By Father Paul K. Raftery, O.P.
The Rosary, as a gift of prayer from the Mother of God, leads us to Christ in a way unique among the devotions in the Church. Pope John Paul II, in his Apostolic Letter on the Rosary, Rosarium Virginis Mariae, focuses with particular attention on the special way she is active on the soul as we ponder or contemplate Jesus through the eyes of His Mother. We put ourselves under her maternal guidance and allow her to direct our hearts. "The Rosary," he says, "mystically transports us to Mary’s side as she is busy watching over the human growth of Christ in the home of Nazareth. This enables her to train us and to mold us with the same care, until Christ is ‘fully formed’ in us" (RVM 16). What is happening through this "contemplation of the face of Christ" in union with Mary, is far more than just a dry and abstract exercise of thought. The Rosary brings us, through a devoted pondering of its mysteries, into intimate union with the very Person of Jesus. Below we will discuss this form of prayer called "contemplation," and the place the Holy Father wants it to have in the lives of the faithful through praying the Holy Rosary.
WHAT IS CONTEMPLATION?
Too often the false impression people have of contemplation is that it is some form of lofty mystical prayer that can be understood only by those versed in mystical theology. Moreover, there is the erroneous belief it is not something the ordinary Catholic can expect to experience; namely, that only monks and nuns, whose lives are completely dedicated to prayer, have the chance of advancing to such higher forms of prayer.
A wise and assuring guide in these matters, who has written extensively on the spiritual life, is Fr. Thomas Dubay. His book Fire Within (available from Ignatius Press) has been recommended in a previous article, and it will be used extensively here. From his experience he writes:
Over the years I have gradually come to the conclusion that one reason so many people assume that contemplation is reserved for a select few is that they imagine it to be what it is not. They presume that this type of prayer could not be for them because in a vague sort of way they consider it to be something other than it is. They equate it with oriental states of consciousness or with extraordinary phenomena such as divine messages and visions. Being active and busy and little inclined to any lingering reflection, natural or supernatural, they do not take seriously, as meant for them personally, the mystical expressions sprinkled freely throughout the Scripture and liturgical worship (Fire Within, 57).
St. Teresa of Avila, one of the greatest mystics of the Church, gives us a thoroughly down to earth explanation of contemplative prayer. As Fr. Dubay describes it:
For her, contemplation is an experienced, mutual presence, "an intimate sharing between friends," a being alone with the God Who loves us. Hence, this prayer is a mutual presence of two in love, and in this case the Beloved dwells within. Actually, it is an interdwelling, a mutually experienced indwelling. She relates about herself how "a feeling of the presence of God would come upon me unexpectedly so that I could in no way doubt He was within me or I totally immersed in Him" (FW, 58).
NATURAL AND SUPERNATURAL
The way this takes place in the soul, St. Teresa will emphasize, is not through any efforts of the one praying. Now there is indeed a way one can speak of contemplation as an activity of the mind and heart. A person can ponder with wonder and amazement the night sky filled with stars, and be held in a kind of delightful, prayerful state, admiring the greatness of the Creator. This is a natural form of contemplation, and genuine prayer. It has come through an exercise of the human intellect and will, considering how great the Creator of all that vast starry expanse must be. When we are filled with a sense of the greatness, the goodness, the holiness of God; when we are stirred by the beauty of nature or by a magnificent celebration of the Holy Mass, we are experiencing this natural contemplative activity of the mind.
But St. Teresa is speaking above of a state of prayer that has come through an act of God on the soul. She calls this contemplation "supernatural". Another term that spiritual writers will use for it is "infused," from the Latin word meaning to "pour in". God "pours" Himself into a soul in this higher supernatural form of contemplative prayer.
Fr. Dubay, however, goes on to say:
Even though contemplation is utterly divinely given and humanly received, and as a consequence we can do nothing to force God to grant it, yet we can and must prepare ourselves for the gift. God gives only to the extent that we efficaciously desire, that is, not merely wish something to happen but take concrete means to fit ourselves to receive it.
