Ask a Carmelite: Meditation and Contemplation… What’s the Difference?


Dear Sister Mary Colombiere,

I have heard of meditation and contemplation and sometimes the words seem to be interchangable. Is there a difference between the two?

Dear Friend,

Let us begin by saying that the basic difference between meditation and contemplation is that meditation is a human mode of prayer whereas contemplation is divinely infused prayer.

In her autobiography, St. Teresa of Avila uses water as an image of various stages of prayer. Meditation corresponds to the First Water. It is an invitation to contemplative prayer and is the characteristic prayer for all who are in this early stage of spiritual growth; in other words those who are in the first three mansions, as St. Teresa would term them. Teresa envisioned the soul as a garden. Since gardens rely on water for life and growth, the person in the first three mansions was the gardener who provided the water. In Teresa’s time the gardener would carry the water in buckets to the garden. In this first level of prayer the gardener provides very much of the labor.

Although meditation uses images, concepts and reasoning, those means which are of the created order to commune with God, it includes nevertheless all forms of prayer in which human effort is quite active. It can offer only a remote knowledge of God. Neither St. Teresa nor St. John of the Cross speak much about methods of prayer but concentrate rather on the fruits of prayer: growth in a virtuous life. For prayer and virtue cannot be separated. Piercing the truths of our faith through reflection on the mysteries of Creation, the Incarnation, and Redemption open us to interior devotion and a longing and yearning for God. The appetite is awakened to experience God’s presence and gives us direction for our lives. When faith enlightens the mind worldly things begin to lose their hold on us. We are drawn away from the “sensual” as we strive to unite our will with the Will of God and we express this through the virtue of our actions.

However, in meditation the method used is intended to lead to a prayer beyond all methods, that is contemplative prayer. Contemplation is often a misunderstood word. It is not a prayer that we can initiate or cause to happen. It is divinely produced and no amount of action on our part can produce or prolong it. To return to Teresa’s image of water infused contemplation begins the Fourth Mansion of the Interior Castle. This is the Second Water in which we still use a bucket but the labor is less intensified since the water comes through an aqueduct and the use of a water wheel. The action here belongs to the Holy Spirit and the work we do is only to dispose ourselves to receive the graces God is giving us.

We have entered into a wordless prayer, an awareness of the Divine Guest within, not through the use of the intellect but through a knowing loving, a deep communion with the Triune God. It is a prayer of quiet calmness in which we drink deeply at the life-giving fount. There are different intensities within this prayer but the way of experiencing and the passion of the experiences will vary among individuals. Our external senses remain free and enable us to carry out our responsibilities and duties even when the interior faculties are captivated by God.

As prayer deepens and we become transformed the Holy Spirit prompts us from within to virtuous actions. In Teresa’s Way of Perfection, Chapter 16 in speaking of contemplation she reminds us that God doesn’t give Himself but to those who give themselves entirely to Him. There is no room here for inordinate self-love.

All of us are called to holiness as Vatican Council II reiterated in Chapter 5 of Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church…

The Lord Jesus, the divine Teacher and Model of all perfection, preached holiness of life to each and everyone of His disciples of every condition. He Himself stands as the author and consumator of this holiness of life: “Be you therefore perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect”.

Contemplative prayer, therefore, does not belong to a privileged few. It is a normal common experience of the Christian life open to all. It is God’s to give when and where He wills. Our preparation is to live the Gospel life and to be receptive to the graces God continually gives us – to be watchful and receptive.

Therefore, all the faithful of Christ are invited to strive for the holiness and perfection of their own proper state. Indeed they have an obligation to so strive. Let all then have care that they guide aright their own deepest sentiments of soul. Let neither the use of the things of this world nor attachment to riches, which is against the spirit of evangelical poverty, hinder them in their quest for perfect love. Let them heed the admonition of the Apostle to those who use this world; let them not come to terms with this world; for this world, as we see it, is passing away. (Lumen Gentium Chapter5, #42)

Until next time,

Sister Mary Colombiere, O.C.D

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Promoting a Deeper Spiritual Life Among Families through Healthcare, Education and Retreats

The Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles strive to give striking witness as a vibrant, thriving community of dedicated women with an all-consuming mission. It is our God-given mission, a mission of the heart, a mission of loving service to the poor, the sick, the needy and the uneducated. Our loving service overflows from each sister’s profound life of prayer. We strive to reflect His life and hope and His promise to all that light has come into our world and darkness has not overcome it.

A look at the history of our community, with its motherhouse in Alhambra, California, reveals how its life-giving presence has come about. During the beginning decades of the 1900s just as the epic Mexican revolution was subsiding, a ruthless religious persecution was gaining momentum in Mexico. This horrible persecution accompanied the birth and humble beginnings of our community, a legacy that Mother Luisita, our foundress, and her two companions brought with them as religious refugees entering the Unites States in 1927.

Those seeds planted by Mother Luisita, now a candidate for sainthood, have taken deep root in the United States since those early days. People and places have changed throughout the years, yet the heart of our mission remains. As an autonomous religious institute since 1983 we continue to carry out our loving service in our healthcare facilities, retreat houses and schools which remain to this day centers of life and hope. Today we are moving forward together “Educating for Life with the Mind and Heart of Christ” in schools, being “At the Service of the Family for Life” through health and eldercare and “Fostering a Deeper Spiritual Life” through individual and group retreats. At the heart of our vocation is a passionate mission of loving service which facilitates our life-giving encounter with the living God.

The heritage of the Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles is rooted in the spirituality of Carmel, the Gospels, the Church, with our particular charism derived from our beloved Foundress, Mother Maria Luisa Josefa of the Most Blessed Sacrament.

In His merciful goodness, God has graced our Institute with the Carmelite charism which has its roots in a long history and living tradition. The spirituality of St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross is rooted in this tradition. Carmel means enclosed garden in which God Himself dwells. The divine indwelling in the soul is the foundation of Teresa's doctrine. Thus our vocation is a grace by which contemplation and action are blended to become an apostolic service to the Church.

Our ideal finds a living expression in the life and charism of our beloved Foundress, Mother Maria Luisa Josefa of the Most Blessed Sacrament, whose spirit we faithfully preserve and foster.

Our life is characterized by: - A life of prayer and union with God - A deep love for Jesus in the Holy Eucharist - Devotion to our Blessed Mother - Steadfast fidelity to the Magisterium of the Church - Praying for priests - Commitment to works of the apostolate in ecclesial service

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