The same monk who asked me to define “ordinary mysticism” (see yesterday’s post) also asked me to define the distinction between mysticism and contemplation. To do so, I thought I would turn to an authority that I suspect he would respect: the Catechism of the Catholic Church. First, let’s see how the Catechism defines contemplation:
Contemplation is a gaze of faith, fixed on Jesus. “I look at him and he looks at me”: this is what a certain peasant of Ars in the time of his holy curé used to say while praying before the tabernacle. This focus on Jesus is a renunciation of self. His gaze purifies our heart; the light of the countenance of Jesus illumines the eyes of our heart and teaches us to see everything in the light of his truth and his compassion for all men. Contemplation also turns its gaze on the mysteries of the life of Christ. Thus it learns the “interior knowledge of our Lord,” the more to love him and follow him.
— Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2715
The words “mystic” and “mysticism” never appear in the Catechism, but “mystical” shows up several times, often in relation to the “Mystical Body of Christ.” This particular entry might be the most helpful in terms of exploring the meaning of mysticism:
Spiritual progress tends toward ever more intimate union with Christ. This union is called “mystical” because it participates in the mystery of Christ through the sacraments – “the holy mysteries” – and, in him, in the mystery of the Holy Trinity. God calls us all to this intimate union with him, even if the special graces or extraordinary signs of this mystical life are granted only to some for the sake of manifesting the gratuitous gift given to all.
— Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2014
So, with all this in mind, here are some of my thoughts about distinguishing between mysticism and contemplation:
Mysticism signifies spirituality that is characterized by mystery: in Christian terms, this means the mystery of Christ, the mystery of the Trinity, the mystery of prayer, the sacraments, and salvation. The Mystical Body is the mystery in which we mere mortals find union with Christ, who in turn is one with God the Father (see John 10:30). So Christian mysticism is the spirituality of union with God in Christ.
Contemplation, by contrast, signifies the relational “gaze” or interaction between a creature and God (in Christ, if understood as Christian contemplation). Contemplation is not a process of thinking, but rather a process of seeing. “I see God, and God sees me.” In the seeing and being seen, we are invited into union. Thus, contemplation is a normal and perhaps even essential element of mysticism. Contemplation, or contemplative prayer, is the means by which union with God may be consciously experienced (I choose my words carefully: “may” be experienced, for the act of contemplation, particularly as initiated by human beings, does not guarantee or engineer any particular experience of God; all it does is dispose the contemplative to receiving whatever gift, in whatever form, it may please God to give). But just as mysticism arguably requires contemplation, so too I think we can make the case the contemplation leads to mysticism (or, at least, to “ordinary mysticism” as I defined it yesterday). Thus, I believe that contemplation and (ordinary) mysticism, while not identical, are certainly most intimately related.
As always, I’m curious to hear what others may think about these concepts, their distinctions and their connection with each other.