From St. John of the Cross to Us


Chapter 13: The Second Revival

Thomas Keating
Ruth Burrows

There are two men who link the two halves of the century and its very different kind of attempts to renew the contemplative life, and though of markedly different temperaments, they were bound in friendship: Thomas Merton and Jacques Maritain. We will look at Maritain’s contribution in the next chapter.

Thomas Merton

The article on contemplation that had appeared in the Dictionnaire de spiritualité had summed up a world that was rapidly disappearing, but it does mention Thomas Merton and characterized his Seeds of Contemplation as classical in content, yet modern in presentation, and these two aspects were to become the poles around which Merton’s writings on contemplation were to revolve in the years to come.

Seeds of Contemplation, which appeared in 1949, was Merton at his best. He had absorbed the tradition and in his writing made it personal and accessible, and thus initiated many people into the world of Christian mysticism. A little later he attempted a formal theology of mysticism in what was to become his Ascent to Truth, which was a study of Christian mysticism in the light of Thomas Aquinas and John of the Cross. He found this less satisfying, and so did his readers. (1) It had cost him a great deal of effort to try to master the massive amounts of material he had collected, and in the end he felt he had only partially succeeded. Years later, when he heard Zen monks were reading this book, it made him uneasy. But this uneasiness should not be attributed to a disenchantment with the essentials of the mystical theology he had embraced, but rather, to a realization that he had attempted a style of writing that did not really suit him.

Merton was firmly rooted in the best of the mystical theology of the first half of the century, and one of his chief sources of inspiration for his Ascent to Truth was Jacques Maritain’s Degrees of Knowledge. Merton had studied Maritain’s Art and Scholasticism before his conversion, and had briefly met him when Maritain had lectured in New York. Later, after the appearance of his Seven Story Mountain, they were to begin corresponding, and it is possible to see various reflections of Maritain’s ideas in Merton’s writing. Merton had, for example, attempted to clarify the relationship between the classical forms of infused contemplation and the contemplation found in more active people, a notion which led him to study Maritain’s idea of masked contemplation that we will look at later in detail. (2) It is also possible that Merton’s distinction between the ego and the existential depths of the personality owes something to Maritain’s ideas on the person, and perhaps even something to Maritain’s notion of the spiritual unconscious.

When Merton began to write on the spiritual life, the question of acquired contemplation was quickly fading from view, and so it is not surprising that he largely sidestepped the whole issue. On the other hand, he makes it clear that there is only one kind of Christian contemplation, the passive, infused contemplation of John of the Cross. He tells us, for example, that "the man of prayer who has so familiarized himself with the truths of faith in study and meditation that he can call them to mind in a simple intuition does not automatically become a contemplative by this mere fact alone. " (3) This kind of intuition does not last. It doesn’t absorb the will, and since the soul is "not in a passive contemplative state, it will either become distracted or go to sleep." (4) In another place he has been commenting on Maritain, and when he turns to contemplation as a loving knowledge, he says: "The exact teaching of modern Thomists, Garrigou-Lagrange, Gardeil, and Maritain, on this point, tells us that intense supernatural love for God, directed by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost through His Gifts, becomes a supraconceptual means of knowing God as He is in Himself. The precise distinction is important." (5) He distinguishes this from a state in which we "rejoice in the knowledge we love and are loved" in a kind of reflective intuition. But "this is not, strictly speaking, infused contemplation, at least in my opinion. It is rather what some writers call "acquired" contemplation, although the validity of such a term is disputed and I have no intention of discussing the question here." (6)

If the renewal of philosophy and theology that had been blessed and sanctioned by Pope Leo XIII in the 1890s had had a galvanizing effect on mystical theology, this impetus was now gone. The contemplative movement of the first half of the century had asserted the normalcy of contemplation as the flowering of the theological virtues and the gifts of the Holy Spirit given in Baptism, and the call, at least remotely, of all Christians to contemplation. But it had never truly overcome the practical mistrust of mysticism that was the lingering effect of the crisis of Quietism. Undoubtedly, there were religious and lay people who devoted themselves with great intensity to the contemplative life, but they were a small minority surrounded by a sea of common Christian sentiment that failed to comprehend their interest, or even actively distrusted it. This situation existed not only in the parishes, but in religious communities, even in some of those communities where it would have been most expected that an interest in contemplation would flourish.

