Five Traits for a Contemplative Life


One of the fundamental characteristics of contemplation for a Carmelite is the understanding that it is an invitation: an invitation into another’s presence. God invites a person into His presence, which is a place of intimacy, the Sacred Heart of Christ, where the person can reflect on God. Reflection, in this case, means a bending back of the heart towards God, who saves in love, and because of this reality, no one can force or bring about this invitation through his own volition. In this regard, the Carmelite notion of contemplation is a true living out of Christ’s message: “It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you” (John 15:16a).

Yet, what is a person to do with his desire to be with the Lord? St. John of the Cross’ mystical poem, The Dark Night, speaks of this desire in the very first stanza: “One dark night, fired with love’s urgent longings – ah, the sheer grace! – I went out unseen, my house being now all stilled.” The words “my house being now all stilled” are a call to an action. The house represents the inner recesses of a person, a place that must be one of stillness. In stillness one can respond to God’s invitation, an invitation of that fiery love that urges the person to accept the movement into that contemplative place of intimacy. Thus, a person can take the necessary actions towards creating a sense of stillness within himself. In another of his writings, Sayings of Light and Love (#121), St. John of the Cross provides us with five traits we can utilize to cultivate a sense of stillness within our hearts.

It Seeks the Highest Place

St. John of the Cross wrote that the soul “must rise above passing things, paying no more heed to them than if they did not exist.” Here he refers to the soul as a solitary bird called to be in the heavens with its Lord. Right ordering of one’s life is of the utmost importance in this process, and to gain this perspective, the soul needs the gift of wisdom because, through that gift, a mind can begin to see, appreciate, and move towards the highest place within one’s life. This kind of focus allows the heart to hear the whispering presence of the Spirit as the Prophet Elijah on Mount Horeb was able to do (1 Kings 19). Many distractions will come like they did for Elijah, but a heart focused on and seeking out the highest place does not fall prey to distractions very easily.

Keeping the eyes of our hearts focused on the highest things, a soul becomes predisposed to seeing like the Lord and thus responding to His needs as manifested in the lives of the poor around us. We are meant for Heaven as a bird is meant to fly in the skies when we learn to keep our gaze focused on the end the Lord calls us to, and we can see with the eyes of our Lord as we live in the world now. This trait keeps us from missing the moment when the Lord offers us an invitation to the intimate place.

It Tolerates No Other Company

Concerning this trait, St. John of the Cross wrote that the soul “must likewise be so fond of silence and solitude that it does not tolerate the company of another creature.” Intimacy with another can be a cause of fear for the soul, i.e. that solitary bird. Intimacy implies a vulnerability of oneself in relationship to another. There is no hiding from God, as our first parents Adam and Eve discovered in the garden. Being vulnerable and intimate with another are actions that do not merely happen but must be worked on and prepared for. How is this done? By silence and solitude. One becomes vulnerable to another by becoming vulnerable to his own being.

The primary place of prayer for a Carmelite is not the chapel or a church but his cell, a cell being a place of conversion that arises from the act of listening to one’s heart and to God, the Other. From this place, a heart wrestles with the barrenness of silence and solitude that begins to expose the inner needs and wounds of the individual. Noise, especially when it is unnecessary, makes the soul deaf, so it cannot hear the true needs of the heart, the cries of the needy around him, and hence makes it impossible to hear the whispering presence of the Spirit. When a bird flies in the heavens, it hears only the movement of the wind; likewise our souls are meant for this same end.

It Holds Its Beak in the Air

St. John of the Cross continued his commentary on the soul as bird: “It must hold its beak in the air of the Holy Spirit responding to his inspirations, that by so doing it may become worthy of his company.” As the wind moves through the heavens, going where it wills, so the bird, our soul, is called to move with that wind also. What does he mean by this image? This trait is a call to prudence. The virtue of prudence is about growing in the ability to see what lies ahead. In such a way, the bird keeps it beak in the air to perceive where the wind is blowing, so it can look in the correct direction it is called to fly. Looking in the correct direction allows the soul to begin a process of perceiving what can or may come so it can respond accordingly.

For a Carmelite, prudence is realized through the exercise of common sense, which the Carmelite Rule calls us to use as a means of evaluating our lives. The virtue of prudence is a way for the soul to avoid things that are not healthy for the growth of stillness in the heart. Prudence, supports the gift of courage, which provides the strengthen for the soul to move towards people and moments where the Spirit’s love desires them to be. This prudent movement of our hearts helps the heart to grow in the love of the Spirit, safeguarding the heart from merely seeking moments of sentimentality to satisfy its own vanity. Thus, prudence is necessary for one who seeks contemplation because it focuses the heart on the way of Lord. Prudence is a way the soul is called to journey, because along this way the Lord seeks to meet the people whose hearts are open to Him.

