From St. John of the Cross to Us


Chapter 12: The First Revival


During the last decades of the 19th century mystical studies began to revive, perhaps under the impetus of the Thomist renaissance that was renewing theology and philosophy. In 1885, for example, André-Marie Meynard wrote his Traité de la vie intérieur, and during the following year the Carmelite Berthold-Ignace de Sainte Anne published his version of Tomás de Jesús’ De contemplatione acquisita. The Carmelite Order was restored in Spain in 1868 and the Revista San Juan de la Cruz was founded in 1890, and another Carmelite review, El Monte Carmelo, was created in 1900. And with this revival the unresolved issue of acquired contemplation came back to life again.

Augustín François Poulain

One of the leaders of this revival was Augustín François Poulain (1836-1919) who had joined the Jesuits and taught mathematics for many years. But he had a deep practical interest in mysticism which first showed itself in articles on John of the Cross which were collected in a booklet and published in 1893. In 1901 he wrote in the Preface of his just published Grâces d’oraison: "In thirty years I have come to know 33 persons who seem to have real supernatural graces, and nine who have false visions." (1) It saw many editions in French and was translated into English, German, Italian and Spanish. It was a wide-ranging description of the various states in the life of prayer fortified by many quotations from the saints and spiritual writers. There were those who thought that such a book was imprudent, but it was credited with popularizing mysticism and helping to spark a revival of mystical studies. "He opened, or rather reopened, a road almost closed to the great majority since the 17th century." (2)

But Poulain’s book also raised many questions about the nature of mystical experience: Who was called to contemplation? How did mystical experience relate to the rest of the spiritual life? What was the role of the gifts of the Holy Spirit? And so forth. But what interests us about this revival is the issue of acquired contemplation. Poulain had championed the idea of acquired contemplation in his study of John of the Cross, and was to do so again here, and he had revived it under the heading of the prayer of simplicity.

The dark night of sense is a kind of prayer of simplicity as far as its outer appearances go. It is a state of either sweet or bitter aridity, and a simple gaze directed towards God. But there is a hidden element, as well. "God begins to exercise upon the soul the action that characterizes the prayer of quiet, but He does this in too slight a degree for us to be conscious of it." (3) We are faced with "an "incomplete" or "sub-mystic union." (4) But Poulain is not content with this rather good reading of John of the Cross. He believes that there is another prayer of simplicity that is equivalent to acquired contemplation. It is a simplification of affective prayer in which intuition largely replaces reason, and "affections and resolutions show little variety." (5) This description would be unremarkable and unobjectionable if what Poulain had in mind was to describe those culminating moments when normal discursive activity ends in intuition and a loving gaze at God. But he goes on to describe a kind of prayer of simplicity that approaches the mystic state which he calls the prayer of loving attention to God. (6) This is the often recommended exercise of the presence of God, but one which is "confused and with few or no reasonings." (7) The soul is not idle, but works, he tells us, "only more simply, more gently…" (8) But we are left with the impression that discourse and reason have somehow yielded to intuition, and the normal working of the faculties to something else: "There are many moments when the faculties are employed as in ordinary meditation, and where they work, therefore, in the usual way." (9) But often, the soul feels distaste for meditation. "This, as we shall shortly see, is an unequivocal sign that the prayer of simple regard is the result of a divine action." Nor should we "make any efforts to introduce ourselves into the prayer of simplicity." (10) We should not say to ourselves "I will try systematically to suppress all distinctive acts… and I will compel myself to be content with the simple attention to God with a gaze of love." If we did this prayer solely by our own efforts, it would be "of no advantage to us." (11)

In one form or another the prayer of simplicity as Poulain describes it is drawing to itself the qualities that he had given to the special prayer of simplicity that appeared in the dark night of sense. He asserts that John of the Cross teaches us that the signs he has given us concerning the transition from meditation to contemplation can be applied to another less elevated situation, that is, "to the whole of that time in which Our Lord communicates the simple, general, and loving attention." (12) He bolsters this argument by quoting John of the Cross from The Living Flame of Love where he says, "He (God) is now secretly and quietly infusing wisdom into the soul, together with the loving knowledge of Himself, independently of these divers acts, without their being multiplied or elicited." (13) By now it is clear that what starts off as a sort of simplified affective prayer has become an acquired contemplation which is clothing itself with the characteristics of infused contemplation.

