Between the Self & God: Contemplative Life

praise, heart, joyful, prayer

At the end of my first year of contemplative life, I look back on how my soul has been transformed and I’m filled with wonder. I wish that all people might feel His perfection, even for a moment, and to be able to be still and know God.

It’s easy to want to be a contemplative—curiosity about the life seems natural. It’s a mystical, entirely spiritual existence that transpires under the Divine inspirations of the Spirit according to the Will of God. If one lives this life, one lives their destiny on earth. There are no mistakes, no worries or fears, no unhappiness. I can’t blame anyone for being interested.

I don’t know if anyone can decide to become a contemplative though. I know that I did not go from active life in the world to a solitary, silent interior life of my own determination. This change was more the result of providence to me.

Dying to the Self

In my case, the interior life grew out of a protracted period of struggle, desolation and misery in my previous exterior world that caused my death, so to speak. Only afterwards did my interior soul begins to develop.

This “death” was the complete destruction of my own free will, my identity, my self-esteem and my desire for human respect, among many other self-centered or externally-driven things. In Manual for Interior Souls, Fr. Jean Nicolas Grou calls this “the annihilation of self” (187). I can’t think of a more precise way to describe the experience.

Fr. Grou , a French Roman Catholic mystic and spiritual writer, says:

“What does God ask of us when He commands us to annihilate ourselves and renounce ourselves? He asks us to do ourselves justice, to put ourselves in our proper place and to acknowledge ourselves for what we really are… utter nothingness from our very nature… It is a formal injustice on our part to refuse to be treated, or refuse to treat ourselves as if we were really nothing” (188).

I do believe that this “annihilation” is necessary to cultivate a contemplative life because it puts one in a place where he is like a child. The identity is stripped away, he acknowledges that he has no control over his life and he blindly accepts that he’s completely dependent on the favor of whoever is responsible for his care. Fortunately, for the contemplative, that’s God.

Giving the Soul to God

Living by the Will of God requires near-constant prayer and I initially realized that I didn’t actually know how to pray very well. So I brought it up to God and asked Him what to do. I then had the thought that I needed to organize the contents of four wooden boxes that had been left on a windowsill of my house.

In one of the boxes, I found a small book called Key of Heaven: A Manual of Prayers and Instructions for Catholics (1905). It would be good if it could somehow be reproduced (it is out of print but occasionally available online).

It includes liturgical prayers for all times of day, certain sacraments and circumstances, methods for confession, Church-approved novenas and prayers of petition, as well as the Ordinary of the Mass and Stations of the Cross. It’s tremendously helpful if you attend Mass daily.

Helped by this discovery, I continued with prayer, I began to learn what I should be praying for, and to Whom in the Celestial Kingdom to present my prayers. I also learned the language of petition for temporal needs, the manner in which to request spiritual improvement and the reverence and language one should reserve for God.

Prayer discovered to me the necessity of virtue and the power of grace in all its forms and revealed to me numerous truths about the natural and supernatural. All these became conversations in my mental prayer and illuminated my scriptural reading.

Things You Might Consider

Most of my day is spent in prayer or at church. I know that for many people this might not be something they can do. However, I think that some practices can be added to peoples’ lives to help them get closer to understanding certain truths with greater clarity.

The primary consideration in contemplative prayer is one’s intention. As contemplative life eschews the natural world and the self to live within the soul, any intent to improve the quality of one’s material or physical life should not be a determination in adopting this type of prayer. It’s my opinion that the person may be disappointed in this case.

The aspect that could be of the greatest help to the most people is the figurative death of the self. We can endure this in big ways that we can’t control, or we can practice smaller mortifications every day and offer it to God.

There is rest in denying the things of the world. Happiness is the result of abandoning the self. Peace only happens after suffering. The contemplative life is not a way to escape struggle or spiritual strife, it is enduring whatever suffering God appoints because there is glory on the other side.

Works Cited:

Grou, Jean Nicolas. Manual for Interior Souls: A Collection of Unpublished Works. Wentworth Press, unknown year of publication.

Key of Heaven: Manual of Prayers and Instructions for Catholics. 1905.

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