What is Contemplation?

It's Hard to Put a Wordless Spiritual Practice Into Words

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What is contemplation? Unfortunately, answering this question is tricky — for contemplation is like some other words in the English language, such as love or success or happiness.  In other words, different people use it to mean different things.

Recently a reader named Daniel sent me this message:

I’ve been gradually learning about contemplative spirituality for a couple of years now.  Throughout this journey I’ve continually wondered how “contemplation” should be defined.  I’ve discovered that it seems to mean different things in different contexts.  Nevertheless, I’ve often felt confused after contemplating the meaning of contemplation. Anyways, the purpose of my message is I’m wondering if you might be able to give me some of your thoughts/feedback/suggestions on the following definitions.  Anything would be welcomed!

Daniel went on to offer his thoughts about defining contemplation/contemplative/to contemplate:

As a noun: “Contemplation is personal, experiential knowledge of God’s love and presence.”
As an adjective: “Contemplative activities and disciplines are those that aim to foster a personal, experiential knowledge of God’s love and presence.”
As a verb: “To contemplate, as a way of being, is to live with a personal, experiential awareness of God’s love and presence.”

Here’s how I responded to Daniel:

I think it’s helpful to look at the etymology of word when parsing out its meaning. Contemplation comes from the Latin word contemplari which means “to gaze, observe, behold.” So contemplation has it its heart the sense of beholding God’s presence. There is both a visionary dimension to this (seeing) but also an embodied dimension (finding God within). That’s why I think the word “beholding” is so useful, since it implies both seeing and “holding” God.

I would encourage you to avoid the word experience. It has come to mean something very narcissistic in our culture, reducing God to an object of our feelings or sensations or even imagination.

I could have a very powerful (and entirely self- generated) “experience” of God, complete with mystical visions and exalted feelings, but it could leave me utterly un-transformed. Meanwhile, someone like Mother Teresa went through life with little if any conscious experience of God, yet she changed the world with her selfless love and service to the poorest of the poor. So which one of us is the true mystic?

This begs the question: what if you don’t have this kind of an “experience” of God? What if your time of contemplative is simply filled with restlessness, or boredom, or distracted thoughts? Is that “failed” contemplation? Or is God operating at a level below the threshold of our conscious awareness?

Put another way: is the goal of contemplation for me to experience God, or is it for God to experience me? After all, who is the active subject here, and who is the receptive object?

What does it mean “to experience” something anyway? Many people can’t define it, but when you get right down to it the word is often used as a way to subtly undermine the presence of God that comes to us through other people.

People say, “I don’t want dogma, I want to experience God directly.” But what is dogma, other than the collective wisdom of all the lovers of God, over many generations, who have gone before us? Why should I be so quick to throw all that out, just because (living in an entertainment-obsessed culture like we do) I want God to “entertain” me directly?

So, I would caution against relying too much on “experience” as a foundation for contemplation. Instead, I’d suggest defining it in terms of waiting, of loving, of trusting, of obeying. Also silence. We contemplate God when we trustingly await God’s leading in our lives, resting in the silence found within our hearts, which is to say within our own bodies (beneath and in between all our restless thoughts and feelings), seeking to obey God’s word for us wherever it may come from.

So you see, contemplation really invites us to a place much deeper than mere experience. But we can’t find that place unless we befriend silence, unknowing, trust, and a willingness to wait in the darkness of our lack of control over God.

The Best Definition of Contemplation That I Have Found

1574551108For what it’s worth, I find the definition of contemplation in the Catholic Catechism to be useful:

CONTEMPLATION: A form of wordless prayer in which mind and heart focus on God’s greatness and goodness in affective, loving adoration; to look on Jesus and the mysteries of his life with faith and love.

You’ll notice that it is consistent with the etymology of the word, and the “e” word doesn’t appear at all! Our task in contemplation is to pray in wordless (silent) love, adoration and beholding — recognizing that God comes to us in many ways, often at a level deeper than the threshold of our conscious awareness.

I hope this is helpful. Please let me know if you have further questions.


