What is contemplation?

Posted by Alice L. Camille
Monday 19, January 2009 | Category:   Prayer and Spirituality

I lived in a lay community many years ago in which we prayed the Liturgy of the Hours three times daily. We also spent a half hour each morning in communal contemplation. I have to admit, back then I didn't know what to do with that half hour. Sixty of us sat in silence together in the chapel and not a few of us fell asleep. In the first weeks of those long mornings, I wrote in my journal to pass the time. After almost a year of being enveloped in that silence, however, I finally let go and did "nothing." It was a powerful experience.

The formation director of our community, a Sacred Heart brother, called contemplation "wasting time with God." For those who are goal-oriented, spending 30 minutes not producing any tangible result can be maddening. At least with a rosary you get some mileage on those beads behind you! But contemplation is about turning the focus away from you and what you can do for God. It's more about what God can do for you, which requires nothing but your attention and your will.

In Richard McBrien's Encyclopedia of Catholicism, contemplation is defined as "prayer in which reasoning and structure give way to a focus on God's presence." It's generally contrasted with meditation, which actively engages the mind to dwell on a particular passage from scripture; an icon or image; or perhaps a virtue or attribute of God. Contemplation seeks to empty the self and self-consciousness in favor of God-consciousness. 

Writers on this subject caution us to remember that contemplation is not a prayer style; it is meant to be a lifestyle. It's a way of being, not only a way of praying. When we learn how to empty the self so that we can be in the presence of God and be filled with that presence, we aren't meant to dissolve that union and "go back to real life" afterwards. Contemplation is, in this sense, playing for keeps. Those who surrender to the contemplative life appreciate this best of all. 

Scripture
Psalm 131; Job 28:20, 23-28; Sirach 1:1; Isaiah 30:15; Baruch 3:14-15; Hosea 6:6; John 6:44-45; James 1:5-8

Website
Contemplative Outreach, www.centeringprayer.com/.

Books
An Invitation to the Contemplative Life
by Thomas Merton (Word Among Us Press)
New Seeds of Contemplation
by Thomas Merton (New Directions)
The Human Condition: Contemplation and Transformation by Thomas Keating (Paulist Press)

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