Poulain’s work was not to go unchallenged. In 1893 the Capuchin Ludovic de Besse, in his Éclairissements sur les oeuvres de Saint Jean de la Croix – which had been written in 1860 and had circulated in manuscript – claimed that the prayer of simple regard that Poulain was calling acquired contemplation was, in fact, a mystic state. And in 1896, Auguste Saudreau in his Les Degrees de la vie spirituelle asserted that the prayer of simple regard was an aspect of the prayer of quiet. Émile Lamballe in his 1912 Mystical Contemplation devoted an appendix to showing that for him loving attention is contemplation itself. (14) Thus started the second debate over acquired contemplation that was going to last through the first half of the 20th century.

J.V. Bainvel, who in 1922 thought it necessary to add an introduction to the 10th French edition of Poulain’s Graces of Interior Prayer that stretched over 100 pages, left us a schema that can help us begin to decipher the various currents in this renewed debate over acquired contemplation. He finds three schools in the loose sense of the term in the field of mystical studies in general. The first had formed around Poulain and included Dom Vital Lehoedy and Adolph Tanquerey, and believed in a distinction between acquired and infused contemplation. The second school of Saudreau included Ludovic de Besse and Père Lamballe, and rejected that distinction. (15) And there was a third Dominican school led by Juan Arintero and Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange. It is worth looking at the views of Saudreau in more detail to get used to the new language that is now going to be used to deal with the old and vexing problem of acquired contemplation.

Auguste Saudreau

Auguste Saudreau (1859-1946) who was a diocesan priest, spent many years as the chaplain of the Sisters of the Bon Pasteur in Angers. In 1896 he published his Les degrés de la vie spirituelle. For Saudreau the great masters of the mystical life know only mystical contemplation. They include John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, and Francis de Sales. The loving attention that John of the Cross talks about "out of which certain authors have tried to make a non-mystic contemplation, is absolutely the same as quietude or mystical contemplation." (16) While it is true that meditation leads to a certain kind of contemplation, this is a state that lasts only momentarily. If acquired contemplation did not come from the great saints like John of the Cross, where did it come from? Saudreau, following Arintero, finds the first mention of it in Antonio Alvarado’s book, and he thinks that Tomás de Jesús was the first Carmelite to speak of these two kinds of contemplation. But he feels that it is not useful to bring into the discussion Tomás’ work on acquired contemplation that first appeared in 1886 since it could not have influenced the early emergence of the term acquired contemplation. (17)

Saudreau believed that a doctrine similar to his own can be found in the work of Pierre de Clorivière in his Manuel sur la prière et l’oraison ready for publication in 1778, but delayed to the early years of the 19th century. Among modern authors he feels a special kinship with E. Lamballe who died in March of 1914, Ludovic de Besse, who died in 1910, and Père Jean de la Croix, who died in 1919. He applauds Dom Vital Lehoedy’s criticism of those who created parallel paths of acquired and infused contemplation, but he is unhappy with the use that he has made of the words acquired contemplation even though he saw it as the "second phase of affective prayer" in which God is secretly pouring into the soul His light and warmth. (18)

Juan Arintero, OP

Juan Gonzalez-Arintero (1860-1928) is credited with leading the revival of mystical studies in Spain. He carried on a correspondence with August Saudreau and Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange. In the wake of the Teresan Congress of 1923 that had promoted acquired contemplation he published a series of articles in La Ciencia Tomista vehemently opposing the whole idea which were collected in 1925 in his La Veredera mystica tradicional. He soon regretted its polemical tone, but died before he could publish a revised edition. This second edition did not appear until 1980 under the direction of Arturo Alonso Lobo.

