As I prepared to kick off The Contemplative Writer this fall, I spent some time thinking about that word in the website’s title — “contemplative.” It’s easy to toss the word around, and I more or less know what I mean when I say it . . . until you ask me. What does this term really mean? What or who is a contemplative? Am I? Are you?
As many of you probably know by now, I often turn to history for answers. A look at Christian history has helped me begin to grasp what it means to be a contemplative or perhaps just a contemplative person (or writer).
Christian contemplation originated early on and in a monastic context. It was one stage in lectio divina, or sacred reading – an important monastic discipline and one that many Christians still practice today. Lectio leads us to read the Bible but is not a form of Bible study. Instead, it’s a way to prayerfully and reflectively engage with a passage and listen to what God might be saying to us through it.
The traditional stages or parts of lectio divina are:
In this practice, contemplation is the final stage; it’s meant to flow naturally from reading Scripture, meditating on its meaning, and then praying. During contemplation, we enter a time of prayer in which we “hear” or “speak” the word of God largely without words. We are attentive and open to God’s love. Some describe this as “resting” in God’s presence.
Throughout the Middle Ages, contemplation remained a part of lectio divina. But it also became an independent exercise in The Cloud of Unknowing, a spiritual treatise written in the late 14th century. The anonymous author, a monk, gives guidance and even some steps for contemplation, which include the repetition of a single word to help focus the attention on God. He mostly refers to contemplation as a “special prayer.” Today, we call this practice contemplative prayer or centering prayer. To learn more, check out this book by M. Basil Pennington, Thomas Keating, and Thomas E. Clarke.
Contemplation can sometimes sound a bit esoteric. And historically, it was; it was limited to the literate, the scholarly, and/or to those in a monastic context. But a number of history’s monks and mystics highlight its relevance to “ordinary” people like you and me. The Cloud author, for example, describes contemplative prayer as a yearning for or reaching out to God. Even though God is in a large sense unknowable, our longing for him is the key.
In 1915, the Anglican mystic Evelyn Underhill wrote:
Though it is likely that the accusation will annoy you, you are already in fact a potential contemplative: for this act, as St. Thomas Aquinas taught, is proper to all . . . is, indeed, the characteristic human activity (from Underhill’s book, Practical Mysticism).
Underhill describes contemplation as “the” characteristic human activity because all seek to draw near to God . . . even if our drawing near happens in a kind of cloud.
Drawing on these historical sources, I might summarize the contemplative life as a deep-rooted, daily desire to draw near to God. Prayer and silent prayer are good aids to this life, and other practices might be, too – Bible reading, general reading, experiencing the natural world, and sacred friendship, to name a few.
I also love this definition by a group of Poor Clares: “The contemplative life is a life long journey to God in prayer and worship, turning from all else that could make the journey less direct.”
We are all on this journey, friends; the journey of life! And this means:
The Contemplative Writer is for you.
Contemplation is for you.
And, above all —
God is for you.