A few days later, Daniel replied:

I think my confusion over the meaning of contemplation stems from the fact that in some of what I read the term is used to refer to a subjective mystical experience, whereas in other instances it is used to refer to the act of gazing, beholding, and waiting upon God, as you explained.

Understanding the etymology is very helpful. So if “contemplation” or “contemplative prayer” is a spiritual disciple through which one seeks to silently behold and gaze upon God, then would you say that “contemplative spirituality” or “contemplative life” is a way of being through which one seeks to behold God within oneself, others, and all of creation and in every circumstance?

What still confuses me sometimes is the meaning of “contemplative” when it is applied to various things as an adjective (like prayer, disciplines, spirituality, life, Christianity, etc.).

I like your examples (contemplative spirituality, contemplative life). I think you’ve grasped the definition that I have found most useful — which is the definition found in the Catechism.

But as you yourself point out, since contemplation “seems to mean different things in different contexts” — in other words, people use the word in a variety of ways — naturally the adjective (contemplative) will have a similar “fuzzy” meaning. As I said above, it’s a word like love or happiness or success. Different people mean different things when they use these words, so we always have to try to discern exactly what they mean.

If you have an engineer’s mind (or simply prefer concrete ways of thinking), this will be an ongoing source of annoyance for you. My apologies. The way I deal with it is this: having found a definition that I think is both useful and reasonably accurate (i.e., the Catechism definition), that has become my “default” way of understanding contemplation/contemplative/to contemplate.

But knowing that this is one of those words that gets used in a variety of different ways, whenever I encounter these words, either in writing or in speaking with someone, I recognize that I have to discern what the author/speaker means by the word, which may not exactly line up with my understanding. That adds an extra challenge to the task of communication. But it’s an extra step worth taking, for the purpose of continuing to grow in my own spiritual life.

I’m sorry I can’t be any more definitive than this. But I hope this is at least somewhat helpful. My bottom line: the best definition I’ve ever found for contemplation is the Catechism definition, so when I use the word, I use it with that definition in mind. But when I hear or read others using it, I recognize that they may have a different understanding of the concept, so I make the effort to comprehend where they’re coming from.

God bless you on your continued journey.

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Author of Befriending Silence, Christian Mystics, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Catechist. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

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12 thoughts on “What is Contemplation?

  1. “CONTEMPLATION: A form of wordless prayer in which mind and heart focus on God’s greatness and goodness in affective, loving adoration; to look on Jesus and the mysteries of his life with faith and love.”

    Interesting article and topic, however I’m not totally onboard with dismissing the notion of ‘experience’ from the definition. Everything is an experience. Breathing during a session of contemplative prayer is experiencing breathing while engaged in contemplative prayer, although breathing may not be what we pray contemplatively for, or the reason for which we contemplate. Or, if you don’t like the idea of “what” (suggesting that we are praying or contemplating for something), then there is at the very least a ‘why’ we contemplate or pray contemplatively. And pray tell (I couldn’t resist the pun!) what is the “why”?

    Well, according to the above definition, to experience the mind and heart focussing on God’s greatness and goodness, etc, etc..

    Hence, perhaps the definition could be tailored to state that contemplation is the experience of an inexpressible meta experiential state of being in the pure presence of God. Something suggesting an experience of non-experience beyond our finite essence of being, or ability to fully comprehend.

    Just my two cents.

    Peace.

    – Paul

    • Paul, thank you for your thoughts, and I suspect your feelings about “experience” are shared by many. I appreciate your two cents’ worth, so here are a few pennies more in reply.

      If “everything is an experience” as you say, doesn’t that right there make the category of “experience” ultimately vague and unimportant?

      As for the why, I’d rather contemplate for God than for an experience of God — just as I am married because I love my wife, not because I love an experience of my wife. Do you see the difference? To love my wife is to give her my love, but if I’m only loving “an experience of my wife,” than it’s a narcissistic love, because it’s all about me — all about what I’m experiencing.

      Finally, I find your “tailored definition” to be rather wordy. Contemplation means waiting on, and loving, God in silence. To say it’s “the experience of waiting on, and loving, God in silence” just adds extra baggage.

