The Nine Degrees of Contemplation
The following shall draw extensively from Venerable Father Germanus, who was a Spiritual Director of Saint Gemma Galgani. I shall also draw in part from St. Teresa of Avila in regards to the 'Spiritual Marriage'. Within his biography titled ‘The Life of Saint Gemma Galgani’ Fr. Germanus expounds in quite a succinct and clear manner the stages of contemplation by breaking them down into nine degrees. He writes that the highest degree of contemplation is “the mystical espousal of the soul with God” as maintained by the saints and theologians of the past. These days, in this present era, there can be considered to be a degree higher than, yet not exclusive of, the “mystical marriage”; and this highest degree describes a state of living in the Eternal mode of God’s Will. A Contemporary Dogmatic and Mystical Theologian Father Joseph Iannuzzi explains this within his book ‘The Splendor of Creation’. Elsewhere I shall write on the life of contemplation and its degrees in the light of this New Era of Grace; yet ignorant of much I myself must study much more by the grace of God in order to even imperfectly do so. In the mean time we shall treat the nine degrees of contemplation as they remain presented by Venerable Fr. Germanus in relation to the spiritual life of St. Gemma Galgani.
One note I would like to make is that more often than not, we are inclined to think we are nearer to God than we actually are. In fact the process of even trying to measure our own progress in the spiritual life is an effort of vanity which shall fan the flames of one’s pride. The purpose of concepts such as ‘degrees of contemplation’ or the generic and rough categories of St. John’s dark night’s and St. Teresa’s mansions are to serve the individual soul not as a means of ‘checking itself out’ in the mirror of vain-glory but to rekindle the fire of desire to be one in intimate union with God, and Him alone. In the end it matters not at all where we think we are, be it at this stage, this level, this mansion etc., for God knows where we are in the spiritual life and that ought to be enough for us. If it isn’t then we are attached to ourselves with lustful pride and need to be purged of that. The important rule to adhere to is to always focus on God, not on the path that leads to Him, nor upon contemplative prayer itself; and upon those stumbles that we make whilst on our journey to union with Him. With our eyes focused on the Triune God we shall heed no distractions that seek to seduce us to look elsewhere. In this way, in Adoration of our God truly present in the Holy Eucharist, we shall exclaim with King David the Great Psalmist: “O God, thou art my God, I seek thee, my soul thirsts for thee; my flesh faints for thee, as in a dry and weary land where no water is. So I have looked upon thee in the sanctuary, beholding thy power and glory” (Ps 63: 1-2).
Introduction to the Nine Degrees of Contemplation
“These different degrees or grades, as determined by theologians, may be reduced to nine, and are named differently according to their results. And as contemplation is the soul of the mystical life, and this is centered in Divine Love and union with the Infinite Good, to every degree of contemplation from the lowest to the highest there corresponds a distinct degree of love and union. The highest degree is that of perfect charity, which is called the mystical espousal of the soul with God.”
I. Mystical Recollection
II. Spiritual Silence
III. Contemplation of Quiet
IV. Mystical Sleep
V. Spiritual Inebriety
VI. Flame of Love
VII. Thirst and Anguish of Love
VIII. Divine Touches & Spiritual Betrothal
IX. Mystical Espousal or Marriage
-The soul is made attentive to the Divine that dwells within its interior-
“The first degree of contemplation is that called Mystical Recollection, which consists in an extraordinary light by means of which God communicates Himself all of a sudden to the intellect, wholly absorbs it. By its reaction on the interior and exterior senses, this light concentrates them, quiets them and holds them sweetly in attendance on the soul. It is not ecstasy, which suspends the use of the senses, but it is a gentle attraction that, causing forgetfulness of all else, inclines one’s whole being towards the Infinite Good, as, in the words of St. Francis de Sales, the magnet attracts the needle placed near it. The very members of the body put themselves in an attitude of recollection and remain immovable as long as the soul is visited by that unexpected light.”
