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How is meditation different from contemplation?

One of the difficulties in teaching people how to pray is that we use terms loosely. The same term can be used to describe two very different realities. Even when we use the right terms, we often misunderstand what they mean. We are influenced by secular definitions, which are often in turn influenced by non-Christian meditation techniques. Many people are particularly confused about the terms “meditation” and “contemplation.”

When defining terms about prayer, I look to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, who were proclaimed doctors of the church because of their teachings on the topic of deep prayer. 

The catechism notes three expressions of personal prayer: vocal prayer, meditation and contemplative prayer. Regarding meditation, it says, “Meditation is above all a quest. The mind seeks to understand the why and how of the Christian life, in order to adhere and respond to what the Lord is asking …. Meditation engages thought, imagination, emotion and desire. This mobilization of faculties is necessary in order to deepen our convictions of faith, prompt the conversion of our heart, and strengthen our will to follow Christ. Christian prayer tries above all to meditate on the mysteries of Christ” (nos. 2705 and 2708).

In contrast, we read, “Contemplative prayer is the simplest expression of the mystery of prayer. It is a gift, a grace; it can be accepted only in humility and poverty …. Contemplation is a gaze of faith, fixed on Jesus” (nos. 2713 and 2715).

Until the 16th century, many Catholic writers used the terms meditation and contemplation as synonyms. However, for Teresa and John, contemplation always meant a pure gift of God that we can only prepare for, not attain by methods. Neither saint spent much time explaining how to meditate. Instead, they explained how to grow in prayer and virtue to prepare for contemplation.  They taught how to discern when God is beginning to grant us contemplation. They illustrated how to respond, so as to reach deeper union with God.

These distinctions teach important truths about prayer. In the first part of the Christian journey (where we spend the bulk of our lives), we practice prayer in a human mode. We read Scripture, ponder it and let it move our hearts to a greater love of God. This meditation is not the highest prayer, however. To attain intimacy with God, we need something more, the action of God himself. “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you” (Jas 4:8). We draw as near as we can through meditation. Then God draws near to us in contemplation. Contemplation is prayer in a divine mode.

As the Catechism notes, there are many methods of meditation (no. 2707). For contemplation, however, there are no methods. Sitting silently is not contemplation. Focusing on our breath is not contemplation. Methods such as centering prayer or using mantras are not contemplation. Nor can any of these things in themselves help us gain contemplation. True preparation for contemplation involves faithfulness to our daily meditation time and growing in virtue and love of God. When God sees that we have exhausted the graces of meditation, he grants new graces through contemplation.

Keeping the terms meditation and contemplation distinct reminds us that the most important part of prayer is not what we do, but what God does. It reminds us that closeness to God involves effort, but is also a grace. It helps us remain humble as we practice our meditation, recalling that however lofty our thoughts, we are still in the elementary stages. It teaches us to place our trust in God rather than in ourselves.

Connie Rossini is a member of St. Peter Parish in Omaha. She is co-author of “The Contemplative Rosary” just released by EWTN Publishing and author of four other books on Catholic spirituality.

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