After Padre Arintero’s articles began to appear, the Discalced Carmelites quickly responded. Juan Vicente de Jesús María wrote a Carta abierta al Rdo. Padre Arintero, OP, sobre la contemplación adquirida, couching his outrage in flowery terms which ran on for 75 pages and ended with the evocation of his Carmelite brother of centuries ago in regard to the work of Arbiol "Incidit in foviam quam fecit." He begins by focusing on Arintero’s translation of the phrase from Tomás de Jesús’ De contemplatione acquisita: "Nullum esse contemplationem, quae supernaturale et divino modo contingen posit, quae non itiam posit nostra industria comparare." Arintero renders this as: "There is no manner of supernatural contemplation that cannot also be acquired," while Padre Vicente insists it should read: "There is no contemplation that can be had in a divine and supernatural way that cannot also be arrived at by our own industry." And he goes on to try to illustrate the difference between meditation, acquired contemplation, and infused contemplation. Let’s imagine, he supposes, that we are in a dark room with the sun shining outside, and that there are three ways to illuminate the objects within: a candle (meditation), a skylight which is beyond our reach through which the sun streams in and falls upon the objects (infused contemplation), and a window which we can open (acquired contemplation). (19) We need not follow Padre Vicente on to this terrain except to note that his foray was quickly met by an equally flowery and vehement response on the part of Ignacio Menéndez-Reigada, a disciple of Arintero, in a broadside that he called La Contemplación adquirida y la escuela pseudo-Teresiana.

These kind of debates were to go on for years. In 1928, for example, not long after St. John was declared a doctor of the Church, the Carmelites held a congress in Madrid in his honor. In the first of its private sessions it solemnly proclaimed over some objection that it was acquired contemplation that John was writing about in the Ascent and that the three signs of the Ascent indicated the time for the soul to place itself in this contemplation. (20)

In 1942 the Discalced Carmelite, Doroteo de la Sagrada Familia, wrote a Guía espiritual de la contemplación adquirida según la doctrina del místico doctor de la iglesia, San Juan de la Cruz y sus discípulos, which he intended to be a practical guide to acquired contemplation, and to that end he arranged his work in a series of questions and answers. He cites the 1928 Congress on mysticism held in Madrid to the effect that "this active or acquired contemplation is, according to St. John of the Cross, most advantageous for the soul since with it it truly leaves the life of sense and places itself in the true life of the spirit, uniting itself to God in perfect union, and is the final term of progress and prayer for the larger part of those who exercise themselves in the life of the spirit since not all, nor even half of them God raises to infused contemplation. Why? He alone knows." (21) Chapters 11 through 13 of Book II of the Ascent demonstrate that St. John is the master of acquired contemplation. He had a special gift to take contemplative souls quickly from discursive prayer and put them in contemplation. (22) Indeed, it is John of the Cross who instructed St. Teresa in this form of prayer. (23) Acquired contemplation comes in two forms: that of pure faith taught by John of the Cross, and that of simple and loving recollection found in St. Teresa. Pure faith is brought about by the emptying of images and particular kinds of knowledge. What remains is a general, confused and universal knowledge of God. (24) Once discourse ceases St. John teaches souls to remain in this attentive and loving quietude "without working actively, but not being idle; because according to St. John of the Cross not working is not the same as being idle." (25) John of the Cross talks of acquired, loving knowledge in The Ascent but infused loving knowledge in The Dark Night. There is no need to analyze all this. The departure it makes from John of the Cross’ doctrine is clear enough.

Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, OP

Many of the articles of Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange (1877-1964) on contemplation had appeared in the Vie Spirituelle and were collected and published in 1923 as Perfection chrétienne et Contemplation selon St. Thomas d’Aquin et St. Jean de la Croix. For him acquired contemplation is the same as simplified affective prayer, (26) and it is equivalent to St. Teresa’s active recollection. If it is called contemplation, it then departs from the customary terminology in which contemplation means infused contemplation. John of the Cross is speaking of infused contemplation in the Dark Night, and the "contemplation he describes in his earlier work, The Ascent of Mount Carmel, is not specifically different." (27) "To acquired contemplation, which the quietists continually recommended to everybody, they applied what the saints say about infused contemplation… As Fr. Dudon, S.J., has justly observed, Molinos believed that St. John of the Cross, in The Ascent of Mount Carmel, spoke only of acquired contemplation." (28)