II. Spiritual Silence
-The soul listens to its God in stillness and silence-
“The second degree of contemplation and of love is the Spiritual Silence, so called because in it the soul, illuminated by a stronger light than in the preceding degree and by more deliciously sweet attractions, is held riveted in astonishment before the Majesty of the Lord, not daring to address Him, but only to love Him while remaining enraptured in His Love. The imagination itself, wonder-stricken at what it experiences, abstains from every act that may disturb the sweet peace reigning in the intellectual faculties. The soul is in silence while God is allowing her to taste the delights of Paradise. In Gemma’s case this more perfect degree of contemplation and loving union alternated very often with the first. And while in this state of mystical recollection she treated with her God, listening to and addressing Him in acts of gratitude, humility, etc., all of a sudden, as the force of the Divine Light increased, illuminating and attracting her, she became enraptured and motionless; again, after a little, she returned as at first to affectionate outpourings.” Gemma writes her account of this degree of prayer:
“I have been in the presence of Jesus; I said nothing to Him, and He said nothing to me. We both remained in silence; I looked at Him and He looked at me. But if you only knew, Father, how delightful it is to be thus in the presence of Jesus! Have you ever experienced it? You would wish it to never end. But then, all in an instant Jesus says: ‘Enough’-and the Light disappears. But the heart, you know, does not grow cold so quickly.”(p.218-219).
III. Contemplation of Quiet
-Disposition of the soul by Divine Grace to generosity of action-
“The soul, now accustomed to remaining in spiritual silence in the Divine Presence and to the enjoyment of Its sweetness, is quite disposed to pass to the third degree of mystical progress, which is the Contemplation of Quiet. It consists in a more intimate and almost habitual union with God based on a vivid sentiment of His Divine Presence. Hence results a great spiritual peace that keeps the soul in tranquil repose. Its faculties do not remain suspended while in this state. On the contrary, once it has become habituated to this degree of prayer by frequent experience, it can occupy itself in organizing works to please and glorify Our Lord without being in the least distracted from the Divine Presence. Then are seen in the soul the parts of both Magdalene and Martha wonderfully represented and united. The first in contemplation enjoying delights at the feet of Our Saviour; the second working for Him.”
“Certain souls deceive themselves who, as soon as they begin to taste some sweetness in the above-mentioned prayer of Quiet, would wish always to remain alone, always in church, always in search of confessors and directors, neglecting meanwhile the duties which their state in life requires of them. It is for these souls to make any seriously steady advancement in the interior ways of the Spirit.” In such a state the soul is “without…in the least distracted from the Divine Presence” and Gemma herself describes this when she explains the happy impoverishment of her will, thus ridding herself of all distracting desires from God’s Presence. She writes:
“As long as I had so many desires, my soul was without rest; now that I have only one, I am happy. But let me act, O Jesus. Though Thy love be inaccessible, I will see to it, I will reach it…And what do I long for, and what do I ask Thee for, O Jesus? Ah! Thou seest it; in that we are agreed. I ask Thee for that which Thou Thyself willest, and desire that which Thou Thyself desirest.” (p.220).
It is thus that the Contemplation of Quiet is marked by the impoverishment of the will, the stripping naked of the will, as it were, thus allowing the soul through its ‘naked will’ to be ever more intimate with its God; wanting only what He wants, and because of this it is content to be in intimate silence with its God; for after all it has made the prayers of Christ its very own. Since therefore that the soul’s prayer in such a state is God’s very own prayer, it knows in a deepest sense that it need not speak in order to be understood or heard. This Mystical Quiet sets the spiritual scene for the preceding degree of Mystical Sleep, since such silence is required in order for one to sleep.
IV. Mystical Sleep
-The renovation of the house of the soul whilst it slumbers-
“The Mystical Sleep, the fourth degree of union, is allied to the preceding degree of Quiet, but is more perfect. The difference consists in this: that the Mystical Quiet is caused by the celestial light making the soul feel and taste in delicious calm the presence of God, whereas the sleep is caused by love which by its soothing influence on the soul; together with all her intellectual and sensitive faculties, lulls her to sleep and tranquil repose in the bosom of God. In this state the soul knows to a certainty, but without reflection, that she ardently loves her God. It is enough for her to love, caring for nothing else, and even not knowing how this state of happiness has come about, because she sleeps and is lost in God.”
“She [Gemma] then seemed to be asleep, and used the term ‘sleep’ when referring to the mysterious phenomenon. But her heart was not asleep, although her mind was quite alienated from everything, even from itself. When she returned to herself she knew not what to say, except that she had been in the bosom of God.
“Imagine a baby,” she once said, “in her mother’s arms asleep. She is then forgetful of herself and of everything else. She thinks of nothing and only rests and sleeps, not even knowing how or why. That is the way with my soul during this time. But believe me, Father, it is a most sweet sleep.”(p.221).