      Again, thanks for your comments, and I hope you receive this reply in the spirit it is offered: as part of a conversation, from a fellow traveler on the path who has no claim of being an “expert”!

  2. Thank you Carl! Your responses have been most helpful. I have recently been asking myself what contemplation means, I think, because I have wondered how to describe my spirituality to others. Sometimes I haven’t known where to begin. Perhaps partly because, like you pointed out, it involves trying to wrap words around a wordless practice.

    Our exchange has given me a lot of great food for thought. It is very much appreciated!

  3. Carl and Daniel, Thank you both. I found your dialogue very helpful. I see how much it matters to notice whether our way of framing anything, even a spiritual practice, puts ourselves at the center, or whether it puts God at the center. So “mindfulness” to de-stress myself is really not putting God at the center, even if it helps me do that in other parts of my life. Prayers of petition, or confession, for example, might likewise be putting myself, my concerns and my shortcomings, at the center, even if my concerns are for other people, or if they are shared by other people. Which doesn’t make them wrong, naturally, it is still a relationship with God, but just different from contemplation. But in contemplation, I would seek to efface myself (my worldly self) and only behold God. The intention to lose my worldly self in God is what makes it contemplation (whether or not I manage to achieve that intention on any given occasion). Do I understand this correctly?

    • Janice, I think what you’re saying makes sense. But I do think there’s a paradox here: not only do we “efface” ourselves (surrender ourselves before the mystery of God), but also, paradoxically, we find ourselves in silence and in unknowing. Perhaps this goes back to the language you use: about effacing the “worldly self” — we surrender all our masks and our egotism before the mystery of God, and in Christ, we find who we truly are.

  4. YOU: Again, thanks for your comments, and I hope you receive this reply in the spirit it is offered: as part of a conversation, from a fellow traveler on the path who has no claim of being an “expert”!

    ME: Absolutely I’m on board with this! No one is aspiring to be the quintessential “sage on the stage”, or “win”, or anything like that. We are just in dialogue, although sometimes dialogue of the printed word can be misinterpreted as being other than the spirit intended. The spirit of all of this for me (and hopefully for you, as well) is just ‘fun’, right? And in this case, no doubt, just semantics. Hence:

    YOU: Paul, thank you for your thoughts, and I suspect your feelings about “experience” are shared by many. I appreciate your two cents’ worth, so here are a few pennies more in reply.
    If “everything is an experience” as you say, doesn’t that right there make the category of “experience” ultimately vague and unimportant?

    Me: Why should “experience” or “our experiences” be vague and unimportant just because we have them (experiences)? That makes no sense at all to me.

    I fail to see why you have such a difficult time acknowledging that you experience life and everything else as a result of every moment. Perhaps I’m misinterpreting your intended meaning. Look up the word in any standard dictionary: American Heritage Dictionary: experience: 1. The apprehension of an object, thought, or emotion through the senses or mind: “The experience of art has always been taken to be ‘recreation’” (Paul Goodman); … 4. An event or series of events participated in or lived through. etc., etc.. Therefore, an experience is an incidence, an event, an occurrence, being involved in something, etc., etc., plain and simple with regard to EVERYTHING we DO such as contemplation and/or contemplative prayer.

    YOU: As for the why, I’d rather contemplate for God than for an experience of God — just as I am married because I love my wife, not because I love an experience of my wife. Do you see the difference? To love my wife is to give her my love, but if I’m only loving “an experience of my wife,” than it’s a narcissistic love, because it’s all about me — all about what I’m experiencing.

    ME: I think you may be misconstruing my notion of experience with that of ‘motive’. They are entirely separate matters, as I’m sure you will agree. As for your example, you may love your wife, not for what you will GET, but what you will GIVE. That’s your motive, which gives rise to the experience of a type of love: with, in, together with, as a result of, etc, your wife. You don’t HAVE TO want to love your wife for narcissistic or any other reasons (although you MAY); there are other reasons, some of which you may not even entirely be able to explain ‘why’’ because this quality of spousal love is so pure and sacred it defies our ability to put into mere words. Regardless, the resultant experience for BOTH you AND your wife will be a particular type of experience.

    YOU: Finally, I find your “tailored definition” to be rather wordy.

