Rorate Caeli

What is Acquired Contemplation?

by Thomas of Jesus OCD

The word contemplation means, in the strict sense of the word, an act of simple intellectual sight, which when the object contemplated is beautiful and lovable, is associated with admiration and love. Contemplative prayer is distinguished from discursive prayer and affective prayer and can be defined as a simple and affectionate glance at God or at divine things; or more briefly, simplex, intuitus veritatis, as St. Thomas says.

Acquired contemplation can be defined thus: an affectionate knowledge of God and of His works, and it is the fruit of our efforts. It has as its principal object the Divine Majesty, and for its secondary object, all created things, since they derive from God, Who is the source of all, and they are like a mirror which reflects the divine perfections to our eyes. Therefore, all that which contemplation considers in creatures regards the knowledge, glory and honour of the Most High, Who, in the creation of the universe, has shown so much harmony, magnificence, abundance and variety, precisely in order to cause to shine forth, honour, praise and love His goodness, wisdom and power.

It is said that Christian contemplation is an affectionate knowledge, because it has its cause and effect in the will. It is love, in fact, that enables us to contemplate the Essence of God, His goodness and His other attributes. On the other hand, love is the fruit of contemplation; we love God in proportion to our knowledge of Him. Such is the teaching of St. Thomas, based on that of St. Gregory; and the angelic Doctor ends by saying that the ultimate perfection of the contemplative life consists not only in seeing truth, but also in loving it.


According to the wise observation of Denis the Carthusian, contemplation is practiced in two ways. In the first place, and this is the ordinary way, with the help of the work of our reason; it is then rational or acquired contemplation, of which the love of God must be the compliment, the beauty and the form. It is necessary, then, that it be accompanied by acts of interior and exterior charity, such as: to rejoice in the goodness and other perfections of God; to unite ourselves to Him with fervour; to detest sin for love of God; to pray for the extirpation of the vices, since they act as obstacles to contemplation; and, on the contrary to pray to obtain contemplation; to consecrate to the Passion of Our Lord, an affectionate and compassionate remembrance. It is likewise an excellent work to apply oneself with purity of spirit to praise the Creator with hymns and psalms etc. This exercise puts the demons to flight and is an abundant source of graces and merits, as well as being an anticipation of the life of Heaven.

The second way of contemplating is supernatural and mystical: the Holy Ghost is its Author by the infusion which He makes in the soul through the touches, lights and movements He transmits. Here the human soul does not reason at all, but considers the truth as do the Angels, by intuition in a simple glance; because, when Wisdom, whose power is infinite, teaches the truth, one immediately perceives it and there is no need of reasoning.

The matter of acquired contemplation is the same as for infused contemplation, that is, it is principally God Himself, or that which is found in Him, and which we see to be, both according to reason or above reason, as well in a certain sense, when it is not according to reason. God is wise, good, powerful, just merciful etc: this is according to reason. God has created us for a supernatural end; He has infused grace into us and has made us His friends; He has given us His only Son to be our Redeemer: these are the truths which are over and above reason. Finally, there are the truths which seem to be outside of reason; for example, all those which refer to the mystery of the Most Blessed Trinity. The soul finds its rest in the contemplation and sight of these divine things.

Apart from the Divinity, contemplation also has as its object the humanity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the most Holy Virgin Mary, the Angels, the Saints, we ourselves and, in general, all the truths of the Faith. All these things can be called celestial things, because their aim is to increase within us love for the things of Heaven.

The end of contemplation is union with God, because, as we have already said, contemplation derives from love and produces love; now it is characteristic of love to be united to the object which is loved. The union of infused contemplation is called a union of bliss, whilst that of acquired contemplation is called a union of sobriety.

[Venerable Thomas of Jesus, OCD - Tomás de Jesús, Tommaso di Gesù: Baeza, Spain, 1564 - Rome, 1627. Source: De Vita Contemplativa, The Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate, Italy. Tip and translation: Contributor Francesca Romana.]


  1. Theophilus2:31 PM

    Your readers may look to know that this rather abstract teaching is being put into practice in our own day in two main ways: the school of Centering Prayer begun in the USA by the Cistercians Basil Pennington and Thomas Keating; and the way of Christian meditation taught by the Benedictine John Main. They realised that contemplative prayer is not something esoteric, reserved for specialists or religious professionals or the very holy, but is the birthright of all Christian people, who are called simply to know God. What they teach are forms of what is called here acquired contemplation. In a letter on prayer the Catholic bishops of New Zealand said: 'It is this contemplative prayer form that we would especially like to see developed While its simplicity masks the effort required, it is one of the best responses to the spiritual vacuum in our modern society.' Those who wish to know more could look at the websites of Contemplative Outreach UK (for centring prayer) and the World Community for Christian Meditation. These movements are continually growing all over the world where people want to go beyond conventional religious observance or identity and return to what is the heart of our religion, knowing God.

