How St. John of the Cross Describes Contemplative Prayer

art of catholic contemplation prayer st john of the cross video Aug 16, 2023

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What's the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the words "contemplative prayer?"

Maybe you think of a great mystic, like St. John of the Cross or St. Teresa of Avila.

Maybe you picture cloistered nuns praying to their beloved Spouse around the clock in their convent.

Or (if you're like most people) maybe what comes to mind is...not much at all.

Because contemplative prayer is actually really, really hard to define.

That's why, when I had spiritual expert Father Donald Haggerty on the Art of Catholic podcast, I asked him to define contemplation.

And I got a very interesting answer.

Check out this snippet from our discussion to see how he approached it.

God bless and enjoy!


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The subtitle of your book is Master of Contemplation. And there's a lot of, call it, bad information floating around out there in the Catholic world about what contemplation is. And we have vocal, meditative and contemplative prayer. And John is obviously a master of this. Is there a way to describe contemplative prayer for people in a way that they can kind of sink their teeth into?

It's actually, Matthew, that that's a more difficult question than...

I know it. I knew it was a trick question. I know I kind of set you up there, but I was looking for some help from you because you're the expert on John of the Cross. And so I always have difficulty in kind of describing this because you see John calls it the fragrance of God. And there's all these kinds of kind of vague descriptions of the saints. Why is that?

Yeah, I think because you know, the strict meaning of contemplation will be a grace that's given to the soul, you know, with a certain advancement in spiritual life and then that affects the interior life of prayer. And John of the Cross will have a lot of pages just speaking of the transitional time when you are praying in a more ordinary fashion, you might be praying for years in a dedicated manner. But it's still a more ordinary approach to prayer, with meditation, with some reflection, you know, perhaps seeking emotional satisfactions in prayer, wanting to feel close to God. You know, many things that are of the natural level, you know, grace. But the movement into an advancement in grace to contemplation is an opening of God to communicate himself more to the soul at a certain point. And I think the reality of this is, you know, we should all be conscious, we want more of God. And if we realize that God is very personal, he's very personal. So if we pray before a Tabernacle, we're not praying before just a sacred place there or, you know, where He is, you know, concealed behind the doors of that Tabernacle or there, you know, under the appearance of a host and a monstrance, but the real person is there. So the desire of all of us is really to come to have a more unique, you know, real contact and encounter communication with this reality of our Lord. The paradox of this is that it may, we may enter into a greater sense of mystery, the more that we enter or get, you know, draw closer, respond receptively to our Lord, the greater mystery takes over prayer. So, you know, just as an inter directory, you know, statement there, it's not a question so much of vagueness that you know, that we say, well, you're not really answering the question. What is contemplation? Let's have a definition. But it, you know, John of the Cross will say this is an interior experience in prayer that because God is ultimate mystery, even in love and desire for us, that some of that experience will not be able to be nailed down in very, you know, clear language. On the other hand, a person will say, yes, I have, there's something more of God in my life now more than ever. Yeah. And it's not... when we talk about an experience, it doesn't necessarily mean it's gonna overflow into some kind of sensory experience.

And I think this is where a lot of people get lost when trying to figure out what contemplation is because the reason why the saints have such a difficulty at times to express this mystery that's taking place is because what's happening is our own deification and divinization, which is something that frankly goes beyond the boundaries of human language. You can't really describe what's happening when God is infusing himself into in this infused contemplation. It's nothing that we can make happen, which I think is one of the big confusions that's out there today. There are a lot of different modern people teaching, you know, that you can kind of center down or say some mantras or whatever. And all of a sudden you've entered into contemplation. Contemplation is all God. I mean, we have a job to get ready for it through vocal and meditative prayer and living the life of virtue. But only he can do it to us and that's that mysterious experience of him.

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