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The idea of contemplation is so intimately connected with that of mystical theology that one cannot be clearly explained independent of the other; hence we shall here set forth what mystical theology is.

Preliminary definitions

Those supernatural acts or states which no effort or labour on our part can succeed in producing, even in the slightest degree or for a single instant, are called mystical. The making of an act of contrition and the reciting of a Hail Mary are supernatural acts, but when one wishes to produce them grace is never refused; hence they are not mystical acts. But to see one's guardian angel, which does not in the least depend on one's own efforts, is a mystical act. To have very ardent sentiments of Divine love is not, in itself, proof that one is in a mystical state, because such love can be produced, at least feebly and for an instant, by our own efforts. The preceding definition is equivalent to that given by St. Teresa in the beginning of her second letter to Father Rodriquez Alvarez. Mystical theology is the science that studies mystical states; it is above all a science based on observation. Mystical theology is frequently confounded with ascetic theology; the latter, however, treats of the virtues. Ascetical writers discuss also the subject of prayer, but they confine themselves to prayer that is not mystical.

Mystical states are called, first, supernatural or infused, by which we mean manifestly supernatural or infused; secondly, extraordinary, indicating that the intellect operates in new way, one which our efforts cannot bring about; thirdly, passive, to show that the soul receives something and is conscious of receiving it. The exact term would be passivo-active, since our activity responds to this reception just as it does in the exercise of our bodily senses. By way of distinction ordinary prayer is called active. The word mystical has been much abused. It has at length come to be applied to all religious sentiments that are somewhat ardent and, indeed, even to simple poetic sentiments. The foregoing definition gives the restricted and theological sense of the word.

Ordinary prayer and acquired contemplation

First of all, a word as to ordinary prayer, which comprises these four degrees:

  1. vocal prayer;
  2. meditation, also called methodical prayer, or prayer of reflection, in which may be included meditative reading;
  3. affective prayer;
  4. prayer of simplicity, or of simple gaze.

Only the last two degrees (also called prayers of the heart) will be considered, as they border on the mystical states.

Mental prayer in which the affective acts are numerous, and which consists much more largely of them than of reflections and reasoning, is called affective. Prayer of simplicity is mental prayer in which, first, reasoning is largely replaced by intuition; second, affections and resolutions, though not absent, are only slightly varied and expressed in a few words. To say that the multiplicity of acts has entirely disappeared would be a harmful exaggeration, for they are only notably diminished. In both of these states, but especially in the second, there is one dominant thought or sentiment which recurs constantly and easily (although with little or no development) amid many other thoughts, beneficial or otherwise. This main thought is not continuous but keeps returning frequently and spontaneously. A like fact may be observed in the natural order. The mother who watches over the cradle of her child thinks lovingly of him and does so without reflection and amid interruptions. These prayers differ from meditation only as greater from lesser and are applied to the same subjects. Nevertheless the prayer of simplicity often has a tendency to simplify itself, even respect to its object. It leads one to think chiefly of God and of His presence, but in a confused manner. This particular state, which is nearer than others to the mystical states, is called the prayer of amorous attention to God. Those who bring the charge of idleness against these different states always have an exaggerated idea of them. The prayer of simplicity is not to meditation what inactive is to action, though it might appear to be at times, but what uniformity is to variety and intuition to reasoning.

A soul is known to be called to one of these degrees when it succeeds therein, and does so with ease, and when it derives profit from it. The call of God becomes even clearer if this soul have first, a persistent attraction to this kind of prayer; second, a want of facility and distaste for meditation. Three rules of conduct for those who show these signs are admitted by all authors:

Many texts relative to the prayer of simplicity are found in the works of St. Jane de Chantal, who, together with St. Francis of Sales, founded the Order of the Visitation. She complained of the opposition that many well-disposed minds offered to this kind of prayer. By ancient writers the prayer of simplicity is called acquired, active, or ordinary contemplation. St. Alphonsus Liguori, echoing his predecessors, defines it thus: "At the end of a certain time ordinary meditation produces what is called acquired contemplation, which consists in seeing at a simple glance the truths which could previously be discovered only through prolonged discourse" (Homo apostolicus, Appendix I, No. 7).

