Knowledge, Love, and Union: A Glimpse into the Christian Contemplative Tradition

By Father Paul of Jesus

Father Paul of Jesus was ordained a priest in 1969. He currently teaches theological French at Harvard Divinity  School. This article was first published in the January, 2006 issue of Prabuddha Bharata.

To some Indians, it may seem presumptuous that a Westerner should write to them about meditation and contemplation, even if it is only about the Christian contemplative tradition. After all, India is the Mother of Meditation. And historically, Christians have not been especially known for their capacity to meditate. The world may admire their teachings on brotherly love, their care for the poor, their schools and their hospitals—everything pertaining to active works of charity—but generally it would not look to Christians as masters of meditation or contemplation in the same way it would look to Hindus or Buddhists.

Hindu and Christian, Same Spiritual Treasures

Yet someone like Dom Henri Le Saux (known in India as Swami Abhishiktananda), who practiced both Hindu and Christian contemplation, who experienced Advaita as deeply as Sri Ramakrishna had experienced Christianity, arrived at the staunch belief that Christianity possesses the same spiritual treasures that Hinduism does, except that Christians are generally unaware of the spiritual riches they possess. Without wanting to appear demeaning, it might almost be said of Christians that they are sometimes like beggars sitting on a heap of gold while asking passers-by for alms. They don’t always realize that they are already sitting on that heap of gold.

It was Swami Abhishiktananda’s intimate conviction that India can help Christians find and fructify their own treasure. That India can reveal meditation and contemplation to the Church. And that when Christians finally re-encounter the gem that lies hidden within them, it will be as the pearl of wisdom for which they are taught to sell all in order to possess it; it will be the crest-jewel in their spiritual diadem.

It is commonly said that the indigenous Indian religions are more contemplative and that Christianity is more active. Hindus scrutinize the innermost spaces of the soul, while Christians search the outermost reaches of space. Two infinities. But two infinities that meet when interiority and exteriority embrace as two parts of the same whole. As beyond, so within! . . . if we may paraphrase the Platonist analogy “as above, so below”.

During the first three centuries of Christianity, persecution stalked Christians to the extent that of the first thirty popes, twenty-eight of them were put to death by Roman Imperial authorities. Martyrdom even came to be admired as the highest form of holiness. Obviously, until Christians acquired stability by becoming tolerated and eventually recognized officially, it was difficult for them to chronicle a purely contemplative tradition. Only the lives of the martyrs and the teachings of the popes were preserved, and then, just by oral tradition at first.

Dionysius the Areopagite and the Journey Back to God

But by the fifth century, Dionysius the Areopagite wrote theological treatises that were to influence Christian contemplatives for over a thousand years. Islamic oppression had driven many Greek and Oriental monks to Italy during the sixth and seventh centuries. They brought with them the mystical writings of Dionysius, and these treatises were given to the pope, to the emperor Charlemagne and his son, Louis the Pious, who had John Scotus Erigena translate them into Latin. These translations spread throughout Western Christendom during the entire Middle Ages.

Immersed in Neo-Platonism, Dionysius drew much of his knowledge on philosophy and contemplation from Plotinus and Proclus, with notable differences, however. Neo-Platonism teaches that the universe emanates from God through different degrees of diminishing perfection, and slowly returns through different degrees back into the deity. All beings are stripped of their individual identity as they return to their source. Most Christians, however, do not believe that humans emanate from God. Instead of emanation, they believe in theosis—that is, that human beings are created by Him, and that the soul returns to Him as an individual with an infinite divinized status, through Christ, the incarnation of the Logos, the Word, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity.

Dionysius indicates that the spiritual journey back to God follows a process of purification, illumination, and union (or perfection), and this is the process that Christian contemplatives have traditionally followed.

Purification by Control of the Tongue

First, purification. When God manifested Himself to Moses on Mount Sinai, He told Moses not to approach the burning bush without having removed his sandals. Sandals are made from animal hides and represent the fleshly part of man. Moses was being asked to go beyond sense-perception and concept, to free himself from impassioned thought, because, as that sweetest of modern Christian saints, Saint Theresa of the Child Jesus, says, “It is impossible for the human tongue to express things which the human heart can hardly understand.” The head and the heart, the seeming opposition between two modes of knowledge, will challenge Christian contemplatives for centuries to come as they strive toward the inexorable purification that God requires of them.

With Saint John the Baptist, contemplatives say that their egos must decrease in order that Christ may increase in them. First, they begin by learning to control the tongue and the belly. One of the Egyptian desert fathers, Abbot Agatho, kept a stone in his mouth for three years so that he could learn to be silent. (How different from the Greek orator, Demosthenes, a stutterer who put pebbles in his mouth and shouted above the roar of the sea so that he could learn to speak in public!)

