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On the Stages of Contemplation − St Bernard of Clairvaux

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On the Stages of Contemplation

From a sermon by St Bernard of Clairvaux:

I will stand upon my watch, and set me upon the tower, and will watch to see what he will say unto me. (Habakkuk 2:1, KJV)

LET US take our stand on the tower, leaning with all our strength on Christ, the most solid rock, as it is written: He has set my feet on a rock, he has guided my steps. Thus firmly established, let us begin to contemplate, to see what he is saying to us and what reply we ought to make to him.

The first stage of contemplation, my dear brothers, is to consider constantly what God wants, what is pleasing to him, and what is acceptable in his eyes. We all offend in many things; our strength cannot match the rightness of God’s will and cannot be joined to it or made to fit with it. So let us humble ourselves under the powerful hand of the most high God and make an effort to show ourselves unworthy before his merciful gaze, saying Heal me, Lord, and I shall be healed; save me and I shall be saved. And again, Lord, have mercy on me; heal my soul because I have sinned against you.

Once the eye of the soul has been purified by such considerations, we no longer abide within our spirit in a sense of sorrow, but abide rather in the Spirit of God with great delight. No longer do we consider what is the will of God for us, but rather what it is in itself.

For our life is in his will. Thus we are convinced that what is according to his will is in every way better for us, and more fitting. And so, if we are concerned to preserve the life of our soul, we must be equally concerned to deviate as little as possible from his will.

Thus having made some progress in our spiritual exercise under the guidance of the Spirit who gazes into the deep things of God, let us reflect how gracious the Lord is and how good he is in himself. Let us join the Prophet in praying that we may see the Lord’s will and frequent not our own hearts but the Lord’s temple; and let us also say, My soul is humbled within me, therefore I shall be mindful of you.

These two stages sum up the whole of the spiritual life: when we contemplate ourselves we are troubled, and our sadness saves us and brings us to contemplate God; that contemplation in turn gives us the consolation of the joy of the Holy Spirit. Contemplating ourselves brings fear and humility; contemplating God brings us hope and love.

Source: A sermon by St. Bernard of Clairvaux (Sermo 5 [On the words of Habakkuk 2:1] 4–5. Opera omnia, Edit. Cisterc. 6, 1 [1970], 103–4), as quoted in the Roman Catholic Office of Readings for Wednesday of the 23rd week in Ordinary Time.

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  • Contemplation is a fundamental part of Christian life
  • Contemplation is a mental state, related to prayer
  • It is a non-discursive intellectual state, by which one acquires direct, intuitive, experiential knowledge
  • Contemplation is developed by stages
  • The process can be understood as a kind of cognitive training, an acquisition of a superior system of deploying attention — away from mundane thoughts: distractions, fantasies, worries, schemes, idle imaginings; and towards those things for which the mind is intended: seeking to do God’s will, seeking to better know God, and, in direct consequence of the better knowledge, gaining love for God.

In Platonic fashion, contemplation is presented as a kind of ascent.  First, St. Bernard tells us, we are to acquire the habit of seeking to know what God wants. This, as many saints tell us, is difficult.  Even when one reaches the point of being able to frequently direct attention to consideration of God’s will for a particular circumstance, then one frequently experiences periods of frustration or sadness at not knowing what that will intends.  That is, sometimes God’s will seems apparent, but at other times it does not.  St Bernard refers to this reaction as the abiding within our spirit a sense of sorrow.

The stage beyond this, however, is to consider not simply what it is God wants, but what God’s will is in itself.  That is a most deep and rewarding subject for contemplation, since all Creation is, in a basic sense, is brought into being by and reflects God’s will.

From this we may proceed even further to consider the very Goodness of God.

Again, the parallels to Platonic contemplative ascent seem clear.

Writing about the same time as St Bernard, and in basically the same milieu, Richard of St. Victor wrote in greater detail on the stages of contemplation.  From the Catholic Encyclopedia (1913) article on Richard of St. Victor:

He carries on the mystical doctrine of Hugo [of St. Victor], in a somewhat more detailed scheme, in which the successive stages of contemplation are described. These are six im number, divided equally among the three powers of the soul-the imagination, the reason, and the intelligence, and ascending from the contemplation of the visible things of creation to the rapture in which the soul is carried “beyond itself” into the Divine Presence, by the three final stages of “Dilatio, sublevatio, alienatio”. This schematic arrangement of contemplative soul-states is substantially adopted by [Jean] Gerson in his more systematic treatise on mystical theology, who, however, makes the important reservation that the distinction between reason and intelligence is to be understood as functional and not real.

Note that St. Victor was the name of an influential abbey of Paris, not a family name.


Written by John Uebersax

September 10, 2008 at 5:04 pm