The Thomist philosophy and theology of Pope Leo XIII renewal had seen a time of great creativity within an often repressive ecclesiastical structure. But Thomism had made its way to the seminary and college classrooms all too often not in the lively give and take of a genuine process of discovery, but in the form of the soul-deadening manuals. The then new mystical theology was often communicated in the same way. It was an esoteric course tacked on to the study of dogmatic and moral theology, and served up with implied warnings that it would be well not to meddle too deeply in it. Once the fresh air of the Council swept through the Church, this old style of teaching was quickly put aside, but often put aside with it was an understanding of the creative work that had taken place in these earlier times in the field of mystical theology. The post-conciliar contemplative scene that was soon going to appear would be marked by a large gap between the two halves of the century, a gap that the years alone could not explain.

Thomas Keating

In the late 1960s and early 1970s Thomas Keating, who was then the abbot of the Trappist monastery of St. Joseph in Spencer, Massachusetts, saw many young Catholics who had a thirst for spirituality, and not finding what they desired in the Catholic Church, turned to Buddhism and Hinduism. They had no idea about the existence of a Christian mystical tradition. The monastery, itself, had a Zen Buddhist teacher coming to lead intensive retreats, and William Meninger, a monk of the monastery, was giving retreats on the Cloud of Unknowing, the 14th century treatise on contemplative prayer by an unknown English hermit. His fellow monk, Basil Pennington, had developed a deep interest in transcendental meditation. And all these elements began to coalesce around the idea of presenting anew the Christian contemplative tradition so that Christians could come in contact with their own heritage while being open to what could be learned from Eastern meditation and depth psychology. This was the birth of centering prayer.

The mechanics of it were simple: a sacred word was chosen to symbolize consenting to God’s presence and action within, and the word was returned to whenever the person praying became aware of being distracted from the simple activity of waiting upon God. Centering prayer was to spread widely by means of parish workshops and retreats, as well as intensive retreats reminiscent of Zen Buddhist ones. And this intensive effort to spread it became formally organized as Contemplative Outreach.

This brief history is enough to show us three vital elements in centering prayer’s makeup: an attempt to reconnect with the Christian mystical tradition, an openness to Eastern forms of meditation, and an appreciation for depth psychology. These last two elements, while not directly in our line of inquiry, ought to be looked at at least briefly before we go on to examine the first. They are vital aspects of the reemergence of a renewed Christian contemplative tradition today. Or to put it in another way, it is becoming increasingly difficult to imagine a renewal of the Christian contemplative life which would not be influenced by them. But each of them poses its own distinctive challenge.

Centering Prayer and Depth Psychology

Fr. Keating deliberately uses the language of depth psychology to make centering prayer more accessible to people today. God is pictured as dwelling in the depths of the unconscious, but buried under the emotional debris of a lifetime. Our connectedness to God was "repressed somewhere in early childhood." (7) Centering prayer makes us vulnerable to the unconscious and allows us to unload and empty the debris that it is filled with so that the divine presence can manifest itself in divine union. We are in therapy with the divine therapist.

"To use a clumsy simile, in tenement houses where the garbage collection is unreliable, some tenants use the bathroom to store the garbage. If you want to take a bath, the first thing you have to do is empty out the junk. A similar procedure holds in this prayer. When we commit ourselves to the spiritual journey, the first thing the Spirit does is start removing the emotional junk inside of us. He wishes to fill us completely and to transform our entire body-spirit organism into a flexible instrument of divine love. But as long as we have obstacles in us, some of which we are not even aware, he can’t fill us to capacity. In his love and zeal he begins to clean out the tub. One means by which he does this is by means of the passive purification initiated by the dynamic of contemplative prayer." (8)

