This is part of a series on “Why Contemplation is Revolutionary.” If you want to start at the beginning, follow this link: The Archbishop and the Community Theologian.
The other day, I wrote this about contemplation:
It’s really just practice in a new way of seeing. ”Simply seeing things in a new light — this is what contemplation is,” remarked Brian D. McLaren in his book A Generous Orthodoxy. He’s right. Then there’s Richard Rohr, who describes contemplation as “learning to see as the mystics see” in his book The Naked Now.
How do we see “as the mystics see”? Simple: contemplation is a way of seeing without judgment, without dividing that which we observe into this or that category. It’s a way of seeing not dualistically, but holistically.
I wanted to underline that thought, because today we consider this quote from Kenneth Leech:
It is in the midst of chaos and crisis that [contemplatives] pursue the vision of God and experience the conflict which is at the core of the contemplative search. They become part of that conflict and begin to see into the heart of things.
So when Brian McLaren, or Richard Rohr, or even I talk about contemplative prayer as a way of “seeing things in a new light” or “seeing as the mystics see” or “seeing without judgment, holistically” these are all subsets of what is the ultimate purpose of Christian contemplation: the pursuit of the vision of God.
Here is the line that separates Christian contemplation from many other forms of meditation, from shamatha to mindfulness-based stress reduction. Without in any way knocking those other forms of meditation, it’s important to recall that they are essentially non-theistic practices: pursuing the vision of God is not an ingredient in zazen or Buddhist insight meditation or any other of a host of meditative practices. That’s not to say such practices are wrong or inferior; they just have a different focus and orientation. What puts the “Christian” in Christian contemplation is precisely the fact that the relaxed attentiveness of contemplative silence is understood as a type of prayer: a way of responding to God, and seeking God.
Christian contemplation is about silence, and relaxation, and attentiveness, and mindfulness, and stress reduction: all those wonderful benefits that we recognize come from a regular meditation practice. In addition, Christian contemplation seeks to be present to the presence of God, regardless of whether such presence is “felt” or “experienced” — or not.
Christianity affirms that God is omnipresent. “If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.” (Psalm 139:8) So God is always present, whether we perceive God’s presence or not. In fact, generally speaking, we do not perceive God’s presence: “Truly, you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Savior.” (Isaiah 45:15) This is the ultimate mystical paradox: we are immersed in the presence of a hidden God. Contemplation, therefore, is a way to, without stirring up the imagination and getting lost in a maze of pretend-experience, make ourselves available to the Divine presence. And because meditation, as a physical discipline, is so good at fostering deep relaxation, reduced mental activity, and inner serenity, there are times when we can experience contemplative prayer as a profoundly peaceful experience.
But that it not its purpose, or its main purpose. Contemplation is about pursuing the vision of God, and that pursuit takes us into the heart of things, not things as we wish they were, but things as they really are. For God is not a God who hovers above the messy reality of the world, but rather a God of compassion, and love, and care — in other words, a God who plunges deep into the “chaos and crisis” of all the woundedness and brokenness of the world we live in — both in an “external” sense as well as an “internal” sense.
If we truly want the vision of God, we have to look for God where God is — in the midst of things, in the heat of conflict, in the cries of those who suffer, in the lamentations of the poor and the disenfranchised, and in the turmoil within our hearts and minds. God is not in the mist of chaos and crisis because God caused such things (theodicy 101: God permits evil because God has granted us free will), but rather because it is God’s nature to be compassionately present in the midst of suffering and pain. And this is true whether it is the suffering of a clear-cut forest, a family ravaged by addiction, a nation at war, or a restless heart and mind.
Contemplation is not a tool for achieving inner peace (even though at times it can be a deeply serene practice); rather, it will bring us face to face with all the ways in which we lack true peace and equipoise. Why? Because it is precisely in that place of inner struggle where the vision of God is mostly likely to be found.
Remember, “the vision of God” is a double entendre. It means being able to see God even if only in a spiritual sense; but it also means being able to see as God sees. Remember Meister Eckhart’s “eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me.” In contemplation I seek to behold God who is Love, and I also seek to behold “God in all things” which means to look with the eyes of Love on all the chaos and crisis in my life, whether inside me or outside of me. So contemplation brings us face to face with our inner crisis and chaos so that we may learn to respond with love and compassion to our inner mess. And that, my friends, is an important key to how contemplation empowers us to respond to all the chaos and crisis in the world, as well.
Next, we will look at how contemplation is a way of sharing in the passion of Christ.
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