In 1922 Dom Cuthbert Butler published his Western Mysticism which dealt with the teachings of Augustine, Gregory and Bernard on the contemplative life, and he profited from the questions and criticisms that the appearance of the book raised to add a long section of afterthoughts to the second edition of 1926. These afterthoughts centered on the renewal of mysticism and the question of acquired contemplation. First he sets the scene: "During the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries the idea had come to be accepted as well established, that, apart from special and unusual calls, the normal mental prayer for all was systematic discursive meditation according to fixed method: this was taken to be the lifelong exercise of mental prayer for those embarked on a spiritual life – priests, religious, nuns, devout layfolk. Contemplation was looked on as something extraordinary, almost identified with visions, revelations, raptures, even stigmatization and levitation, and other such psycho-physical phenomena. Thus contemplation and mystical theology had come to be regarded as wonderful, even miraculous; to be admired from a safe distance, and left alone as dangerous and full of pitfalls. Such was the common view, such the common practice, almost taken for granted at the end of the nineteenth century." )29)

Butler goes on to trace the revival of mystical studies we have just been looking at through the work of Poulain, Saudreau, etc., and he insists on the importance of Farges’ The Mystical Phenomena and the work of Bishop Hedley who wrote an article, as we have seen, on prayer and contemplation in 1876 on the occasion of the reissuing of Augustine Baker’s Sancta Sophia. But when we get to his evaluation of John of the Cross we find that he is a partisan of the doctrine of acquired contemplation. St. Teresa, he feels, recommends that we should not try to silence the faculties, but this "is entirely counter to St. John’s attitude," for the whole of The Ascent is given over to an active emptying. (30) Her contemplation is conscious and perceptible, while his is not. And while he recognizes that St. John calls his loving attention infused contemplation, he still finds it close to Baker’s aspirations, and something which by practice "can come to be secured more or less at will." (31) The prayer of loving attention, or as it is called, the prayer of faith or simplicity or simple regard is "according to St. John of the Cross, infused contemplation; and it ought to be, and is, ordinarily within the reach of men of good will…" (32) We are back at the paradoxes we have seen before, and there is no need to explore Butler’s views further.

E. Allison Peers

Among the English speaking scholars of Carmelite mysticism a special place should be given to E. Allison Peers who translated Silverio de Santa Teresa’s editions of St. Teresa and St. John and wrote his own extensive three volume Studies of the Spanish Mystics. Peers, a professor of languages at the University of Liverpool, spent many of his vacations in the libraries of Spain making meticulous bibliographical notes on the often rare volumes of 16th and 17th century spirituality that they contained. He had also thought to do another volume for his studies of the Spanish mystics, but his death in 1952 prevented him. Among his papers in the archives of the University of Liverpool are to be found many bibliographical notes but hardly anything relating to this proposed volume. Peers exhibits no real aversion to the idea of acquired contemplation despite his criticisms of Juan Falconi.

Gabriel de Sainte-Marie-Magdeleine

Gabriel de Sainte-Marie-Magdeleine (1893-1953) sums up these years of often impassioned arguments: "The fact is that, after some years of wrangling, the struggle died down, leaving both parties, however, in their respective positions. Neither could claim the victory, but both were tired of repeating the same arguments. And the combat finished for want of combatants!" (33) Père Gabriel, himself, was always of a more irenic disposition and believed that a true reconciliation of views was possible. His own work provides us with a summary, if not of the Carmelite position, at least of a well thought-out Carmelite viewpoint towards the end of this renewed debate over acquired contemplation. After long historical researches, he believed that what the Carmelite School calls acquired contemplation is what John of the Cross describes in Book II of The Ascent and Book I of The Dark Night. "Such was the practically unanimous interpretation of the Saint’s doctrine during the whole of the first century of the School." (34) It contains both an active and a passive element. The passive is the beginning of divine infusion and the working of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, while the active is a simplified activity of the soul which is "loving attention to the presence of God, with a gaze of faith…" (35) But the infused element is hidden and usually remains unperceived. When aridity makes us unable to meditate, we may well be being invited to exercise ourselves in looking lovingly at God. Indeed, it is this loving infusion hidden from the soul that facilitates this loving gaze. Besides infused contemplation that makes the soul conscious of the divine activity within it, there is a much lower yet real contemplation "wherein a hidden divine inflowing comes to help the formation of a ‘habit’ of looking lovingly at God…" (36)