The gift of contemplative prayer, and the wonderful closeness to God present in the soul that takes place, with the indescribable joy this produces, is indeed for everyone as far as God is concerned. But a person must show God that he is ready for and wants this kind of direct intimate contact with Him. And this is demonstrated by living in conformity with His commandments:
Advancing communion with God does not happen in isolation from the rest of life. One’s whole behavior pattern is being transformed as the prayer deepens. So true is this that if humility, patience, temperance, chastity and love for neighbor are not growing, neither is prayer growing. Hence, contemplation is not simply a pious occupation in the chapel or in some other solitude.
The ordinary details of daily life, the choices made to love God above all things and to grow in virtue and holiness, are the necessary soil into which God plants His wonderful gift of contemplative prayer. And this is why contemplative prayer should not be understood as being just for those relatively rare souls who have the ability to live in monasteries. Monasteries are indeed an ideal setting for the contemplative life to prosper; but not by any means the only mode of life. Whether it be life in the world or life in the monastery, all have the opportunity to develop that good soil of virtue and holiness into which God "pours in . . . infuses" His gift of contemplative prayer.
OUR COMMON VOCATION
Due to an unfortunate misunderstanding by many spiritual writers of how the gift of infused contemplation is given by God, Fr. Dubay observes that "it is not commonly considered to be an activity meant for plumbers as well as Poor Clares, for the married as well as for religious, for young and old" (FW, 57). In reality, it is for all Christian vocations. This is because contemplation is where prayer is supposed to lead every member of the Church, not just for an elite group. Like sanctity, contemplation is the goal for every Christian life, and will be the continuous state of prayer for everyone in heaven. Both holiness and contemplation are meant to be our future! The contemplative prayer God calls us to in this life is simply an imperfect prelude to the ultimate contemplation of the Face of God in heaven. As St. Thomas explains, using a quote from St. Augustine:
"The contemplation of God is promised us as being the goal of all our actions and the everlasting perfection of our joys." This contemplation will be perfect in the life to come, when we shall see God face to face, wherefore it will make us perfectly happy: whereas now the contemplation of the divine truth is present to us imperfectly, namely "through a glass" and "in a dark manner" (II-II, 180, 4).
THE CALL FOR CONTEMPLATIVES
In Rosarium Virginis Mariae Pope John Paul II begins in Chapter One with the call that all Christians have to a life of contemplation of Our Blessed Savior. As St. Paul has written, He came into this world to become "the image of the invisible God" (Col. 1:15). Through Him our minds can rise to know and love God in Himself. And this pondering of God through His Incarnation cannot be considered as an optional extra for the Christian life. It is an essential part of our calling, which is meant to culminate, as we have seen, in the contemplation of God in heaven. As the Holy Father puts it:
To look upon the face of Christ, to recognize its mystery amid the daily events and the sufferings of his human life, and then to grasp the divine splendor definitively revealed in the Risen Lord, seated in glory at the right hand of the Father: this is the task of every follower of Christ . . . (RVM 9).
Drifting away from this contemplative gaze upon the Incarnate Word is one of the great dangers of life in our modern world. The hectic pace of life, the mesmerizing power of television, cinema, and all the many forms of media we live with; the omnipresence of the market place with so many items to tantalize us into making a purchase, these can so effectively draw our gaze away from God. These can turn us from contemplatives of our eternal and glorious God into contemplatives, in a real sense, of transitory material things.
There is no shortage of examples: the young person spending hours on video games, the shopaholic browsing compulsively through store after store, the vast numbers of people in our culture spending entire days in front of the TV screen. With all these there is a profound and addictive fixing of the gaze on material things. Little do we realize how prevalent a kind of materialistic version of the contemplative life is present in our culture. We are, in this way, a very contemplative society! Unfortunately, all our loving gaze is fixed not on God but on material things.
