Excerpt from Streams of Living Water

Beau­ti­ful of soul.” Cer­tain­ly this is one of the deep­est descrip­tions of the Con­tem­pla­tive Stream, the prayer-filled life. But all of us are painful­ly aware of how far we fall short of that descrip­tion. How do we become beau­ti­ful of soul”? The devo­tion­al mas­ters strug­gle to describe this process to us: This divine, lov­ing fire of con­tem­pla­tion … this burn­ing of love … the fire and wound of this force­ful love … this very fire of love … love aflame … the fire of divine love.”1 In fact, the two most com­mon words used to describe the con­tem­pla­tive way of life are fire and love. Purg­ing, puri­fy­ing fire. Envelop­ing, com­fort­ing love. This is the stuff of the con­tem­pla­tive life. 

Put sim­ply, the con­tem­pla­tive life is the steady gaze of the soul upon the God who loves us. It is an inti­mate shar­ing between friends,” to use the words of Tere­sa of Avi­la.2 Let me describe for you some of the con­tem­pla­tive life’s most fun­da­men­tal char­ac­ter­is­tics and move­ments.3

Love. Through time and expe­ri­ence we sense a del­i­cate but deep­en­ing love for God that feels more like a gift than an achieve­ment. In the begin­ning this love is so qui­et and unob­tru­sive that it is hard­ly per­cep­ti­ble. John of the Cross calls it a secret and peace­ful and lov­ing inflow of God.”4 This is a great encour­age­ment to us, for ear­ly in our prayer life — try as we might — we are unable to tru­ly love God. This love comes lit­tle by lit­tle, and at first we expe­ri­ence a great deal of fluc­tu­a­tion in its inten­si­ty. High and low, hot and cold. In time, how­ev­er, our love grows deep­er, stronger, more steady. 

Peace. At the same time, in slips a peace that can­not be ana­lyzed or dis­sect­ed — a peace that pass­es under­stand­ing,” as Paul puts it (Phil. 4:7). This qui­et rest, this firm­ness of life ori­en­ta­tion, is not due to the absence of con­flict or wor­ry. In fact, it is not an absence at all, but rather a Pres­ence. This peace is inter­rupt­ed often by a mul­ti­tude of dis­trac­tions, espe­cial­ly in the begin­ning. But no mat­ter — it is still there, and it is still real. And in time its qui­et way wins over the chat­ter and clat­ter of our noisy hearts. 

Delight. Anoth­er move­ment we begin to expe­ri­ence is delight. A very wise woman — one who had been through great hard­ship in her life — cap­tured the essence of this qual­i­ty for me when on one occa­sion she declared, Fun ahead, saith the Lord!” There is plea­sure, friend­ship, joy — deep joy. And play­ful­ness. God laughs into our soul and our soul laughs back into God. John of the Cross calls it the sweet and delight­ful life of love with God … that delight­ful and won­drous vision.”5 But it is not unin­ter­rupt­ed delight. We expe­ri­ence an ebb and flow, an exquis­ite delight min­gled with a painful yearning. 

Empti­ness. Which brings us to an oppos­ing, almost con­tra­dic­to­ry move­ment in the con­tem­pla­tive life: empti­ness. At the very moment we are enter­ing a lov­ing delight, we are also pulled into intense long­ing, yearn­ing, search­ing — search­ing and not find­ing. Well, there is a find­ing of sorts, but not a com­plete find­ing. Per­haps we could call it a dis­sat­is­fied sat­is­fac­tion. John of the Cross calls it a liv­ing thirst … [the] urgent long­ing of love.”6

Often the empti­ness is a dark­ness as well. We expe­ri­ence Deus Abscon­di­tus, the God who is hid­den from us. Dry­ness too — a Sahara of the heart. Through­out these expe­ri­ences soli­tude is our wel­come com­pan­ion, for we are learn­ing to be alone with the Alone. Please under­stand, this empti­ness, this dark­ness, this dry­ness is itself prayer. It is a heav­en­ly com­mu­nion of an ascetic sort. While delight is a feast­ing, empti­ness is a fast­ing, and both are need­ed for the growth of the soul. 

Fire. Still anoth­er real­i­ty we expe­ri­ence as we grow in the con­tem­pla­tive life is fire. Not lit­er­al fire, of course, but real fire nonethe­less — in some ways more real than lit­er­al fire. The ini­tial move­ment of love now inten­si­fies, becom­ing a steady, flam­ing pas­sion. Any­thing that caus­es dis­tance or sep­a­ra­tion from God — dis­obe­di­ence or per­haps mere neglect — is painful in the extreme. So we feel, and even wel­come, the puri­fy­ing fire of God’s love burn­ing out the dross: all stub­born­ness, all hate, all grasp­ing need for self-pro­mo­tion. And as the self-sins are burned away, the seeds of uni­ver­sal love blos­som and flower. 

Wis­dom. This leads to a still deep­er move­ment of the Spir­it: wis­dom. No ster­ile intel­lec­tu­al­ism or imper­son­al aware­ness, this is a know­ing and inflow­ing of God him­self. We are filled with the knowl­edge of the glo­ry of the LORD, as the waters cov­er the sea” (Hab. 2:14). We know as we are known. We enter that eter­nal life which is to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3b). Prayer turns into the deep­en­ing self-com­mu­ni­ca­tion of the Trin­i­ty, a self-com­mu­ni­ca­tion we are priv­i­leged to lis­ten in on and even par­tic­i­pate in. 

Trans­for­ma­tion. Through it all, God grad­u­al­ly and slow­ly cap­tures” the inner fac­ul­ties: first the heart and the will, then the mind, the imag­i­na­tion, and the pas­sions. The result is the trans­for­ma­tion of the entire per­son­al­i­ty into the like­ness of Christ. More and more and more we take on his habits, feel­ings, hopes, faith, and love.

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Excerpt­ed from Streams of Liv­ing Water by Richard J. Fos­ter, pub­lished by Harper­One. Copy­right Richard J. Fos­ter. Used with permission.

[1] These phras­es are tak­en from many sources, includ­ing John of the Cross, Blaise Pas­cal, and Richard Rolle.

[2] The Life: The Col­lect­ed Works of St. Tere­sa, vol. 1, trans. Kier­an Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriquez (Wash­ing­ton, DC: ICS Pub­li­ca­tions, 1976), chap. 8, no. 5, p. 67, as cit­ed in Thomas Dubay, Fire With­in: St. Tere­sa of Avi­la, St. John of the Cross, and the Gospel On Prayer (San Fran­cis­co: Ignatius, 1989), p. 58.

[3] Those who have read the great mas­ters of con­tem­pla­tive prayer will rec­og­nize that I am describ­ing in my own way the ancient tri­ad of illu­mi­na­tion, pur­ga­tion, and union. Some of the items in this list were sug­gest­ed to me by Thomas Dubay in his book Fire With­in. This book is a good resource for a full dis­cus­sion of these mat­ters, espe­cial­ly his chap­ter enti­tled What is Contemplation?”

[4] As quot­ed in Dubay, Fire With­in, p. 61

[5] As quot­ed in Dubay, Fire With­in, p. 62

[6] As quot­ed in Dubay, Fire With­in, p. 62

Originally published October 1998