    ME: I absolutely agree. I was just attempting to accommodate your reticence for using the word experience in your definition of contemplation.

    YOU: Contemplation means waiting on, and loving, God in silence. To say it’s “the experience of waiting on, and loving, God in silence” just adds extra baggage.

    ME: Be it as it may, (“adds extra baggage”), “waiting on, and loving, God in silence” results in an experience independent of MOTIVE. Nevertheless, I agree that you don’t have to use the word “experience” in a definition of contemplation, but there is nothing wrong if you do.

    And, we don’t have to continue to up the ante on this issue. Peace notwithstanding. Always peace and brotherhood. And keep writing books (and blog entries)!

    – Paul

    • Certainly, no “ante-upping” is needed (or desired, for my part). I really have no problem with anything you’re saying. I don’t think we’re evil or bad for talking about experience (we all do it, myself included: it shows up all the time in my writing, especially my older work). I just think it’s something worth letting go. My recommendation for letting go of “experience” as a necessary component of contemplative prayer is simply for two reasons:

      First, it’s not necessary (i.e., contemplation “works” even when we don’t experience God, or we experience God’s hiddenness or absence, or just our own restlessness or boredom. Since any experience may be contemplative, we really don’t need to talk about experience in order to grasp contemplation. This is why I think it’s a vague concept: to be conscious is to have experience. But God encounters us above and below the threshold of our conscious awareness, which is to say our experience; therefore to talk about “experiencing God” is actually a limitation);

      Second, it can be misleading. Because we live in a narcissistic/entertainment culture, talking about contemplation in terms of experience becomes problematic because some people (I don’t think this applies to you, Paul, but it may to others) may see experience in narcissistic ways: “it’s all about me,” and God becomes reduced to the object of our experience, when in truth God is the supreme subject, never the object, of prayer. In other words, the more we talk about experience (which is all about the self, i.e., what “I” experience), the less we’re talking about God.

      So since ‘experience’ can be a vague and unnecessary word (i.e., other words express what we mean more clearly), and sometimes can be a misleading word (as when some people may narcissistically think that “the experience of God” means the experience is more important than God), I think we’re better off not using the word.

      One final thought: John of the Cross suggests that we need to give up everything that is “not God” in our journey to union with God. With that in mind, what would it look like for you to simply give up “experience” as a category for understanding contemplation? Where would this surrender take you? Where might God be calling you? Just some food for thought.

      Grateful for the colloquy!

      Carl

      • One more thought, that comes from a spiritual satirist named JP Sears — it perfectly (and humorously) encapsulates why I think “experience” is a dead end when it comes to spiritual practice.

        • Okay, I can better understand where you are coming from. Your definition of the word “experience”, OR how you think the word “experience” is generally interrupted by most people does not work for a proper definition of the concept of “contemplation” (or, “contemplative prayer”). I can accept this and acknowledge that it *can be* a slippery slope for misconception.

          It’s not the case with me, however. *My* definition of “experience” then, would seem to be different than than how you may think most people understand what “experience” is:

          Interviewer: Do you prefer just anything on TV, or real life experiences?
          Interviewee: I don’t know. What time does “Real Life Experiences” come on?

          Perhaps, then, the closest you and I can come to consensus is when I state: Contemplation is an experience beyond experience. Sort of like cryptically saying: I know so much I know nothing, all of which you may find to be unnecessary, or “wordy”. I can accept that, too.

          Lots of fun!

          P.S.
          “Killing you (sic -??) ego is the most ego gratifying experience your spirit could ever have.”

          LOL! Yes, and it seems as though experience still requires ‘proof reading’ notwithstanding ego or anything else!

  5. One of the things that confused me about contemplation was my expectation that the fruit of this work is in the prayer itself. I have read, and subsequently discovered over time, that this is not the case. The fruit of contemplative prayer is NOT in the prayer, but in the time outside of prayer as the gifts of the Holy Spirit gradually go to work. That is not to say that there aren’t people who receive gifts during prayer time… there are and have been, but me sense is for most of us I suspect, and certainly for me, those gifts have been discovered while working in the world….