What does it mean to be contemplative? How do we go about becoming contemplative?
Are there steps we need to follow, a manual we need to read?
It is easy for us to assume being contemplative is like being an introvert or being left handed.
Being contemplative is something we can choose to do. We are not able to choose whether we will be introverted or extroverted or which hand we prefer to use.
What exactly do we mean when we talk about becoming contemplative?
Most of the definitions I read of contemplative emphasize prolonged thought. We tend to think of people sitting and thinking deep thoughts.
Many of us believe people consider what to have for dinner but we contemplate the meaning of life.
I was not born into a particularly contemplative spirituality. Sitting and thinking deep thoughts was not particularly attractive to my younger self.
Most of my thinking time was about how to do things, not about why we did them. Contemplation was too complicated and more than a little boring to me.
Contemplation tended to put me to sleep. It brought to my mind all the other things I could be doing if I were not just sitting there thinking.
Part of the reason I did not find contemplation engaging was I thought I already had a handle on some good answers. After school, I practiced law as a criminal prosecutor. It was a good job for knowing the right answers and sharing them with other people.
I enjoyed arguing cases in court. With so much to do there was not much time for prolonged deep thinking.
My interest in exploring contemplative spirituality began when I began to see there were holes between my answers. I could look through those holes and see new questions.
Becoming Contemplative One Step at a Time
For me, contemplation began to catch fire when I started to question some of my most basic assumptions. People helped me reexamine my essential beliefs about spirituality and about life. It was a time for me to begin sitting and thinking deep thoughts.
I began to practice sitting still and started to realize it was more than not doing anything. People helped me appreciate the power of listening to sacred stillness.
Contemplation is about releasing all the noise and distractions of our everyday lives. We sit still, breathe deeply, close our eyes, and listen to what the stillness has to teach us.
Contemplative practices help me recognize and appreciate the value of the stillness between words. Together the words and the stillness are a complete whole.
Each day we follow contemplative practices which open us to deep truths. The words and the space between them create the tapestry of spiritual life.
The practices we follow are the steps which lead us to become contemplative.
My experience has not been a matter of deciding I wanted to be more contemplative and setting out to change. For me, being contemplative is more about taking one step at a time, step after step. Contemplative spirituality is more of a growing relationship than a series of intellectual commitments.
It is not enough for us to merely implement a plan or follow instructions. Our contemplation is participating in a conversation with spiritual life.
We build new relationships by spending time sharing ourselves with each other. Any new friendship grows deeper as we tell our stories and listen. Our acquaintanceship becomes a friendship, and perhaps something more intimate as we share words and stillness.
Becoming contemplative is about asking questions and listening, laughing together and crying together.
Our Next Step Toward Becoming Contemplative
Many of us talk about contemplative practices which help us become open to spiritual life in new ways.
Some of us follow prayer practices like centering prayer and others. These practices can introduce us to how spiritual life communicates with us beyond thoughts, words, and feelings.
We may find a reading practice like lectio divina or others. These practices are designed to help us read slowly and calmly as we listen the what spiritual life has to tell us.
Many of us explore our own personal spiritual practices which may build on more traditional ones. In my own life, practices such as spiritual direction, monastic life, and theological reflection help me practice my way toward contemplative spirituality.
One of the things I most appreciate about contemplative spirituality is how our practices are never completed. We do not arrive at contemplative spirituality, we do not become contemplatives. We are always becoming.
Each time we practice is another opportunity to open new doors and discover new aspects of our relationship. It is not our intention to achieve or earn some level of understanding.
Contemplative spirituality is not our destination. We are on a path of exploration.
Becoming Contemplative in Everyday Life
Our eyes are opened to contemplation in new ways each day. We do not need to go to a particular place or mark a special day on our calendar to find it.
Listening to sacred stillness allows us to experience spiritual life in ways we have not found it before.
Like flowers which open to the sun each day, becoming contemplative helps us become open to spiritual life.
When we feel alone, lost, or abandoned, spiritual life is with us. We take time to sit and listen, to breathe, to recognize the loving presence of spiritual life.
Spiritual life, though, is not merely a comfortable quilt in which we wrap ourselves. It prompts us to act.
Everyday life is not simply a dualistic choice between contemplation or action. Our reflection prompts us to act and our actions fuel our reflection. Choosing to explore contemplative spirituality is not either/or. It is both/and.
We listen and spiritual life opens us to more than we could imagine.
Contemplative spirituality is infinitely more than sitting still to think deep thoughts.
How are we becoming contemplative in new ways today?
Where will becoming contemplative encourage us to go this week or this month?
[Image by Endomental Artistry]
Greg Richardson is a spiritual director in Southern California. He has served as an assistant district attorney, an associate university professor, and is a lay Oblate with New Camaldoli Hermitage near Big Sur, California. Greg’s website is StrategicMonk.com and his email address is StrategicMonk@gmail.com.