This therapeutic process is likened to or even identified with the nights of John of the Cross: "The night of sense is designed to bring about the dismantling of the emotional programs and the death of the false self." (9) The basic goal of bringing the contemplative journey into relationship with the unconscious is an eminently valuable one. But here, like in many pioneering attempts, the execution of the plan is less than perfect. The unconscious of depth psychology, that is, the psychological unconscious, tends to be equated with the unconscious in which God dwells, and thus the process of psychological development is identified, without sufficient reflection, with growth in union with God. "What happens when we hit the Center? Since there is no more junk left to hide the divine presence, I presume we are in divine union." (10) This is a position which, if brought out formally, would be very difficult to defend. While it is undoubtedly true that the spiritual journey takes place in the depths of the soul, of which the psychological unconscious is a dimension, and this spiritual journey often vitally interacts with the psychological unconscious, that does not mean that the contemplative and psychological processes are not distinct. The passive purification of John of the Cross has deep repercussions on the psychological unconscious, but that does not make it an essentially psychological process. To speak of the emptying or unloading of the debris of the unconscious is to use a Freudian-style language which has questionable validity. It does not take into account, as would a more Jungian view, that the unconscious is not just repressed junk, but contains deep, enduring structures, or archetypes, which speak to us of the nature of the soul, itself, as a creation of God, and which interact with the contemplative journey.

Further, on a practical level, it is possible that the unloading of the unconscious is brought about precisely by the reduction of conscious activity that the practice of centering prayer teaches. A conscious attempt not to make use of the faculties leads to a loss of energy in the ego and a corresponding increase of energy in the unconscious, and thus, to the unloading of the unconscious as this increase in energy manifests itself. If this is so, then it is fair to look at the psychological reasons for this unloading, and not to consider it a directly spiritual consequence of the life of prayer. Finally, although good psychological effects can, and often do, result from the practice of the life of prayer, it should be made clear that the divine therapist is not meant to substitute for direct psychological work with a human therapist.

Centering Prayer and Eastern Forms of Meditation

Here the critical question is whether Christian contemplation aims at the same goal as various forms of Buddhist and Hindu meditation. In response to a question about centering prayer: "Sometimes there are no thoughts. There is only my self-awareness. I don’t know whether to let go of it or be aware of it." Fr. Keating responds: "That is a crucial question. If you are aware of no thoughts, you are aware of something and that is a thought. If at that point you can lose the awareness that you are aware of no thoughts, you will move into pure consciousness. In that state there is no consciousness of self. When your ordinary faculties come back together again, there may be a sense of peaceful delight, a good sign that you were not asleep. It is important to realize that the place to which we are going is one in which the knower, the knowing, and that which is known are all one. Awareness alone remains. The one who is aware disappears along with whatever was the object of consciousness. This is what divine union is. There is no reflection of self. The experience is temporary, but it orients you toward the contemplative state. So long as you feel united with God, it cannot be full union." (11)

It is to be doubted whether this no consciousness of self is an adequate way to describe Christian contemplation, and this kind of language seems to imply an affirmative answer to the question of whether contemplation and Eastern forms of meditation are aiming at the same goal. (12)

Centering Prayer and the Christian Mystical Tradition

While it is important to raise these kinds of questions, our principle interest is in how centering prayer is reconnecting with the Christian mystical tradition, especially John of the Cross. And John of the Cross has, in fact, played a significant role in Fr. Keating’s formulation of centering prayer, especially St. John’s description of the transition from meditation to contemplation in The Living Flame of Love.

But when we examine centering prayer in the light of the history we have been following, we are left with the impression that it is, indeed, renewing the Christian mystical tradition, but that tradition is still bound up with unresolved issues about acquired contemplation. By this I do not mean to say that Fr. Keating and the other developers of centering prayer intended to do this, or even that they were not inspired by earlier parts of the Christian mystical tradition like The Cloud of Unknowing and Cassian. But when faced with the dilemma of the dark night of sense in the wide sense of the term, it was almost inevitable they would recreate another form of acquired contemplation.

