An Interview about Infused Contemplation
Eastern Enlightenment and Christian Contemplation
A Response to the Prayer Questionnaire
The Christian Prayer and Contemplation Forum is for and by Christian practitioners who want to reflect on the important questions that emerge out of their own practice. It also welcomes anyone with a serious interest in the Christian life of prayer. The Forum deals with central questions like the current revival of interest in Christian mysticism, the dialogues of Christian spirituality with depth psychology and Eastern religions, and a simpler, more ecologically sane lifestyle that would be more conducive to the Christian journey.
This issue is going to focus on infused contemplation. The word contemplation is heard everywhere today, but it is given different meanings, and if we fail to clarify them, then effective communication will be hindered. The phrase contemplative life, for example, can mean a quieter and more reflective lifestyle that has more time for prayer and spiritual reading. The words contemplative prayer can be applied to any type of prayer that is seen to follow more formal kinds of meditation. Thus, many kinds of simplified and more affective kinds of prayer can and are being called contemplative.
But the word contemplation has a more precise meaning in the writings of John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. This is what we are referring to when we use the term infused contemplation. It is a kind of prayer that we cannot achieve by our own efforts no matter how much we may be able to help prepare ourselves for it and cooperate with it when it is given. It is a prayer in which God's presence is not only believed in, but somehow felt or experienced. It is a gift that appears to be given to a minority of those who devote themselves to the Christian life of prayer. Yet, unless we understand what it is, we are liable to confuse it with the other meanings of the word contemplation, misunderstand the writings of John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, and hinder our reconnection with our Christian mystical tradition.
In order to gain a better idea of what infused contemplation is, we talked with one of our Forum members.
Forum: Just what is infused contemplation, and how did you first experience it?
Forum Member: There were a lot of experiences that I think led up to the infused contemplation, but the time that I really mark - where I start calling it that in my mind - is an experience where I felt a definite sense that this is the presence of God. I started experiencing intense bliss, and it happened in different ways, but the first time I felt this all-consuming bliss was in the spring of 1990 or 1991, and the bliss grew so much - I was working at the time - and it grew over a period of about four or five days, and it became so intense that I really became a little bit overwhelmed by it, and I prayed to have it reduced a little bit; I really liked it but it was overwhelming and a little frightening, I think -not that there was anything that felt bad about it - but it was just such an intense experience that it was a little frightening. But after I prayed that it went away entirely (laughs) and that made me very sad.
I had a dream a few weeks after that that I think was very important, and, of course, the elements of the dream just have a lot to do with my own psychology and how that manifested. But I had a dream that I was in a hallway and there were a couple of different congregations and I couldn't decide which one to go into and I kept hesitating. In the dream as I was hesitating and somehow stuck in this hallway the Lord came to me and talked to me. I can't say what it looked like. It was more like I knew He was there and He was talking to me. And He had this greeting card, and I opened the card and the words were written in beautiful colors of pink and yellow and purple, and it was the story of my heart, the story of my life, but it was a story that I had never seen before, or didn't realize. It was like this was the story of the way God saw me, which was totally different from the way I saw myself, and it was so beautiful. I can't describe the feeling that I had in that dream. After I read that the Lord told me we would be united in the next fall, and I just begged Him to make it happen right then, and He said I wasn't ready yet. And that was the end of the dream.
