Informal History of the Christian Contemplative Tradition

This is an informal 'timeline' which traces the Christian tradition and practice of contemplative prayer. I say 'informal', because my resources are rather limited, and I would hesitate to present it as definitive. It is based heavily on writings by Thomas Keating, Gene Edwards, and William Menninger. Any misrepresentations or mistakes are purely my fault, please feel free to e-mail me with any corrections.

First Century - St. Paul used the word "gnosis" to refer to the knowledge of God which is of an intimate nature - involving the whole person, not just the mind. He prayed this for his disciples as if it were an indispensible element for growth in the Christian life.
Around 300 AD, the Greek Fathers (Origen, Clement of Alexandria, and Gregory of Nyssa) defined contemplation as the experiential knowledge which comes by love, or the knowledge of God which is impregnated by love. It is a gift of God which comes as the result of meditation upon the word, and resting in the presence of God. In this rest, the mind and heart are still, but are beginning to practically experience what they have sought or learned about in the scriptures.
Up through the 12th century, the common method of prayer for all Christians was called "lectio divina", a practice which involved reading scripture at deeper levels of meaning. Involved in this process are three steps:

  1. meditation - the reflecting with the mind upon the meaning of the sacred texts
  2. affective prayer - the spontaneous movement of the will in response to these reflections
  3. contemplation - the simplification of meditation and affective prayer to a state of resting quietly in the presence of the Lord.
These three acts were interwoven and might all take place in the same period of prayer. Contemplation was regarded as the normal development of listening to the Word of God.
In the 12th Century, the schools of theology were founded and both theology and prayer were systematized and the simple, spontaneous, organic prayer described above ended.
In the 13th Century, people like Bernard of Clairvaux, developed a theological understanding of prayer and contemplation which was widely taught by the Franciscans up until the 14th century.
During the 14th & 15th centuries, as wars and the Black Death spread chaos throughout the land, A movement called Devotio Moderna arose in the Low Countries in an attempt to establish reform. They defined a practice called "mental prayer" which was a strictly systematized version of Lectio Divina. Contemplation was still presented as the ultimate goal of spiritual practice, but it was becoming harder and harder to attain.
During the 14th Century an unnamed English mystic published "The Cloud of Unknowing" and "The Book of Privy Counseling" which are theological treatments of the practice of contemplative prayer based on the teachings of Gregory of Nyssa (4th Century) and Dionysius the Areopagite (6th Century). They become the seminal works on both the practice and spiritual mentoring of those who are moving into a contemplative life.
During the 16th Century, mental prayer came to be divided into meditation, affective prayer, and contemplation as seperate exercises, each with it's own aim, method, and purpose. This division of the natural development of prayer into compartments fostered the notion that contemplation was a grace reserved for the few, rather than a natural stage in the development of an average person's prayer life. In fact, the organic growth of prayer into contemplation was actively discouraged because it didn't fit in the approved categories.
In 1517 Martin Luther nails the Ninety-Five theses to the door of the chapel in Wittenberg as a protest against the widespread moral degeneracy in the Catholic Church. [In my opinion, this degeneracy arose from the removal of the practice of contemplative prayer from the common experience of members of the Catholoic Church. Without the intimacy with the Lord provided by the contemplative element of prayer, the sacraments and liturgies of the Catholic church revert to dead formalism, having the appearance of God, but lacking the power to restrain sensual indulgence] When the Protestant Church split from the Catholic church, it took with it only the practice of meditation; both Luther and Calvin were either suspicious of contemplation or regarded it as a rare grace or a luxury. While there have been mystics in the Protestant church, there has never been an established niche for them as there had been in the Catholic church.
Between 1522 and 1526 St. Ignatius of Lyola - the Father General of the Jesuits, charged with the counter-reformation - devised a book called "The Spiritual Exercises" which was an attempt to modernize the practice of contemplation for those apostolic ministers who were charged with purifying Christianity from those pagan elements that had seeped in. In this book, he defined three kinds of prayer:
  1. Discursive made according to the method of the three powers: memory, intellect, and will. The memory is to recall the point chosen beforehand as the subject of the discursive meditation. The intellect is to reflect on the lessons one wants to draw from that point. The will is to make resolutions based on that point in order to put the lessons into practice. Thus, one is led to reformation of life. [It is difficult for me to see why this was not condemned as Pelagianism]
  2. Contemplation...consists of gazing upon a concrete object of the imagination: seeing the persons in the Gospel as if they were present, hearing what they are saying, relating and responding to their words and actions. This method is aimed at developing affective prayer. It is distinctly different from the traditional understanding of contemplation.
  3. The application of the five senses...consists of successively applying in spirit the five sense to the subject of the meditation. This method is designed to dispose beginners to contemplation in the traditional sense of the term and to develop the spiritual senses in those who are already advanced in prayer.
St. John of the Cross (1524-1591) and Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) (both mentored by the Jesuits) found the Discalced Carmelite order, and write a series of books which become the textbooks for mystical theology in the Catholic Church: "Ascent of Mt. Carmel", "Dark Night of the Soul", "The Living Flame of Love", "The Interior Castle", and "Way of Perfection."
In 1574 Everard Mercurian, the Father General of the Jesuits, forbade the practice of affective prayer and the application of the five senses. The spiritual life was thus limited to a single method of prayer, namely, discursive meditation according to the three powers.  Because the Jesuits were charged by Rome with the counter-reformation, their teachings became standard across the entire Catholic Church.
Miguel Molinos (1640-1696), a Spanish spiritual director whose teachings were firmly grounded in the theology of Teresa of Avila is used by God to start a revival of spirituality and contemplative prayer throughout the Catholic Church. Because his teachings interfere with the Spiritual Exercises of the Jesuits, and because they postdate the ban of contemplative prayer by Everard Mercurian, Molinos is examined twice by the inquisition and eventually imprisoned (1688) and his work (given the name Quietism) is deemed heretical. His writings and teachings are still under the anathema of the Church of Rome.
A year after Molinos' imprisonment, Jeanne Guyon (1648-1717) is brought before the inquisition and charged with teaching Quietism (a la Molinos). She is convicted and sentenced to jail and her teachings - specifically a book titled "A short and easy method of prayer" - banned, despite her impeccable moral character and the widespread acceptance of her teachings throughout Europe.
Francois Fenelon (1651-1715) of France is condemned of heresy in 1699 because of his association with Madame Guyon (1648-1717) and the opposition of Bossuet, the Bishop of Paris.
By 1700, the revival which God began through Molinos is terminated by the persecution of the Jesuits. All mystical writing is labeled 'dangerous' because of its association with Quietism; even the teachings of St. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila are shelved and ignored. No significant investigation or practice of contemplation occurs for 196 years. The normal prayer for everyone becomes a systematic form of meditation following a fixed method derived from "Spiritual Exercises." Contemplation is identified with extraordinary phenomenon and regarded as miraculous and dangerous. Seminaries begin to teach that to aspire to contemplative prayer is arrogance. As a result, many people who were progressing in the spiritual life abandoned prayer after the point where God removed from them the grace of formal prayer or discursive meditation. Thus the attendants of the Catholic church are locked in the spiritual developmental level of a child unable to progress to adolescence.
During the 17th Century, the teachings of Jansenism foster a distorted form of asceticism along with doubt regarding the intrinsic goodness of human nature and the universality of Jesus' atoning work on the cross. Condemned as heresy, these teachings had a profound impact on the Catholic seminaries which is still being felt today.
In 1896, Abbe Saudreau publishes a book called "The Degrees of the Spiritual Life" which reintroduces the teachings of St. John of the Cross.
In the 1960's, following Vatican II, there is a mass exodus of Catholic youth to Southeast Asia, pursuing the spirituality provided by Zen Buddhism and Transcendental Meditation, since no spiritual dimension beyond discursive meditation is offered by the Catholic Church.
In 1975 William Menninger, Basil Pennington, and Thomas Keating revive the teachings of St. John of the Cross and The Cloud of Unknowing in a discipline called "Centering Prayer"
In 1984, Thomas Keating establishes Contemplative Outreach, Ltd. to coordinate efforts to introduce the Centering Prayer method to persons seeking a deeper life of prayer and to provide a support system capable of sustaining their commitment.