Just What is Contemplation, Anyway? And Why Should I Care?

A Jesuit priest, a Trappist monk, and a Tibetan buddhist walked into a bar.

(No, this is not a joke).

A sign above the bar said, “Free drinks to everyone in your party, if you can all agree on a definition of the word “contemplation.”

Two hours later, the Buddhist and the two Catholics were very thirsty — and still arguing.

Contemplation is one of those words that, frankly, means different things to different people. Even religious people can’t figure it out. And as soon as you start talking about different religions (like Christian and Buddhist), or throw in secular perspectives as well, well, the water just keeps getting muddier and muddier.

So What Is Contemplation?

Here are a few definitions of contemplation — to illustrate my point.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines contemplation as “a gaze of faith, fixed on Jesus… This focus on Jesus is a renunciation of self. His gaze purifies our heart; the light of the countenance of Jesus illumines the eyes of our heart and teaches us to see everything in the light of his truth and his compassion for all men. Contemplation also turns its gaze on the mysteries of the life of Christ. Thus it learns the “interior knowledge of our Lord,” the more to love him and follow him.”

Meanwhile, in his book New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton offers this grouchy response: contemplation “is a misleading word in many respects. It raises great hopes that are all too likely to be illusory because misunderstood. It can become almost a magic word, or if not magic, then inspirational, which is almost as bad. But the worst disadvantage of the word is that it sounds like ‘something,’ an objective quality, a spiritual commodity that one can procure, something that it is good to have; something which, when possessed, liberates one from problems and from unhappiness. As if there were a new project to be undertaken, among all the million other projects suggested to us in our lifetime: to become contemplatives.” He goes on to flatly insist that “it is impossible for one man to teach another ‘how to become a contemplative.’ One might as well write a book: ‘how to be an angel.’”

This Trappist monk seems to be saying that contemplation cannot be possessed, taught, or objectified. But compare that to the perspective of a Jesuit priest who writes about Ignatian spirituality. In his book The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, James Martin equates contemplation with “imaginative prayer.” Insisting that “all prayer is contemplative,” he goes on to note that, in Ignatian terms, contemplative prayer means “imagining yourself in a scene from the Bible, or in God’s presence, and then taking part in it. It’s a way of allowing God to speak to you through your imagination.”

Now let’s hear from a follower of the dharma. Andy Karr, author of Contemplating Reality: A Practitioner’s Guide to the View in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, has this to say:

What is contemplation? It is mixing the teachings with our experience. Contemplation is a bridge to study for meditators because it arouses inquisitiveness about the nature of meditation and postmeditation experience. Reflecting on the meaning and implications of the teachings puts meditation in a larger perspective than simply cultivating what we believe to be wholesome states of mind or trying to master a series of techniques. Study and contemplation arouse insight and give meditation direction and focus. Insight and focus make meditation an effective means of transformation.

But if contemplation links meditation and experience, the Anglican solitary Maggie Ross couldn’t disagree more. In her book Silence, A User’s Guide Volume 1, She notes that “contemplation entails relinquishing all claims to experience; it opens to what is uncircumscribed and other. It is not, therefore, an ‘experience.’” She goes on to say, “contemplation takes place in the absence of self-consciousness.” In other words, anything you self-consciously think is contemplation, therefore by definition is anything but contemplation.

Finally, here’s a word from Barbara Holmes, author of Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church. Speaking more of “contemplative practices” than simply of contemplation, Dr. Holmes defines spiritual or communal practices as contemplative when “they create intersections between inner cosmologies and the interpretive life of a community.”

I think we’re getting somewhere. But still — how does all this fit together?

Is it the path? Or is it the garden?

Can We Narrow Down Our Understanding? Is it Even Possible to do so?

Is contemplation a gaze of faith? Learning to see in the light of truth? Something that cannot be controlled or manipulated? A bridge between meditation and teaching? Or the relinquishing of all claim to experience? Finally, does it mark the intersection of our inner lives with our communal ways of knowing and discerning?

What if — in the words of the great philosopher Pete the Cat — “it’s all good”? Can we find a way of  thinking about contemplation that embraces and includes all of the above? Can we help our poor Trappist, Jesuit, and Buddhist friends get a drink already?!

