Sunday, August 15, 2010

On meditation and contemplation

Inner Explorations has a chapter dealing with the "spiritual" theology of Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P.: Reginald Garrigou-LaGrange and the Renewal of the Contemplative Life.

At first glance, these assertions may appear as subtle points of interest only to historians of Western Christian spirituality, or theologians of mystical theology. They are not. They give a very definite answer to the question of just what contemplation is. The universal call to contemplation, and this identification of contemplation with infused contemplation are the twin pillars that support Garrigou-LaGrange’s mystical theology, and instead of being forgotten, they ought to remain in the forefront of our minds when we look at the contemporary attempts to renew the contemplative life.

When a new interest in the contemplative life arose after the Second Vatican Council, these battles, when they were remembered at all, were remembered with distaste, and while Garrigou-LaGrange’s idea of the universal call to contemplation had gone mainstream, and thus survived, his insistence on contemplation as infused contemplation was forgotten.

Today movements to renew the Christian contemplative life, like centering prayer and the Christian meditation movement based on the teaching of John Main, OSB, have had the great merit of introducing people to the serious practice of the life of prayer.

How should we evaluate them in the light of the two foundational principles of Garrigou-LaGrange’s mystical theology? They both have clearly accepted the first one, that is, the call of all people to contemplation. In fact, it may even be wondered if they have overdone their acceptance of it and forgotten the nuances it had in the days when it was first formulated. They seem to invite everyone, even those at the beginning of their life of prayer, to practice contemplative prayer without inquiring how well they are grounded in the more discursive forms of prayer like meditation and affective prayer.

But how else can people be rather indiscriminately invited to practice contemplative prayer unless contemplation is understood as something within our power to do? But if it is something that we can do, then it is a matter of the exercise of the human faculties, however subtly we are urged to exercise them, and it is not the infused contemplation which Garrigou-LaGrange accepts at being at the heart of the Christian mystical tradition. In centering prayer, for example, which claims John of the Cross as part of its inspiration, the clear distinction in St. John between meditation and infused contemplation, that is, between the kinds of prayer we can do whenever we want, and the gracious gift on God’s part of contemplation, is blurred. Contemplation becomes something more akin to the kinds of acquired or active contemplation that flourished for a time in the 17th century.

Both centering prayer and the Christian meditation movement operate in a kind of historical and theological vacuum that prevents them from examining not only what happened in the first half of the 20th century, but what transpired in the centuries before that time. This is regrettable. The unresolved crisis in mystical theology that led to the dark night of the mystics in the 17th century came to light in the first years of the 20th century where Garrigou-LaGrange played a major role in unsuccessfully trying to resolve it. Will the now popular interest in contemplative spirituality lead to a similar crisis when it collides with this still unresolved question of the nature of contemplation?

The failure of centering prayer and the Christian meditation movement to come to grips with Garrigou-LaGrange’s ideas on the nature of contemplation, and through him with the debates of those times is a fitting symbol of a wider failure of contemporary Christian spirituality which is curiously blind to its own history when it comes to the question of the nature of contemplation. Contemplation is promoted as a way of praying accessible to all, while contemplation in the sense of the gift of infused contemplation and the goal and summit of the spiritual life is forgotten.
What is the heart of Christian spirituality? Does G-L claim that infused contemplation is the heart of Christian spirituality? Or is he looking instead at the goal in which the Christian spiritual life culminates? Or is it both? It depends on the stage of the Christian. What we do in the spiritual life is always in tandem with grace. All are called to holiness, and infused spirituality is a gift that God intends to make available to all who follow Him.

The author of this piece agrees with G-L that authentic meditation is not the same as infused contemplation. G-L discusses how mental prayer is important for beginners; he also teaches that meditation or acquired contemplation can develop into mental prayer and lead to the act of caritas, while contemplation follows it. I do not know if there is a more thorough critique of centering prayer and modern "meditation" practices at Inner Explorations, but for those interested in the history of Catholic spirituality, this might be interesting: From St. John of the Cross to Us: The Story of a 400 Year Long Misunderstanding and what it means for the Future of Christian Mysticism. However, the author seems to be too accepting of the claims of depth psychology? (The author has also written this book: St. John of the Cross and Dr. C.G. Jung.)