Let us enter more deeply into the interior nature of passive contemplation and consider its constituent elements.
These are at once both light and love mysteriously produced in us. According to St John of the Cross, contemplation is "the science of love, the infused and loving knowledge of God, it enlightens and inflames the soul so as to raise it by degrees towards God its Creator; for love is the sole means to unite the soul to God."
God communicates, then, "a light which warms." "The knowledge thus received is general and obscure; as the intellect does not understand distinctly what it conceives, so the will also loves generally and indistinctly; it is a vague love, a secret instinct, which carries the soul towards the object beloved. For, as God is light and love, in this delicate communication He informs equally the intellect and the will, though at times His presence is felt in the one more than in the other; one soul, for instance, finds herself more filled with knowledge than with love, in another, love is deeper than intelligence."
"The mystical influence is exercised directly upon the intellect, and the will participates in it; sometimes it strikes simultaneously both intellect and will, and then love redoubles in strength, tenderness and perfection."
This loving knowledge has for its object God or Our Lord. "It is God Himself that is tasted and felt in this state, not, indeed, with that luminous evidence that we shall have in heaven, but by a view so elevated, so consoling and so penetrating that the soul is pregnated by it even to the innermost depths of its being," when this mystical influence is strong.
This light does not come from the work of our mind, from the force of our reasonings; on the contrary, the more vivid the light is, the more our understanding is fettered and reduced to impotence. God it is, who pours this light into the soul, sometimes, in the midst of some pious occupation, sometimes, unexpectedly, and even amidst the most common kinds of work. He measures it out at times with a sparing hand, and the soul suffers from this low diet; at other times, "without arguments or reasoning, in the space of a single Credo, He illuminates the soul with more light than she could with all her efforts acquire in several years."
When this mystical light is more sensible and less pure, it is then more accessible to our view, and we very wrongly judge it to be clearer and of greater value. But when it is very pure and excites a quite spiritual love, "the soul may very well be occupied with it without her perceiving that it is so... This light escapes our notice then, only on account of its very purity, perfection and simplicity."
It is, above all, an experimental knowledge, which teaches us more than any amount of reasoning and books. No one knows God like those who have experienced the union of love. Before, they had only heard of Him; now they know Him by experience because they have felt, tasted, and, as it were, touched with their finger His goodness, His tenderness, His infinite condescension, His character.
This knowledge is both light and savour; it has, the taste of God, the aroma of eternity. The soul, beneath these divine touches, resembles a child, whom its mother presses lovingly to her heart; this silent embrace expresses more than any words; the child has heard nothing, seen nothing, neither has he reasoned, he has merely felt that loving embrace, and now he knows the heart of his mother.
This mystical light ends by giving us a most profound knowledge of God and of ourselves, of His infinite greatness, of our own littleness, and of the nothingness of all created things. Nothwithstanding its vividness, it remains obscure and confused, vague and general. For it shows us God in one simple and collected view, without fixing our attention upon His divers perfections, His wisdom, His power, His immensity, etc.
It makes us take, as it were, a general view of Our Lord without bringing into relief each of His different mysteries, or the details of what He has done to save us. If it does fix our attention upon some attribute of God, on His beauty, His goodness, His love, His mercy, or upon some mystery of Our Lord, it does so in a general sort of a way, which, not stopping at details, remains of necessity vague and confused.
Besides, God so secretly and mysteriously pours this light into the soul that "she herself does not perceive how it is done." At times, also, "the contemplation is so simple that it can hardly at all be perceived. The soul only knows that she is satisfied, tranquil, content, she tastes God, and feels that all is well; but it is only in very vague and general terms that she can tell what it is she possesses."
Truly those authors are very right who say that obscure contemplation is "an experimental perception of God," "God ineffably perceived," in a confused and mysterious light.
Besides this general contemplation, there is another which is distinct and particular. This sees, hears, grasps clearly particular objects, or concrete truths, which are supernaturally presented to the soul. It operates especially by visions, revelations, interior words, etc.
We shall merely call attention to the fact that general contemplation is always without danger: it is a loving look upon God, a simple view of faith, into which no error can glide. We cannot say the same of particularised and distinct contemplation: for, it is easy to mistake for a divine illumination, the work of our own mind, our reveries, the illusions of the demon, and also to misinterpret the sense of bearing of the divine communications themselves.
St John of the Cross, following St Thomas, never ceases repeating that, in the mystical kinds of prayer, light and love are inseparable, or, rather, that love is the principle of contemplation; "it is love which teaches this secret science of God, it is love which renders it so sweet." It is by means of love that it is communicated to souls, and spread throughout the world."
St Francis de Sales, in like manner, teaches that "meditation is the mother of love, but contemplation its daughter….The desire of obtaining divine love makes us meditate, love, being obtained, makes us contemplate; for love makes us find so agreeable a sweetness in the object beloved, that we can never satiate our mind with seeing and considering it."
Nor could it otherwise be explained how a mother has the patience to remain for hours near the cradle of her child and to take pleasure in doing so; so, likewise, in arid contemplation, there must be a secret, but very real and living love which keeps the soul enchained near God, despite the pain and weariness of her condition.
In its turn, contemplation "gives rise to a greater and more fervent love, which, at last, is crowned with perfection, when it comes to enjoy what it loves. By this perpetual movement from love to sight, and from sight to love, love urges the eyes to look ever more attentively upon the beauty of the Well-Beloved, and this view compels the heart to love ever more ardently."
It is God who inflames the will when and how He pleases. "The soul finds itself at times agitated by outbursts of the most pure love, without being able to understand from what cause this proceeds, without even knowing what it is loving." Nevertheless, that it is God, that it is Our Lord she loves, there can be no doubt. This love may be almost imperceptible, whether it be that God pours in only a few drops, or that it is too pure and spiritual to be grasped by the senses; it is to be judged by its fruits.
This love will be at times neither very strong nor very weak, in fact, one might have as much and even more of it during ordinary prayer.
At other times, it will be like an overflowing of tenderest affection which transports the soul out of herself. At such times she remains fixed and, as it were, motionless, lost in admiration, in trembling delight, respect and joy; she says nothing, or almost nothing, she speaks not of her love, but she shows it by loving. Her attitude, her tremulous joy, her silence, the movements of her heart which incline unceasingly towards God - all this is a splendid hymn of praise and a delight to Him who holds her captive.
Or again, there may take place those violent and burning outbursts, those transports of spiritual inebriation, which spring from a too full heart in noisy and oft-repeated effusions, like the waves of a tumultuous torrent. One may be seized "with such strength and in so sensible a fashion, that not only the soul, but even the body itself trembles.
At other times, it happens that without even the least shock, but with a most elevated sentiment of relief and enjoyment, the soul is taken by surprise in the midst of repose… There is found in this an inexpressible something of divine being and of eternal life, which the demon has not the power to imitate.
He, who is the ape of God, can indeed make the soul experience a very sensible elevation and satiety, which he will pass off for the inward action of God; but such modifications do not sink very deeply, and do not renovate the whole interior of the soul by filling her with noble sentiments and love, as this infused knowledge of God is wont to do."
Dom Vital Lehodey