Higher contemplation

To distinguish it from acquired contemplation mystical union is called intuitive, passive, extraordinary, or higher contemplation. St. Teresa designates it simply as contemplation, without any qualification. Mystical graces may be divided into two groups, according to the nature of the object contemplated. The states of the first group are characterized by the fact that it is God, and God only, who manifests Himself; these are called mystical union. In the second group the manifestation is of a created object, as, for example, when one beholds the humanity of Christ or an angel or a future event, etc. These are visions (of created things) and revelations. To these belong miraculous bodily phenomena which are sometimes observed in ecstatics.

There are four degrees or stages of mystical union. They are here taken just as St. Teresa has described them with the greatest clearness in her "Life" and principally in her "Interior Castle":

  1. incomplete mystical union, or the prayer of quiet (from the Latin quies, quiet; which expresses the impression experienced in this state);
  2. the full, or semi-ecstatic, union, which St. Teresa sometimes calls the prayer of union (in her "Life" she also makes use of the term entire union, entera unión, ch. xvii);
  3. ecstatic union, or ecstasy; and
  4. transforming or deifying union, or spiritual marriage (properly) of the soul with God.

The first three are states of the same grace, viz. the weak, medium, and the energetic. It will be seen that the transforming union differs from these specifically and not merely in intensity.

Mystical union

The preceding ideas may be more precisely stated by indicated the easily discernible lines of demarcation. Mystical union will be called

Between these well-defined types there are imperceptible transitions as between the colours blue, green, and yellow. Mystics use many other appellations: silence, supernatural sleep, spiritual inebriation, etc. These are not real degrees, but rather ways of being in the four preceding degrees. St. Teresa sometimes designates the weak prayer of quiet as supernatural recollection.

Transforming union

As regards transforming union, or spiritual marriage, it is here sufficient to say that it consists in the habitual consciousness of a mysterious grace which all shall possess in heaven: the anticipation of the Divine nature. The soul is conscious of the Divine assistance in its superior supernatural operations, those of the intellect and the will. Spiritual marriage differs from spiritual espousals inasmuch as the first of these states is permanent and the second only transitory.

Characters of mystical union

The different states of mystical union possess twelve characters. The first two are the most important; the first because it denotes the basis of this grace, the other because it represents its physiognomy.

First character: the presence felt

(a) The real difference between mystical union and the recollection of ordinary prayer is that, in the former, God is not satisfied with helping us to think of Him and reminding us of that presence.

(b) However, in the lower degrees (spiritual quiet) God does this in a rather obscure way. The more elevated the order of the union the clearer the manifestation. The obscurity just mentioned is a source of interior suffering to beginners. During the period of spiritual quiet they instinctively believe in the preceding doctrine, but afterwards, because of their preconceived ideas, they begin to reason and relapse into hesitation and the fear of going astray. The remedy lies in providing them with a learned director or a book that treats these matters clearly. By experimental knowledge it is understood that which comes from the object itself and makes it known not only as possible but as existing, and in such and such conditions. This is the case with mystical union: God is therein perceived as well as conceived. Hence, in mystical union, we have experimental knowledge of God and of His presence, but it does not at all follow that this knowledge is of the same nature as the Beatific Vision. The angels, the souls of the departed, and devils know one another experimentally but in an inferior way to that in which God will be manifested to us in heaven. Theologians express this principle by saying that it is a knowledge by impressed or intelligible species.

Second character: interior possession

(a) In states inferior to ecstasy one cannot say that he sees God, unless indeed in exceptional cases. Nor is one instinctively led to use the word see.

