I have heard the phrase, “I am a contemplative” uttered by many devout Catholics who are genuinely committed to a life of prayer. There are good reasons for this expression. They can represent positive sentiments like these:
These and other positive reasons aside, there also a number of potentially problematic elements in this expression that are worthy of reflection.
Though I have no doubt that these good reasons exist in every soul I have heard or seen use the phrase, “I am a contemplative,” I have never encountered one instance where, after asking a few questions, I failed to discover significant misunderstandings regarding authentic contemplative prayer as taught by the Carmelite doctors of the Church.
The most common belief held by those who say, “I am a contemplative” is that contemplation is something we can choose to do. In response to a recent social media claim of "I am a contemplative," I gently and respectfully asked, “What is contemplation?” The answer followed the usual pattern. The good person responded with all the things they do in prayer. For instance, they speak of how they pray, the methods they use etc.
A good student of sound spiritual theology or Carmelite spirituality, in particular, knows that any definition of contemplation that begins with an emphasis on human action is a definition that is problematic even if it contains some truth. In the Christian tradition, a "contemplative" is one known to regularly experience infused contemplative prayer. The state of infused contemplation is not one that we can do or achieve by some action or method – it is a work of God for which we can only prepare.
These good folks often make this serious error, and another offspring of it, “I do contemplative prayer” or “I practice contemplative prayer.” Of course, this understanding can be as problematic as its parent because one cannot do what only God can provide to the soul.
Here is a sound definition of contemplation that is in keeping with Carmelite tradition from my book Navigating the Interior Life:
Contemplative prayer is an infused supernatural gift, that originates completely outside of our will or ability, by which a person becomes freely absorbed in God producing a real awareness, desire, and love for Him. This often gentle or delightful and sometimes non-sensible encounter yields special insights into things of the spirit and results in a deeper and tangible desire and ability to love God and neighbor in thought, word, and deed. It is important to note that infused contemplation is a state that can be prepared for, but cannot in any way be produced by the will or desire of a person through methods or ascetical practices.
To enter into a substantive prayer life, one must begin on the path of humility. Notice I said, “begin.” St. Teresa of Avila notes in her Interior Castle, that authentic self-knowledge and humility are the beginning foundations of a substantive prayer life. They are not something acquired later but must be present to the beginner in some substantive measure before they can venture more deeply into the Castle and typically contemplative prayer comes much later in the journey.
To be a contemplative or a mystic one must be in the Illuminative state or beyond. This means the pilgrim will usually have spent a number of years, even decades, wrestling against and winning the battle (by God’s grace and their effort) over habitual sin and even imperfections. It means they will have ventured through the dark valley of the spiritual purgation of the nights. It usually means they spend an hour or more a day in prayer and are deeply committed to frequent sacramental participation. It means they are living a life of deep sanctity. These folks are heading for, into or living in, the domain of the saints.
As of yet, I have never encountered a saint or anyone close to being a saint, living or dead, who proclaims “I am a saint” or I am a mystic” or “I am a contemplative.” Instead, what you hear out of the mouths of these holy men and women of God is, “I am a sinner” or “I am a worm” as St. Teresa was often heard to say. Yes, she acknowledged the unfathomable beauty of a soul in a state of grace. However, she also knew the dark capacity of her own soul and that of every person. She also understood the danger of spiritual pride. Thus she generally avoided attributing any direct expression of her own experiences with God and never drifted into claims of being a saint or a mystic.
Thus, proclaiming “I am a contemplative” is generally a prideful and theologically problematic statement that should never be uttered by one who seeks the life of authentic prayer or one who is a part of Apostoli Viae. To be fair, this self-designation can sometimes come out of a sincere misunderstanding of Church teaching that is typically rooted in the false teachings of the Centering Prayer movement. Regardless, humility dictates that we both understand what the Church teaches about authentic contemplative prayer and that we always pursue humility when and self-depreciation when describing our spiritual state.
In Apostoli Viae, we do say that we seek to “live the contemplative life.” However, living the contemplative life means that we recognize our desperate need for God and union with Him. We thereby commit to giving ourselves to a life of prayer, penance, sacrifice, and service to God and those He has placed in our care. This is the path to contemplation, but God is the one who decides whether or not we cross that bridge, how often, and how deeply. Regardless, it is a good life that properly lived, leads one to proclaim, along with the publican, “God have mercy on me a sinner!”