An Interview about Infused Contemplation
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.