Chapter 13
Reginald Garrigou-LaGrange
and the Renewal of the Contemplative Life

Reginald Garrigou-LaGrange, OP, (1877-1964) was one of the leaders of the wide-spread and often contentious attempts to renew the Christian contemplative life which roughly coincided with the first half of the 20th century. He was a student of the Dominican scholar, Ambrose Gardeil, and when the Dominicans sent him to Paris to study at the Sorbonne, it was at Henri Bergson’s course in philosophy, probably at the Collège de France, that he made the acquaintance of Jacques Maritain. He went on to teach philosophy and theology at the newly founded Angelicum at Rome in 1909, and from 1917 to 1959 taught a course on aescetical and mystical theology. His influence in these matters was to radiate throughout Europe, North America and beyond.1

Two examples will give us the flavor of his deep involvement in renewing the contemplative life and set the stage for looking at two of the central positions that he championed.

It was at the Angelicum in 1909-1910 that he met Juan Gonzalez-Arintero, OP, and read his Evolución mística. Arintero was one of the most prominent figures in Spain in these early 20th century attempts to restore the contemplative life to its former glory, and his doctrine was fundamentally in accord with Garrigou-LaGrange’s. The Archivo del P. Arintero in Salamanca preserves Garrigou-LaGrange’s unpublished letters to Arintero written between 1911 and 1927.2


The Universal Call to the Contemplative Life

The second historical example introduces us to one of the major themes in Garrigou-LaGrange’s work in mystical theology, the universal call to contemplation. In France, in 1922, Garrigou-LaGrange collaborated with Jacques and Raissa Maritain in a series of spiritual initiatives which were to have a wide and lasting influence on the theology of contemplation and in which he appears to have played the role of the elder brother. In the fall of 1921, the Maritains had decided to try to rekindle their idea of a Thomism study circle that would not only intellectually examine the philosophy and theology of St. Thomas and his great commentators and make it known to the lay intellectual world which was their home, but also would require of its members a vow of prayer. It was to Garrigou-LaGrange they turned to become its director-general, who accepted, and in return requested them in June of 1922 to write a study guide for the members which first appeared out of commerce as De la vie d’orasion.3 That fall he led at Paris the first retreat of the Thomist Circle with Charles Journet, Henri Ghéon, Jean-Pierre Altermann, and Yves Congar, among those attending.4

At the end of 1922 and the beginning of 1923 Garrigou-LaGrange wrote three articles for La vie spirituelle that were to be taken up later in 1923 in one of his most influential books on the spiritual life, Perfection chrétienne et contemplation selon St. Thomas d’Aquin et St. Jean de la Croix (Christian Perfection and Contemplation According to St. Thomas Aquinas and St. John of the Cross) that enunciated one of his enduring contributions to mystical theology. He summed up with admirable clarity the traditional teaching of the Church on the nature and call to contemplation that was to be found in complementary ways in Thomas Aquinas and John of the Cross, and other saints. Contemplation, that culmination of the life of prayer in which the presence of God manifests itself in a very real and experiential, yet mysterious way, is, he asserted, the normal outcome of the development of the life of grace. It is the very flowering of the Christian virtues and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, that is of the whole Christian organism of grace. Contemplation, therefore, ought not to be confused with visions or revelations, or with other accessory or accidental phenomena of the spiritual life, but it is simply the blossoming of the life of the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity which are perfected in their mode of operation by the gifts of the Holy Spirit so that contemplation is both supernatural by substance, since it is based on the life of grace, and by its mode of activity since it is infused by God. Further, the ascetical life cannot be separated from the mystical life in which it finds its culmination. If contemplation is thus the normal development of the life of the virtues and gifts, then we are all called to it.

Once enunciated with such clarity and force, this thesis appeared as an obvious expression of the Catholic mystical tradition, and gained the center ground among theologians and spiritual writers who recognized it as such. But the very clarity of this enunciation made it immediately evident that it appeared to clash with the facts of experience. If contemplation was the normal and natural outcome of the spiritual life, why was it that so few people appeared to receive it? Garrigou-LaGrange’s three articles in La vie spirituelle had touched on this issue, and Jacques Maritain had submitted to the same journal an article in January, 1923, called "Une question sur la vie mystique et la contemplation" ("A Question on the Mystical Life and Contemplation")5 that both embraced Garrigou-LaGrange’s central thesis, and attempted to nuance it and deal more fully with the questions it carried in its train. This article appeared in March, 1923, with a response of Garrigou-LaGrange called "Les lois supérieures et leurs exceptions." ("The Superior Laws and Their Exceptions")

