From Mystical Premonition to Contemplation



Some time ago, I was speaking about what I called Mystical Premonitions or Touches of God when one of the audience asked, “Are we talking about something that is a particularly Christian experience, or does everyone experience God’s touch?”

Contemplation Is For Everyone

“It’s for everyone,” I replied emphatically. “God loves everyone, not just Christians, but Christians do respond in a unique way.” Let me explain what I mean. Long before he became a saint when he was still a pagan, St Augustine experienced those touches of God. In writing about the way he reacted to them in his Confessions he gives us a perfect example of how we should react too, in order to deepen our spiritual life. From his Confessions: –

“When first I knew you, you lifted me up so that I might see that there was something to see, but that I was not yet the man to see it. And you beat back the weakness of my gaze, blazing upon me too strongly, and I was shaken with love and with dread. You called and cried to me and broke open my deafness and you sent forth your beams and shone upon me and chased away my blindness. You breathed fragrance upon me, and I drew in my breath, and do now pant for you. I tasted you, and now hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I have burned for your peace. So I set about finding a way to gain the strength that was necessary for enjoying you. And I could not find it until I embraced the mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus, who was calling unto me and saying, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life’.”

‘Natural Mystical Experiences’

Many of us have had what are sometimes called ‘natural mystical experiences’, especially when we were young, but few of us are able to describe them in the sublime language that St Augustine uses. Whilst many of the great romantic poets spend their entire time trying to transpose their experiences into words, capturing them in sublime poetry, Augustine rushes on to seek the source whence they came. His search leads him to Jesus Christ, for he finds in him the Masterpiece of God’s creation. The fragments of God’s beauty and goodness and truth that are scattered in the rest of creation are to be found fully in the Masterwork.

St Augustine

This is why he spent years getting to know Jesus Christ by poring over his every word in the scriptures and by responding in his own words until a sort of spiritual conversation developed in his prayer life. To begin with, the knowledge was predominantly intellectual, but it gradually became more and more emotional as he experienced the love of Christ reaching out to envelop his mind and heart and his whole being. Now he began to respond in the language of love as his deepest feelings awoke to the love he experienced, reaching out to envelop him. Finally, when everything had been said that needed to be said, he found that all he wanted to do was to be still to savour in silence what he had received in a deep but heartfelt contemplative stillness. This experience of St Augustine follows a similar pattern to human loving.

A Similar Pattern to Human Loving

To begin with the couple talk, but the more they talk to each other and get to know one another the less they need to speak. The more the spark of love that was there from the beginning begins to flicker into a flame, the less they need words to express how they feel. It is now enough just to be together and to savour one another’s presence and the love that binds them together. This profound at-one-ment is beautifully expressed in John Donne’s poem, The Ecstasy: –

“We like sepulchral statues lay;

All day, the same our postures were,

And we said nothing, all the day.”

The same sort of idea is expressed by D. H. Lawrence in Women in Love, when he writes: –

“Words travel between the separate parts.

But in the perfect one there is a perfect silence of bliss.”

Intellectual Beginnings of Prayer

St Augustine knew it was Christ whose love he experienced enveloping his whole being as the first part of his spiritual journey reached its climax. Medieval spiritual writers used the words Meditatio, Oratio and Contemplatio to describe how the initial intellectual beginnings of prayer develop through highly charged emotional aspirations, to the still and silent gaze upon God. During the Counter-Reformation, when spiritual writers became a little more analytical and psychological, they used the terms Meditation, Affective Prayer, Prayer of Simplicity and Acquired Contemplation to describe what their medieval forebears had described before them. The phrase Acquired Contemplation was coined to describe the final stage of this process, because it can be reached by human endeavour, to distinguish it from true Mystical Contemplation which, as we will see, is a pure gift of God that cannot be attained by any man-made methods or techniques.

Love Grows and Grows

Given serious commitment to prayer, love grows and grows with ever deepening knowledge of the Lover, that comes through listening to his words and discovering that they are not only charged with meaning that had not been understood before, but loving that had not been experienced before. This is why the slow meditative reading of the words of Jesus in the sacred Scriptures has always been the primary way that the heart and mind of the believer is raised to the Father through the Son. As the desire that was there from the beginning is buoyed up by human feelings and emotions, it is able to remain focused on God and to remain so for longer periods of time than before. Prayer now becomes no more than a simple, silent, contemplative gaze upon God. What I call Adolescent Prayer has now reached a climax, which suddenly changes when the heart’s desire that had been sustained and supported by a whole range of human emotions before, is suddenly raised above and beyond them as it reaches out to experience the Unknown who beckons them onward. It’s as if the heart or the will has suddenly fastened on to some mysterious magnetic power that draws it relentlessly towards itself. Once this happens, Adolescent Prayer comes to an abrupt end. There can be no going back even if a person wants to. The days of this exciting, exhilarating, emotional prayer have ended, never to return in quite the same way again.

