Although they are similar, contemplation is distinct from the practice of meditation.
Among the many different methods of Christian prayer, meditation and contemplation have remained a central part of Christian spirituality throughout the centuries. Of course there is no one method for praying, as prayer is most fundamentally a gift of God. But contemplation and meditation are recognized as methods that can be tools for growth in prayer. Nevertheless, they can often be confused with each other because of their close similarity.
St. Francis de Sales, in his book Treatise on the Love of God, dedicates a whole chapter to the primary difference between contemplation and meditation. He explains how, “contemplation is no other thing than a loving, simple and permanent attention of the spirit to divine things; which you may easily understand by comparing meditation with it.”
This simple definition of contemplation is then followed up by an illustration he uses, comparing it to the activity of bees.
Little bees are called nymphs or schadons until they make honey, and then they are called bees:so prayer is named Meditation until it has produced the honey of devotion, and then it is convertedinto Contemplation. For as the bees fly through their meadows, settling here and there and gatheringhoney, which having heaped together, they work in it for the pleasure they take in its sweetness,so we meditate to gather the love of God, but having gathered it we contemplate God, and areattentive to his goodness, by reason of the sweetness which love makes us find in it.
What St. Francis de Sales is trying to say is that while meditation is primarily focused on divine things, contemplation is that type of prayer that focuses on God himself, resting in his love.
Or to simplify his analogy, meditation is the bee in the field, resting on various flowers, while contemplation is the bee in the hive, quietly consuming the honey that is there.
This “honey” is divine love and contemplation rests in that love. St. Francis de Sales further elaborates on this concept by writing, “love having excited in us contemplative attention, that attention breeds reciprocally a greater and more fervent love, which at last is crowned with perfection when it enjoys what it loves.”
He calls contemplation elsewhere a “loving attention.”
Both mediation and contemplation have their place in our prayer lives and complement each other. We can incorporate both, using them to draw closer and closer to the Author of prayer and Love itself.