Reflection, Contemplation, and Prayer:
A Triad of Spiritual Awareness
Part 5: Contemplation
For the Christian, the question is not “Can I connect with God?” but rather “am I aware of God?” Awareness is the same thing as being conscious, present in the moment of the moment's presence. Awareness is the knowing of a thing beyond sound and sensation; it is a connection that exists below the surface and permeates deep into the being. Sitting alone in my house reading, I suddenly become aware of a change, a subtle shift in the world around me. It is a ripple in the flow of life into which we pour ourselves, discerning anew that we were already aware of.
For the purpose of this series, I have separated Contemplation from Reflection and defined them as overlapping, but different:
Reflection: 1. Approaching a time, object, memory, or circumstance with the intention of seeing God at work. 2. Engaging a time, object, memory, or circumstance, such as recalling a memory or looking at a crucifix, focused on God to perceive God reflected in the moment/object.
Contemplation: 1. To be fully present in our heart and mind, focused on one aspect of our selves while also being emptied of the self in order for God to be present. 2. Intentionally emptying the mind of thought to provide a quietude to encounter God.
Paradoxically, Christian contemplation is as if one is being emptied and filled at the same time–a series of moments in which the individual empties her mind and heart even as she is being deeply filled. Ultimately, contemplation is the state of being fully aware with God and God being fully present with us. We embrace the connection of self and the divine which is ever present, in order to become what we already are, but is dangerously obscured.
The goal of Christian contemplation is to simply be with God at rest, to be in the presence of God – “resting in God,” as Gregory the Great called it – and enjoying the love of Christ. In an odd way, the state of emptying is in itself an action filled with effort and distraction. How do we achieve the peace which enables emptying?
John Cassian, also known as John the Ascetic (c. AD 360 – c. 435), was a Christian monk and theologian who penned much on the mystical way. As he writes in The Contemplative Life:
“To cling always to God and to the things of God—this must be our major effort; this must be the road that the heart follows unswervingly. Any diversion, however impressive, must be regarded as secondary, low-grade, and certainly dangerous.” (Conferences, Vol. I, 8, 42.)
The danger Cassian speaks of is something you and I experience constantly. When I was young, I remember watching a movie (the name escapes me) where one man yelled at another, “You're losing your soul!” It was very dramatic. I was impressed by the danger the man was in, but I didn’t really know what the man meant. I do now. It wasn't about his soul being ripped away, torn from him by some horrible creature; he was literally losing it.
And our illustrious C. S. Lewis writes in Screwtape Letters, instructing Wormwood of the subtlety of loss:
You will say that these are very small sins; and doubtless, like all young tempters, you are anxious to be able to report spectacular wickedness. But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy. It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts. (Letter 12)
Lewis answers Cassian by giving flesh and blood to the dangers once spoken of. It’s the small things, or rather, the lack of the small things, that will do us in: fewer and fewer small ways of seeing God, hearing God, thanking God, small moments of devotion, and small thoughts of others, the safest road…is the gradual one.
The need for awareness–the contemplation of God–is rooted in the core of our being. Drawing close to God is what we were meant for, and God waits for us patiently inside every moment. The how of achieving this is two-fold: as Cassian said, “To cling always to God and to the things of God—this must be our major effort.” So yes, it is an effort.
In preparation for your prayer time, as you reflect on that passage of scripture, your reward will be your growing awareness of yourself. The effort to include God in the fabric of your day changes the tapestry of your life. The picture is different, you are not alone, and you can see it.
In your prayer time, whether or not you have suffered through the stages (part 4) or experienced the prayer awareness trap (part 1), you are able to Contemplate. Contemplation is emptying. Emptying yourself of the thoughts that assail your effort to be quiet requires an effort that itself can become a trap. Thinking about not thinking about the things you think about often produces a “Mobius strip” of the mind. While it may be ‘natural’ to respond with frustration over your inability to find quietude, the better response is to talk.
What should you do when this happens? Talk to God, laugh at the event, and invite God into the moment as a partner and companion. God is not somewhere else, and you have to find him; God is right there with you. Now, try again. Before or after your “formal” prayers, simply stop and think no more. I know; that's easy to say…
The key here is to remember, as you seek to quiet your mind, that God is already there in that place of waiting. Now slow down; time itself will drag and flounder. God is helping you to be at peace and quiet and suddenly, or slowly, you are there. This is the place of Contemplation.
In the end, Contemplation is not something that can be achieved through will, but rather it’s God’s gift. It is the opening of mind and heart – one’s whole being – to God. Contemplation is a process of interior transformation. It is a relationship initiated by God and, as we participate in it, leading to divine union.
Isaac the Syrian (c. 613 – c. 700), also remembered as Abba Isaac, was a 7th-century bishop and theologian best remembered for his written works on Christian asceticism. One of the greatest spiritual thinkers, he describes Contemplation and the fruits of Contemplation in his Ascetic Treatise 31:
The joy of prayer is one thing; the prayer of contemplation is another. The latter is more precious than the former, as an adult is more advanced than a child. The verses of a psalm may be very delightful on the tongue, and the singing of a single verse during prayer may prevent us from continuing and passing on to another verse, so inexhaustible is it. But it may also happen that prayer gives rise to contemplation, which interrupts what the lips are saying. Then the person is in ecstasy. Contemplation makes him, as it were, a body without breath. This is what we call the prayer of contemplation . . . but there is still a measure in this contemplation . . . it is always a prayer. The meditation has not yet reached the point where there is no longer any prayer. It has not yet arrived at the higher state. In fact, the movements of the tongue and of the heart are keys. And what comes next is entry into the treasure house. Here every tongue and every mouth falls silent and the heart, too, that gathers together the thoughts, and the spirit that governs the senses, and the work of meditation. They are like a flutter of impudent birds. Let their activity cease . . . for the Master of the house has come.
Through the heart, you are led to God. By the Holy Spirit, you are joined with Christ.
A more elevated state of the soul . . . it is the contemplation of God alone, an immeasurable fire of love. The soul settles in it and sinks into its depths. It converses with God as with its own Father, very familiarly, with special tenderness. - Cassian, Conferences IX, 18, 111–112.
Father Bill Burk†