They learned to keep their tongue so that they could learn to keep their thoughts and not judge others. Even the chaste were not to judge a fornicator, for judging others is as bad as fornicating, and the God who commands the first spiritual law also commands the second. Experience taught the contemplative that not judging others brings peace of heart and undisturbed meditation.

Another ascetical practice in the purification process is the overcoming of laziness, because the contemplative life strikes a balance between work (Martha) and meditation (Mary). One day, a brother came to see Abbot Silvanus on Mount Sinai and saw the hermits at work. He exclaimed, “Why do you work for perishable food? Mary has chosen the better part, namely to sit at the feet of the Lord without working.” So the Abbot gave the brother a book and let him read until dinnertime. When brother asked why the Abbot hadn’t called him for dinner, the elder replied: “You’re a spiritual man, you don’t need perishable food.” It goes without saying that the brother understood the lesson very quickly.

Purification by Non-Attachment

Contemplatives practice abnegation, poverty, and non-attachment. One of the monks, Serapion, sold his copy of the Gospels in order to have food for some hungry people. Surprised at this, a few of the monks asked Serapion why he had sold his copy of the Gospels, to which he replied, “I sold the book that told me to sell all I have and give to the poor.”

No contentions can arise between men of such non-attachment. Two elders were living peacefully together in a cell in the Egyptian desert and had never had so much as a single quarrel. One of them said, Come on, let’s have at least one quarrel, like other men. The other one said: I don’t know how to start a quarrel. The first one said: I’ll place this brick between us and say it’s mine. After that, you’ll say: No, it’s mine, and we’ll quarrel. So they placed the brick between them. One said: It’s mine, and the other one replied: I believe it’s mine. The first one said again: It’s not yours, it’s mine. To which the other one answered: Well then, if it’s yours, take it. So they never managed to get into a quarrel because of their non-attachment.

Of course, non-attachment goes way beyond a question of bricks. In the highest degree of contemplation, one has to become detached from oneself and from the world out of love for God, and one even has to abandon God for love of neighbor, says Achard of St Victor. The very love that drew Christ away from heaven to earth draws them away from God, so to speak, for the human good. Once Abbot Lot told Abbot Joseph that he observed his rule; that he fasted, prayed, meditated, and kept contemplative silence; and that he strove to cleanse his heart of thoughts. “What more can I do?” he asked. Abbot Joseph stood up and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said: “Why not be totally changed into fire?”

But how do we become totally transformed into fire? By knowing God? By loving Him? By both together? How do we become one single spirit with the Lord, as Saint Paul says (1Cor 6:17), or branches of the divine vine? (John 15:5). We ask these ‘how’ questions, because we sometimes forget that it is more difficult to escape the secret embrace of God than to follow the arduous path of virtue. It is not a question of attaining union with God—we already have it!—but of being aware of it, of enjoying it, because for the Christian, the divinity of Jesus is not separate from the divinity of each being in creation. As Swami Abhishiktananda says, we may not be God, but God plus man does not make two.


Second, knowledge. There are no false gods, only false ideas about God, yet even a false idea expresses a little something about Him. We have to strip Him of masks and concepts. How can we know and love God if we do not even know and love ourselves? “Oh Love unknown, unloved,” exclaimed the ecstatic St Mary Magdalen de’ Pazzi. We cannot know God with our sorely limited human intelligence, because God is incommunicable and ineffable.  Therefore, contemplation ultimately becomes an adoration of that very incommunicability and ineffability in the total beauty and transparence of Being. He is the light of our hearts. We cannot feel God, we cannot conceptualize God. Simply, we are. And this experience is one of sole and simple existence. But how can we perceive it if we delight more in creatures than in the Creator?

God does reveal Himself to us, but first we need an intense yearning. We want to know God, but what is He not? Yet, to grasp this ‘what-is-He-not?’, we have to set aside all bodily concepts of God—such as shape, form, quality, quantity, weight, position, visibility, sensibility—and all operations of the intellect. Saint Thomas Aquinas, one of the most soaring intellects the West has ever known, fell into a long ecstasy towards the end of his life. He set his pen down, never to write again, because great secrets had been revealed to him, not through reasoning, but through divine communication. After his ecstasy he said: “All that I have written up until now appears to be of little value.” Even human genius cannot grasp God.

