OU'RE NOT the only one to get confused by the word contemplation, especially as you initially received so much help from the Ignatian method of prayer. You see, St Ignatius used the word differently from the rest of the Christian tradition. He used it to describe a certain type of meditation when you try to picture scenes in your imagination, particularly Gospel scenes. This use of the word is unique to the Ignatian tradition and can therefore give rise to a certain confusion. Normally the word contemplation is used to describe the mystical awareness of God's action working in a person thmugh the Holy Spirit as they are being gradually transformed into the image and likeness of Christ. It begins not when we so choose, but when God chooses. Although we can prepare for it, as you have been doing for some time, it is essentially God's gift.
To begin with, it is often called "obscure contemplation". or a "ray of darkness", as I described in my last letter. This is because at first the action of the Holy Spirit only highlights all that separates us from the transformation into Christ that he is working to achieve. The "ray of darkness" suddenly becomes a ray of light when God chooses, giving the believer ever deeper experiences of the presence of God as the journey into Christ deepens. Ignatian "contemplation" is predominantly self-generated, true mystical contemplation is a pure gift of God.
The other use of the word "contemplation" doesn't come from the Christian tradition at all, but from the East, more particularly from India. Missionaries or "spiritual tourists" who have been struck by the similarity between Eastern mysticism and Christian mysticism, have imported an Eastern concept of contemplation into our Western tradition. They claim that it is virtually the same as contemplation as described in the Christian tradition and try to prove it by quoting the Desert Fathers, the F2stern Hesychasts, the Cloud of Unknowing and other Christian mystical writers to make their point. Sadly they do not seem to understand that in the Western tradition the use of what they call a "mantra" is only suggested after it is evident to a competent spiritual director that God has drawn a person into "obscure contemplation" and not before. After a short time the "mantra" has an effect which is exactly the opposite of that which had been promised.
We are Christians not Buddhists because we believe in the Incarnation. Authentic Christian prayer begins, therefore, by coming to know and then to love the person of Jesus Christ in whom we find the perfect flesh and blood embodiment of the all holy God. That's why it begins with meditation. All forms of genuine Christian meditation from the Lectio Divina to what St Ignatius calls "contemplation" are all directed to this end.
Although the slow meditative reading of the Scriptures is the best of all forms of meditation any other form that is helpful can be used to suit different inclinations and temperaments. In Christian meditation a person is something of an outsider looking at Christ, marvelling at what they see, being inspired at what he says and learning to love him for what he is and what he has done. But when this love reaches its climax God takes the initiative by leading a person into a profound purification, through "obscure contemplation", so that they can actually enter into Christ in a deeper way than ever before, becoming insiders. They may well have felt like bystanders before, but through the action of the Holy Spirit they are in the process of becoming participators not just in Christ's life but in his action.
Now it's only when this happens that, in the Christian tradition, a person is taught to use a short sentence like the Jesus prayer, or a brief phrase as Macarius suggests, or a single wonl as suggested by the author of the Cloud of Unknowing. The purpose for this is, in the words of the Cloud is to keep our "naked intent" on God at all times, so that he can enter into us more deeply to bring about the union for which the Holy Spirit has been sent.
Now what I call the "mantra men" hand out mantras to all and sundry without determining whether they are ready for them or not. This not only manifests their ignorance of the Christian mystical tradition, but should give a warning to all who are tempted to trust them, that they will ultimately lead them astray, not knowingly of course, but through ignorance.
I know you got help from one of these men. Like many others you happen to hear them speak or listen to one of their tapes at the point when you needed a short phrases or single word to help keep your otherwise wandering heart and mind intent on, and open to God. This wrongly made you think they understood you and your spiritual needs, but as you admitted yourself you soon found they didn't. However, more of this next time.
Love, David David Torkington will lead a day of recollection at Park Place Pastoral Centre (Hants) on Sunday June 6. "'you would like to attend phone Sr Frances on (01329) 833 043.