Most of us learned how to pray. Depending on your age you might have learned to pray the rosary, morning and evening prayers, the psalms, grace before meals, prayers to Mary and to the Saints. Prayers were a way to remind us of God’s presence throughout our day. For the most part these kinds of prayers consisted of words, formulas that we recited quietly or out loud.
Contemplation and mysticism might have been mentioned as forms of prayer but surely they were not for ordinary believers. One image that such words might conjure up is that of cloistered nuns or monks. Sealed off from the world they devoted themselves entirely to God in silence, prayer and fasting. There are stories of the ecstatic union with God that some individuals experienced in a state of mystical bliss.
But that is not the only reality. Throughout the history of religious traditions ordinary women and men loved God and were very attentive to God speaking in them, in those around them and in creation. Theirs was an intuitive and intimate experience of God in the everydayness of life. Within Catholicism there is a rich contemplative tradition. It is knowledge of God that comes from one’s own experience. It complements coming to know God through liturgical rituals, tradition, doctrine, books, and instruction.
What might contemplation look like? You may have experienced it already. Think about your childhood, the moments when you experienced amazement, utter joy or gratitude, a deep quiet, a certainty that God was present. You were aware of and delighted in the world around you. Our contemplative self is often alive in our child. For contemplation is primarily awareness, a state of alertness to the present and to the stirrings of God within us and our world.
It seems easier in childhood for as we enter adulthood our ability to be present, to be aware, to really see what is in our world is distorted by some of the values our society holds as important and critical. In the United States our spirit of pragmatism often makes us uneasy engaging in anything that doesn’t lead to an outcome that can be measured and successfully achieved. Our individualism when taken to the extreme focuses our attention on the “me” so centrally that our pre-occupation with self blinds us to see the reality of the other. In addition, we have a high need to experience everything, always searching for the new, the next experience. Waiting and being with is hardly valued. Ronald Rolheiser in his book, The Shattered Lantern, says that “God can be very present within an event but we can be so self-preoccupied and focused upon our headaches, heartaches, tasks, daydreams, and restless distractions that we can be oblivious to that presence…”
Seeing reality and being aware is central to contemplation. The English mystics speak of contemplation as a “long, loving, look at the real”. Wayne Teasdale in his book, A Monk in the World, states “The contemplative attitude is a very natural way of knowing when we understand the value of silence, the quiet, and stillness. As we develop the habit of noticing, of deep looking, then instances of epiphany in the natural world and daily life take us more and more into contemplation. The contemplative attitude is our preparation for the gift of contemplation itself, while contemplation is the experience of the Divine Presence and union with it. ”
Contemplation is becoming attentive to the Divine within. It is to bring all that we are and have experienced and to surrender it. To ask for the Spirit needed for this time. To be willing to be surprised in the Spirit. To hold open the sacred space for our God given creativity to emerge.
What might come naturally in childhood needs to be cultivated as adults. One cultivates a contemplative attitude in a variety of ways: meditation or centering prayer; lectio divina or a meditative reading of scriptures, lives of the saints and/or theological works; being with nature; study and reflection; and silence and solitude. Yoga, diet, breathing techniques, and other physical and spiritual exercises can also assist one in cultivating a contemplative attitude.
But perhaps the clearest way is by living and fully accepting our reality as Richard Rohr says so well in his book, Everything Belongs. He writes, “Living and accepting our own reality will not feel very spiritual. It will feel like we are on the edges rather than dealing with the essence….The edges of our lives—fully experienced, suffered, and enjoyed—lead us back to the center and the essence.”
A danger as one begins a contemplative prayer life is to think that it is a concentration on self, the well being of one’s soul, and the privatization of religion. Nothing is further from reality. Dorothee Soelle writes that “mysticism is resistance”. From the depths of contemplation comes renewed action. Meister Eckhart states that “What we have gathered in contemplation we give out in love.” Constance FitzGerald, OCD, says “…contemplation is not a validation of things as they are…but a constant questioning and restlessness that waits for and believes in the coming of a transformed vision of God….a new and integrating spirituality capable of creating a new politics and generating new social structures.”