So I woke up and I said, "What is this?" It was such an incredible dream. I knew it was just a dream but it seemed to be more than that. That whole summer I remembered the dream and I kept trying to keep perspective and not to hope too much for something special to happen the next fall. But I just couldn't help but hope something would happen. September came and I waited day after day and nothing happened. Then it was early in October that the bliss came back. Again I felt it day and night. This was going on while I was going to work and relating to people and going to lunch, and doing the normal things that I did but it kept getting stronger and stronger. I was a little disconcerted again, but remembering what had happened the last time, I made a conscious choice that I wasn't going to allow myself to close the door to it because of how much I had regretted it when it went away the time before. So I let it happen. There came a point where in the course of my job I became aware that the Lord was inside me looking out of my eyes. It wasn't that I became the Lord, it wasn't like that at all, it was like the Lord was at the center of this blissful experience and was at that moment inside me looking out at the world through my eyes... Contemplation is almost like having another sense I don't want to use a 6th sense because that has a connotation that I don't mean here but it is actually like I had a completely different sense rather than seeing and touching and hearing, but just as concrete. Another way to describe it would be like someone was inside a house and there were no windows and they couldn't see outside at all and they were on the phone. Say you are interviewing me and I am having this experience and you are in this house and there are no windows or doors and I am trying to describe to you that the sun is shining. I feel it. I can say, "Well, it is warm." "Well, what's warm?" you might say. "Well, it's bright." "Well, what's bright?" you might say. It is very much like, "How do you know the sun is shining?" You just know the sun is shining.
Forum: In what way did you prepare yourself for this experience of contemplation?
Forum Member: I definitely feel that infused contemplation is a total gift of grace. I think I used to spend more trying to understand why this gift had come to me, and went through various stages thinking about it. But I can't say that it came from anything I did. I don't believe it did, even in the sense that it was the natural development of stages of prayer. I had a prayer life; it was basically intercessory prayer. I had done meditation earlier in my life but during the years that preceded this onslaught of infused contemplation, more of a practice for me was trying to live my life for Christ and committing everything that I did to Christ. But knowing so many people who do that and do that so wholeheartedly, I just don't believe that those small efforts on my part really brought about the infused contemplation. When it happened to me in no way had I reached any form of perfection. That's not an effort to be modest or humble. It is just the honest truth. I had worked on a lot of things and really still had a lot of misconceptions at that point as to what really were faults and what weren't. In the years that followed a whole lot more imperfections were revealed, and some just in response to having such incredible experiences - struggling with feelings of grandiosity, and trying to claim them somehow. Things surfaced that I thought had been long dead. The only thing I wonder about but don't have a clear sense of being true or not, is that I have heard it said that some very, very deep experiences of prayer may be related to very, very deep experiences of suffering. Not knowing enough people who have these experiences I can't say for sure, but in my own life the level of suffering and the amount and the duration, and the intensity of it is, in a way, equal to the intensity of the beautiful experiences. I sometimes speculate that there may be a relationship between the depth of suffering and the depth of contemplation - and I don't mean in the sense of even necessarily reward for or compensation for it - but more in the sense of being torn at such a deep level that such experiences are possible. In you can suffer at such a deep level and retain the integrity of your consciousness it may have something to do with experiencing God in that way. But that is just speculation. It's not based on a sense of knowing.
Comparing it to Centering Prayer I would say that I did not really do anything to try to quiet my thoughts or to try to get rid of thoughts. I probably have not done that in any of the practices that I have done, just because I haven't been drawn to that or I find it too frustrating. I think that I was disposed to being receptive to God in general from the time I was a little girl. That's something my mother had taught me to give up my own will to God. "Not my will but Thine be done." I was taught to pray that way. So that was a part of my prayer. But there wasn't an effort to quiet my mind. I did do a visualization-type meditation where I would visualize Christ and I would visualize qualities from Christ streaming into my soul - which I saw in my heart - in a stream of light, and I don't remember all the exact details of it, but I would name the qualities that I associated with Christ like compassion, kindness, patience. I had a list that I memorized. And I think I was doing that meditation, which is actually more of an active positive meditation than a self-emptying kind of meditation (when the contemplation began).
Forum: What about your religious practices and their relationship to infused contemplation?
