I wrote yesterday about meditatio (meditation), arguing that it is essential to meaningful prayer and spiritual formation. The other essential practice is contemplari (contemplation). Contemplation is a simple dwelling upon God, a reflective resting in God’s presence. The term contemplation suggests a subject that is intent upon an object.
Contemplation is plainly rooted in Neo-Platonic concept of theoreo (theory). But this concept was given Christian meaning by Hugo of St. Victor (1096-1141) when he wrote, “Love enters in when the understanding remains outside.” Christian contemplation was related to the word and to sacramental reality where God might be seen in Jesus Christ.
St. Francis de Sales said contemplation as nothing more than a loving, simple and permanent attention of the human spirit to divine things. So what makes it different from meditation?
To stay with the analogy of bees, used in yesterday’s post, de Sales observes that little bees are called nymphs until they make honey. In a similar way prayer is only meditation until it produces the honey of devotion, which is then turned into contemplation. He writes: “The bees fly through their meadows, settling here and there and gathering honey. Having heaped it together, they work in it for the pleasure they take in sweetness.”
In a very similar way when we meditate we gather God’s love to our souls. But having gathered that love we must then contemplate God. Here is the point: We must become attentive to his goodness through the sweetness of the love we have experienced. Says de Sales: “The desire we have to obtain divine love makes us meditate. But love obtained makes us contemplate. For by love we find so agreeable a sweetness in the One who is beloved, that we can never satiate our spirits in seeing and considering Him.”
The term contemplation, not common in Protestant spirituality, embraces the idea of experiencing God. It is related to mysticism but I find it a more useful word since it is a nuanced and active term. The history of contemplation does not always fit neatly into evangelical sensibilities but there is a great deal in the practice itself that can be used profitably in an entirely Christ-centered and grace-based way. I find it more than interesting that many younger evangelicals are now discovering the relationship between meditation and contemplation to be an important one. They are reading Catholic authors to help them deepen their spiritual walk and formation. The writings of Bernard of Clairvaux, of Ignatius Loyola and from the Taize community have all been major contributors to the recovery of contemplation in the better and more clearly Christian sense. I for one am profiting from this recovery.