What Is Contemplation?

I like Thomas Merton’s description of what contemplation is, and what it is not. What he says is in keeping with the great majority of writers in the history of Christian spirituality. I’d refer you to the first couple of chapters of his book, New Seeds of Contemplation. For Merton, it really is “spiritual wonder.” It is awareness of the presence of God. It is a sense of spiritual vision that sees, but that understands that what it sees is incomplete. That whatever it can say about God must be unsaid. It is to reach beyond what is known and understood to relate to God, to experience his presence. To be present to his love. It is at the same time a response to him.

“It is the religious apprehension of God, through my life in God, or through ‘sonship’ as the New Testament says. ‘For whoever are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God. … The Spirit Himself gives testimony to our own spirit that we are the sons of God.’ … And so the contemplation of which I speak is a religious and transcendent gift. “

And so it is equally important to say what it is not.

“It is not something to which we can attain alone, by intellectual effort, by perfecting our natural powers. It is not a kind of self-hypnosis, resulting from concentration on our own inner spiritual being. It is not the fruit of our own efforts.  …

“Contemplation is not prayerfulness, or a tendency to find peace and satisfaction in liturgical rites. … It is not something we plan to obtain with our practical reason, but the living water of the spirit that we thirst for, like a hunted deer thirsting after a river in the wilderness.  …

“Contemplation is not trance or ecstasy, nor the hearing of sudden unutterable words, nor the imagination of lights. It is not the emotional fire and sweetness that come with religious exaltation. It is not enthusiasm, the sense of being ‘seized’ by an elemental force and swept into liberation by mystical frenzy.”

I’d put it this way–it is humility in the presence of God. It is that state that Job was in at the end of God’s theophany:

1Then Job answered the LORD and said:
2“I know that you can do all things,
and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
3 ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
4‘Hear, and I will speak;
I will question you, and you make it known to me.’
5I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
but now my eye sees you;
6therefore I despise myself,
and repent in dust and ashes.”