Sunday, December 21, 2008

- Contemplation and Meditation - Distinctions and Interactions

Q. How is contemplation different than meditation?
A. Contemplative prayer consists of a more passive (and more sublime) experience of God. If Christian meditation is the soul's inspired quest to discover God (our work of seeking God), contemplation is God's lifting of the soul into himself (God's work of embrace), so that it effortlessly basks in the divine light. The key distinction here is that contemplation, in the strict sense, is purely the work of God. Meditation, though aided by God and predicated upon the grace and work of Christ, is the result of our seeking him. That basic distinction is often blurred, causing confusion, because both contemplative and meditative prayer have multiple forms. Therefore, it may be worthwhile to clarify further.

In general, meditative prayer can be mostly discursive or mostly affective. A discursive meditation follows a more logical development, analyzing a truth of the faith or a scripture passage in order to discover an insight or deepen one’s Christian understanding. That discovery or deepening leads the soul out of analysis and reflection and into conversation with God – acts of thanksgiving, praise, contrition, or petition. An affective meditation puts less emphasis on analysis or reflection, and more emphasis on the conversation, the acts of thanksgiving and praise that flow from the soul’s spiritual (not necessarily emotional) affections. Sometimes a mere glance at a biblical phrase can stir up a strong affection in the soul, and that is enough for the soul to enter into conversation with God; this is a (mostly) affective meditation. Other times, a long period of reflection, of analytical searching, finally yields an affection that leads to conversation; this is a mostly discursive meditation.

In certain seasons of the spiritual life, and often as the soul increases in spiritual maturity, meditation naturally becomes more affective. When a soul finds itself regularly and easily entering into contact with God, with hardly any discursive effort, this is often called the “prayer of quiet” or the “prayer of simplicity.” The soul finds itself easily gazing silently at the grandeur of God. Because so little effort is required in this kind of almost exclusively affective meditation, it is often called contemplative prayer. This is a common and valid use of the term. But it can cause confusion, because in a strict sense, and in the writings of mystics and theologians, contemplative prayer (“infused contemplation” is the technical term) goes even beyond this adoring gaze. We can gaze at the ocean and experience a deep sense of wonder, but it is another thing altogether to be submerged in the water. Infused contemplation is when God submerges us in himself; we no long gaze at God from without, but experience an ineffable union with him. Think of the piece of iron that is thrust into the fire and takes on the qualities of the fire.

And so, the most active type of mental prayer (as opposed to vocal prayer) is discursive meditation, which dovetails with affective meditation, which in turn culminates in the prayer of quiet, in which the soul enters effortlessly into extended acts of thanksgiving, praise, contrition, or petition. This is so effortless that it is akin to and often called contemplation. Infused contemplation, however, actually goes to a new level, lifting the soul out of itself and into the divine.

Yours in Christ, Father John Bartunek, LC


  1. Hello!
    I read your post on the distinction between contemplation and meditation… I understand that God draws us to Himself in contemplation and so it is a gift. But, my question is – if one feels drawn to that kind of prayer – and to experience God in prayer in a deeper way – how does one go about starting out on that road? Currently I do 15 minutes mediation in the morning. But, it seems to me that if I want to try more Lectio Divina/contemplative type prayer, it would require more time. That is kind of challenging (but, a challenge I’m willing to take!), with my daily and other spiritual commitments. Any practical advice? Thanks!

  2. Dear Anonymous - Father John is heading out of town shortly so he might not be able to respond. There is a thread on forums that will begin to answer your questions. Here's the link - search for "Ascetic and Mystical Theology" post by "lifeisawesome." I believe the beginning of your journey is answered there by a few of the later posts by senior members. If not, let me know and I will put the question in Father John's queue.. Hope that helps - In Christ, Dan

  3. Also - here is a direct link to the post. However, if you are not signed up presently, it will probably take you through a few screens to get your user account set up. Well worth the effort.


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