Let me give you an analogy to explain a little more clearly what has happened. When a rocket or a spaceship destined for the planet Mars is ready to depart, it has attached to it boosters huge canisters of fuel whose job it is to raise it up off the ground and out of the earth’s atmosphere. When they have done this they will be of no further value, so they must be detached from the spaceship or they would impede its progress towards its destination. As the spaceship comes closer to Mars it comes under the planet’s magnetic force and travels faster and faster. The boosters or the canisters of fuel then, fulfill exactly the same function for the spaceship as do the emotions that have been activated in Adolescent Prayer as they raise and direct the heart’s desire towards God. They raise it up off the ground, as it were, where it has been earthbound. They raise it higher and higher for as long as it takes to latch on to the mysterious magnetic pull of the divine love. This is now the beginning of True Contemplative Prayer.


11 thoughts on “From Mystical Premonition to Contemplation”

  1. A perfect theological storm would be for a conservative CS apologist to come out and defend the CC for its condemnation of the Quietism heresy – oh what a tangled thread that would weave.

    1. It would be refreshing and amusing to hear such arcane condemnation for “being righteous overmuch”.
      –I think the trendy term is “virtue signaling” ?

  2. A Theologican said that most Seminaries in the USA do not teach seminarians any courses in Mystical Theology, and this is a great loss to their education personally and pastorally. They would be better confessors — and spiritual advisors ( there is a scandalous shortage of these) if they understood that Mystical Union is the normal goal of prayer, and that is is not reserved for Canonized saints. The pity is that Contemplation is not presented as a normal, realistic extremely desirable goal of prayer and life itself. Many Catholics think contemplation is just another word for meditation– they hear nothing about it from the pulpit. And we wonder why we have such lack-lustre Catholics, and insufficient vocations.

    1. Thank you Adrian for your insight. It was, as a result of the Church’s condemnation of the heresy of Quietism 1687, that mystical prayer fell into abeyance. In his famous history of the Catholic Church, Monsignor Philip Hughes put it this way: –

      “The most mischievous feature of Quietism was the suspicion that it threw on the contemplative life as a whole. …. At the moment when, more than at any other, the Church needed the strength that only the life of contemplation can give, it was the tragedy of history that this life shrank to very small proportions, and religion, even for holy souls, too often took on the appearance of being no more than a divinely aided effort towards moral perfection.”

      In the years that followed anti-mystical witch-hunts were rampant throughout Christendom rooting out all forms of prayer that even mentioned such word as ‘inner recollection’, or ‘prayer of Quiet’ and any form of prayer that did not involve the continual inner activity of the mind and heart. In this climate even the works of St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross were considered as suspect, nothing was done, or for that matter has been done to repair the damage, down to the present day.

    2. John G. Arintero, O.P. and S.T.M., wrote the two -volume “The Mystical Evolution in the Development and Vitality of the Church”. This is hard to find even second-hand, (perhaps providentially) but it is a sure guide for those serious about the interior life and who, if they start experiencing the beginnings of contemplation, cannot find a wise spiritual director.
      Every time I learn of a canonical hermit who takes vows in my region, I find great satisfaction in searching out a used copy of this book on e-bay to give therm for their hermitage.

    3. Melanie Jean Juneau

      What a tragedy for the Church. What is more normal than Christ communicating with me when He dwells at the very core of my being? For me so called mysticism is as natural as the air I breath.This is the source of my joy. Pope John Paul II. Pope Benedict and Pope Francis have repeatedly preached on the need for personal communion with God. “God is closer to us than water is to a fish” – St. Catherine of Siena

    4. This is so true, Melanie, but what is also true is that the sin and selfishness that has so soiled us prevents this profound union taking place. That is why all the great mystical writers teach us how we must therefore undergo a profound inner purification, as the Holy Spirit prepares us for the union to which we all aspire. St. Catherine of Siena calls this the spiritual crèche where it takes place – ‘The House of Self-knowledge’. St John of the Cross calls it ‘The Dark Night of the Soul’ others have called it ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’, ‘The ‘Prayer of Faith’, or ‘The Prayer of Incompetence’ as Cardinal Hume once called it. This is the point in the spiritual life when authentic Mystical Theologians and experienced spiritual directors earn their keep by explaining what is happening, why it is happening, and by encouraging them to continue, showing them how to pray in this strange new world – ‘When the well runs dry’, as St Teresa of Avila put it. This is what I have myself explained in detail in my book – ‘Wisdom from the Western Isles – The making of a mystic’.

    5. Melanie Jean Juneau

      You are right, of course, I always speak of the sparks of joy in my life but I have also gone through decades of suffering and purification.. I would have drowned and lost my way without a director.

    6. I agree with Adrian. I think this is why many people turn to Eastern religions — because they are seeking that feeling of union with the Infinite. The Church doesn’t teach enough about the rich spiritual practices that can provide the same kind of intimacy with God through Christianity.

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