This contemplation is much more common, but because it is hidden, it often remains unrecognized, yet is "offered to practically all those who are willing to fit themselves for it, as they should." (37) All this is derived from the teaching of John of the Cross. "It is simply obvious the prayer described by him the second book of The Ascent and called contemplation cannot be identified with the prayer of quiet." It is a contemplation "in which God does not make Himself felt." (38) And so it has been called by the Carmelite School common, ordinary, active, or acquired contemplation.

The perspective of Père Gabriel and many writers like him is important to grasp. They are spiritual directors interested in the proper guidance to give to people in the life of prayer, and this perspective takes priority over an analysis of the intimate nature of contemplation, itself. Père Gabriel gives us an interesting story that will make this important point clear. There is a young cleric in the senior seminary and he has learned to meditate, and because he is fervent, he is inclined to more affective kinds of prayer than to methodical discourse. He experiences sensible consolation and his joy is in conversing with God. "But one fine day, lo and behold, the whole scene is changed!" (39) God seems to have withdrawn. Our young cleric’s former way of praying does not work any more. He has fallen into aridity. If he has an uneducated spiritual director who demands he return to meditation, he will be in serious trouble. What he needs, according to Père Gabriel, is St. John’s teaching. He must exercise himself in a general and loving attention to God, (40) that is, "in the practice of a simple, loving attention to the presence of God." (41) There is an infusion of divine light going on, but it remains hidden, and that is why St. John has given his three signs. It is necessary to show our poor cleric that he is being acted upon from within. "Moreover, even when, helped by St. John’s teaching, it (the soul) passes this crisis of aridity and attains to a prayer of continuous, loving attention to the presence of God, a prayer that is peaceful and sweet if not for the senses at least for the spirit, not even then does it experience the divine action directly, and therefore, again, the Saint gives us three signs whereby to distinguish it." (42)

There is a "sufficiently lengthy period" in which the divine action remains hidden – an "intermediate state" between affective prayer and infused contemplation in which the soul "feels nothing" and must maintain itself in loving attention. "But as this state is sometimes prolonged for years the soul, even if used to lovingly attending to God, has at times the impression of being ‘in a void’." (43) The soul has a very simple activity to do, which is to lovingly look upon God with a gaze of faith. "It is not to make reflections; it is not to form distinct concepts." (44) There is no question of doing nothing or suppressing all intellectual activity. "Discursive activity, yes; yet on no account may it omit the general attention to God." (45)

This loving attention would not be possible without the infusion of divine light. (46) Those who profit from the hidden light, God is wont to bring to a fuller infusion. (47) "Perhaps" one day the hidden infusion will "become so intense that the soul will become fully aware of it." (48) If the soul could not maintain contact with God, this would be a sign that God is not bestowing His infused light, and that it would have to return to meditation. (49) Thus, John of the Cross has shown us that there is "a form of contemplation more within our reach than the contemplation that is experimentally infused." (50) The "whole teaching of the Teresan School upon acquired contemplation is set forth as a commentary on the teaching of St. John. St. John is, according to José del Espíritu Santo, the master of active contemplation." And according to Père Gabriel, John of the Cross should be called the Doctor of Active Contemplation, as well.

One of the greatest difficulties for the spiritual director is to convince people undergoing this experience that this way of praying is "very good." "They seem unable to believe it." (51) After having been reassured, "they return again with the same doubts." They can get on the director’s nerves. (52) "And yet, there is nothing else to say…" There is a gentle hidden infusion which does not impose itself on the soul as it does in infused prayer, but "does nothing more than help to maintain the state of simple attention in which the soul has placed itself by its own action." (53) The soul is not aware of this infusion. "Only from the fact that it is able to remain for a considerable time occupied in an exercise which by means of its personal initiative alone could with difficulty be prolonged, does it conclude it is really being assisted by God. If, instead, it perceives that it does not remain in contact with God, this would be a sign that God is not bestowing His infused light." (54) And then it would have to return to meditation.