In a culture, then, pervaded by this obsessive and disordered contemplation of materiality, Pope John Paul encourages us to return to the Rosary. Through it we must once again fix our eyes on our God made visible, the Word made flesh:
But the most important reason for strongly encouraging the practice of the Rosary is that it represents a most effective means of fostering among the faithful that commitment to the contemplation of the Christian mystery which I have proposed in the Apostolic Letter "Novo Millennio Ineunte" as a genuine training in holiness (RVM 5).
THE ROSARY AND CONTEMPLATION
It must be admitted, however, that this contemplation of the face of Christ encouraged by the Holy Father in his Apostolic Letter on the Rosary and the contemplative union of the soul with God described by St. Teresa above are not entirely the same thing. One is a meditative, loving gaze on the Savior, His life, and His work of redemption. It is for the most part an activity of the mind and heart, a natural form of contemplative prayer, arising from ourselves. This is what lies at the foundation of the Rosary, as Pope Paul VI has taught in a quote used by Pope John Paul in his Apostolic Letter:
Without contemplation, the Rosary is a body without a soul, and its recitation runs the risk of becoming a mechanical repetition of formulas, in violation of the admonition of Christ: "In praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think they will be heard for their many words" (RVM 12).
Very much different, as has been pointed out, is the infused, supernatural contemplation described by St. Teresa, and marked by a mutual indwelling of the soul in God and God in the soul. As related in the quote above, this occurred for her in such a full and rich way that "I could in no way doubt He was within me or I totally immersed in Him." No mere imaginative exercise this, but a profound encounter with the very Person of Christ Himself present in the soul.
These two forms of contemplation, however, are not unrelated. One leads to the other and is a preparation for the other. The intense and serious prayer life of infused contemplation does not begin immediately, but (usually) only after years of persevering in meditative prayer such as the Rosary. As Fr. Dubay acknowledges:
. . . a serious prayer life does not begin with fullness. It commences humbly with small steps. Oak trees emerge from acorns, and scholars first learn the alphabet. While God is supremely free to give in a divine manner when and how He chooses, He ordinarily prepares the soul through the human mode of meditation upon His works of creation and redemption (FW 49).
IN UNION WITH MARY
Nevertheless, with souls who are dedicated to prayer, and to the constant struggle to overcome sins and failings, the greater gift of infused contemplation will come. It is in the normal course of growth in the life of the Spirit. It is simply what happens when one is faithful to prayer and striving for holiness. "Infused contemplation," Fr. Dubay writes, "is the normal, ordinary development of discursive [mentally produced] prayer. The former gradually and gently replaces the latter when reasoned thought has run its course as a method of communing with the Lord" (FW 69).
One of the special contributions of the Holy Father in Rosarium Virginis Mariae is to the understanding of the powerful influence Our Lady has on the contemplative activity of the soul while praying the Rosary. In a special way, this puts us under the maternal guidance of she who, above all others, was given over to the contemplation of His Sacred Face:
Christ is the supreme Teacher, the revealer and the one revealed. It is not just a question of learning what He taught but of "learning Him." In this regard could we have any better teacher than Mary? From the divine standpoint, the Spirit is the interior teacher who leads us to the full truth of Christ. But among creatures no one knows Christ better than Mary; no one can introduce us to a profound knowledge of His mystery better than His Mother (RVM 14).
We must remember that the Rosary, as the Holy Father has pointed out, brings us into a kind of union with Mary in which we see "the mysteries of the Lord’s life as seen through the eyes of her who was closest to the Lord" (RVM 12). We join her in contemplating her Son and His deeds, as she did so many times herself while on earth. Mary "kept all these things and pondered them in her heart" (Lk. 2:19). Thus, we can say that the Rosary is a form of contemplative prayer where we are receiving an extraordinary assistance from the Mother of God to ponder the Face of Christ her Son. In this she leads us, over the years, to that depth of prayer that is truly a gift from God, and a loving union with the very Person of Christ dwelling in the soul.
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