V. Spiritual Inebriety
-The soul is vivified by Divine Love-
And from its slumber the soul cannot help but arise time after time, at separate moments and intervals, for varying lengths of time, so as to lavish the love it has been filled with in its sleep upon the Beloved of its heart. “Placed in the midst of so many flames and so close to that ardent furnace which is the bosom of God, it is easy to understand how the favored soul cannot always sleep, nor always repose tranquilly. The very sleep itself and repose must inflame it more, and rouse it now and then from its rest by exciting in the heart almost a delirium of love. Theologians call these loving impulses Spiritual Inebriety, which, when clearly proved to be supernatural, constitutes one of the mystical grades, more or less perfect in particular cases than the degrees already named. In this state the soul would fain exhaust itself in praising the Lord and making its voice heard to the ends of the earth, to induce all men to glorify Him and love Him. It would wish to suffer great things to please God, and would undertake everything for Him. Those who have read the Psalms of holy King David and the lives of St. Francis of Assisi, St. Teresa, St. Mary Magdalene de Pazzi and other Saints equally favored by God will understand what is meant by this divine inebriety.” An example of such inebriety experienced comes from Gemma who writes:
“I have such a great longing to fly away to my God! Oh, if I could but hear from you, Father. For days Jesus has been making me a victim of Love. He is making me die, ah, only of Love!...What a precious death! I am not quieted if Jesus does not inflame me a little with His Love, that I may be consumed in Him. I would have my heart become ashes, that all should say: Gemma has been burned to ashes for Jesus.” (p.223-224).
“Let not the reader imagine that this degree of union is less estimable because the senses take part in it, inasmuch as that which the senses here make manifest is nothing more than an overflow of the inner joy of the soul produced by the torrent of light with which the Holy Spirit inundates the mind, and by the love that He excites in the heart.”
VI. Flame of Love
-The soul is set on fire with burning desire for God-
“Sometimes also this overflow is so great that, pouring like a torrent of fire into the purely material heart, it inflames it in a most extraordinary way. And this ardor, understood as above explained, constitutes a sixth degree of perfection called by mystics the Flame of Love. In the seraphic Virgin of Lucca, this flame was so intense that if it had continued for more than the two or three months that it lasted, her heart would have been consumed in her breast. I am not narrating fables, but facts that have been verified. Her heart was like a furnace, and the hand could not approach it without feeling it burn, even though the hand was outside the clothing. Gemma writes:
“For the last eight days I have felt something mysterious in the region of my heart that I cannot understand. The first days I disregarded it, because it gave me little or no trouble. But today is the third day that this fire has increased, oh so much, as to be almost unbearable. I should need ice to put it out, and it hinders my sleeping and eating. It is a mysterious fire that comes from within to the outside. It is, however, a fire that does not torment me, rather it delights me, but it exhausts and consumes me….Jesus, Father, will have made you understand all about it. Great God! How I love Thee, O how I love Thee!”(p.224-225).
Indeed the soul in this state possess a burning desire for God that is God’s very Divine Desire burning within its interior; and this fire refines the soul as gold. This degree of contemplation must not of necessity cause such sensible effects in the creature yet it is likely that God shall deal as such with His creatures at such a state of union; for indeed being fully corporeal and spiritual, the human person cannot divide the experiences of the soul from the body altogether. There are many Saints who have undergone a very similar experience in the Flame of Love, yet of course God deals uniquely with each soul, although this dealing is similar at the same time.
VII. Thirst and Anguish of Love
-Attracts the soul to God with longings and consumes it-
“Our holy father St. Paul of the Cross, who also experienced this degree of burning love, used to exclaim: “I feel my entrails parched, I thirst and want to drink; but to extinguish this burning I would wish to drink torrents of fire.” Whoever has tasted of the sweetness of Divine Love must feel and speak thus; for when the fire of charity comes to this, it can no longer contain itself. The Spouse of our souls, Jesus Christ Himself, first gave us an example of this when, satiated with sorrow and love on the Cross, in agonized accents He exclaimed: “I thirst-“Sitio,” whence mystical theologians have come to call the next or seventh degree of Mystical Union the Thirst and Anguish of love. Father Scaramelli gives the following definition of it: “The anguishes of love are a living and ardent desire of God, loved and tasted, but not yet possessed by the soul. The continuance or duration of these pangs which form and establish themselves, so to say, in the very marrow of the soul, is called the Thirst of Love.” Gemma herself expresses this when she writes:
“Make haste, Jesus. Oh, dost Thou not see how this heart longs for Thee? Oh, dost Thou not see how it languishes? Does it not pain Thee, O God, to see it thus languish in desire? Come! Come, Jesus, make haste, come near, let me hear Thy voice…God begotten of God, come to my aid, I thirst for Thee, Jesus.” (p.227).