The centering prayer movement, itself, does not hesitate to identify centering prayer with the prayer of simplicity, or simple regard, or active recollection, or even active quiet, or acquired contemplation. Centering prayer is routinely described as a prayer in which we develop our relationship with Christ beyond words, thoughts, feelings, and the multiplicity of particular acts. It is a prayer that tries to reach the level of pure faith, a "faith that is moving beyond the mental egoic level of discursive meditation and particular acts to the intuitive level of contemplation." (13) These are all ideas we have seen before, and they are ideas that naturally come to mind when we face the practical issue of the dark night.

Fr. Keating had met people who had devoted themselves to the life of prayer, even for many years, and yet did not seem to have ever experienced mystical graces, that is, the kinds of infused prayer that Teresa and John talk about. They might even have spent their lives in contemplative religious communities, and not had the experience of contemplation. In fact, "less than five percent of cloistered contemplatives that I know have the mystical experiences that Teresa or John of the Cross describe. They generally experience the night of sense, and a few experience the night of spirit. Their consolations are few and far between." (14) We are back to the familiar subject of the night of sense in the wide sense of the term, which is the dilemma that Tomás de Jesús faced so many years before, and it goes like this: "I have given myself to a life dedicated to contemplation, and yet I don’t experience it." What is Fr. Keating’s solution? It is much like that of Tomás de Jesús. He will distinguish mystical graces from the essence of mystical prayer. A mystical grace is the "inflowing of God’s presence into our faculties or the radiance of His presence when it spontaneously overtakes us." (15) "I am convinced that it is a mistake to identify the experience of contemplative prayer with contemplative prayer itself, which transcends any impression of God’s radiating or inflowing presence." (16) So we are back, as well, to contemplation without the experience of contemplation. The essence of contemplative prayer is the "way of pure faith," which no faculty can perceive. "One can be having this "experience" on the deepest level beyond the power of any faculty to perceive it." (17)

There are two distinct spiritual paths. The one embodied by Teresa in which we have mystical graces, and the felt presence of God. We enter God’s presence by the front stairs. It is an exuberant or "light on" mysticism. Then there is the path of John of the Cross that also leads to the highest state of mystical union, but by way of pure faith. It is the back stairs, a hidden staircase, it is a "light off" mysticism without mystical graces.

As I said, this way of understanding John of the Cross is driven by the practical issue of the dark night, and so it deals with a very real and pressing problem. But the solution it presents is untenable. We cannot drive a wedge between St. Teresa and St. John. They are talking about the same contemplative life, and both of them are talking about infused contemplation. John does, indeed, call faith the proximate means of union with God. But it is a faith that is animated by charity and illuminated by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, especially the gift of wisdom which gives rise to the experience of contemplation. Infused contemplation is not some sort of accidental consolation or some sort of particular knowledge. It is a knowledge of divine union that is coming through love, and that is why St. John calls it a general knowledge, and as such it is a knowledge that is to be hoped for and wished for. Pure faith is not meant to be separated from this kind of knowledge.

The distinction to be drawn is not between mystical graces in the sense of infused contemplation itself, and the essence of mystical prayer, but between charity and the indwelling of God and contemplation. We can grow in charity and in divine union even to a very high degree and not receive contemplative graces. Why don’t we receive them? "God alone knows," John of the Cross responds, and this is an issue we will have to return to in the next chapter. But it makes no sense to try to separate the experience of contemplation from contemplative prayer, for then we end up reinventing a new sort of acquired contemplation so that we can be contemplatives without the experience of contemplation, and all this leads to a reinterpretation of John of the Cross that is not faithful to his doctrine. Once contemplation becomes the quest for pure faith, St. John’s three signs lose their meaning. Then there are no weighty reasons why we should not introduce everyone into contemplative prayer. We no longer see why the life of prayer is traditionally said to begin with meditation, or how it is possible to know if God is calling us to contemplation, or why it even matters.