Forum Member: My own experience is in the Catholic faith - and by the way, my conversion came about in conjunction with this onslaught of infused contemplation. I go to daily Mass, and I have a definite sense that that enhances contemplation. I wouldn't say that it is necessary. However, without that there is definitely something missing in me. As far as external forms of prayer, I really love praying the liturgy, the Hours. I read from the Breviary. I don't have time generally to read all the different hours, but I always manage to get in morning prayer and evening prayer, and sometimes I read a little bit more, and I just love that. I love the sense of praying with the entire Church, and I especially love praying the Psalms. Praying the Psalms frequently triggers experiences of renewed contemplation for me. Many of the Psalms remind me of the experience of infused contemplation, such as "Look towards Him and be radiant." The couple of Psalms that deal with the longing for God: "My soul is thirsting for God" so much reminds me of those tangible dry periods. There's a lot in the Psalms that seem to be written by people who have experienced infused contemplation. I think I have a firm belief in that from reading the Psalms over and over again.
As far as for the rest of my external life, I am married and I have a career, and I have friends, and I very much value and need community and I am still working to some extent in detaching myself from having too much need for community. I can tell when I have too much need because I can still have painful experiences. If community doesn't meet my expectations, it hurts.
Enlightenment and Christian Contemplation
As one of the contributors to the last issue of the Forum stated, language regarding deep experiences is inadequate, especially when it moves toward "classifying" these experiences. Nevertheless, in the interests of discernment and in properly honoring the experiences of people from different traditions, one is inevitably led to make distinctions. Semantical clarity in such cases is extremely important.
Take, for example, the distinctions between personal and impersonal. For some, personal refers to anthropomorphism, and so they reject this in favor of impersonal language regarding the divine. Any mature Christian must know that there is more to it than that, however! In Christianity, the word personal refers primarily to the realm of relational, intentional being. When we say that God is personal, we mean that God is intentional Being, and not merely a static force underlying all things. The encounter between the human and God is, then, understood to be an encounter between two Freedoms who can mutually affect one another. Christian faith is the means by which a human becomes open and receptive to encountering the personal God. In the context of prayer, this encounter may be mediated through words, images, ideas and emotions (kataphatic prayer), or it may take place in the emptiness of deep, somewhat arid silence (apophatic prayer). Frequently, one begins with words and moves into silence; eventually, the silence prevails. In either case, Christian faith enables and meditates the encounter with God by holding the Christian in an attitude of loving surrender and receptivity to the intentional God. We say that this faith is a gift from God precisely because it sustains in us an orientation to God in spite of our ignorance and selfishness.
Ascetical practices that move toward impersonal experiences are lacking in this kind of faith. One might make use of a non-theistic mantra, count breaths, observe thoughts as from a distance, rest in the silence between thoughts, etc. When such practices are utilized outside of a relational faith context, they generally give rise to the kinds of experiences people call impersonal. These experiences are also frequently called natural, existential, or metaphysical, since we can achieve them through ascetical practices. This is not to say that God is not encountered, only that the nature of the encounter with God is different from the kind of experiences that develop in a personal faith context.
As the reader can see, the deciding factor in this discussion on personal vs. impersonal, or natural vs. supernatural mysticism, is the kind of faith held by the mystic. Although the same God is surely encountered by all mystics, Christian faith enables one to "tune in," as it were, to the love-intentional heart of God. As another contributor to the Forum noted, the bhakti tradition in Hinduism opens one to similar experiences, as do the devotional aspects of Buddhism, Judaism and Islam. Faith in an intentional/personal God usually develops in a tradition that communicates a revelation of God as personal/relational. Although the fact of our own intentionality suggests an intentional God, human experience does not let on that God's will is Love itself. This we see most clearly in the life of Christ.
