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Concerning Gospel Contemplation

Updated: Feb 17, 2021

From Orientations, by Fr. J. Veltri, SJ

Volume 2 Chap 23

The author lays out the various meaning in the spiritual literature of the word ‘contemplation.’ Here is a summary taken word for word or paraphrased to help in your understandings when we review Ignatian Contemplation of praying with Scriptures in the Spiritual Exercises.

Terms and Definitions

Contemplative Attitude

A person with a Contemplative Attitude has an openness toward life, a sense of wonder, a capacity to experience life as mystery, one has the ability to allow God into one's interior reactions in prayer. Simply it has to do with one's attitude or ability to listen in prayer. One allows God's word to penetrate and affect one's hidden self. There is a certain free-flow between a person and God. Since discernment, in the strict sense of the word, is dependent on noticing one's own interior reactions, one must have the Contemplative Attitude in order, first of all to allow, and secondly to notice, one's key interior reactions.

A Contemplative – The Noun

A contemplative is a person who belongs to a contemplative religious congregation they are "removed from the world" and are leading a life devoted explicitly and regularly to prayer.

And is also used to identify any person who is approaching or has reached the stage of contemplation as described above.

A Contemplative – The Adjective

A contemplative attitude – a term used to describe when a person during the reflection part of their prayer time will be open to experience an affective ( spontaneous feelings or deep emotions) response.

Contemplative Prayer Forms

Jesus Prayer, Centering Prayer, and the Christian Meditation

A person is just there with God, in faith, with little fluctuation of feelings, thinking, or imaging during the time of private prayer or after this prayer practice, though some images or phrases use to open the prayer time. What peace one may feel is achieved by their effects, therefore it is called an ‘acquired contemplation’.

Stage of Contemplation

Contemplation as a stage in one’s spiritual journey during prayer. Here one has reached a point where there are few images, some reflections, if at all, and very little changes in one’s affectivity (feelings) on our part yet God is totally involved. The stage of Contemplation as presented by Teresa of Availa and John of the Cross – Carmelite tradition - that stresses the transcendence and unknowability of God. At this stage one is so in union with God in this stillness that any other way to be with God becomes disharmonious. It is where God puts us in spite of all we try to do or not do. It’s not just a one moment experience, but a prayer state in which one finds themselves in this way most of the time. It’s a gift of God, something we can not do for ourselves as in ‘acquired contemplation’ listed above.


Contemplatio, is in the traditional method known as Lectio Divina. The first phase of this method, Lectio, sometimes referred to as meditative reading or listening with the heart, leads one by a natural process into Meditatio (reflection with one's heart), leading one to Oratio (responding from one's heart), moving one toward Contemplatio which implies, at least, those special quiet moments or still points described in the Contemplative Prayer Forms. Most traditions advocate the use of Lectio Divina, and they indicate that the practice of Lectio Divina may ultimately dispose one for the gift of Contemplation as a stage of growth as listed above.

Gospel Contemplation

In the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, the term Gospel Contemplation is a specific method of praying with scriptures. In the Carmelite tradition of spirituality, Gospel Contemplation is considered to be a form of meditation, for like Meditatio which is the second phase of Lectio Divina flowing out of the Lectio; it is simply another way of pondering that follows automatically from any form of listening to God's word. If one listens to God's word with love, one automatically reflects with one's heart through one's cognitive powers which include imaging and remembering.

Gospel Contemplation versus Gospel Meditation

Ignatian Gospel Meditation

The point of departure is the activity of pondering and reflecting on the scripture using our ‘heart’ to come to an understanding, it is not an analytical discursive exercise. (Discursive prayers is the predominate use of one’s analytical powers of reasoning to understand.)

Ignatian Gospel Contemplation

The point of departure in Gospel Contemplation is the imagination. With this method, one primarily uses the active imagination upon a particular event in Jesus' life. The gospel story is the guided imagery context for one’s imagination. Gospel Contemplation differs from guided imagery techniques in that the person at prayer keeps oneself more or less within the gospel story, and does not let one’s imagination roam as freely as with guided imagery techniques (letting one’s imagination go wherever). One uses images, feelings and thoughts, yet as with many prayer methods one can be led into moments of prolonged imageless, wordless experience of God.

Understanding the importance of Imagination and its proper definition.

Imagination is very "rational," though not necessarily analytical. imagination primarily functions through narrative discourse with a logic different from analytical logic, for it deals with the understanding and communication of meaning

Imagination is that power which equips us to make present what is not present.

Imagination is intimately connected with our senses which takes in the data coming to us from our environment. Imagination is linked intimately with our memory, by helping the memory access data from within us. Enmeshed with our cognitive powers, imagination is essential to our grasp of meaning and to the communication of the same. With our power of memory, imagination can be a gateway to the unconscious and to deep feelings. The imagination is key to our ability to use and to create symbols that are so important to us as rational beings.

Godfrey O'Donnell, "Contemplation," The Way Supplement 27 (Spring 1976), p.28

Below is a quotation from the book, Vita Christi, written by the fourteenth-century Carthusian monk, Ludolph of Saxony. Ignatius based his use of imagination in Gospel Contemplation on this book. Read the quotation and note how this medieval text takes for granted that the imagination is interwoven with other cognitive powers:

If you want to draw fruit from these scenes (of the mysteries of Christ's life), you must offer yourself as present to what was said or done through our Lord Jesus Christ with the whole affective power of your mind, with loving care, with lingering delight; thus laying aside all other worries and cares. (Hear and see) these things being narrated, as though you were hearing with your own ears and seeing with your own eyes, for these things are most sweet to one who thinks on them with desire (cogitanti ex desiderio), and even more so to one who tastes them (gustanti). And though many of these are narrated as past events, you must meditate (mediteris) them all as though they were happening in the present moment; because in this way you will certainly taste a greater sweetness (suavitatem gustabis). Read (lege) then of what has been done as though they were happening now. Bring before your eyes past actions as though they were present. Then you will feel (senties) how full of wisdom and delight they are.

Different Kinds of Imagination

Every person has an imagination.

It is through the function of the imagination that we can remember, take in, describe, think about the events of our lives. If someone says, "I can't use Gospel Contemplation because I do not have an imagination," that is usually not true. Studies in educational and neurolinguistic psychology indicate that we have at least three major ways of accessing data through our imagination:

  • · Kinesthetic imagination, through feelings, and inner sensations;

  • · Visual imagination, through seeing pictures, through composing pictures from a variety of symbols in the psyche;

  • · Auditory imagination, through hearing sounds.

Thus when one reads a novel and loses oneself in the story and relives what the author is describing, that experience takes place with any one mode of the above or with any combination of them.

Some people may fall asleep during a long lecture because their auditory imagination is not their dominant mode of processing information and the energy it takes to process what is being heard is too draining. Mozart had such auditory powers that he could hear and compose, through his imagination, the full score for a symphony without the use of any musical instrument. Joan of Arc heard voices and discerned through them because she had auditory imagination.

When proposing Gospel Contemplation, Ignatius suggests that we use one, two, or three 'points':

  • See the different persons

  • Listen to what those persons are saying

  • Consider what the persons are doing

Try the following three phrases could replace his 'points':

  • See -- look at the persons (visual

  • Listen -- hear what they are saying (auditory)

  • Feel -- enter their actions (kinesthetic)

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