If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you get the joke: I’m the Buddhist, the Trappist, and the Jesuit. I work part-time at a Jesuit parish, and I’m a lay associate of a Trappist monastery. I’m also an off-and-on student of Shambhala Buddhism. So for me, this question is really important. How can we approach contemplation in a way that embraces our spiritual diversity, without making this word or concept so broad that it becomes meaningless?

Here’s what I’d like to say. Ultimately, we cannot put contemplation into words. We should be suspicious of turning contemplation into another “experience” that splits me-as-subject off from God-as-object. But if we could say anything about contemplation, it would be that it invites us within — to the arena of imagination, and/or devotional adoration, and/or meditation, and/or visionary seeing. All of this is too big for any one person to figure out on their own, so we need to balance that inner “cosmology” with the insights that come to us from others — whether that means religious instruction, spiritual wisdom, or the guidance of discerning elder. I’m not saying that our inner lives are less important than the wisdom that we learn from others — but neither is that wisdom less important than our personal experience. It’s not either/or, it’s both/and.

By now you may be wondering, “But what does all this have to do with centering prayer? Or zen? Or T.M.? Or praying the rosary, or walking the labyrinth, or…” the list could go on. I think we have a tendency to confuse contemplation as a spiritual phenomenon with contemplative practices that we engage in, to grow spiritually. You can engage in a contemplative practice without entering into authentic contemplation (that’s the old catholic distinction between “infused” and “acquired” contemplation — what we do by our own initiative is acquired, but the real mystical encounter is always an infused gift from God).

But just as you can do a contemplative practice (like centering prayer) without contemplation, likewise, contemplation-as-a-spiritual gift can come to us, regardless of whether or not we are dedicated practitioners of this or that spiritual practice. Contemplation can happen without warning, to anyone, at any time, even in the most ordinary or strange of circumstances.

So what’s the point then of spiritual practices? As Thomas Keating puts it, they serve the desire to make ourselves available for contemplation. Contemplation itself is always a gift (a gift that cannot be talked about or even self-consciously ‘experienced’). But religious and spiritual traditions all over the world have developed a variety of practices that can make us more available to receive the gift — which still remains ultimately beyond our control.

In the headline of this post, I asked the rhetorical question “why should I care?” — about contemplation and contemplative practice. I think the answer to that question will vary, depending on the language of faith or spirituality that you prefer to use. A Buddhist will answer this question differently from a Trappist or a Jesuit. But it seems to me that people who have faith in God understand contemplation as authentic encounter — the encounter between “God” and “me,” even if (and often, especially if) the lines separating “me” and “God” suddenly fall away.

I can’t speak for non-theists, since I myself am a theist. But I suspect that contemplation is still an authentic encounter for non-theists, only it’s the encounter of self with self. Or perhaps you could self and Self. Ramana Maharshi talked about the “I” that encounters the “i.”

So whether contemplation brings us eyeball-to-eyeball with God, or simply with our most authentic/real/interior self, either way it matters because it ushers us into the heart of things.

Celebrating Unity within Diversity

I love reading the writing on non-Christian contemplatives, folks like Thich Nhat Hanh, or Rumi, or Aurobindo. I see the basic unity where “deep calls to deep.” But I have no interest in shedding my identity as a Christian in favor of some sort of lowest-common-denominator bland/generic spirituality. I continue to make contemplative Christianity my home because there is a rich language, history, wisdom lineage, and set of exercises that only make sense in a Christian context. That’s not to denigrate any of the other wonderful contemplative lineages out there. Contemplatives understand that you can go deep in one tradition while simultaneously respecting and affirming the contemplative wisdom found in other traditions.

Contemplative spirituality is a place where Christians can be Christians, Buddhists can be Buddhists, Vedantists can be Vedantists, etc. Granted a lot of color outside the lines to a greater or lesser extent, but I imagine most of us have a particular place we think of as “home.” But we affirm our religious diversity while also celebrating the deep unity that contemplation reveals. There are many languages, and many stories, and many teachings, but there is only one silence. And as we get to know each other’s stories and languages, we simply find more and more paths leading us into that one silence.

And that, my friends, is beautiful.


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