The ever-perceptive Phil Foster asks in a recent comment on this blog:
Is there a difference between a mystic and a contemplative type? I’m certainly the latter but not the former.
Phil, I think your second sentence in this quotation goes a long way toward answering the question. A “mystic” as I see it, is one who has been ushered into the mysteries — and it is God who does the ushering. So, while on one level we are all mystics (as William McNamara puts it in his book Earthy Mysticism, “A mystic is not a special type of person; each person is a special type of mystic”), it’s also important to bear in mind that “becoming a mystic” is not so much something we do as something we receive. Meanwhile, a “contemplative” as I see it is one who watches or observes (it comes from a Latin root that means something along the lines of “observing the auguries”). Thus, in terms of Christian spirituality, the contemplative is one who watches for the gift of mystical union. We cannot choose to be mystics, but we can choose to be contemplatives. Contemplation is essentially what we do in order to be prepared to receive the mystical gift, kind of like the bridesmaids who kept their lamps trimmed and burning.
Now, having said all this, I should note that my definition of contemplation is not the same as what you’ll find in the classic writings of mystics like Teresa of Avila or John of the Cross. They speak of “infused contemplation” which is, again, a gift from God, not something of our own doing. So in their language, contemplation belongs to the same category in which I have placed mysticism.
Does that clear things up a bit?