Invitation to Love

Thomas Keating, Invitation to Love: The Way of Christian Contemplation. New York: Continuum, 1995. 151 pages
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Chapter 14. The Stages of Contemplative Prayer

The monumental illusion of the human condition is the idea that God is not present. "We translate dryness in prayer as God's absence until we perceive that God is communicating with us at a deeper level." In the dryness we may become discouraged or tempted to give up in favor of relaxation or engrossing work; but if we keep going, we grow in the trust of God and humility, becoming aware of our selfishness and other limitations.

We then may begin to experience exuberant spiritual consolations, the stages of contemplative prayer described by St. Teresa of Avila. The first is infused recollection, " a delicious spiritual savor that attracts us toward the center of our being." It is like a spring of water that quenches dryness from deep within. This grace may expand into the prayer of quiet, where the will is absorbed in God (though memory and imagination may still run rampant). "In this state the divine action seems to grasp the will in a spiritual embrace." In the third stage, the prayer of union, imagination and memory are suspended; "God can communicate more of his gifts because there is no resistance or commentary on our side." When the physical faculties are completely still and the will totally absorbed in God with no self-reflection, we experience the prayer of full union.

There is also an alternative way which St. John of the Cross called the path of pure faith. People along this far more common spiritual path are attracted to interior prayer, but they do not experience the consolations described by Teresa. In contrast to the light of Teresa's way, this path is very dark; but it is as valid as the other because it also leads to transforming union. "God as he is in himself can be fully accessed only by pure faith. The purification of faith and love, not spiritual consolation, leads to transforming union."

"Transforming union is a restructuring of consciousness, not an experience or set of experiences," so the important element in contemplative prayer is the practice itself rather than the psychological content. God provides the consolations for those who need them, such as those who were most severely damaged in childhood. When we taste the goodness of God by either path, the emotional programs of the false self no longer hold such allure.