Why Contemplation is Revolutionary (Part One)

Contemplation helps us to see from a new angle.
Contemplation helps us to see from a new angle. Photo by Fran McColman, used by permission.

In yesterday’s post (The Archbishop and the Community Theologian) I quoted two renowned living contemplatives — emeritus Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and author/community theologian Kenneth Leech — both speaking of the communal and social implications of contemplative prayer.

Naysayers, stand aside. Contemplative prayer is not about navel-gazing or self-absorbed “spiritual experiences.” Indeed, anyone who explores contemplation only out of a desire for mystical experience or personal fulfillment will probably not stick with it for too long (unless he or she realizes that prayer is more about what you give than what you get). As these two Anglican divines have so eloquently stated, contemplation changes things — from the inside out, of course; but it is by the way in which we are changed from within that we are inspired to create, to heal, and to transform the world in which we live.

Yesterday I identified ten key points about contemplation and transformation from what Williams and Leech had to say on the topic. Now I’d like to take a closer look at each of these ten points in turn. So today’s post is the first of a series. My hope is that by the time we consider all ten of the points, we will have a strong case for why contemplative prayer is one of the most transformational practices available to people of faith.

The first point about contemplation: “it is the key to prayer, liturgy, art and ethics,” in the words of the Archbishop. I’ll assume since he was speaking as a Christian leader to a gathering of Christian bishops, he means specifically Christian prayer, liturgy, art, and ethics. But certainly one could argue that in a general sense, contemplative practice is a key to each of these topics also in a general sense. But for the sake of simplicity and focus, I’ll leave that discussion for others to explore.

Contemplation is a way of seeing. Specifically, it is a form of silent, wordless prayer which seeks to behold God with the same eye with which God beholds us, as pointed out by Meister Eckhart in his Sermon 16 (Selected Writings, p. 179). Of course, such a way of seeing is not something we can engineer or achieve, but by grace, trusting in the love of God and the promise of Christ that through him we are one with God (John 17:20-24). So to say contemplation is the key to prayer & liturgy, or art, or ethics, we are saying that in God we seek to see these things in a new way, a new light — with the eyes of God, that is to say, to see from God’s point of view. So through wordless silence, which on the surface feels like doing nothing and wasting time, we are in fact opening our eyes, our mind and heart, our spirit to God, seeking to be able to see as God would have us see.

In this new, contemplative, way of seeing, prayer becomes much more than simply “talking to God” as most of us learned as children (“Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep”). Childlike, prayerful self-disclosure to God remains always a lovely avenue of spirituality, but within the eyes of contemplation, prayer beomes a way to radically listen to God — God speaks in “the sound of sheer silence” (I Kings 19:12), at a level deeper than words, feelings, or thought. So prayer is true communion, where God acts, and we respond, by loving presence in the silence. Such silent prayer does not render all the other, “wordy” types of prayer unnecessary, but rather transforms verbal prayer into that same loving communion — for every word is spoken against a backdrop of silence.

Likewise, liturgy becomes so much more than just public ritual and worship: it becomes a shimmering three-way conversation between the self (the individual), the community, and God. The words of liturgy come to us through the community and the tradition, whether grounded in scripture, in the Psalms and canticles, or in the countless antiphons, responsories, hymns and prayers that have come to comprise the liturgy. When we pray the liturgy, we always pray with others, even if we are physically alone, for we pray with the words of those who have gone before us. So liturgical prayer unites love of God and love of neighbor into a single chorus of prayerful words, again, against the backdrop of infinite silence. A contemplative approach to the liturgy reveals that God is truly the nexus, the heart of the action: we receive words from the tradition, we offer them prayerfully to God, who receives those prayers in silence, and loves us in the silence even while using those same words to nurture our continual growth in the Spirit. Contemplation, in short, makes liturgy come alive.

