I’ll make my curmudgeonly confession: I am over the word “contemplation.” If I never hear it again, that’s fine with me.
The word used to have a specific, even technical meaning within the context of Christian spirituality. Now it’s a trendy hashtag. It signals to readers, skeptics, and the spiritually curious that this Christianity is not like that Christianity. This Christianity is politically progressive, at home with metaphor, and engaged in deeper matters of the heart and spirit than fundamentalism.
I’m sympathetic to the need for such a marker. I often find that the kind of Christianity in which I make my home has more in common with progressive Islam, Judaism, and the like than it does with fundamentalist Christianity. I do think it’s important that the world see that there are Chrsitianities that are not obsessed with right belief in a set of static principles and that value deep and prayerful relationship with God.
But that is not what “contemplation” means. Contemplation is not the same thing as silent prayer, Centering Prayer, or Christian Meditation. It is not a method or a practice. It is not a goal. Contemplation–which means total absorption in the reality of God, without filters or images–is the pure gift of God. It is grace, and there is nothing whatsoever we can do to achieve or earn it.
This definition may sound like mere semantic arguing. It isn’t.
However good the motive behind the trendy use of “contemplation” and “contemplative” in certain circles of the Church (and, yes, I know that, at the risk of hypocrisy, the tagline of this blog is “reflections on contemplative Christian spirituality…” which I plan to change immediately), the result is that we end up turning grace into a commodity.
We end up believing that the revelation of our total unity with God is something we can achieve. There is a methodology to it, a set of steps that we can follow from point A to point B. If we can achieve this grace, then it isn’t grace at all. It’s a reward for right effort.
That is not how prayer works. At best, our prayer is a continual signal to our soul that we consent to God’s secret work within us. That work remains secret, though. And for most of us that will be true for the entirety of our earthly lives. We may receive a moment–mere milliseconds–of revelation, just enough to let us know that God really is secretly at work within us. Most of us will not have the blinding revolution of being that never fades or falters.
I do believe that we make progress in the spiritual life, and I do believe that our effort to show up matters and has a tangible effect on the way we are in the world. I also have learned, and continue to learn, that there is a wall you eventually hit that you cannot climb through your own effort.
This experience is also grace, though it feels like failure. Most us have to exhaust our own efforts before we’ll even consider the nuclear option: surrender to God.
Merton puts it this way in New Seeds of Contemplation:
Let us never forget that the ordinary way to contemplation lies through a desert without trees and without beauty and without water. The spirit enters a wilderness and travels blindly in directions that seem to lead away from vision, away from God, away from all fulfillment and joy. It may become almost impossible to believe that this road goes anywhere at all except to a desolation full of dry bones–the ruin of all our hopes and good intentions.
The prospect of this wilderness is something that so appalls most [people] that they refuse to enter upon its burning sands and travel among its rocks. They cannot believe that contemplation and sanctity are to be found in a desolation where there is no food and no shelter and no refreshment for their imagination and intellect and for the desires of their nature.
Convinced that perfection is to be measured by brilliant intuitions of God and fervent resolutions of a will on fire with love, persuaded that sanctity is a matter of sensible fervor and tangible results, they will have nothing to do with a contemplation that does not delight their reason and invest their minds and wills with consolation and sensible joy. They want to know where they are going and see what they are doing, and as soon as they enter into regions where their own activity becomes paralyzed and bears no visible fruit, they turn around and go back to the lush fields where they can be sure that they are doing something and getting somewhere. And if they cannot achieve the results they desire with such intense anxiety, at least they convince themselves that they have made great progress if they have said many prayers, performed many mortifications, preached many sermons, read (and perhaps written) many books and articles, paged through many books of meditations, acquired hundreds of new and different devotions and girdled the earth with pilgrimages. Not that all of these things are not good in themselves: but there are times in the life of a [person] when they can become an escape, an anodyne, a refuge from the responsibility of suffering in darkness and obscurity and helplessness, and allowing God to strip us of our false selves and make us into the new [persons] that we are really meant to be.Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, pp. 235-236.
The surge in so-called “contemplative Christianity,” arises from a deep desire to know and love God in ways that are life-giving to the person and to the whole world. This movement is good and holy. And still, we must hold open space for a true experience of contemplation and for prayer that leads us to the edge of our own sufficiency and then pushes us over into the abyss of God’s loving arms.
When Jesus says that no one is good but God alone, he isn’t being flippant. He is trying to tell us that all goodness and all mercy and all grace arise from and return to God. The best chance we have is to allow ourselves to be born upon the waves of God’s goodness. By our own powers we will drown.
The good news is that God is good, and that is everything.