When the contemplative comes to understand that God alone suffices, he is ready to set aside all thought, be it good or evil. He rejects knowing, in favor of unknowing. If a person, no matter how clairvoyant he may be, cannot even comprehend the eminent beauty and capacity of a human soul, as Saint Theresa of Avila says—for “It is in His image and resemblance that God has created us”—then how can he know God? His mind confounds God with man, and man with God, to the point that he cannot see the one without seeing the other, as Saint Mary Magdalen de’ Pazzi tells us. God seeks man and man seeks God, because by nature, like seeks like. In an extremely evocative expression, Saint Angela of Foligno said: “The world is pregnant with God.” And as she lay dying, she felt that she was standing in the midst of the Trinity, though she remembered no form, not even that of the God-man, but she did hear the words, “You are I and I am you.” One can only understand this when one has extinguished all intellectual understanding in the pursuit of the unknowing that surpasses all being. Or, as the author of The Cloud of Unknowing says: all that is left is “naked intent.” Intuitive naked intent.

Language falters, for though knowledge encounters God, it is love that unites us to Him. Can the babe at his mother’s breast distinguish between himself and his mother?

Love and Union

Third, love and union. Love is not known because it is not loved. God gives Himself to us so that we can love Him. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux explains that it is impossible to love God without first being loved by Him, without experiencing that love. We can never love God enough even though we might be burning with the fire of love, because, Saint Bernard goes on, the measure of loving God is to love Him without measure. How can we love the infinite with measure? “Love is the spiritual life,” says Thomas Merton. It is life. But it is also death, death to our false self, so that we can be reborn in Christ. It is a kind of crucifixion, but not a crucifixion of the body, not a martyrdom of the flesh—it is a conflagration of the mind, as Saint Bonaventure says in his wonderful Life of Saint Francis.

Does that mean that we have to set learning aside? Not at all, because love is a mode of knowing; or, as Saint Gregory the Great formulated it, “Love is itself understanding.”  He who knows little, loves little; and he who loves little, knows little. There is an amusing story about Brother Giles, Saint Francis’ third disciple. One day Brother Giles, being himself very simple, asked Saint Bonaventure, one of the foremost theologians of his time: “Can a simple person love God as much as a learned person can?” To which Saint Bonaventure replied: “An old woman can do so even more than a master in theology.” Then Brother Giles arose in fervor of spirit and went to the part of the garden that overlooked the city of Perugia and cried out: “Poor little old woman, simple and unlearned, love the Lord God and you will be greater than Brother Bonaventure!” Brother Giles himself fell so easily into loving ecstasy that the boys of Perugia used to have fun with him. They would send him into ecstasy just by yelling “Paradiso! Paradiso!” whenever they saw him. Yes, humans have the capacity to think and to love. God is knowledge, just as He is love.

Certainly one of the most extraordinary Christian contemplatives is Saint Mary Magdalen.  She had been possessed by devils, but she possessed no knowledge. Devils possess knowledge, the knowledge that swells, but Mary Magdalen possessed direct experience. She did more than just remove her sandals, like Moses; with her tears she washed the unshod feet of God incarnate. Jesus did not teach her, He gave her no doctrine; He only gave her the love whereby she was to love Him. They communicated in silence. Even on the cross, Jesus spoke to His Heavenly Father, to His mother, the Virgin Mary, and to John His beloved disciple, but He did not speak to Mary Magdalen. They communicated in silence, beyond words, beyond thought. Mary Magdalen became a bridge, a passage from the darkest to the most luminous, from death to life, from Eve to the Virgin Mother, from extreme sin to extreme grace. She was the first to recognize the divinity of Christ. She was sanctified immediately, without needing ordinary practices of purification, and if Christ mentioned her former waywardness at all, it was only to honor her love. She became pure capacity, and He became pure torrent of love. She did not even pause to ask whether she was sinful or innocent, but like the real contemplative that she was, filled with the grace of interiority, she was only aware of the goodness of God.

A Coming Contemplative Age?

From darkness to light . . . In the darkness of our time, can we still hope to have real contemplatives among us? Or should we not say that where darkness abounds, the grace of divine light superabounds? Many mystics—like Peter John Olivi and Joachim of Fiore, and even greater ones like Saint Bonaventure—have believed that after this dark age will come a contemplative age. Inspired by Teilhard de Chardin, many think that man does not attain his destiny alone; rather, he attains it with the entire universe. Those who have been lifted up to divine contemplation know that they must return to their brothers and sisters of the earth and teach them that they, too, in the words of the Franciscan Jacopone da Todi, can be transformed into God. Merton says, “Ours is certainly a time for solitaries and for hermits.” We do not think ourselves wrong in adding, “Ours, more than ever, is certainly a time for contemplatives whose minds and hearts will burn with the knowledge and love of God.” May God be loved by all hearts! Amen.

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Knowledge, Love, and Union: A Glimpse into the Christian Contemplative Tradition