contemplative life in this sense, but I have the impression that there are simply not a lot of people who are living this kind of life of contemplation, and those who do often suffer from a lack of proper spiritual direction.
We might imagine that it would be these contemplatives who, because they have received such great gifts from God, have less need of spiritual direction than the rest of us who walk more in faith without the illumination of contemplation. But I think the truth is probably the opposite. It is these contemplatives who receive both the lights that come through contemplation, as well as the especially painful darknesses that accompany it. Contemplation is not a gift we receive like an object that is placed in our hands, but it is an actual transformation of our inner spirits, so its reception sets up powerful reverberations throughout our personality. This is an issue that we will talk about in a moment. If it is true that we know very little about how many people are actually receiving contemplation, it is just as true that our knowledge of what our experience of contemplation is like is also minimal. We have had speculative theologians describe how contemplation is the normal outcome of the life of prayer, but this is very different than talking about the experience of contemplation in the concrete. We read John and Teresa and form certain mental pictures, or maps of the contemplative journey, like Teresas interior mansions, or Johns road that goes up Mt. Carmel, but this doesnt mean that the plan or map that we have formed corresponds to reality. If we are really going to understand infused contemplation today, we are going to have to talk to the people who have received it, and we are going to have to be especially careful and resist the temptation to force their experiences into traditional categories. It is only on the basis of this kind of actual experience that we will get an adequate grasp of what the contemplative life means and the typical problems that a contemplative faces. One of the areas that I think will emerge out of such a study would be unawareness of how the contemplative graces vibrate in the psyche, as I said before. It would be a great advance in our understanding of the contemplative life if we could talk to actual contemplatives and see their experiences from the point of view of the unconscious and the dynamics of psychic energy.
There are any number of places in St. Johns writings where it is possible to see the interaction between spiritual graces and a fragile psyche that resonates from them. Probably the most graphic account are the temptations that St. John describes that can befall a person called by God to a higher degree of spirituality. He write in The Dark Night, "An angel of Satan which is the spirit of fornication is given to some to buffet their senses with abominable and violent temptations and trouble their spirits with foul thoughts and very vivid images which sometimes is a pain worse than death for them." "At other times in this night there is added to these things the spirit of blasphemy, which roams abroad, setting in the path of all the conceptions and thoughts of the soul intolerable blasphemies. These it sometimes suggests to the imagination with such violence that the soul almost utters them, which is a grave torment to it."
"At other times another abominable spirit, which Isaias calls Spiritus vertiginis, is allowed to molest them not in order that they may fall, but that it may try them. This spirit darkens their senses in such a way that it fills them with numerous scruples and perplexities, so confusing that, as they judge, they can never, by any means, be satisfied concerning them, neither can they find any help for their judgment in counsel or thought."
We would be shortsighted if we saw in these temptations that are sort of the last gasp of the night of sense simply temptations created by some external agency. I think it is possible to see in them a reflection of how the psyche is stirred by our conscious attempts to lead a spiritual life and stirred by the graces of contemplation, if we receive them, so that the spiritual life, while it is good in itself, sets up waves in the rest of the psyche.
Another way of looking at it is to say that even for a contemplative who has gone beyond the night of sense and perhaps gone beyond these particular temptations that St. John describes, even this contemplative can suffer various kinds of dark nights because of the reverberations that the contemplative gifts set up in the psyche. In other words, just as St. John describes how glaring our weaknesses can appear under the light of contemplative graves, it is just as possible that the contemplative graces would set off because of the weakness of our psyches various movements of psychic energy and various attempts at psychic compensation by the unconscious that could have the effect of causing a contemplative to suffer distinctive kinds of psychological afflictions. St. John indicates as much when, in The Dark Night, he talks of how melancholy can be combined with the dark night in the narrow sense.
One of the vital unexplored issues of the contemplative life is to explore these dynamics because this is a burden that I think contemplatives bear, which makes their road much harder, and their burden heavier, yet it could be alleviated if we could discover psychological means to work on the integration of the psyche so that these painful repercussions of the reception of the contemplative gift would be lessened. What this amounts to is reworking the art and science of spiritual direction so that it includes not only a knowledge of the various states of prayer, but the psyche of the person who is receiving these states. Along the same line, our awareness of the subject or recipient of contemplative graces should extend to an understanding of the typical differences that exist between people so that we could appreciate that there might be, for example, different contemplative paths, depending on the psychological type of the person who receives contemplation.
This kind of spiritual direction means a genuine meeting between depth psychology and the life of prayer. Concretely it is a meeting of a psychology like Jungs with Christian spirituality. Much like the question of contemplation, itself, we have a new enthusiasm today for such an encounter, but we have to take this enthusiasm and work through the many problems that stand in the way of a successful realization. We can distinguish three possible levels of dialogue. In the first, we have a defensive posture, and we want to defend the spiritual life against the intrusion of a profane psychology. At the second level of dialogue, the level I think we are at today, we have left that defensiveness of the past behind, and we see that there are many fascinating parallels between Jungs process of individuation and Johns ascent of Mt. Carmel. But here we run the danger of imagining that psychic integration is really the same thing as the Christian life of prayer. This would be a serious mistake which would amount to the reinterpretation and swallowing up of the Christian life by Jungian psychology.
The third level of dialogue is one that we are just beginning to reach. In it we have carefully examined our own tradition, for example, the nature of contemplation, as we have done here, and then we see that in our psyches there is a constant interaction between the life of prayer and the psyche that is the recipient of this life of prayer and which conditions how we receive this life of prayer, and reverberates because of the graces we have received. If we could sustain this level of dialogue, then we would begin to create the kind of spiritual direction I spoke of before. It is then that the riches of a psychology like Jungs would be made available to Christian spirituality in a non-destructive way. These riches include Jungs psychological types, his careful analysis of the unconscious, and its structure in terms of the archetypes, the dynamics of the relationship between the ego and the unconscious, the movement towards the self or wholeness, and so forth.
In summary, we have looked at the wide-spread interest in contemplation today and seen that it is full of promise, but these promises havent yet been realized, and our enthusiasm, itself, exists within a very definite historical context. We also saw what contemplation was, according to John of the Cross. I think defining contemplation narrowly like this has the advantage of forcing us to be careful how we use the word, and to realize just how many different realities are hiding under this one word "contemplation." We eventually answered the question of whether there are really contemplatives today in the affirmative, but it is only if we make a real effort to find people who are receiving contemplative gifts, and then listen carefully to what they have to say that we can begin to understand what this contemplation is in the concrete.
Any successful renewal of the contemplative life has to deal with the twin issues of the distinctive kinds of problems that contemplatives face, as well as the state of many people who have gone through the night of sense and walked the road of faith and love. One of the reasons that the 17th century renewal of the contemplative life failed was because it reduced the sublimity of the contemplative experience to nothingness and emptiness, and it had no way to deal with the psychological ramifications of the spiritual life. We are in a position today to make up for this lack of psychological awareness and help revitalize the life of prayer.
I have outlined in more detail some of these issues surrounding St. Johns meaning of contemplation and the use of Jungs psychology within the life of prayer in more detail in my book, St. John of the Cross and Dr. C.G. Jung. If in the course of this talk I have given the impression that there are many more questions than answered ones when it comes to the contemplative life, then I think I have left the right impression, and we should feel privileged to have the opportunity to once again come to grips with the practical questions surrounding contemplation after so many years in oblivion.
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