The apparent dilemma of how all could be called to contemplation and so few reach it was resolved by both of them by invoking a distinction that can be expressed in various forms, for example, the difference between the formal and the material, or the objective nature of things and the subjective, or as Maritain would later put it in another context, the difference between the essential and the existential, or nature and state. Once this kind of distinction was brought forth, the apparent contradiction disappeared. When the organism of the spiritual life is looked upon from a formal perspective, that is, according to its essential characteristics, then it is clear that the virtues and gifts are meant to lead us to contemplation, which, itself, is a foretaste of the life to come. But the life of grace is received in each of us in diverse ways. It is received, as the philosophers used to say, according to the mode of the recipient. Therefore, any number of reasons can impede its full flowering. Some of those reasons might have to do with our own faults and imperfections. We might, for example, be too attached to the things of this world, or lack the courage to endure the suffering that comes with the journey to contemplation. But, as Maritain felt important to emphasize in his intervention in La vie spirituelle, there could be other reasons that could not and should not be reduced to our own faults. We might have, for example, a temperament, or apostolate, that simply did not lend itself to contemplation in the overt classical form to be found in Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. Contemplation might, in these cases, express itself in the lives of holy people in more hidden and tempered ways where the active gifts of the Holy Spirit were more to the forefront than the contemplative gifts, such as the gift of wisdom.

In summary, Garrigou-LaGrange played a central role in putting a spotlight on the nature of contemplation and our universal but remote call to it. This was one of his major contributions to mystical theology, and became and still remains the most common view of theologians of the spiritual life.


On the Nature of Contemplation

His second major contribution to spiritual theology that we want to examine was much more controversial then, and points to a central issue that has yet to be resolved in contemporary attempts to renew the contemplative life. It is all well and good to say that we are all called to contemplation, and that the very organism of the spiritual life is geared to it, but what does the word contemplation really mean? It has had a variety of meanings through the course of the history of Christian spirituality, and it still does. But for Garrigou-LaGrange its meaning was very clear. Contemplation meant infused contemplation, a loving knowledge or wisdom that comes from God, that gift of the loving presence of God that is expressed so clearly in John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, and in other mystics.

Here we have to digress a moment in order to understand why Garrigou-LaGrange was insisting that the contemplation of the saints meant infused contemplation. In the 17th century with the spread of the writings of John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, all Catholic Europe was fascinated with mystical contemplation and how one might become a contemplative. But John of the Cross’ sublime and nuanced teaching on infused contemplation had soon become misunderstood, first within the Discalced Carmelites, themselves, and then outside the Order. The whole length of the 17th century became a battleground not only between the true and false mystics, but between two very different and ultimately incompatible interpretations of what John of the Cross was saying about contemplation and how to arrive at it. The century ended without this conflict concerning the meaning of John of the Cross’ writings being resolved, and mysticism, whether genuine or bogus, being relegated to oblivion. The Church entered a long, dark night of the mystics, which it did not begin to recover from until the beginning of the 20th century. But no sooner had mystical studies begun to revive under the impetus of a renewal of philosophy and theology, the same long-buried controversies came to life again. Auguste Poulain, SJ, together with many discalced Carmelites, entered into battle with Abbé Saudreau, who was seconded by Garrigou-LaGrange and Arintero, who were convinced that Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross knew only of infused contemplation rather than a kind of contemplation that we could do ourselves whenever we wished. To their mind, it was destructive to the mystical life of the Church to take teachings that were developed in the context of infused contemplation, and apply them to an acquired or active one. These often acrimonious debates lasted until about 1950 when they finally ceased, not with any commonly accepted solution, but with the deaths of the some of the major figures that had carried them on.

With this panorama of the rise and fall of contemplative spirituality in mind, it is worth summarizing some of the basic points that Garrigou-LaGrange made in regard to the nature of contemplation.

  1. Contemplation for John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, as well as Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantal, means infused contemplation.6
  2. It would be a misconstrual of Teresa of Avila’s writings to find in them a kind of contemplation that would be distinct on the one side from simplified affective prayer, or her acquired recollection, and which could be identified on the other with her supernatural recollection, or prayer of quiet, in which there could be a prolonged cessation of discursive activity.7 "It is altogether untenable to say that acquired contemplation is that in which we can place ourselves by our own industry, and to include in it supernatural recollection, quiet, spiritual intoxication, and mystical sleep."8
  3. The infused contemplation described by John of the Cross in his Dark Night of the Soul "is not specifically different" from the contemplation he talks about in The Ascent of Mount Carmel.9 "To acquired contemplation, which the Quietists continually recommended to everybody, they applied what the saints say about infused contemplation."10


At first glance, these assertions may appear as subtle points of interest only to historians of Western Christian spirituality, or theologians of mystical theology. They are not. They give a very definite answer to the question of just what contemplation is. The universal call to contemplation, and this identification of contemplation with infused contemplation are the twin pillars that support Garrigou-LaGrange’s mystical theology, and instead of being forgotten, they ought to remain in the forefront of our minds when we look at the contemporary attempts to renew the contemplative life.

