Dan Burke is an award-winning author, writer, and speaker on Catholic spirituality. He has written and/or edited nine books on faithful Catholic spirituality and is the Executive Director and writer for EWTN’s National Catholic Register. Dan is the president of the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation, and the creator of Divine Intimacy Radio and SpiritualDirection.com.
How are contemplation and meditation linked? Which is more important? How do you approach one from the vantage of the other? In our time, these two gifts of prayer are often conflated and confused by modern pop-spirituality that is all too popular in the Catholic world. The catechism brings great clarity on the distinctions in spite of the fact that these distinctions are still ignore by popular authors. These challenges are not new to our time. About 500 years ago a very holy saint had it right. He was one of St. Teresa of Avila's spiritual directors, St. Peter of Alcantara. Here's a bit of wisdom from his great work on meditation and prayer.
Counsels for Meditation, from Finding God through Meditation, by St. Peter of Alcantara
The Seventh Counsel—Yield to Divine Consolations
The seventh counsel is, that he that is visited with divine consolations in or out of prayer, ought to have a special care to spend that time, above other, with fruit unto his soul; for while this prosperous gale does blow, he will go further in his journey towards heaven, in one hour, than otherwise he has, or shall do, in many days. So did the holy Father St. Francis do, of whom St. Bonaventure writes that he had such a solicitous care of divine visitations that whensoever upon the way he was recreated with them, he would either go before or stay behind his companion awhile until he had digested this divine morsel sent unto him from heaven. They who are negligent and careless to answer divine visitations are commonly chastised with this punishment from God that when they seek they will hardly find them.
The Eighth Counsel—Yield to Contemplation
The last counsel and of greatest moment is, in this exercise of prayer, we must join meditation to contemplation, seeing one is, as it were, a ladder unto the other; wherefore it is the part of meditation, with diligent attention, to consider and ponder celestial things, first one, then another, that at last some pious affection may be stirred up in the soul, like him that with a steel strikes fire out of a flint; but it is the property of contemplation, which follows meditation, to enjoy this kindled fire; that is to say, to embrace that affection which, with much labor, he sought and found, in deep silence and tranquillity of spirit, not with many discourses and speculations of the understanding, but with a pure simple relation and eye to essential reality. Hence a certain doctor says that meditation does discourse with labor and small profit, but contemplation without any trouble and with much fruit; the one does seek and the other finds; the one chews and the other eats the meat; the one reasons and considers, the other contemplates those things she loves and tastes; and, in fine, the one is the means, the other is the end; the one is the way and motion, the other the term of the way and end of the action. From these things which we have said, that rule or axiom is very frequent among spiritual masters, which few of their scholars do rightly understand, that is, the end being attained unto, all means do cease. For example, the mariner rests when he comes to his desired haven.
So he that meditates, when, by the means of meditation, he shall come to the rest and sweet gust of contemplation, ought to leave the cragged way of reasoning and discourse, contenting himself with the memory of Almighty God alone; whom he may behold as present to his soul and quietly enjoy that sweet affection which he shall generously desire to bestow upon him, whether it be of love, admiration, joy, or the like; and the reason is, because the end of this business consists rather in love and affection of the will than in speculations of the understanding. When, therefore, the will has captivated the one and attained to the other affection, all reasoning and speculations of the understanding are to be left, that the soul may bend all her forces to it without a confused wandering to the actions of the other powers. Therefore, a certain doctor gives this counsel to those who perceive themselves to be inflamed with the fire of divine love that they should quite abolish all other thoughts and speculations, never so sublime and subtle; not that they are evil, but because for the present, they hinder a greater good. And this is no other than, after we have come to the end, to leave meditation for the love of contemplation which we may do (to speak particularly of this matter) in the end of every exercise, (that is to say) after the petition of divine love, as above said, and that for two reasons: first, because it is supposed that the labor of the finished exercise has produced some fruit of devotion towards Almighty God, as the wise man says, “Better is the end of prayer, than the beginning.”
Secondly, it is expedient that, after labor in prayer, the understanding rest awhile and recreate itself in the arms of contemplation. Here let everyone resist whatsoever imaginations shall present themselves unto his mind, let him still his understanding, let him fasten his memory strongly upon God, considering that he is placed in his holy presence. But let him not adhere to any particular contemplation of God, but only content himself with that knowledge which faith has ministered unto him; and to this, let him add his will and affection, seeing this is only that which embraces God, and in which the whole fruit of meditation consists. The weak understanding is little able to conceive or comprehend anything of God, but the will can love him very much.
Let him, therefore, rouse up himself from temporal things, and let him recollect himself within himself, that is to say, to the centre of his soul, where is the lively image of God; here let him hearken attentively, as though he heard Almighty God speaking from a high turret; or as though he held him fast, being present in his soul; or as though there were no other persons in the world, besides God and himself. Nay, I say more, let him quite forget himself, and those things which he does; for, as one of the ancient holy fathers says, prayer is then every way complete, when he that prays does not consider that he is before God in prayer, and this is to be done, not only in the end of the exercise, but in the midst, and in every part of meditation. For, as often as this spiritual sleep shall sweetly oppress anyone, that is to say, when the understanding is drowned as it were in a sleep, (but the will watching) let him quietly enjoy this delicate meat as long as it shall last. But when it is digested, let him return again to meditation, in which we must behave ourselves like a gardener who, when he waters a bed of his garden, after he has once sprinkled it with water, waits awhile until it be drunk in, then sprinkles again, that at last it may thoroughly wet the earth, that it may become more fruitful. But what the soul, cast into this heavenly sleep and illuminated with the splendour of this eternal light does enjoy—what satiety! what charity! what internal peace!—no tongue is able to express. This is that peace which surpasses all understanding; this is that felicity, greater than which cannot be imagined in this vale of misery.
There are many so inflamed with this fire of divine love that their interiors, at the very memory of this blessed name, without any meditation at all before, do rest in joy. These need no more consideration or discourses to love God than a mother needs motives to love her child or the bride her husband. Others there are so absorbed in God, not only in prayer but also in outward business, that they wholly forget themselves and all creatures for the love of him. Neither are these effects of divine love to be admired, seeing worldly love causes oftentimes greater matters in the minds of men that it makes them mad. What, shall we attribute less efficacy to grace than unto nature and sin? When, therefore, the soul shall feel this operation of divine love, in what part of prayer soever it happens, let him never refuse it; although he spent all the time of this exercise in it, without any manner of consideration at all, for that point he purposed to meditate upon (except he be specially obliged unto it) for, as St. Augustine says, vocal prayer ought to be left if it hinders devotion, so, meditation ought to be deferred if it hinders contemplation. But as it is necessary to leave meditation for this affection and to ascend from the lesser to the greater, so, oftentimes, this contemplation is to be left for meditation, when it is so vehement that the corporal health receives some damage thereby. This oftentimes happens to those who, taken with the pleasure of this divine sweetness, give themselves too indiscreetly to these exercises, and use them too immoderately, to whom (as a certain doctor saith) this will be the best remedy: that they desist from contemplation, turning their minds to some other good affection, as of compassion in meditating on the sufferings of our Savior, or about the sins and miseries of this world, to exonerate the heart, diverting it from that too much intension.
Finding God through Meditation, by St. Peter of Alcantara, brings the wisdom of the great saint into your hands. St. Peter directed St. Teresa of Avila on difficult questions she had about prayer and she turned to this work for guidance.
Note: If you would like to read the complete work, please click here and purchase Finding God through Meditation, by St. Peter of Alcantara, through the EWTN Religious Catalogue and support the worldwide efforts of EWTN.