Engaging in contemplation is risky. Soelle states in her book, The Silent Cry, that “Mysticism and organized religion are related like spirit to power.” She discusses how in history the institutional church only tolerated this approach to God at the margins of the institution—a place where women were often found. She offers that mysticism moves us to overcome the assumptions regarding domination and power over, “be it the other sex, other nature, or other races and civilizations.”
In contemplation we free the spirit to push us in the direction of intuition, imagination, contemplative reflection and ongoing discernment so that we can in the words of FitzGerald, “be freed for nonviolent, selfless, liberating action.”
Participants in the Engaging Impasse Circles engage in contemplative sitting and communal silence as we enter more deeply our experiences of impasse.
Written by Nancy Sylvester, IHM
© 2003-2012 Institute for Communal Contemplation and Dialogue
Reprint with permission firstname.lastname@example.org
For Further Reading:
Bruteau, Beatrice. The Grand Option. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001.
This is a collection of essays and talks which Bruteau shared with the Monks of Gethsemani over twenty years. Bruteau is a lay contemplative and pioneer in the integrated study of science, spirituality, philosophy, and religion. Her work, far ahead of her time, is a contemporary reflection on a new social order based on universal inclusiveness and the unique value of each person. She does so by exploring the central Christian symbols.
Finley, James. The Contemplative Heart. Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2000.
In a very practical way, Finley discusses how it is possible to live a contemplative life in today’s world. He shares how to open our everyday living to the contemplative traditions, practices, and teachings.
Keating, Thomas. The Human Condition-Contemplation and Transformation. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1999.
Known for his centering prayer, Keating delivered this lecture at Harvard University’s Divinity School. He discusses the spiritual journey as a journey of self-discovery, since the encounter with God is also an encounter with one’s deepest self.
Rohr, Richard. Everything Belongs-The Gift of Contemplative Prayer. New York, NY: Crossroad, 1999.
Rohr is the founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation. In this book, he draws on his experience to lead us beyond the techniques of prayer to a place where we can receive the gift of contemplation. It is the place where we see the world in God clearly, and know that everything belongs.
Rolheiser, Ronald. The Shattered Lantern. New York, NY: Crossroad, 2001.
Rolheiser discusses the difficulties of engaging in contemplation given our societal context. He then explores the contemplative traditions within Western Christian thought. Rolheiser concludes with offering concrete practices to engage in contemplation.
Soelle, Dorothee. The Silent Cry—Mysticism and Resistance. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2001.
This is an excellent book for anyone who is trying to integrate contemplation and action. Soelle draws from her experience as well as from many world leaders in mysticism and non-violent resistance. She explores how the religious impulse of mysticism, the “silent cry” is at the heart of all the world’s religions. Soelle argues for the importance of mysticism in countering the destructive aspects of ego, group bias, materialism, and violence. Religion in the third millennium, Soelle argues, will either be mystical or it will be dead.
Teasdale, Wayne. A Monk in the World. Novato, CA: New World Library, 2002.
Teasdale writes a moving book about the spiritual life in the midst of the city. He shares his understanding of a truly integral spirituality which does not deny the revealed truths of any tradition, but gently sets them in the context of each other’s realizations.
Contemplation and Social Justice
This website managed by the Servite sisters links contemplation and social justice. It provides short reflections on contemplation. In addition it has an excellent resource for social justice organizations, artwork, and ritual materials.
It provides information on the practice of contemplation. It includes excerpts from John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, and Thomas Merton. It provides multiple links to other related sites.
This web site provides access to a variety of web sites which address the growing movement of lay contemplatives.
This site provides a new picture for every day. It also includes an archives and a search capacity to find images from space.
This web site provides comprehensive information on the life of Rumi as well as quotes and samples of his poetry.