Roland Dalbiez

In 1948 under Carmelite auspices, a group of specialists met in France at Avon-Fontainebleau. Among the participants was Roland Dalbiez, a Thomist philosopher and friend of Maritain, well versed in Freudian psychology. Dalbiez had gone to Bruno de Jesus-Marie, one of the organizers of the conference, with a proposed paper on acquired contemplation in José del Espíritu Santo, the substance of which we have already seen. Père Bruno and others had urged him to add a psychological part to it. This second part drew a positive response from Gabriel de Sainte-Marie-Magdeleine: "This last part of the position of M. Dalbiez constitutes precisely the thesis that we have for a long time defended in our book Acquired Contemplation, published in Italy in 1938, and whose English translation published in 1946 is actually its third edition. We can only applaud this aspect of M. Dalbiez’s work." (55) He goes on to say that he is less happy with the analysis of the work of José del Espíritu Santo, which is only to be expected when faced with such a critical assault on the author who closes out the golden age of Carmelite studies. The conference’s sponsors were even less happy with Dalbiez’s espousal of the historical judgment of Arintero and Menéndez-Reigada: "It is the notion of acquired contemplation which has created the psychological climate without which the blossoming of quietism would have been impossible." (56)

Dalbiez’s historical studies remain one of the most telling critiques of the very notion of acquired contemplation. We have followed his remarks in regard not only to José del Espíritu Santo, but Aphonsus Liguori and Scaramelli, as well. But what of his psychological analysis applauded by Père Gabriel? Does it actually represent a solution to the debate over acquired contemplation? The heart of Dalbiez’s thesis runs like this: "Metaphysically, there is only one contemplation, which is infused. Psychologically, there are two, one in which the infused character is conscious for the subject, and one in which the infused character is unconscious for the subject." (57) We are faced with an "ontological unity and an empirical duality." (58) "It is necessary, then, to carefully distinguish the intervention of the gifts of the Holy Spirit and the consciousness of this intervention." (59) All contemplation is ontologically passive, but it is not consciously passive. This is the distinction that is hidden in the unfortunate words acquired contemplation, and it allows us to deal with a contemplation whose passive character is unconscious.

This is a valuable milestone in the debate on acquired contemplation, and we will return to it, especially in regard to the work of Jacques and Raissa Maritain, but it certainly doesn’t appear to be the same thing Père Gabriel was saying. Nor does it answer certain critical questions. There is a world of difference between a psychologically unconscious contemplation of the sort that St. John describes, and the psychologically unconscious contemplation that Père Gabriel talks about, which in actual fact may or may not be there. Thus, Dalbiez’s empirical duality ought to be extended to three distinct states: conscious infused contemplation, unconscious infused contemplation, and the lack of infused contemplation. Further, St. John makes it abundantly clear that infused contemplation does not come into the soul by way of the natural faculties. One of the greatest difficulties, indeed, an intrinsic contradiction in acquired contemplation, is that it is based on the use of the faculties. We are being told to be active in order to be passive.

Dalbiez’s study marks the end of the second stage of the debate over acquired contemplation. The issue remained unresolved, but the often bitter controversies that we have been seeing left a bad taste in the mouths of the next generation, who then turned away from the question. After a while the whole issue began to be forgotten, and both viewpoints continue to exist side by side.

While this is an advance on some of the more unilateral Carmelite positions earlier in the century, it still suffers from serious difficulties. What Père Gabriel calls the passive element, that is, the beginning of the divine infusion and the activation of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, is simply another way of saying that infused contemplation has begun. But the active element he describes is blown out of proportion. For John of the Cross loving attention is simply the receptivity to the contemplative experience. For Père Gabriel loving attention becomes a distinct exercise in which we look lovingly at God. It is this exercise that is then described as a much lower level yet real form of contemplation offered to almost anyone who will prepare him or herself.