Having make these distinctions, we can now say something about the experience of emptiness and non-duality in prayer. This is most common for those who are drawn into apophatic prayer, so much so that many Christian mystics have actually wondered whether God disappeared (or they disappeared). The perdurance of faith, however, enabled them (usually with the help of a spiritual director) to recognize that this emptiness is actually a very deep state of union with God. The reason one no longer experiences God as an-Other is because the human and divine intentionalities have become one. Intellectually, we know that two freedoms still exist, but experientially, we do not feel any separateness at all. Such a one might feel closer to Buddhist or Hindu descriptions of non-duality than to the devotional expressions of Christian meditators. One might even feel tempted to say that, at this level, all religions are the same, or that the differences between them are merely semantical. This is where matters seem to be "stuck" in many dialogues between Christian contemplatives and mystics of other traditions.
The critical question, it seems to me, is whether or not Christian faith contributes anything to one's experience of God aside from it being a dynamic that leads to nondual states of consciousness. From the foregoing discussion, I have stated that I believe it does because it promotes a receptivity to God as Love-become-present to us in the person of Jesus Christ. The intellectual dimension of faith also leads to a recognition of unity-in-duality, or two-become-one. This is an interpretation, to be sure, but it is one that is integral to faith itself. Without something like Christian faith, it is easy for nondual experiences to become interpreted in pantheistic terms. The consequences of this are many, none the least of which is a devaluation of the reality and uniqueness of the individual. Christian faith, on the other hand, promotes individuation even while leading to deeper and deeper experiences of union.
It is simply a truism, then, to say that the different expressions of mystical experience among the world religions are a matter of semantics, or interpretation. This position does not get at why different expressions and interpretations are used, and tends to minimize the significance of the kind of faith motivating the different mystics. My sense is that it is precisely the different faiths among the mystics of the world religions which account for the differences in not only their expressions and interpretations, but in their experiences, as well. Because these different faiths also have much in common (openness to mystery, surrender of self, etc.), we should not be surprised to find similarities in both experience and expression.
To emphasize the pivotal role of faith in relation to mystical experience is not likely to be a popular position these days, however, for to speak of faith is to invoke religious language. The awakening and formation of faith is also the responsibility of religious traditions, and there are many today who seek mystical experience while holding themselves apart from a religious tradition. Although the God of the mystic does, indeed, go beyond the dogmas and rituals of religions, the intellectual, affective, and volitional dimensions of the faith of the mystic are both nurtured and supported by such beliefs and practices. Indeed, it is doubtful that mystical experience can flower and be integrated apart from the wisdom of religious traditions. (The New Age and Transpersonal mysticisms, for example, generally degenerate into pantheism.) On the other hand, it is easy to understand the disgust with which many today view religion, especially in the West. Apart from a mystical tradition, the exoteric dimension of religion makes little sense, producing instead ideologies, liturgists and dogmatists. This is not true religious faith, however, only a counterfeit. Many Churches are more aware of political developments in the world than of the mystical aspect of Christianity, which is frustrating to those who seek spiritual growth. The best situation, of course, would be for the Church to view mystical union as the goal of religion itself, and to provide formation for all unto this end. This day is coming, but we've a long way to go.
On the road. We spent three weeks travelling this summer doing three conferences in a row. We stayed with Susan Komis near St. Louis and did a one day presentation for the Contemplative Outreach Community there that she coordinates. One part dealt with the future of Christian spirituality, and the other on simple living and how to get around to do what we most want to do. We also had some stimulating conversations on centering prayer and the renewal of contemplative life with Susan and other members of the Contemplative Outreach group.
Then it was on to Chicago for the big Buddhist-Christian Studies Conference which takes place every four years. It drew somewhere around 500 people from all over the U.S. and beyond. We were part of the ongoing Working Group on practice across traditions, many of whose members have both a Christian and Buddhist practice. There is hardly any better way to get a sense of how deeply Buddhist practices have entered the Christian churches than to listen to the stories of the people who attended this group. The group also runs a yearly retreat. The one for 1997 will be in New York. While we were at the Conference we also taped some fascinating interviews with Christian/Buddhist practitioners.