(b) On the contrary, what constitutes the common basis of all the degrees of mystical union is that the spiritual impression by which God manifests His presence makes that presence felt in the way of an interior something with which the soul is penetrated; it is a sensation of absorption, of fusion, of immersion.

(c) For the sake of greater clearness the sensation one experiences may be designated as interior touch. This very clear expression of spiritual sensation is used by Scaramelli (Directoire mystique, Tr. iii, no. 26) and had already been resorted to by Father de la Reguera (Praxis theologiae mysticae, vol. I, no. 735). The following comparison will aid us in forming an exact idea of the physiognomy of mystical union. We may say that it is in a precisely similar way that we feel the presence of our body when we remain perfectly immobile and close our eyes. If we know that our body is present, it is not because we see it or have been told of the fact. It is the result of a special sensation (coenaesthesis), an interior impression, very simple and yet impossible to analyse. Thus it is that in mystical union we feel God within us and in a very simple way. The soul absorbed in mystical union that is not too elevated may be said to resemble a man placed near one of his friends in an impenetrably dark place and in utter silence He neither sees nor hears his friend whose hand he holds within his own, but through means of touch, he feels his presence. He thus remains thinking of his friend and loving him, although amid distractions.

The foregoing statements concerning the first two characters always appear unquestionably true to those who have received mystical grace but, on the contrary, they are often a source of amazement to the profane. For those who will admit them, at least provisionally the difficulties of mystical union are overcome and what is to follow will not be very mysterious.

The ten characters remaining are the consequences or concomitants of the first two.

Third character

Mystical union cannot be produced at will. It is this character that was useful above in defining all mystical states. It may also be added that these states cannot be augmented nor their manner of being changed. By remaining immobile and being content with interior acts of the will one cannot cause these graces to cease. It will be seen farther on that the only means to this end lies in resuming bodily activity.

Fourth character

The knowledge of God in mystical union is obscure and confused; hence the expression to enter into Divine obscurity or into Divine darkness. In ecstasy one has intellectual visions of the Divinity, and the loftier these become, the more they surpass our understanding. Then is reached blinding contemplation, a mixture of light and darkness. The great darkness is the name given to the contemplation of such Divine attributes are never shared by any creature, for instance, infinity, eternity, immutability, etc.

Fifth character

Like all else that borders on the Divine nature this mode of communication is only half comprehensible and it is called mystical because it indicates a mystery. This character and the preceding one are a source of anxiety to beginners, as they imagine that no state is Divine and certain unless they understand it perfectly and without anyone's help.

Sixth character

In mystical union the contemplation of God is produced neither by reasoning nor by the consideration of creatures nor still by interior images of the sensible order. We have seen that it has an altogether different cause. In the natural state our thinking is always accompanied by images, and it is the same in ordinary prayer, because supernatural operations of an ordinary character resemble those of nature. But in mystical contemplation a change takes place. St. John of the Cross is constantly reverting to this point. It has been said that the acts of the imagination are not the cause of the contemplation; however, they may at least accompany it. Most frequently it is in distractions that the imagination manifests itself, and St. Teresa declared that for this evil she found no remedy (Life, ch. xvii). We shall designate as constitutive acts of mystical union those which necessarily belong to this state, such as thinking of God, relishing Him and loving Him; and by way of distinction we shall denote as additional acts such acts, other than distractions, as are not proper to mystical union, that is to say, are neither its cause nor its consequences. This term indicates that an addition, whether voluntary or not, is made to Divine action. Thus, to recite a Hail Mary during spiritual quiet or to give oneself up to a consideration of death would be to perform additional acts, because they are not essential to the existence of spiritual quiet. These definitions will prove useful later on. But even now they will permit us to explain certain abbreviations of language, often indulged in by mystics, of which many erroneous interpretations have been made, misunderstanding having resulted from what was left unexpressed. Thus it has been said: "Often in supernatural prayer there are no more acts"; or "One must not fear therein to suppress all acts"; whereas what should have been said was this: "There are no more additional acts". Taken literally, these abridged phrases do not differ from those of the Quietists. St. Teresa was suddenly enlightened in her way of perfection by reading in a book this phrase, though it is inaccurate: "In spiritual quiet one can think of nothing" (Life, ch. xxiii). But others would not have discerned the true value of the expression. In like manner it was said: "The will only is united"; by which was meant that the mind adds no further reasoning and that thenceforth it makes itself forgotten or else that it retains the liberty of producing additional acts; then it seems as if it were not united. But in future these expressions that require long explanations will be avoided.