The key in order to understand this kind of contemplation is to realize that God does not make Himself felt. The young cleric has to exercise himself in loving and general attention towards God, but now these words do not describe infused contemplation itself, or the proximate responsive receptivity to this infusion, but a separate exercise in response to aridity and the inability to meditate. St. John’s three signs are no longer a description of the beginning of infused contemplation itself, but a way to decide whether something is going on within ourselves that is not experienced so that loving attention can be taken up as an active attitude of the faculties. And the ability to take up this attitude is used as a proof that the infusion is taking place. Acquired contemplation then becomes the guarantee of infused contemplation, for if we did not have this hidden infusion, Père Gabriel reasons, we would not be able to maintain ourselves in this attitude of loving attention.

All this keeps the words of John of the Cross, but changes their meaning. The transition from the beginning of infused contemplation to its fuller experience, which John is describing, becomes something else, that is, a long period in which we are called to practice acquired contemplation. We are being told to be attentive to an experience that may or may not be present. Little wonder that people would return with the same doubts over and over again and get on the director’s nerves, and little wonder, as well, that they would end up feeling like they were in a void.

The reason why John of the Cross’ infused contemplation has been interpreted over and over again in terms of acquired contemplation does not really lie with his texts, themselves, but rather in the concrete situations of his interpreters. They are, for the most part, experiencing something different than what he experienced.

By the early 1950s the energy that had animated the debate about the nature of and call to contemplation and the existence of an acquired contemplation had ebbed away. A long article on contemplation in the Dictionnaire de spiritualité by eminent writers summed up the state of the question.

Gabriel de Sainte-Marie-Magdeleine led off with the views of the Carmelite School, sending his readers to his earlier article in the Dictionnaire on the Carmelites. We have just seen his views about John of the Cross and contemplation, and we have seen historically, as well, how he believed that Tomás de Jesús knew John of the Cross through the Tratado breve. Further, he felt there were two currents in the Carmelite interpretation of acquired contemplation, one which owed its origin to Tomás de Jesús, and the other to Quiroga, and he attempted to follow them both until they finally came together.

Next, Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange gave the Dominican position. The great mystics and saints like Teresa and John, Francis de Sales and Jane Frances de Chantal knew only an infused contemplation. Acquired contemplation is really a simplified affective meditation (60) in which someone might momentarily pause caught up in a simple view of the things of God before resuming their considerations and acts of affection. It would be like St. Teresa’s prayer of active recollection, and to go beyond this in our way of conceiving acquired contemplation would be to go against the formal teaching of both St. John and St. Teresa.

Ephrem Longpré, charged with the task of presenting the Franciscan School, comes to a similar conclusion by examining the teachings of St. Bonaventure. Bonaventure only knows an infused contemplation, (61) and an acquired contemplation would contradict his view of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. (62) Longpré is not happy, either, with Roland Dalbiez’s attempt to resolve the issue by talking of an ontological unity and an empirical duality. (63)

Among the Jesuits Joseph de Guibert, long-time professor of spirituality at the Gregorian University in Rome, defended the idea of an acquired contemplation, while at the same time he looks with favor on Jacques Maritain’s remarks on the different ways the gifts of the Holy Spirit operate in people called to the active and to the contemplative ways of life – an issue which we will look at in detail later. (64)

Among the Benedictines Cuthbert Butler champions acquired contemplation as the normal end of the spiritual life. (65) John of the Cross’ loving attention is the lowest degree of infused contemplation, yet accessible to all Christians who seriously pray. (66)

G.J. Waffelaert admits of an acquired contemplation that depends on the gifts of the Holy Spirit exercised in a human mode, and also distinguishes infused contemplation from extraordinary contemplation. The first belongs to the virtues and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, while the second belongs to the charisms. Others call this latter kind of contemplation supereminent contemplation and connect it to the light of prophecy. This makes us wonder if the good bishop of Bruges has been reading Tomás de Jesús. (67)

Pierre Pourrat, noted for his history of spirituality, answers the question "whether an acquired or active contemplation exists" by saying "assuredly," and he goes on to demonstrate its existence both before and after John of the Cross.

It is Auguste Saudreau whom we saw playing a critical role in the reopening of this controversy at the beginning of this century who is fittingly given the last word in this marshalling of the schools. While he admits that affective prayer can end in moments of repose, which might be called acquired contemplation, he is unhappy with the efforts of Gabriel de Sainte-Marie-Magdeleine to find an acquired contemplation in John of the Cross. He would call it infused contemplation.