  2. Ascetik5:26 PM

    Centering Prayer is not the same thing, it has eastern connotations is is ad-mixed with false metaphysics and un-Catholic approaches. If one wants to understand mental prayer and contemplative prayer, all they have to do is read the Carmelites, Carthusians and other pre-Vatican II prayer manuals. I didn't understand mental prayer until I completely rejected anything that references "centering" prayer.

  3. Theophilus6:43 PM

    Ascetik, you really need to justify your points about centering prayer. I wrote an article to refute this kind of criticism, especially the common misconception that it derives from Eastern sources. In fact its major source is the 14th century English classic, The Cloud of Unknowing. Part of the trouble is that the contemplative dimension in Western spirituality has been neglected for a long time and people no longer are aware of the ancient Christian sources which ways such as Centering Prayer draw on.

  4. MiMiMi12:01 AM

    Theophilus, your beginining sentence "your readers may look to know that this rather abstract teaching is being put into practice in our own day..." sort of gives the game away. It is the same game that says that, while congregations assisted at the Latin mass for 2000 years, now people, though more educated, are too dumb to understand it. Why don't you think the readers of rorate coeli understand this "rather abstract teaching? Why do you think "the centering prayer" is any less abstract especially when the teachings behind it originated in the middle ages? What is the difference between OUR day and THEIR day? Maybe you've rewritten the Bible also for OUR OWN day and we have a new OUR OWN father and get OUR OWN daily bread from somewhere else...

  5. thought useful12:45 AM

    I know nothing about centering prayer, but the advice to consult the standard church approved authors is one I recommend very much. The very best introduction, which I used for some years as a teacher of Catholic mental prayer, is Conversation with Christ, by Rohrbach, put out by TAN books and still in print. The Autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila or I Want to See God, I Am a Daughter of the Church, a 2 vol summary of Carmelite Spirituality by P. Marie Eugene, OCD (Christian Classics puts it out) are very worthy of the time and money of anyone interested in starting with the basics in a traditional and reliable way.

  6. Very nice post, indeed.

    I am not an expert on centering prayer, but following the advice of trustwhorthy people, I rejected it in limine.

    The book(s) of Ven. Fr. Eugene of the Infant Jesus is (are) oustanding, but I think Father Thomas Dubay, SM, has done a great job in the USA too. He was a truly experienced retreat master and - they say, and based on his books I believe it - a great spiritual director. If you don't know him, it wont hurt take a look at his series on contemplation

    His books were a major surprise for me. He takes one whole book to explain (and not explain away) holy poverty ("Happy are you poor", Ignatius Press), another to consacrated virginity ("And you are Christ's", Ignatius Press), one to spiritual direction ("Seeking Spiritual Direction", Servant Books), other to discernment of the spirits ("Authenticity: A biblical theology of discernment", Ignatius), some on prayer and contemplation ("Fire Within", "Deep Conversion, Deep Prayer", both from Ignatius). Al his books are heavily dependent on the Carmelite Doctors, specially S. Teresa of Jesus and S. John of the Cross. He is specially trying to help sincere people understand these subjects - and live it - in spite of being lied about them from superficial and novelty-seekers authors wich, alas, abound nowadays.

    Last but not least, and THIS was a great relief to me, he founds all these major doctrines of the saints expressly stated in the Vatican II documents. He is a true teacher of the continuity in the Church regarding these matters.

    Father Z took the liberty to write on him on the occasion of his death, some years ago. People who do not know him, I hope, will thank God to get to know this truly catholic, zealous and gifted author.

  7. Stick to the Carmelite teachers - esp. Teresa and John, Elizbeth and Therese, and then consult expert guides such as Fr. Marie Eugene and Garrigou-Lagrange. Stick to the sources. One thing about authentic prayer is that we must never leave aside the Sacred Humanity of Christ - Centering Prayer is not a quick step into contemplative prayer and can be a form of quietism. There are no quick steps in Christian mysticism.

    Praying the rosary with recollection and preparing properly for Mass and remaining in prolonged thanksgiving afterwards is more contemplative than any form of centering prayer, believe me.

  8. Theophilus11:53 AM

    How can anyone judge who is being "more contemplative"? By abstract I simply meant talking about prayer rather than giving people ways to practise praying. This is what Centering Prayer and Christian Meditation do and they meet what is clearly a common need, which is why they are continually growing all over the world. Why should anyone say people who pray in this way must be wrong?


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