Seventh character

There are continual fluctuations. Mystical union does not retain the same degree of intensity for five minutes, but its average intensity may be the same for a notable length of time.

Eighth character

Mystical union demands much less labour than meditation, and the more elevated the state the less the effort required, in ecstasy there being none whatever. St. Teresa compares the soul that progresses in these states to a gardener who takes less and less trouble to water his garden (Life, ch. xi). In the prayer of quiet the labour does not consist in procuring the prayer itself; God alone can give that, but first in combating distractions; second, in occasionally producing additional acts; third, if the quiet be weak, in suppressing the ennui caused by incomplete absorption which very often one is disinclined to perfect by something else.

Ninth character

Mystical union is accompanied by sentiments of love, tranquillity, and pleasure. In spiritual quiet these sentiments are not always very ardent although sometimes the reverse is the case and there is spiritual jubilation and inebriation.

Tenth character

Mystical union is accompanied, and often in a very visible manner, by an impulse towards the different virtues. This fact (which St. Teresa constantly repeats) is the more sensible in proportion as the prayer is more elevated. In private, far from leading to pride these graces always produce humility.

Eleventh character

Mystical union acts upon the body. This fact is evident in ecstasy and enters into its definition. First, in this state the senses have little or no action; second, the members of the body are usually motionless; third, respiration almost ceases; fourth, vital heat seems to disappear, especially from the extremities. In a word, all is as if the soul loses in vital force and motor activity all that it gains on the side of Divine union. The law of continuity shows us that these phenomena must occur, although in a lesser degree, in those states that are inferior to ecstasy. At what moment do they begin? Often during spiritual quiet, and this seems to be the case mainly with persons of weak temperament. Since this spiritual quiet is somewhat opposed to bodily movements the latter must react reciprocally in order to diminish this quiet. Experience confirms this conjecture. If one begins to walk read, or look to right and left, one feels the Divine action diminishing; therefore to resume bodily activity is a practical means of ending the mystical union.

Twelfth character

Mystical union to some extent hinders the production of some interior acts which, in ordinary prayer, could be produced at will. This is what is known as the suspension of the powers of the soul. In ecstasy this fact is most evident and is also experienced in actual quiet, one of those states inferior to ecstasy, being one of the phenomena that have most occupied mystics and been the cause of the greatest anxiety to beginners. Those acts which have been termed additional, and which would likewise be voluntary, are what are hampered by this suspension, hence it is usually an obstacle to vocal prayers and pious reflections.

To sum up: as a general rule, the mystical state has a tendency to exclude all that is foreign to it and especially whatever proceeds from our own assiduity, our own effort. Sometimes, however, God makes exceptions. Concerning suspension there are three rules of conduct identical with those already given for the prayer of simplicity (see above). If a director suspects that a person has attained unto the prayer of quiet he can most frequently decide the case by questioning him on the twelve characters just enumerated.

