What is the difference between meditation and contemplation as an approach to mental prayer?
There are many forms of prayer and levels of prayer, although prayer is always a lifting of the mind and heart to God. Prayer requires both the intellect and the will, for we desire God and we desire to know Him. Often one will use the terms meditation and contemplation synonymously, but though certainly related, these are not the same. One simple method to distinguishing the two is to divide them between the ascetical and mystical forms.
“Ascetical theology treats especially of the mortification of vices or defects and of the practice of the virtues. Mystical theology treats principally of docility to the Holy Ghost, of the infused contemplation of the mysteries of faith, of the union with God which proceeds from it, and also of extraordinary graces, such as visions and revelations, which sometimes accompany infused contemplation” (Three Ages of the Interior Life). Generally, meditation can be said to belong to the ascetical stage and contemplation to the mystical stage of one’s prayer life. However, such a strict distinction, although helpful in discerning the difference, can also be misleading, as can any theology which would separate ascetical and mystical stages too sharply.
“Discursive meditation can be defined as a reasoned application of the mind to some supernatural truth in order to penetrate its meaning, love it, and carry it into practice with the assistance of grace. The distinguishing note of meditation is that it is a discursive type of prayer, and therefore attention is absolutely indispensable” (Spiritual Theology). The will is turned to God and some aspect of truth, rather revealed or naturally known, is meditated upon. This truth is pondered so as to come to a greater understanding of it, a greater understanding of its relation to other truths, and an understanding of how to apply the truth in one’s daily life. “Meditation is not completed by arousing love for the supernatural truth on which one has speculated. Any meditation that is properly made should terminate in a practical resolution for the future” (Spiritual Theology).
The guiding principle for the subject matter to be reflected on is to select what is needed at a particular time and will be beneficial to the one praying. A married person may often meditate upon certain truths more often than others, while a religious or professed single person may reflect on others. An older person, or one who has lived many years in the faith may reflect on different truths than one new to the faith. With contemplative prayer, this is often not the case, but the subject of reflection is rather guided more directly by the action of the Holy Spirit than it is as chosen by the one contemplating.
Truth is certainly to be known for its own sake, as an end itself and not simply as a means. However, it must be stressed again that that which is meditated upon should carry over into action, into the way the life of the believer is lived in the concrete circumstances of his or her life.
“The word contemplation signifies knowledge accompanied by delight, and the object of the knowledge is usually of such a type that it arouses admiration and captivates the soul…contemplation is an operation of the cognitive powers…” (Spiritual Theology) In true contemplation, the will and intellect are more passive. They are both still involved, to be sure, but are noticeably more moved by the direct action of the Holy Spirit interiorly. Meditation can certainly become contemplation, as the will is turned to God and His graces operate in the one who is praying. But contemplation is distinct in the way the intellect and will are moved to knowledge of God not in a discursive manner but much more directly.
One may, for example, know that God exists through discursive knowledge. One can meditate on the truth that all contingent things need a cause, and that there is therefore a cause that is not contingent but necessary. One may also meditate on the Trinity, which, as object of meditation, requires faith, since it cannot be known by reason, yet this knowledge may still be discursive in nature. Beyond this, contemplation involves experiential rather than discursive knowledge, and this can only be brought about by a direct action of the Holy Spirit in a soul so disposed by grace.
“Supernatural or infused contemplation has been defined by various formulas, but the essential note that all definitions have in common is that supernatural contemplation is an experimental knowledge of God. Moreover, as a supernatural activity, infused contemplation requires the operation of faculties that are likewise supernatural, both in their substance and in their mode of operation” (Spiritual Theology).
Infused contemplation is a grade of prayer made possible by the operation of the gifts of the Holy Spirit and it necessarily requires sanctifying grace and the impulse of actual grace. (adapted from Spiritual Theology) One could, of course, even in the state of sin, meditate on the mysteries of the faith. While charity has been lost due to sin, as long as faith and hope remain, the believer can reflect in a real way upon the truths of the faith. But for contemplation, sanctifying grace must be present. As with all good things done by man, the impulse of actual grace is necessary as well. The believer must be in a state of grace and moved by grace interiorly, and this cannot come from the believer directly but from the Holy Spirit. The person must be open and not resistant to grace, but contemplation can never be brought about through the effort of the believer.
The infused virtues of the affective order are not the immediate, formal, and eliciting principles of the act of contemplation, although they may serve as antecedent dispositions or consequent effects. The immediate eliciting principles of contemplation are the gifts of wisdom and understanding perfecting the act of faith informed by charity. (adapted from Spiritual Theology) In other words, it is not the infused virtues that bring about in a direct way the act of contemplation. They are necessary, and are given already with sanctifying grace as gifts of the Holy Spirit. They are, for all that, not the direct cause of contemplation, but rather it is the Holy Spirit moving one through the gifts of wisdom and understanding.
In summary, meditation can be closely linked with ascetical prayer in that, although it still requires grace, can be brought about by human effort. Contemplation, however, although requiring certainly our cooperation, is passive in that the Spirit moves one directly to the object of contemplation. So while we must never divide ascetical and mystical theology into completely separated and unrelated categories, and likewise with meditation and contemplation, we can indeed make distinctions so that we may reflect more deeply upon the workings of grace and the Holy Spirit in our lives of prayer as we journey ever closer to God.