"Can we begin a life of prayer with centering prayer? Tradition says that we should normally begin with discursive meditation, and that we should not move beyond affective prayer unless we know God is calling us to contemplation. But nobody explains what that really means, or how we are to know when God is calling us. The usual signs given by St. John of the Cross are not easy to verify in concrete cases… My question is why do we need to know." (18)

There seems to be no reason to start with words and concepts, and taking inspiration, perhaps, from Eastern forms of meditation, beginners are encouraged to leave words and concepts behind and start right in on contemplative prayer. In this kind of world there is no need to worry if contemplation is being received because the reception of infused contemplation has already been put to one side as an accessory consolation. Paradoxically we then presume that if we persevere in our practice of contemplative prayer, somewhere in the depths of our souls our intention meets the action of the Holy Spirit and we are, indeed, contemplatives. Then, in those who have been faithful in practicing centering prayer with some seriousness and for a sufficient length of time, we can presume that they are, indeed, contemplatives, even in the sense that St. John of the Cross and Teresa describe, i.e., that they are in some way receiving the prayer of quiet even though they are not experiencing it. St. John’s general loving attentiveness is no longer the reception of infused contemplation, but a purity of intention that comes from pure faith. "If thoughts are going by and you feel no attraction for them, you can be confident that you are in the prayer of quiet." (19) Apparently, there is an inverse proportion between our experience of union and its purity. "Let go of sensible and spiritual consolation. When you feel the love of God flowing into you, it is a kind of union, but it is a union of which you are aware. Therefore, it is not pure union, not full union." (20) "There is no greater way in which God can communicate with us than on the level of pure faith. This level does not register directly on our psychic faculties because it is too deep." (21)

Ruth Burrows

Thomas Keating’s understanding of John of the Cross was inspired, in part, by Ruth Burrows, a Discalced Carmelite sister in England in her book Guidelines for Mystical Prayer. There she tells us that although she was sure she had received no mystical graces and had no particular desire for them, her reading about them had left a bad taste, for it seemed to say that anyone who didn’t receive these graces was a second-class citizen in the kingdom of God.

Then she met two sisters, one of whom she calls Claire whom she felt was gifted with mystical graces, and another, Petra, who was very holy but without these graces. And out of these encounters arose what she felt were revolutionary conclusions: the feeling or experience of God’s presence, which is described by the mystical writers as the hallmark of mystical experience, or contemplation, is really accidental to it. "Not only is this ‘sensation’ or similar experience not the mystical grace but is not even a criterion of its presence." (22) This is an error, we are told, that Teresa of Avila fell into. She felt that the more intense the emotional experience, the more advanced the state of prayer, and on that basis she distinguished the prayer of quiet from the prayer of union. If only she had known about the psychological unconscious, she would have avoided this mistake.

There are "two ways of experiencing mystical union," or of experiencing the contemplative journey in all its stages. (23) One is "light on," and this way is exemplified by Teresa and John of the Cross, and which is found in Sr. Claire. Somehow God turns on a light so we can see what is happening in the mystical experience, but this is so rare as to be found only once or twice in an era. It has a prophetic character given so its recipient can help others. The other way is "light off." This is the normal way, the way of Sr. Petra. Contemplation is happening in the depths of the soul, but we don't experience it. The essence of this state at its highest level is when God has replaced the ego, and the effect in consciousness is emptiness. Light on adds nothing to the basic grace. Both Claire and Petra feel that they are in transforming union, that is, in the highest state of the mystical life. Neither light on nor light off is to be confused with favours that is Teresa’s prayer of quiet, union, rapture or ecstasy. The heart of both light on and light off is a non-conceptual reality inaccessible to ordinary awareness. "By the very nature of things it must be secret, hidden." (24)

John of the Cross knew the psychic character of those favors, that is, how there are repercussions in the psyche from certain stimuli, and so he urges detachment from them, "yet his own channel allowed an exuberant overflow, a fountain rapturously leaping upwards, a cataract hurling into the dark abyss: but no matter how sublime, not the grace itself." (25) Spiritual experience cannot be judged on its transient emotional impact. Rather, it is our beliefs "becoming principles of action." What we "experience of mind and will is more or less physical." (26) The self "can be immersed in profound prayer, can be living intensely in God with no repercussions in the conscious mind and no conscious desire for Him." (27) What, then, can be known of the highest reaches of the mystical life? "Teresa expresses it in terms of a vision of the Trinity dwelling within her, and similarly, John." But this is light on. Petra has her own experience:

"It was my ‘hermit day’ and I had an extraordinary sense of peace, as though nothing could ever touch me again. This peace had been growing for some weeks but, being occupied with the community and other things, I hadn’t stopped to taste it. This day, completely free from everything, it flooded into my consciousness and wrapped me round. I was in the garden, and for a moment I seemed to be looking within and I saw or realized in a mysterious way that I was not there. There was no ‘I’. I can’t say more than that. I had gone. It wasn’t that I saw or felt God, but it was as if I were in a vast and lonely plain far removed from everything." (28) This emptiness and loss of self is, we are told, "fundamentally the same grace" as Teresa’s vision of the glorious Christ celebrating His nuptials with her. (29)

Ruth Burrows was to go on to write books both on Teresa and John, but her view of mysticism remains substantially the same. In her Fire Upon the Earth, her work on Teresa’s Interior Castle, she tells us that her revolutionary conclusion is in line with tradition, but is a "bold break" with the "popular, even ‘professional’ interpretation of the tradition." (30) The mystical tradition has at its heart a contradiction. But there is a simple answer to it. Don’t confuse the feeling of God’s presence with the mystical grace, itself. Mystical infused contemplation is not a psychic experience, but rather, it is living in total conformity with Jesus. Better to substitute the kingdom for the "strange and unlovely terms infused contemplation and mystical contemplation." (31) Light on is not the mystical grace, itself, but reveals it; nor should it be identified with spiritual favors. (32) It is supernatural, but it is "wiser to leave it in its mystery" than to delve into its nature. Somehow it is "abnormal" and not the mystic grace, itself. St. Teresa was light on but it is not certain John of the Cross was. (33) St. Teresa constantly confused the mystical grace, light on, and the psychic response. John, indeed, tried to correct her. (34) He "hammers home time and time again that infused contemplation of its very nature is hidden, most secret to the one receiving it. He counsels ruthless detachment from ‘impressions, images, representations in which spiritual communications are involved’ (or might be involved)." (35)

Teresa’s experience will be "totally different from ours." (36) But what is the normal experience, that is, light off? That "experience will be precisely non–experience…" (37) Mystical experience takes place in the depths, and human consciousness, "essentially material can know nothing of it directly." But non-experience is not no experience, but a sort of experience. Looking back, people who have traveled the contemplative path know that something has happened.

In Ascent to Love, the same kind of analysis is applied to John of the Cross. There is a "disturbing contradiction" in John’s writings between his Ascent and Dark Night on the one hand, and Spiritual Canticle and Living Flame on the other. In the latter he seems to be saying that we should detach ourselves from crude consolations in order to enjoy something immensely superior, but "I deliberately say ‘seems’. It is tempting to speculate, to advance theories for this apparently blatant inconsistency but that would not serve the purpose of this book. It is enough to remark that for the majority of readers the impression is such as I have given. If John is really saying what these people think he is then we are justified in disregarding him in given instances." (38)

John’s Dark Night is highly descriptive, but "nothing can be said of the heart of the experience, the contact with the divine reality; this must, of its nature, escape detection." (39) Just because John gives us three signs to discern the beginning of contemplation, it is a mistake that it important for us to know. (40) They are ambiguous. We must rely only on faith. Spiritual light is purest when it is unperceived. (41) "Whatever is perceived, ‘tasted,’ ‘felt,’ and so on, is not the pure light itself – not God." (42) At the summit of the mountain egotism is burned away leaving a pure receptivity for God "whether this is experienced as a vast emptiness and longing for him or as fulness and possession makes no difference." (43) And this quotation brings us back to Sr. Petra's experience of transforming union.