The two nights of the soul

There is an intermediate state not yet mentioned, a frequent transition between ordinary prayer and spiritual quiet. St. John of the Cross, who was the first to describe it clearly, called it the night of sense or first night of the soul. If we abide by appearances, that is to say, by what we immediately observe in ourselves, this state is a prayer of simplicity but with characteristics, two especially, which make it a thing apart. It is bitter, and it is almost solely upon God that the simple gaze is incessantly riveted. Five elements are included in this distressing state: there is first, an habitual aridity; second, an undeveloped, confused idea of God, recurring with singular persistency and independently of the will; third, the sad and constant need of a closer union with God; fourth, a continual action of God's grace to detach us from all sensible things and impart a distaste for them, whence the name, "night of sense" (the soul may struggle against this action of grace); fifth, there is a hidden element which consists in this: God begins to exercise over the soul the action characteristic of the prayer of quiet, but He does it so gently that one may be unconscious of it. Hence it is spiritual quiet in the latent, disguised state, and it is only by verifying the analogy of effects that one comes to know it. St. John of the Cross speaks of the second night of the soul as the night of the mind. It is nothing more than union of the mystical states inferior to spiritual marriage but regarded as including the to spiritual marriage but regarded as including the element of gloom and therefore as producing suffering.

We can now form a compact idea of the development of mystical union in the soul. It is a tree the seed of which is first concealed in the earth and the roots that are secretly put forth in darkness constitute the night of sense. From these a frail stem springs up into the light and this is spiritual quiet. The tree grows and becomes successively full union and ecstasy. Finally, in spiritual marriage it attains the end of its development and then especially it bears flowers and fruit. This harmony existing between the states of mystical union is a fact of noteworthy importance.

Revelations and visions (of creatures)

There are three kinds of speech: exterior, which is received by the ear, and interior, which is subdivided into imaginative and intellectual. The last is a communication of thoughts without words.

There are three similar kinds of visions. Many details of these different graces will be found in the works of St. Teresa. What are known as private and particular revelations are those contained neither in the Bible nor in the deposit of Apostolic tradition. The Church does not oblige us to believe in them, but it is prudent not to reject them lightly when they are affirmed by saints. Nevertheless it is certain that many saints were deceived and that their revelations contradict one another. What follows will explain the reason of this. Revelations and visions are subject to many illusions which shall be briefly set forth. First, like Jonas at Ninive, the seer may regard as absolute a prediction that was only conditional, or commit some other error in interpreting it. Second, when the vision represents a scene from the life or Passion of Christ, historic accuracy is often only approximate; otherwise God would lower Himself to the rank of a professor of history and archeology. He wishes to sanctify the soul, not to satisfy our curiosity. The seer, however, may believe that the reproduction is exact; hence the want of agreement between revelations concerning the life of Jesus Christ. Third, during the vision personal activity may be so mingled with the Divine action that answers in the sense desired seemed to be received. In fact, during prayer vivid imaginations may go so far as to produce revelations and visions out of whole cloth without any evil intent. Fourth, sometimes, in his desire to explain it, the seer afterwards unconsciously alters a genuine revelation. Fifth, amanuenses and editors take deplorable liberties in revising, so that the text is not always authentic. Some revelations are even absolutely false because: first, in describing their prayer, certain persons lie most audaciously; second, amongst those afflicted with neuropathy there are inventors who, in perfectly good faith, imagine to be real facts things that have never occurred; third, the devil may to a certain degree, counterfeit Divine visions; fourth, amongst writers there are genuine forgers who are responsible for political prophecies, hence the profusion of absurd predictions.

Illusions in the matter of revelations often have a serious consequence, as they usually instigate to exterior acts, such as teaching a doctrine, propagating a new devotion, prophesying, launching into an enterprise that entails expense. There would be no evil to fear if these impulses came from God, but it is entirely otherwise when they do not come from God, which is much more frequently the case and is difficult of discernment. On the contrary there is naught to fear from mystical union. It impels solely towards Divine love and the practice of solid virtue. There would be equal security in the impossible supposition that the state of prayer was only an imitation of mystical union, for then the tendencies would be exactly the same. This supposition is called impossible because St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross keep repeating that the devil cannot imitate nor even understand mystical union. Neither can our mind and imagination reproduce the combination of the twelve characters described above.