To approach art in a spirit of contemplation means to make oneself vulnerable to behold the beauty in art — or, sometimes, to behold the lack of beauty when art testifies to its absence. But contemplative silence is subtle training in the relationship between presence and absence: in the initially-terrifying spaciousness of deep silence, we discover that even when God “feels absent” God is present in and under the sense-of-absence. So even art which purports to shock, to repel, or to disgust — art which is about not beauty, but beauty’s absence — can, when approached contemplatively rather than dualistically, reveal the hidden mystery of Divine Splendor (I should also mention that this works both ways, and a contemplative approach to art, even classically “beautiful” art like traditional Christian imagery, can through contemplation reveal its social and political undertones, which sometimes are not nearly as edifying as the art itself is said to be).

Finally, how does contemplation provide the key to ethics? One important difference between seeing things through “ordinary” eyes of humanity, and the contemplative way of beholding as God’s eye would see, is the difference between being caught in what has been called “oppositional” reality — where conflict, discord, or behavior are seen in terms of division, such as right-vs.-wrong, good-vs.-evil, acceptable-vs.-unacceptable — and non-oppositional or nondual awareness, where even our conflicts and divisions are seen primarily through the all-embracing, all-encompassing, unifying love of God. Such nondual view does not negate the realities of ethical concerns — harmful, wrong, or sinful actions remain as such, as well as benevolent, good, or helpful acts still fundamentally so — but contemplation sees all things, good or bad, evil or holy, through the eyes of God, which is to say, through the eyes of love. So contemplative ethics are grounded in love rather than wrath, in reconciliation rather than rejection, in rehabilitation rather than punishment. Contemplative ethics are the ethics of grace, of compassion, and of inclusion. It’s an ethics where “everything belongs” (as taken from the title of Richard Rohr’s book on contemplation). So when we weigh matters of right and wrong, law and morality, and other ethical concerns, contemplation is the key to an ethics that is grounded in Divine Love rather than human conditionality.

To summarize: contemplation is the key to prayer because it teaches us to listen rather than to talk all the time. It is the key to liturgy because it beckons us to view liturgy through the eyes of Divine Love, rather than just our own limited perception, which makes the liturgy come alive as communal prayer, even when prayed in physical solitude. It is the key to art because it conditions us to appreciate beauty (and even the lack of beauty) from a God’s-eye perspective. And finally, it is the key to ethics because contemplation opens us to approach ethics from the expansive, grace-filled inclusion of Divine love and compassion, where forgiveness and mercy take precedence over vengeance or retribution.

Next up: how contemplation is a key to a renewed humanity.


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  • I’m an artist. I discovered early on in my career that contemplation (though I might not have used that term, if any) is a major part of the creative process. There are technical and mechanical aspects, as well, but contemplation, pretty much as you’ve described it, is essential. I’ve also found that looking at art requires the same thoughtful—or thought-less—approach.

  • This was beautiful!I start my day with 2 1-2 hours of silence and another 45 minutes of meditation at a local abbey.Tomorrow {at the same abbey}they are having a meditation workshop from 9 till 4!

    Peace and blessings,


  • I like what you write because you express the truth clearly and simply. You must be a happy man. However, since I’m sure you don’t have time to study art like artists do, your description of it is understandably colored by convention. The social and political undertones, for instance, while widely discussed and taken very seriously are usually quite misleading and generally reflect back whatever the viewer thinks. Sometimes the actual message is the opposite of appearances. If you look at a few entries ( they are very brief) on my site, Every Painter Paints Himself (www.EPPH.org), you will see that all art from at least the Middle Ages onwards is, on its most fundamental level, a depiction of the artist’s mind as God’s mind, the pure Mind or simply Man’s Mind. This is as true of Giotto as of Picasso, Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. They do this – as you do – by turning inwards. And, though I don’t write about it, the archaeologist David Lewis-Williams believes that early homo sapiens imposed the pattern of his mind on his environment and turned awe-inspiring caverns deep underground into a 3-D representation of the neolithic mind complete with mental images on the wall. You may know that R.A. Schwaller de Lubicz showed how the Holy of Holies in Egyptian temples are representations of the pharaonic mind. And Michelangelo did the same in the Sistine Chapel which he turned into a 3-D representation of his own mind purified. I discovered the latter long before reading Lewis-Williams or Schaller.