The next stop was the diocese of Wichita's Spiritual Life Center, and a conference on Christian Spirituality hosted by Philip St. Romain. It featured Philip, Sr. Carmen Echevarria, Sr. Mary Luke Tobin, and Fr. Tom Ryan. We talked on simple living again, and God and the new physics. The last talk previewed some of the ideas that appear in Jim's new book which just came out called The Mystery of Matter: Nonlocality, Morphic Resonance, Synchronicity and the Philosophy of Nature of St. Thomas Aquinas.
It was wonderful to get back to the forest after all that running around.
Our European Trip, Part 2
From England we went by hovercraft and bus to Brussels (The hovercraft turned out to be a disappointment - very noisy. We were confined to our tiny seats and couldn't see a thing.) In Belgium we went to the Benedictine Monastery of St. Andre de Clerlande to interview Pierre de Bethune who is deeply involved with East-West dialogue in Europe.
Then on to Paris where we had dinner with our good friends Louis and Soizick Chamming's at their apartment in the Latin Quarter. Louis, who works for French television on Internet affairs, is a fine Thomist philosopher and Maritain scholar. And both Louis and Soizick had been a great help to us putting together our documentary on Maritain in 1990. While we were in Paris we taped an interesting interview with Elizabeth Fourest who, while in her early 20s, had accompanied Maritain on his farewell trip to America. Tyra has just finished editing this video.
From Paris we travelled by train to San Sebastian on the Atlantic coast of Spain near the French border to visit Tyra's Spanish "family" - a family she had stayed with many years before when she was in college and trying to learn to speak Spanish. Then on to Madrid where Jim got to look at early 17th century books and manuscripts at the National Library for a new book he is working on about Carmelite spirituality right after the death of John of the Cross until today.
From Madrid we went to Barcelona where we interviewed Eudaldo Forment, a fine metaphysician and a member of the Thomist School of Barcelona. Near Barcelona is the ancient Benedictine Monastery of Montserrat perched on the top of a mountain and there we visited and taped Bartomeu Ubach who is active in the East-West dialogue. With him we climbed up the steep cliffs overlooking the monastery and visited a hermit who lives on top of them.
We ended the trip in Rome, staying with our friends Ugo and Biancamaria Buonomini and their family in the suburbs outside the city. We taped another interview on EastWest dialogue with Alberto Quattrucci of the San Egidio Community, and Jim got to spend some time in the archives of the Discalced Carmelites.
1. What is your manner of prayer/meditation?
One hour of the Vipassana, one hour of prayer, voice work speaking to and listening to Higher Essence or Self. God?
2. What consequences if you miss prayer/meditation?
It is like missing a shower or tooth brushing. I feel incomplete - half here, something missing. Not as sharp or aware as usual.
3. What are the usual effects of your prayer/ meditation?
Depends on how well I connect. Even if I sit for an abbreviated time it is better than not sitting.
4. Have you experienced what you would consider extraordinary graces?
Yes, amazingly wonderful states, very full feelings, oceanic stuff, transcendental visions, Christ, etc.
5. Have you ever experienced negative or unsettling emotions as a result of your prayer/ meditation?
Not really. Well, there has been stuff that came up, but by sitting with it and really looking at it it always resolves itself into bliss. Stuff like fear, sadness, anger, but they are just emotions and they always pass if you stay with them closely. At the time the desire is to quit and get up, but the trick is to stay with them. This is also true during the day when stuff bothers you. You stick with it, check it out, look carefully. Attention.
6. Have you experienced energy movements, inner lights, etc.?
Sure. Some just light visions, others very profound and life-changing, the never-forget versions. More than just visions, really real experiences. They are problematic to explain. I am not sure where some of these experiences come from. Not from the earth plane, yet... not sure.
7. Have you ever experienced communication with God or other spiritual beings?
Yes. I am convinced at times that I am a channel. Of what? God, other beings, other dimensions? Hard to say, certainly. Something other. Very profound and life-changing. Not directly, but indirectly, I notice changes during the day - more compassion, understanding, or efforts in that direction. More attention and gratitude. It seems the visions are interesting, and very pleasurable and immensely satisfying. But the real effects are during the day. Otherwise it is like going to the movies. If it sticks then I know I was into something deep and true.