What has been said shows us the importance of not confounding mystical union with revelations. Not only are these states of a different nature but they must also be differently estimated. Because ignorant of this distinction many persons fall into one of these two extremes: first, if they know the danger of revelations, they extend their severe judgment to mystical union and thus turn certain souls from an excellent path; second, if on the contrary, they are reasonably persuaded of the security and tranquillity of mystical union, they wrongly extend this favourable judgment to revelations and drive certain souls into a dangerous path.

When God so wills He can impart to him who receives a revelation the full certainty that is real and wholly Divine. Otherwise one would not have had the right to believe the Prophets of the Old Testament. Scripture ordained that they distinguished from false prophets. For instance, the envoys of God performed miracles or uttered prophecies the realization of which was verified. In order to judge private revelations in a more or less probable way, two kinds of information must be obtained. First, one should ascertain the qualities or defects, from a natural, ascetic, or mystical point of view, of the person having revelations. When the one in question has been canonized the investigation has already been made by the Church. Second, one should be acquainted with the qualities and defects of the revelation itself and with its various circumstances, favourable or otherwise. To judge of ecstasies one should be actuated by the same principles, the two chief points to settle being: first, in what the soul is absorbed whilst thus deprived of the senses, and whether it is captivated by knowledge of a higher order and transported by an immense love; second, what degree of virtue it possessed before reaching this state and what great progress it made afterwards. If the result of the investigation be favourable the probabilities are on the side of Divine ecstasy, as neither the devil nor disease can work the imagination up to this pitch.

There are several rules of conduct in connection with revelations but we shall give only the two most important.

The first relates to the director. If the revelation or the vision has for its sole effect the augmenting of the love of the seer for God, Christ, or the saints, nothing prevents these facts from being provisionally considered Divine; but if, on the contrary, the seer be impelled to certain undertakings or if he wish that his prediction should be firmly believed, he should be told: "You must admit that you cannot be believed simply upon your word, consequently give signs that your revelations come from God and from Him alone." As a rule this request remains unanswered. Note the prudence of the Church in regard to certain feasts of devotions which she has instituted in consequence of private revelations. The revelation was only the occasion of the measure taken. The Church declares that such a devotion is reasonable but she does not guarantee the revelation that suggested it.

The second rule concerns the seer. In the beginning, at least, he is gently to do his utmost to repulse the revelations and to turn his thoughts away from them. He is to accept them only after a prudent director will have decided that he may place a certain amount of confidence in them. This doctrine, which seems severe, is nevertheless taught forcibly by many saints, such as St. Ignatius (Acta SS., 31 July, Préliminaires, no. 614), St. Philip Neri (ibid., 26 May, 2nd life, no. 375), St. John of the Cross (Assent, Bk. II, ch. xi, xvi, xvii, and xxiv), St. Teresa, and St. Alphonsus Ligouri (Homo Apost., Appendix I, no. 23), for the reason that there is danger of illusions. With even greater reason, revelations and visions (of created objects) should be neither desired nor requested. On the other hand, many passages in St. Teresa and other mystics prove that mystical union may be desired and asked for, provided it be done humbly and with resignation to God's will. The reason is that this union has no disadvantages but presents great advantages for sanctification (see THEOLOGY, under sub-title Mystical).

St. Teresa far excels all writers that preceded her on the subject of contemplation. In their descriptions those prior to her confined themselves to generalities. Exception must be made in favour of Blessed Angela de Foligno, Ruysbroeck and the Venerable Marina d'Escobar as regards the subject of ecstasies. St. Teresa was likewise the first to give a clear, accurate, and detailed classification. Before her time hardly anything was described except ecstasies and revelations. The lower degrees required ore delicate observation than had been devoted to them before her day. After St. Teresa the first place for careful observation of these matters belongs to St. John of the Cross. But his classifications are confused. St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross are also greatly superior to subsequent authors who have been satisfied to repeat them, with comments.

About this page

APA citation. Poulain, A. (1908). Contemplation. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Poulain, Augustin. "Contemplation." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Christine J. Murray.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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