What is contemplation?
I would expect the common response to the question to land somewhere in the realm of a glorified exercise in naval gazing. For many, contemplation conjures up images of Buddha rather than Jesus. It’s also understandable to experience the perception of contemplation as a spiritual practice relegated to relgious elites who live detached from ordinary society in the serenity of remote monasteries.
None of these grasp the reality and significance of a spiritual stream that I believe the Christian faith is desperate to re-discover.
There was a time in Christian history when the way of contemplation was the primary mode of Christian living and practice.
(And I’m speaking of western society here not the east whom we typically associate with contemplative mysticism.)
The practices of contemplative prayer such as centering prayer or Lectio Divina are nothing new. Fear based religious police tend to red flag contemplative practices and categorize them as new age, voodoo, or (once again) reserved for monks and nuns.
Contemplative prayer is a gift to us.
Contemplation was systematically trained in the church for 800 years through the practice of Lectio Divina. After the fall of the Roman Empire St. Benedict in the 6th century introduced this distinct way of prayer which leveled the playing field for all of society, both rich and poor, allowing the opportunity to not only receive the scriptures but to process them from a healthier integrated space of mind and heart.
With the 13th century came the mislabeled age of enlightenment the effects of which almost always go understated. From this point onward dominant culture including it’s religion would be marked by a misaligned energy coming excessively from the head. The intellect – mental reasoning – was the processing system that was decided best by the powers that be.
And western society has dwelled primarily in the head-space ever since. Almost my entire education and church experience has been witness to this. Yes, even my divinity degree was mostly an exercise in mental gymnastics.
Some reasons why I believe we are being strongly invited to re-awaken to the gift of a contemplative life:
- I’ve made a conscious effort in the past year on practicing Centering Prayer and I can't help but notice that I’m just not very good at it. It’s sorta humiliating actually. When I quiet myself enough I recognize the severity of my monkey mind. Thoughts and anxieties dart around like ricocheting bullets. Inevitably, I'll think about money, tasks that I'm failing at or behind on or what my next meal will consists of.
This era we live within is called the information age. Every waking moment we are afforded a constant stream of stimulating info and entertainment. I hear folks talk about insomnia more than ever. How could we possibly find real rest or discern the voice of God unless we practice an intentional process of prayerful detachment from the ego arcade?
Contemplation is such a counter-cultural way of processing that we can’t be too hard on ourselves when we notice how poorly we practice it, but the fact that it is such a challenge should serve to strongly invite us into it.
- Politics and polarities. I’ve never experienced a more polarizing and divisive time as the present and we can't place all the blame on Donald! The dualistic and combative mind only serves to make us lonely and depressed. We simply are not able to hold the deep questions, listen attentively, and respond generously to the tensions of our time. We are slow to listen and quick to speak which is the opposite of what James 1: 19 invites of us. Contemplative practices are designed to re-program and further evolve our compulsive reptilian Trump-like brains.
- The poor and oppressed need the powerful majority to listen with their heart. Jesus said, Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God. The heart is the organ of sight. I'm afraid we love giving our mind a buzz by listening to smart and clever talk on podcasts while our heart longs for something much deeper. Contemplative prayer re-sets the heart/mind balance by helping us notice what we are truly seeing and whether it's truly satisfying.
Let me be clear, we don't turn off the mind! There's no mind vs. heart in this conversation (that's dualism). We anchor the mind in the heart allowing our heart (the well spring of life) to do it's work of looking for patterns to see the whole.
All of us possess under-used subconscious faculties beyond just the intellect. Our dreams clue us in to this.
The practice of contemplation subtly provokes these muscles.