    What is astonishing is that few viewers except artists ever see this and the latter keep silent. Perhaps the easiest demonstration of the depth of misunderstanding among the cognoscenti are the great portraits of Western art. I show, for instance, how five celebrated portraits of Napoleon each resemble the artist who painted it as do portraits of America’s Founding Fathers and virtually all British and French monarchs since the Renaissance including the latest, Pietro Annigoni’s and Lucian Freud’s two portraits of Elizabeth II. In addition, in the Mona Lisa, Raphael’s La Fornarina and La Gravida, Parmigianino’s Anthea, Titian’s La Bella and other important female portraits, the identities of the sitters remain unknown for a good reason. They never existed. They all resemble the artist, representing the feminine faculty, fertile and creative, in the artist’s androgynous or non-gendered mind.

    So you strike a chord in a secular Jew and I read your site religiously.

    • Carl McColman

      I see what you are saying, and while as a theist I accept at least the language of God as transcendent, certainly to be an artist is to be in the business of (re)creating the world, which begins, as you point out, in the artist’s own consciousness. Hopefully a contemplative view of art makes this more transparent both to the artist and to those who appreciate the artist’s work.

  • Lillian Lewis

    Dear Carl,

    I like the way you do this blog, including the Celtic meandering that greets me each time…also, check out Robert Sardello’s SILENCE. you will like it. All Shall Be Well, yes, Lil Lewis

    • Carl McColman

      Here’s some serendipity: I just ordered a copy of Sardello’s Silence: the Mystery of Wholeness yesterday. You are not the first to have recommended it.

  • [“Finally, how does contemplation provide the key to ethics? One important difference between seeing things through “ordinary” eyes of humanity, and the contemplative way of beholding as God’s eye would see, is the difference between being caught in what has been called “oppositional” reality — where conflict, discord, or behavior are seen in terms of division, such as right-vs.-wrong, good-vs.-evil, acceptable-vs.-unacceptable — and non-oppositional or nondual awareness…”]

    As I’ve shared before, Jeanne de Salzman writes eloquently on some of these issues. You may or may not have seen this on my (personal) Facebook page, but I think these paragraphs speak to the ethical side of the equation:

    “This ordinary “I,” our ego, is always preoccupied with what pleases or displeases it—what “I” like or what “I” dislike—in a perpetual closing that becomes fixed. It desires, fights, defends itself, compares and judges all the time. It wants to be the first, to be admired and to make its force, its power, felt. This “I” is a center of possession in which all the experiences inscribed in our memory are accumulated. And it is from this center that I wish “to do”— to change, to have more, to improve. I want to become this, to acquire that. This “I” always wants to possess more. With ambition, avidity, it always has to become something better. Why does the “I” have this exaggerated need to be something, to make sure of it, and to express this at every moment? It has a fear of being nothing. Is not identification, at its core, based on fear?


    “When the mind is freer and truly quiet, there is a sense of insecurity, but within it there is complete security because the ordinary “I” is absent. My mind is no longer moved by the wish “to do” on the part of my “I,” by its demands, by its ambitions, even for my own inner growth. In this tranquility all the responses, reactions and movements of this “I” are left behind. My mind is at rest, stilled by the vision of what is. An order is established that I cannot institute myself but to which I need actively to submit. I feel a kind of respect, and suddenly I see that it is trust. I have confidence in this order, in this law, more than in myself. I entrust myself to it with my whole being” (from “119. The affirmation of myself”).

    ~ The Reality of Being: The Fourth way of Gurdieff — by Jeanne de Salzmann


    In contemplative awareness, we abide in Christ:

    “You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I Am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from [the Divine presence that “I Am”] you can do nothing” (John 15:3-5) [paraphrased].

    When we truly abide in Christ, we have effectively exchanged our will for God’s will. It is only when we die in this way– our life being hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:3) –that the joy of our salvation is truly realized and we become obedient from the heart (Romans 6:17; cf. Hebrews 8:10). Reminiscent of the verses in John 15, quoted above, it is at this point that we begin to

    “bear fruit for God . . . not under the old written code, but in the new life of the Spirit” (Romans 7:4,6).