It is thus that the soul in this state is overwhelmed by the desire to possess her Beloved, whom she does not yet fully possess; and she would die, on certain occasions, of such thirst and longing were it not for the intervening grace of God. Indeed as Fr. Germanus writes: “The happy soul, thus having reached such great perfection, both sees and feels how near it is to God and tastes the sweetness of His Love, still knowing well that it does not yet possess Him intimately. It is like the fly that, attracted by the light of a flame, goes round and round and then dashes into it, but without penetrating so far as to become one with the flame and remain consumed therein. Thus the poor soul sighs and yearns with all the greater anxiety, in proportion as the light received in various degrees of prayer, showing the beauty and loving-kindness of God, has been more vivid and intense. All this has been clearly stated by Gemma, in a few heartfelt words to her director, when making a manifestation of the state of her soul: “Jesus is in me.” She said, “and I am all His. I am, however, awaiting the grace to be entirely transformed into Him, and I am consumed by the desire to be able to plunge into the infinite abyss of Divine Love.” The soul yet unable to be fully enjoined to her Beloved, due to its inability to bear it, is lead deeper into union with God through transformation, little by little, moment by moment, touch by touch. Like a sculpture who makes the finishing touches upon His masterpiece, chip by chip. This notion leads us to the eight degree.
VIII. Divine Touches & Spiritual Betrothal
-The preparations of the soul as bride, the touches that dispose it for marriage-
“As a general rule this immense favor [of transformation into God, which describes mystical espousal or marriage] is not granted all at once to the soul, who thus would be unable to bear it. Therefore, the Heavenly Father disposes and accustoms it , so to say, by little and little, making it pass first through another lesser degree; that is the eighth degree of mystical theology. In this degree, from time to time, He communicates Himself to the soul, touching it, as it were, in flight and allowing Himself to be touched by it substantially. O great God of Love, how I would wish to better understand and explain these sublime things! But it is not in my power. Mystical theologians call these exquisite delicacies of Uncreated Love Divine Touches, precisely because they are instantaneous and, so to say, superficial. They define them thus: “Spiritual impressions, analogous to that of the bodily touch, by which the soul feels the divine action and God Himself in the very center of its being and tastes Him in an ineffable way.” (p.229-230).
Gemma would often at times fall to the ground as if lifeless; and at times her “senses were called to take part in these Divine touches.” These touches increase in intensity, partly in duration and in frequency as the soul progresses. Gemma writes on the occasion of one of these Divine Touches:
“Having been to Holy Communion, I felt Jesus coming, and do you know how I felt Him? At first, when I had scarcely received Him into my heart,He begun to make it beat, oh so violently, that I thought it would leap from my breast. Then He asked me if I really loved Him. I answered, ‘Yes. And dost Thou love me?’ I said. Then Jesus touched me and kissed me and I remained as if reduced to ashes in His presence.” (p.231).
These touches are the touches of the Ineffable Groom who in the jealousy of His love prepares the bride Himself. Each touch leads up towards the ‘finishing touches’ which so prepare the soul as a bride that is ready, ready to be mystically married to her Maker. It is thus that we come to the ninth degree of contemplation.
IX. Mystical Espousal or Marriage
-The souls perfect union with God; ‘and the two have become one’-
St. Teresa of Avila writes: “Between the spiritual betrothal and spiritual marriage the difference is as great as that which exists between two who are betrothed and two who can no longer be separated.” “The spiritual betrothal is different because the two often separate” That is cease to touch one could say. “And the [spiritual] union is also different because, even though it is the joining of two things into one, in the end the two can be separated and each remains by itself.” Of this union St. Teresa describes as “like the joining of two wax candles to such an extent that the flame coming from them is but one…but afterward one candle can be easily separated from the other and there are two candles.” Yet what is distinct about this new and profoundly intimate union of spiritual marriage is that it is permanent and as such the two, the soul and God cannot be separated. It is thus that the Saint gives us the example of spiritual marriage as “like what we have when rain falls from the sky into a river or fount; all is water, for the rain that fell from heaven cannot be divided or separated from the water of the river.” As St. Paul says “He that is joined or united to the Lord becomes one spirit with Him.” Such intimate union describes a mystical fulfillment of the words of Christ who through his referral of earthly marriage speaks in hidden ways of the spiritual marriage of the soul with God. These words are “and the two shall become one flesh.' So they are no longer two but one flesh.” (Mark 10:8).