What are we to make of all this? Are we actually face-to-face with a revolutionary breakthrough in the understanding of the Christian mystical tradition? Unfortunately not. We have returned again to the dilemma of Tomás de Jesús, which is what shall we do when confronted with the fact that most people, even those who are seen to experience the dark night of sense in the wide sense of the term, do not experience infused contemplation. Ruth Burrows attempts to solve it by reinterpreting what John and Teresa have said about contemplation. Then we are back to there being two ways of being a contemplative, one by experience – the way of St. Teresa – and the other by non-experience – the way of John of the Cross, at least in the Ascent and Dark Night. But while the problem is a very real one, her solution is untenable. Despite differences in temperament and expression, you cannot really separate John and Teresa on the subject of infused contemplation. Ruth Burrows wants us to accept the testimony of Sr. Petra and Sr. Claire that they are in transforming union and can resolve the disturbing contradictions that she finds in the mystical tradition, while, at the same time, we are asked to put in brackets St. Teresa and St. John, the Church’s mystical doctors. Her revolution is marred by a series of fundamental and interlocking misunderstandings:

  1. She identifies infused contemplation with the divine indwelling, that is, with the presence of God in the depths of the soul by love. This presence is the bedrock of the life of grace, and grows by love whether we experience it or not. The theologians of contemplation of the first part of the century admitted that someone could reach a high degree of sanctity without infused contemplation, but the divine indwelling is not identical to infused contemplation. Contemplation is a mysterious experience of that indwelling that makes its way into consciousness.
  2. Once she has made that identification, then she has to insist contemplation is by nature imperceptible. It is not. Otherwise, we have to reduce the writings of Teresa and John to a giant misunderstanding on their part. St. John, himself, in the Ascent and Dark Night takes great pains to explore in subtle detail just how contemplation becomes an experience.
  3. St. Teresa’s prayer of quiet and prayer of union are experiences of infused contemplation, just as are those states of prayer that St. John is describing in the Ascent and Dark Night. They cannot be identified with spiritual favors or psychic repercussions. When St. John is detaching the soul from all particular kinds of knowledge that comes through the natural workings of the faculties, he is not trying to take from it that general loving knowledge, which is contemplation itself, or to say that it is by nature imperceptible. This general loving knowledge is an experience of the divine indwelling, which does not come through the faculties, but wells up from the depths of the soul. But that does not make it no kind of experience at all. Infused contemplation, as it travels through the
  4. psychological unconscious, can set off all sorts of psychic reper-cussions, but it cannot be identified with them.

  5. Consciousness is neither physical nor material even though the natural working of the faculties cannot grasp contemplation. Consciousness, rather, is a dimension of the spiritual soul which embraces, as well, those depths where God dwells, and in its own way, though not through the faculties, it can have some sort of knowledge of experience of God’s presence.
  6. Sr. Petra’s account of transforming union is well worth pondering, but it is not immediately clear that it cannot have other interpretations. Not every dark night or loss of ego leads in a proximate way to infused contemplation. There are, for example, losses of self that make up part of the world of Eastern religious experience, and spontaneous versions of these same experiences have happened to Westerners.

In summary, the problem that Ruth Burrows is trying to deal with is real, that is, what can be done about the fact that many people, even in cloistered convents, do not experience contemplation. But it only muddies the waters to try to make John and Teresa say something other than what they are actually saying. It is better to accept what they are saying, and deal with the problem of the dark night of sense in the wide sense of the term directly.

Thomas Green

The central problem is clear. Just as in the time of Tomás de Jesús, what is driving interpretations of John of the Cross like Ruth Burrows is what I have been calling the experience of the dark night in the wide sense of the term. It is much the same story with Thomas Green, S.J. In 1979 he wrote Drinking from a Dry Well which had its goal to help himself and others "understand and accept the challenge of living with dryness as the normal goal of a life of prayer." (44) And he received hundreds of letters in response from people who felt themselves to be in the predicament he described. This critical experience of dryness or darkness led him to reinterpret John of the Cross, as well. He tells us that at the beginning of the transition from meditation to contemplation, loving attentiveness is both easy and difficult. We are drawn to be still, but think we should be doing something. Later, the darkness becomes dry, "that is, when God seems to be absent – how can we be "lovingly attentive" to him? This question long tormented me in my own prayer life. John gives the same advice ("be content simply with a loving and peaceful attentiveness to God") when speaking of the aridity of the dry well (Dark Night I, 10, #4). To me at that time such advice seemed like a cruel joke. How could I be lovingly attentive to Someone who seemed to be completely absent?" (45)

As an interpretation of John of the Cross, it labors under the same difficulties we have been seeing, that is, loving attentiveness as an activity we exercise, the lack of contemplation, itself, and so forth. But Thomas Green’s grateful readers are not directly concerned with John of the Cross, but rather, the problem of the dark night and how to deal with it.

