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The Gifts of Contemplation

Fr. McIlmail on how to discern matters that come with the gift of infused contemplation.
by Father Edward McIlmail, LC | Source:
Q: Dear Father Edward, when given the gift of infused contemplation, should there be any doubt that these are of God? My spiritual director has told me to listen and obey, write everything down, and if there are any doubts, to go back and read what the Lord has said and shown me. This has helped tremendously. I am a wretched sinful person, and fear that evil will invade or try to fool me in some way.

A: You are certainly right to call infused contemplation a gift. It is, at base, an experiential knowledge of God. It is made possible by the operation of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Infused contemplation requires one to have sanctifying grace, that is, to be in a state of grace. This kind of prayer brings an experience of the presence of God and of a hard-to-describe sense of the supernatural. None of this is conjured up by the soul on its own; in fact, the soul is more passive than active when involved in this type of contemplation.

It is important to emphasize that infused contemplation gives the soul moral certitude that it is indeed in the state of grace. That is why your description of yourself as a “wretched sinful person” is intriguing. Certainly, we are all sinners, some more so than others. “If we say, ‘We are without sin,’ we deceive ourselves” (1 John 1:8). As we progress in the spiritual life it is not uncommon that we understand the ugliness of sin even more than when we began an earnest quest for sanctity. It is like a soul standing before a mirror, looking at itself in dim light. We don’t see all the blemishes. But as the soul draws closer to the true light of Christ, it sees its blemishes ever more clearly. Hence the paradox: We can feel the weight of sin more acutely even as we grow in the life of grace.

That might explain your use of the label “wretched sinful person.” Without trying to define “wretched,” let’s just say that the fact that you are obedient and docile to a spiritual director, and that you are concerned enough about the spiritual life to be asking about infused contemplation, seems to indicate that you are headed in the right direction. A more telling sign would be your practice of charity. A high level of charity is one of the surest signs that you are experiencing true contemplation. That’s because real prayer has an impact on the way we deal with others; it moves us to try to imitate Christ more and more in daily life. All of this is a reminder that genuine inspirations of God always nudge us to do something good.

To stay on track, stick to the basics. Make frequent use of the sacrament of confession, and worthily receive the Eucharist as often as possible. Keep up your interior life. Foster a sense of recollection, of interior and exterior silence. Mortify the senses — no need to see and hear everything around you. Develop a healthy detachment from earthly things. Nourish a profound gratitude toward and love for Our Lord. Cultivate a devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Dedicate time to prayer; if you feel drawn into infused contemplation, be open to it. Stay close to your spiritual director; this helps to stave off the devil, who does his darnedest to isolate us and get us discouraged. Be confident of the Holy Spirit’s assistance.

Yours in Christ, Father Edward McIlmail, LC

Father McIlmail is a theology instructor at Mater Ecclesiae College in Greenville, RI. 

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