Let us return to Gemma who whilst in ecstasy exclaimed in “ardent accents” her longing as a ‘fiancé’ or betrothed of Christ to be one with Him in the bond produced by the mystical marriage:
“O Jesus, but always child? Nothing more? And yet I would wish…O Jesus! Yes, I Know it, it would be too much, Jesus for me. Shall I tell Thee what it is that I desire? I would wish, Jesus, I would wish to be, Jesus, Thy…Spouse. Yes, Thy Spouse, O Jesus.”(p.233).
“And saying this” writes Fr. Germanus “she fell fainting, and remained several hours on the ground as dead. And now, O Divine Spouse of souls, hasten Thou, and say that the time has come. Say to this innocent soul: arise and come-“Veni, Sponsa Christi, accipe coronam quam tibi Dominus preparavit in aeternum” [“Come, spouse of Christ, receive the crown which which the Lord has prepared for you for all eternity”]. The desires of this soul were satisfied, and the Divine Word united her to Himself in indissoluble bonds of love…Jesus appeared to her in the form of a lovely child in His Mother’s arms, and the Holy Mother, taking a ring from His finger, put it on that of His fortunate servant.” “From that day” Gemma stated, “a new life began in me.” Truly with Saint Paul this holy girl could exclaim: “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20).
Fr. Germanus continues: “From the lowly idea and imperfect similitude offered in earthly espousal's [or marriages], the reader can form some conception of what mystical writers intend by this most sublime degree of union and love to which this seraphic Virgin of Lucca was raised. For, as in earthly matrimony, two persons give themselves to each other with all they are and have, so as to become, as it were, one and the same person, so in this spiritual and Divine Matrimony the soul gives herself with her whole being to God, and God to the soul. And this union, like the other, through an infinitely more perfect way, is intimate, continuous indissoluble.”
“Intimate, because it takes place in the center, and as the same writers say, in the substance itself of the fortunate soul.”
“Continuous, because it is not subject to suspension or interruption on the part of God, who is its true Author.”
“Indissoluble, because, according to the ordinary law, it never happens that such a soul loses sanctifying grace by mortal sin, so as to be separated from God.” (p.234).
“This most perfect union is, therefore, clearly distinguished from that of the eighth preceding degrees, in which Our Lord communicates Himself in His gifts, but not in Himself. He is communicated to the powers of the soul but not to the soul itself, and at intervals more or less frequent, but not in a permanent form. Let Gemma herself, who had the happy experience of this sublime union, describe it to us:” (p. 234-235).
“Today I am no longer in myself. I am with my God; all for Him, and He all in me and for me…Jesus is with me, He is all mine. He is all alone, alone, and I am alone to bless Him, alone to pay Him court. He dwells in the miserable cell of my heart and His Majesty disappears. We are alone, alone, and my heart palpitates continually with that of Jesus. Viva Gesu! The Heart of Jesus and my heart are one and the same thing. A moment does not pass without my feeling His dear presence always manifesting Himself in the most loving way…Yes, I am happy, because I feel my heart beat with Thine. I am happy because I possess Thee, O Jesus. O Jesus, with what joy it fills me to know that I possess Thee! But, my God, if Thou dealest so with us on earth, what must it not be in Heaven!” (p.235).
The soul is in want of nothing when it has reached through a deep sharing in the Passion of Christ the state of mystical marriage. For long has the soul journeyed in the desert of the exile of this world, and in the barren wasteland of the misery of her interior; thirsting, starving, yearning and crying for her Beloved God whom she desperately sought. But at last the soul possesses her Beloved in such a state and instead exclaims with an attitude of helplessness is the overwhelming surge of Divine Love: “Oh, how good Jesus is! I ask Him to cease and put bounds to so many graces, because it is too much for me. Help, help, and bless me!” (p. 235).
+Heel of Christ+
 Venerable Fr. Germanus, The Life of Saint Gemma Galgani, translated by A.M. O’Sullivan (Charlotte: Tan Books, 2012), 216-233.
 Saint Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle, Mansion VII, Chapter 2, Section 2.
 Saint Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle, Mansion VII, Chapter 2, Section 4.