When we look at the attempts of Thomas Keating and Ruth Burrows – and they are not alone here – to renew the contemplative life we see that they have a practical grasp of the problem of the dark night of sense in the wide sense of the term, that is, the failure of most of us to arrive at infused contemplation. But their solutions are much like those proposed for nearly 400 years. What we need to do is to try to come to grips, not so much with the idea of contemplation, as if it could somehow be rehabilitated, but with the underlying principles and the concrete problems that have shaped this struggle from the beginning. It is only then we will have a chance to look at Christian mysticism afresh.



  1. William Shannon, Thomas Merton’s... pp. 51-53.
  2. Ibid., p. 22.
  3. Thomas Merton, The Ascent to Truth, p. 208.
  4. Ibid., p. 209.
  5. Ibid., p. 277.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Thomas Keating, Invitation to Love, p. 41.
  8. Thomas Keating, Open Mind, Open Heart, p. 96.
  9. Thomas Keating, Invitation to Love, p. 85.
  10. Ibid., p. 82.
  11. Thomas Keating, Open Mind, Open Heart, pp. 73-74.
  12. This kind of language calls to mind Fr. Keating’s rather lavish praise of the writings of Bernadette Roberts in his preface to her book The Experience of No-Self. Her work, while deserving attention, raises serious questions from the point of view of Christian mysticism because of her claim that her no-self experiences constitute a stage of the spiritual life beyond that of the transforming union of John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. Various criticisms of centering prayer have been launched in recent years, but in a rather unilateral and non-dialogical way. Among them can be numbered the criticisms of Mother Angelica and a program on her Eternal Word Television Network called "The New Age: Satan’s Counterfeit, No. 3, Meditation and Centering Prayer." These criticisms were responded to by Fr. Keating and the Contemplative Outreach staff in a dossier dated August 21, 1992. More developed criticisms are to be found in "Centering Prayer: Transcendental Meditation for the Christian Market" by Finbarr Flanagan in Faith and Renewal, May, June 1991, and in a privately circulated paper, "Christian Contemplation and Centering Prayer" by Chris Noble. But what is needed is a less polemical discussion with the centering prayer movement. A more irenic note is hopefully struck in the ongoing discussion on Centering Prayer at
  13. Thomas Keating, Open Mind, Open Heart, p. 5.
  14. Ibid., p. 11.
  15. Ibid., p. 10.
  16. Ibid., pp. 10-11.
  17. Ibid., p. 11.
  18. Ibid., p. 122.
  19. Ibid., p. 75.
  20. Ibid., p. 76.
  21. Ibid., p. 83.
  22. Ruth Burrows, Guidelines for Mystical Prayer, p. 11.
  23. Ibid., p. 45.
  24. Ibid., pp. 45-46.
  25. Ibid., p. 51.
  26. Ibid., p. 95.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Ibid., p. 121.
  29. Ibid., p. 125.
  30. Ruth Burrows, Fire Upon the Earth, p. 36.
  31. Ibid., p. 48.
  32. Ibid.
  33. Ibid., p. 49.
  34. Ibid., p. 52.
  35. Ibid., p. 53.
  36. Ibid., p. 56.
  37. Ibid., p. 59.
  38. Ruth Burrows, Ascent to Love, p. 3.
  39. Ibid., pp. 50-51.
  40. Ibid., p. 51.
  41. Ibid., p. 92.
  42. Ibid.
  43. Ibid., p. 114.
  44. Thomas Green, Drinking from a Dry Well, p. 8.
  45. Ibid., p. 64.



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Part IV