Guigo II’s Definition of Contemplation

Ladder of Monks and Twelve Meditations

Ladder of Monks and Twelve Meditations

Contemplation is when the mind is in some sort lifted up to God and held above itself, so that it tastes the joys of everlasting sweetness.

— Guigo II, The Ladder of Monks

The most commonly taught method of lectio divina — involving reading the Bible or some other sacred text, reflecting on the text, responding to it in prayer, and then resting in God’s presence in contemplative silence — comes from a short essay called “the Ladder of Monks” written in the twelfth century by a Carthusian monk called Guigo II. Guigo’s definition of contemplation is tantalizing, describing it as entailing “the mind… lifted up to God and held above itself.” But is this definition useful? What are we to make of it? Is contemplation literally going “out of your mind”? 

At the risk of being overly whimsical, I think the answer is yes. Remember, Guigo is using a metaphorical ladder to describe the practice of lectio, so it makes sense that he speaks of contemplation in terms of ascent. But I think we can make the argument that the mind “above itself” in Guigo’s words is actually the experience of metanoia, or the “mind beyond itself” that Jesus spoke of — and that is generally translated into English using the impoverished word “repent.” The metanoia experience involves a new, or deeper, or higher form of mindfulness, in which we break free of the ordinary contours of the everyday attachments and entanglements that form the warp and woof of the thoughts and feelings that constitute “consciousness.” If I am aware, then I am aware of something: and typically, self-awareness means awareness of being embodied, of thinking, of feeling. Metanoia calls us to our truest self, to what the Hindu teacher Ramana Maharshi called the “I-I” — the ability of consciousness to transcend ordinary self-awareness, to be able to see, to know, to recognize “something deeper” than the quotidian flow and flux of thoughts/feelings/body-awareness. In other words, metanoia means recognizing the always, already-present presence of God within us.

And just how do we do this? Often, metanoia comes as sheer grace, an unexpected gift given to one who is not at all expecting it. A surprise from the heart of Love. But contemplation — the ability to deeply rest in our inner silence to the point of being able to recognize that there is a vast ground of being that precedes and transcends the ordinary “stuff” of human awareness — can be a powerful means of reaching the threshold of metanoia. At the risk of making it sound as if such an experience of God can be engineered by our own efforts, let me hasten to say that the gift (the love and presence of God) is already given; contemplation merely represents our faltering and clumsy efforts to unwrap the treasure so that we might more fully enjoy it — as Guigo notes by describing it as tasting “the joys of everlasting sweetness.”

Granted, the practice of silent prayer does not always feel so sweet. Indeed it often seems boring or anxiety-producing, since it brings us to face to face with the mundane, inane, but also primal and narcissistic depths of our everyday self-concept. But in those graced moments when we are able to remain non-attached to the inner narrator who names the contemplative experience as “boring” or “distracted” — when we allow ourselves to notice, and receive, the vast silence beyond the petty turmoil within ourselves — that’s when we taste the sweetness!

Why Trappists Make Great Spiritual Guides
Preliminary Practices for Christian Contemplatives
Emptiness and Non-Attachment
Pentecost and Ecstasy
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.