From St. John of the Cross to Us

Part I:

Chapter 1: Christian Contemplation Today


The Current Situation

We are at the beginning of the first sustained and practical interest in contemplative prayer since the 17th century. The word practical has to be stressed. The first half of this century saw a far-reaching renewal of mystical theology and the history of spirituality, but that was never translated into the widespread enthusiasm for the practice of contemplative prayer that we are seeing today. Old attitudes, prevalent in the 18th and 19th centuries, which said that contemplation was something dangerous and extraordinary and reserved for the saints with their visions and revelations, persisted even when this speculative renewal of mysticism was stressing how contemplation was the normal outcome of the Christian virtues and the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Today’s revival of practical interest in contemplative prayer is witnessed by a flood of books and articles, lectures, conferences and retreats, and its causes can be traced to factors both within and outside the Church. The Second Vatican Council, for example, gave both religious and lay people a new sense of freedom and a desire for spiritual renewal. Groups like the Cursillo and the Charismatic Movement, and later Centering Prayer and meditation groups following the teach-ing of John Main have helped introduce large numbers of Christians to a deeper life of prayer. When we add to this the spiritual hunger so characteristic of our modern Western civilization and its deeper acquaintance of Eastern forms of meditation and various depth psychologies, we end up with a setting in which practical questions about Christian mysticism naturally arise.

Increasing numbers of Christians today are searching for a deeper inner life. They want to be contemplatives, to practice contemplative prayer, to go on an interior journey to union with God, and they are enthusiastic about anything that purports to tell them about how to actually go about doing this. But there is a gap between this enthusiasm for contemplative prayer and our knowledge of the history of spirituality and the theology of mysticism. It is a gap that is a mirror image of the one that existed in the first part of this century. But now practice is in the forefront and history and theology in the back-ground. Such symmetry should lead us to wonder if the former situation has not in some way given birth to the latter.

Today’s practical interest in mysticism, inasmuch as it is a reac-tion to the past, cuts us off from it. We are not interested in anything that seems too theoretical or speculative. We really don’t ask ourselves about the inner nature of mysticism, and we are even less interested in the modern history of Christian mysticism. The harm that the bad attitudes of the past have inflicted upon us has created a wall that prevents us from looking at this past, and so we run the very real danger of repeating its mistakes. The crisis of Christian mysticism today is not in what we are doing, not in all the bright new beginnings that are springing up, but in what we are failing to do. While the rest of theology has discovered its historically conditioned nature, Christian mysticism still acts like it is exempt from history, and may very soon begin to pay the price for this blindness.

I don’t propose to write a detailed history of Christian mysticism or a comprehensive treatise on mystical theology. My intent is much more selective. I want to look at one central problem in the practice of contemplative prayer, the delicate transition from ordinary prayer or meditation to contemplation, a problem that is reappearing today and which will only become more critical as time goes on. And I want to look at it in the light of the last 400 years of reflection on the writings of John of the Cross on this particular issue. This critical threshold forms a very clearly defined landmark in St. John’s writings, and has acted like a mysterious planet whose gravity has captured the attention of both practitioners and theoreti-cians of mysticism ever since his day. In pursuing this objective I think you will find that we have plenty of history and mystical theo-logy to contend with, but hopefully presented in a way that serves to illuminate our current renewal of contemplation.

Can We Be Contemplatives?

The real issue today, just as it was for the first people who read John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, is whether you and I can be contemplatives. The answer depends, of course, on just what we call contemplation or mysticism. If we define it from the outside and say that it means the attempt to lead a more reflective life in which we make time for prayer, then certainly we can be contemplatives. Or if we define contemplative prayer as the more simplified and affective states of prayer that follow formal meditation, that is, a carefully organized process in which we use imagination and reasoning and affect in prayer, then clearly contemplation is within our grasp.

But just what did John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila call con-templation? For both of them contemplation meant infused contem-plation. It was not simply believing in God and putting ourselves in God’s presence by faith and reaching out in love, but it was an actual experience of God’s presence and love for us no matter how mysteri-ous that experience might be. And while this infused contemplation admitted of many degrees, in all of them it was a prayer that was beyond our ability to obtain by our own efforts. Once we define con-templation in this way, then we have to ask ourselves whether the current renewal in mysticism is going to lead more and more people to the experience of contemplation, or even whether this should be one of its goals. These are much more complex questions than they appear at first glance, and we have to keep them in mind throughout all the historical chapters to come. Their implications are enormous. In any dialogue with Hinduism or Buddhism, for example, one of the most important points to clarify is the kind of interior experience that each tradition leads to. Both Buddhists and Hindus, I think, would be surprised to learn how unfocused the Christian to carry on a deep discussion with other traditions understanding of the nature of Christian mysticism is today. It is hard if we are not clear about what our own has to say. Further, even on the practical level within Christian spiri- tuality itself, if we fail to clarify the nature of contemplation, guide-lines drawn from one definition will be indiscriminately applied to an entirely different kind of contemplation with unfortunate results.

Two Views of the History of Christian Mysticism

There are two basic ways in which to look at the last 400 years of the history of Christian mysticism. The first is more straightforward and unfolds logically. In it, John and Teresa are the founders of a new school of spirituality and their impact spreads out in ever growing concentric circles, first to the members of the Carmelite reform, then to other religious congregations of the time, and to the secular clergy and laity, and so forth, until we finally become the beneficiaries of a spiritual tradition which has been faithfully transmitted from John of the Cross to us. Unfortunately, we are not going to follow this approach because it suffers from one drawback. It is wrong.

The second way of looking at this same history is a lot less straightforward. We start with Teresa and John, but instead of there being an orderly progression of commentary and development that transmits their message to us, we find a fatal misunderstanding that begins even before St. John’s writings are published, a misunderstanding that takes on a life of its own. This misunderstanding goes on to play a central role in the drama of Quietism and leads to the winter of practical interest in mysticism that we are just beginning to recover from, and it centers on the transition from meditation to contemplation. This second viewpoint is a story that has not been fully told, and its impact on our current renewal of Christian mysticism insufficiently examined. While specialized studies of great value have appeared about our topic during the course of the 20th century, they remain hidden, for the most part, in little known journals and their wider significance unrecognized. It is a jigsaw puzzle which we will try to assemble without knowing whether we have all the pieces and without the picture on the box. Better yet, I like to think of this lost world of contemplation as a detective story, and we have been assigned to discover what really happened after the passage of 400 years.



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Chapter 2