It Has No Definite Color

St. John of the Cross describes the following trait of contemplation in this manner: “It must have no definite color, desiring to do nothing definite other than the will of God.” In this line, the saint notes two scriptural truths a contemplative must accept: “Thy will Be Done” (Matthew 6:10) and “For My thoughts are not your thoughts nor are your ways My ways” (Isaiah 55:8-9). The human heart is prone to idolatry. The human heart seeks a god that it can control, like the Israelites, who crafted the Golden Calf in the desert. The immediacy of a false god provides a misconstrued sense of comfort and security because the false god does not require faith, only the certainty that it is real. “Having no definite color,” therefore, is a call to a healthy self-suspicion. It is from the heart that both evil and goodness come forth (Luke 6:45).

During the dark nights of the senses and of the soul, the heart is cleansed of the deep roots of attachments that have grown with it. These deep roots can impact, shape, and move a human being’s heart in ways he does not perceive. The need for self-suspicion is a tool for the contemplative to safeguard himself from going against the will of God. This self-suspicion is an extension of prudence. It is prudence used as way of examining one’s own heart in order to avoid the barriers within the heart that keep one from responding to Christ. Christ knocks at the door of the heart. In a way, every person can be his own worst enemy because his unfettered appetites and attachments can lead him down a path that is in opposition to the Will of God. This need for self-suspicion helps the contemplative to become like the wise virgins who, with lamps alight, were able to greet the Lord at the unknown hour of His arrival.

It Sings Sweetly

Finally, St. John of the Cross tells us that the soul “must sing sweetly in the contemplation and love of its Bridegroom.” Receiving and accepting the invitation into the Lord’s presence is not a merely passive response. As the bird sings during its flight in the heavens, a soul that rests in the Lord’s presence is also called to offer its own song. This song of the contemplative is one of praise and thanks for the presence of the Lord. This moment of intimacy in the Lord’s presence, brought about by His mercy and the faith of the person – itself a gift – is thus a true time of abandonment into the arms of the One who loves us. How can a person in this moment not sing of the goodness of the Lord! This trait, then, is a call for those who desire contemplation, a life that cultivates a heart of praise and thanksgiving that is always focused on the Lord. It is in this trait, to sing to the Lord, that we see in the clearest way the communal dimension of the contemplative life. That is, this song from the heart is never sung alone but is always in harmony with all the other hearts of the upright who seek the Lord, as Psalm 111 teaches us.


The gift and life of contemplation comes about through an invitation from the Lord. This does not mean that this way of life is for the few. Everyone can create the necessary stillness for contemplation in his heart. Remember, however, that contemplation itself is only possible because “the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10). He, our Lord, always initiates the encounter; He calls us first. The five traits described above are a way for one to become like the servant whom the master finds doing his will (Matthew 24: 46). The good servant was able to do the will of the master because he had the heart of the master inside of him. The contemplative life is a means of allowing one’s heart to become like that of the Master, Jesus. Thus, the contemplative, by his very life, makes known the presence of the Master; the servant, through imitation, has become like an icon of the Master. Why imitation? Let us consider the words of St. Paul: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children” (Ephesians 5:1). For a Carmelite, this call is lived out through the gift of contemplation: a gift freely given by the Lord to all hearts disposed to receiving Him.

The pure and whole work done for God in a pure heart merits a whole kingdom for its owner.

~ St John of the Cross (The Sayings of Light and Love, #21)

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18 thoughts on “Five Traits for a Contemplative Life”

  1. At Mass today I prayed that God might be present to all those I meet through my presence to them. Your article is an answer to that prayer. Thank you Father!

  2. Brilliant piece, Father. I espeically like your “poetic” approach to John of the Cross. I remember trying to write a paper in college on his writings and being totally overwhelmed until someone gave pointed me to a collection of songs by John Michael Talbot that featured poetry from John of the Cross. Suddenly, the burden of trying to understand was lifted and I was able to soar with the little bird in the poem. Your piece reminded me of how I was able to grasp such deep contemplations. I’ve been a poet ever since.

    My favorite line you wrote is, “Prudence, supports the gift of courage, which provides the strengthen for the soul to move towards people and moments where the Spirit’s love desires them to be.” To me, that is perfect poetry. I don’t know if that’s how you think of your writing, but that’s how it impresses me. A true poet helps people to take hold of the spirit of an idea – or the Spirit of an idea – and draw it into themselves. Great work!

  3. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with me. I think it is a bit dangerous to lock down how one is to be with the Lord in only a few verses. One could simply look at Matthew 6: 5-6 and go to the inner room, or look at Rev. 3:8 and see the simply need to respond to his knock. At the end of the day as I wrote in the article is the simply truth that God makes the first move, we must get prepared to respond. Remember verse 8 after your passage above calls the disciple to watchfulness.

  4. Pingback: FRIDAY EDITION – Big Pulpit

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