Contemplation and Mysticism

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.

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About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Jayne

    I see both terms as having the same essential meaning and have used them interchangeably. However, perhaps we can say that mysticism is the container or structure and contemplation is the experience. Here is an article that may be of interest.

  • Alex Tang

    Here is an interesting dilemma:

    is mysticism a subset of contemplation

    or contemplation a subset of mysticism

    or are both an overlap of the process of ‘deitification’ or union with God?

    My understanding of mysticism is that it is the state in which our being (mind,soul,spirit) perceive of being in contact with God. It is best explained by the analogy of a dance. As the Orthodox tradition best explains it, this dance is the perichoresis of the Truine God. We are invited to join in this dance. Mysticism is the ontological and episemiological awareness of being participant in this dance.

    Contemplation is a more focused mysticism in that the attention is directed to one member of the Trinity. It is also an ontological and epistemological awareness but narrower in scope.

    Both mysticism and contemplation comes under the process of union with God as we come into deeper relationship and interaction with the Truine God who is both immanent and transcendent.

  • Jeff

    Contemplation never worked out for me as a means to be close to God. I was getting frustrated, but this was my door.
    I John 4:14-16 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God. So we know and rely on the love God has for us.

    I find as I speak to Christ saying “You are the Christ, the Son of God or something similar the Holy Spirit wells up in me and I know the love and presence of the Father and the Son and pass over into various forms of prayer. Typically my perception of God is on the “small, still voice” level, but sometimes it’s more intense. I suppose this could be seen as a protestant/pentecostal approach to mysticism. Mysticism based on justification by faith in Jesus, grace, and the gift of the Holy Spirit

  • Jeff

    A clarification to the above, what I was describing is not a repetition/mantra type/centering prayer approach – which I have no objection to by the way – but a frank, humbly bold “use” of faith in Jesus for immediate access to God.
    “For through him(Jesus) we both have access to the Father by one Spirit’ Eph 2:18
    “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God” Hebrews 10:19-22
    As a protestant I see the Hebrews verse as referring to Christ’s blood shed on the cross that makes us right with God and his body as his resurected body we are baptized into as the link to God, not the body and blood as in the sacrament as the connection to God. I believe we eat and drink of his body and blood as we trust in and confess Jesus as the resurrected Son of God and trust in his sacrifice on the cross for our sins.