But Saudreau is not to have the last word after all, which is perhaps fitting in this interminable controversy. The author of the general conclusion tells us that a more objective knowledge of John of the Cross will lead to increased support for the notion of acquired contemplation, and he rallies to the position of Père Gabriel. (68)

Clearly, this grand review had not led to any sort of consensus, and the curtain began to descend a second time on the drama of acquired contemplation. This time the decline of interest was not due to any condemnation of mystical heresies, like the crisis of Quietism, but to a deadlocked discussion that had seen too many emotionally laden polemics, and which had run out of creative energy, as well as to the death of the great protagonists, as well. Saudreau died in 1946, and Père Gabriel in 1953. Vast sea changes had begun, as well, in the world of theology, that were eventually to manifest themselves in the Second Vatican Council. The debate over acquired contemplation began to be looked at as a distasteful legacy of an outmoded theological world. This whole second world of acquired contemplation that had attracted so much attention during the first half of the 20th century began to recede into the mists of time much more quickly than the passage of a few years could account for. When the new attempts to renew the contemplative life began to surface after the Second Vatican Council, they were to show very little knowledge or interest in what had transpired not that many years before.



  1. Augustín Poulain, The Graces of Interior Prayer, p. xxxv.
  2. Ibid., p. lxvii.
  3. Ibid., p. 207.
  4. Ibid., p. 208.
  5. Ibid., p. 8
  6. Ibid., p. 13.
  7. Ibid., pp. 13-14.
  8. Ibid., p. 24.
  9. Ibid., p. 27.
  10. Ibid., p. 33.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid., p. 34, note
  13. Ibid., p. 48.
  14. Émile Lamballe, Mystical Theology, p. 118.
  15. Augustín Poulain, The Graces of Interior Prayer, p. lxviii.
  16. Auguste Saudreau, The Mystical State, p. 113.
  17. Ibid., p. 119, note 2.
  18. Ibid., p. 193.
  19. Juan Vicente de Jesús María, Carta abierta..., p. 13.
  20. Crisógono de Jesús, La Escuela Mística, p. 329.
  21. Doroteo de la Sagrada Familia, Guía espiritual..., p. 11.
  22. Ibid., p. 13.
  23. Ibid., p. 14.
  24. Ibid., p. 18.
  25. Ibid., p. 24.
  26. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, Christian Perfection and Contemplation, p. 225.
  27. Ibid., p. 231.
  28. Ibid., pp. 234-235.
  29. Cuthbert Butler, Western Mysticism, p. 10.
  30. Ibid., p. 19.
  31. Ibid., p. 26.
  32. Ibid., p. 55.
  33. Gabriel de Sainte Marie-Magdeleine, St. John of the Cross, p. 106.
  34. Ibid., p. 92.
  35. Ibid., pp. 92-93.
  36. Ibid., p. 94.
  37. Ibid.
  38. Ibid., p. 112.
  39. Ibid., p. 116.
  40. Ibid., p. 119.
  41. Ibid., p.120.
  42. Ibid., p. 121.
  43. Ibid., pp. 121-122.
  44. Ibid., p. 142.
  45. Ibid., p.144.
  46. Ibid., p. 153.
  47. Ibid., p. 175.
  48. Ibid., p. 158.
  49. Ibid., pp. 166-167.
  50. Ibid., p. 176.
  51. Ibid., p. 160.
  52. Ibid.
  53. Ibid., p. 166.
  54. Ibid.
  55. Roland Dalbiez, "La Controverse..." p. 77.
  56. Ibid., p. 78.
  57. Ibid., p. 132.
  58. Ibid., p. 133.
  59. Ibid., p. 134.
  60. "Contemplation," DS, 2069.
  61. Ibid., 2091.
  62. Ibid., 2094.
  63. Ibid., 2095.
  64. Ibid., 2117.
  65. Ibid., 2130.
  66. Ibid., 2131.
  67. Ibid., 2139.
  68. Ibid., 2178.



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