It seems to me that there are a lot of spiritual concepts that so defy verbal description that, ironically, we write books about them. Those of us who read those books get tons of information but often end up with no more understanding than when we began reading.
Over the last few years my Holy Grail has been an understanding of contemplative life. I have nearly drained the internet of its resources. I have read many of the classic spiritual writers from the dessert fathers through the middle ages to the present.I have seen contemporary accounts by monks who live their entire lives as contemplatives and still don’t entirely understand it.
We often spend a lot of time searching for just the right word or for a catchy meaningful phrase that comes closest in our impoverished language to capturing the soul of what we seek to define. I love these kinds of words or phrases and I constantly underline and highlight them in what I read. They give me something to latch onto concerning otherwise nebulous ideas.
Not long ago, in a book I was reading, I came across a description of contemplation that jumped out at me. It said that contemplation was “resting in the Divine Presence beyond thought or feeling.”I like this because it is a description of why contemplation is so hard to describe – it goes beyond thoughts or feelings. Centering prayer, which attempts to do just this, has become synonymous with contemplation for me. Yet, in my heart of hearts I know that prayer is just an aspect of the absorption into Your being that contemplation seeks.
Contemplative life may be indefinable, but nonetheless it is descriptive of a whole life not just bits and pieces of a life or a series of isolated exercises or practices contained therein. When, somehow, from breath to breath, we rest in Your presence beyond all our own thoughts or the influence of the thoughts of others, beyond all the demands shouted at us by our senses, then we are contemplative. The sense of loss operates peacefully here as gain. To totally accept and revel in shucking off what is intellectual and what is sentient is to empower the will without obstruction to rest in You.
EvelynUnderhill, in her book Mysticism, calls for nothing less than the overthrow of reason to reach a state of “nothingness.” This practice she calls “introversion” and holds it as a voluntary, deliberate and difficult process the continual practice of which established contemplative powers among our normal faculties. This seems to be descriptive of the difference between contemplation and the contemplative life. The influence of these powers ideally extends to all the conscious activity of our daily lives – even those involving thought and feeling – so that contemplation is the source of contemplative life.