When a new interest in the contemplative life arose after the Second Vatican Council, these battles, when they were remembered at all, were remembered with distaste, and while Garrigou-LaGrange’s idea of the universal call to contemplation had gone mainstream, and thus survived, his insistence on contemplation as infused contemplation was forgotten.

Today movements to renew the Christian contemplative life, like centering prayer and the Christian meditation movement based on the teaching of John Main, OSB, have had the great merit of introducing people to the serious practice of the life of prayer.

How should we evaluate them in the light of the two foundational principles of Garrigou-LaGrange’s mystical theology? They both have clearly accepted the first one, that is, the call of all people to contemplation. In fact, it may even be wondered if they have overdone their acceptance of it and forgotten the nuances it had in the days when it was first formulated. They seem to invite everyone, even those at the beginning of their life of prayer, to practice contemplative prayer without inquiring how well they are grounded in the more discursive forms of prayer like meditation and affective prayer.

But how else can people be rather indiscriminately invited to practice contemplative prayer unless contemplation is understood as something within our power to do? But if it is something that we can do, then it is a matter of the exercise of the human faculties, however subtly we are urged to exercise them, and it is not the infused contemplation which Garrigou-LaGrange accepts at being at the heart of the Christian mystical tradition. In centering prayer, for example, which claims John of the Cross as part of its inspiration, the clear distinction in St. John between meditation and infused contemplation, that is, between the kinds of prayer we can do whenever we want, and the gracious gift on God’s part of contemplation, is blurred. Contemplation becomes something more akin to the kinds of acquired or active contemplation that flourished for a time in the 17th century.

Both centering prayer and the Christian meditation movement operate in a kind of historical and theological vacuum that prevents them from examining not only what happened in the first half of the 20th century, but what transpired in the centuries before that time. This is regrettable. The unresolved crisis in mystical theology that led to the dark night of the mystics in the 17th century came to light in the first years of the 20th century where Garrigou-LaGrange played a major role in unsuccessfully trying to resolve it. Will the now popular interest in contemplative spirituality lead to a similar crisis when it collides with this still unresolved question of the nature of contemplation?

The failure of centering prayer and the Christian meditation movement to come to grips with Garrigou-LaGrange’s ideas on the nature of contemplation, and through him with the debates of those times is a fitting symbol of a wider failure of contemporary Christian spirituality which is curiously blind to its own history when it comes to the question of the nature of contemplation. Contemplation is promoted as a way of praying accessible to all, while contemplation in the sense of the gift of infused contemplation and the goal and summit of the spiritual life is forgotten.

Garrigou-LaGrange, Arintero, the Maritains, Poulain and Saudreau represent only some of the lights of those days, and behind them, crowding the 17th century, which was the last time that there was a wide-spread interest in contemplative prayer, is a whole cast of characters that followed in the wake of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross and shaped the future that we now live in: the Carmelite Thomas of Jesus, who altered John of the Cross’ thought before St. John’s writings were even published, his fellow Carmelite, Francisco Quiroga, Antonio Rojas, Juan Falconi, now all but forgotten, and Miguel de Molinos, who ushered in the night of the mystics we are still trying to recover from, and many others. I have told this story in From St. John of the Cross to Us: The Story of a 400 Year Long Misunderstanding and What it means for the Future of Christian Mysticism.11 Against this panorama the works of Garrigou-LaGrange on the universal call to contemplation as infused contemplation still maintain their vitality and importance.



  1. See the article "Garrigou-LaGrange" in the Dictionnaire de spiritualité, 129.
  2. See Arturo Alonzo Lobos’ Presentación, p. 12, note 12 of the second edition of Juan Arintero, (1980) La verdadera mística tradicional, Salamanca.
  3. Raissa Maritain. Raissa’s Journal. (1974) Presented by Jacques Maritain. Albany, NY: Magi Books, Inc. p. 128ff.
  4. Jacques Maritain. Notebooks. Albany, NY: Magi Books, p. 148.
  5. Jacques Maritain. (1924) "Sur l’appel a la vie mystique et a la contemplation." De la vie d’oraison. Paris: Louis Rouart et fils, p. 72.
  6. "Contemplation" in the Dictionnaire de spiritualité, 207.
  7. Reginald Garrigou-LaGrange. (1954) Christian Perfection and Contemplation According to St. Thomas Aquinas and St. John of the Cross. St. Louis: Herder, p. 225.
  8. Ibid., p. 227.
  9. Ibid., p. 231.
  10. Ibid., p. 234.
  11. James Arraj. (1999) From St. John of the Cross to Us: The Story of a 400 Year Long Misunderstanding and What it means for the Future of Christian Mysticism. Chiloquin, OR: Inner Growth Books.


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