8. Are you part of a particular religious tradition?
Raised Catholic, abused spiritually by German nuns. Ugh! Spent five years in a Hindu ashram after doing two years as a freak trying to find God through drugs, LSD, grass, etc. Found the ashram had as many problems as the Dominican nuns did. Dropped out of "seeking", became a college teacher, an artist, found Vipassana to be a safe nonreligious meditation form, and evolved my own practice and found my own way, which has been really great.
9. Do you have a spiritual director or teacher?
As you can see from the above, I pretty much burned out on teachers - the nuns were mean and nasty - the Hindu guru was a womanizer and undeveloped personal- ity-wise. I am very leery of teachers. Mostly I find guidance in Buddhist-psychological literature. I have little or no personal guidance or friends who share this - except my wife especially my wife!
10. How does your lifestyle effect your prayer/meditation?
I work part-time, and I am able to devote two hours to sitting, and more time to reading and walking peacefully in a small town. Married with a wonderfully supportive wife and friend. Pretty much have set my life to be supportive of my spiritual practice. Or have tried to do so. My wife was very ill for a few years and found my practice so helpful. It needed to be modified, but still, it was very important. I feel that if my life changed in such a way where I had less time it wouldn't matter at this point. Although I hope things remain with time being available for practice. I would much rather have time than $. We do art, eat lightly, sleep - I like sleep. The more I sit the more I need to be rested in sleep. When I lived in an ashram we thought six hours was enough sleep. Nuts to that. I get a good eight and can sit much more concentratedly. I was always falling asleep at the ashram. No alcohol or drugs. I have reconnected to my two children and have a very nice relationship with my children and grandchildren. My wife and I do stimulation groups for people who live in convalescent hospitals - probably one of the most important components in our life-service.
I still have not been able to approach a church or a "Christian meditation group." just too much old junk around "Catholic." But I have more and more personal contact with Christ-Jesus-images-visions in my prayer meditations. It is disconcerting to have such difficulty with organized Christianity and to be visited with such strong Christian images even though I practice a form of Vipassana and prayer. Blessed Mother - Jesus on the Cross - nails -crowns of thorns - wounds the whole bloody suffering that Jesus went through, yet very peaceful and much bliss. I am shocked yet feel blessed. My rational anti-Christian self says, "Yikes!" while a strong part of me is at peace. I feel somehow the collective unconscious is being tapped into. When I lived in a Hindu ashram and studied there, my meditations were never visited by any (well, maybe occasionally) Hindu images. I put in long hours but not much of a feeling of contact with God. Now it is so much different. So full of Christian (of all things) images and presence. Believe me. I am not complaining. It is wonderful. I have no one to share this with.
It is funny when I meet Christians. They seem so unspiritual - not funny. Sad. But I believe things are changing and maybe I have been looking in the wrong places.
An important part of your old growth forests in the National Forests of the Pacific Northwest is about to be cut down.
The Salvage Rider passed by Congress under the disguise of cutting dead and dying trees has rolled back past court rulings which were preserving old growth forests from destruction, and now new green forests are being put on the block.
In the Winema National Forest where we live, for example - a forest which has already lost more than 90% of its old growth timber - the Salvage Rider would allow the harvesting of almost 35 million board feet of living trees. Now the Forest Service has just proposed a new timber sale called the Copwood which covers 6 square miles and will cut an additional 22 million board feet of timber.
You can help stop this. These forests belong to you. Congress has already almost reversed itself on this matter, and the White House realizes that it is a mistake. This is logging without environmental common sense, and goes against the wishes of the majority of the American people.
Contact the White House and your representatives in Congress and ask them to repeal the Salvage Rider. Your voice can make a difference.
This space is waiting for your