When all the people who had gathered for theoria, saw what had happened, they returned home beating their breasts.
– Luke 23:48
Contemplation is a classic term in historical Christianity. It is used only once in the New Testament. This word, theoria, refers to directly taking in the profound depth of Christ’s crucifixion. It is against this foil – Christ crucified – that the authenticity of Christian contemplation always needs to be measured.
In this sense, contemplation is life itself, fully awake, fully aware, fully active, fully alive. It is spiritual wonder and human misery. It is spontaneous awe and helplessness. It is gratitude and hard-heartedness. It is justice and injustice. It is love and hate. It is the intuitive, direct apprehension of Christ. It is that to which reason and belief can only aspire. While poetry, music, and art have contemplative elements, contemplation transcends and fulfills them, superseding and denying them. Contemplation promotes death – dying to one’s ego – for the sake of life – living to Christ. In contemplation all other experiences are lost, subsumed in the awesome work of God in Christ.
Contemplation is also a call. Contemplation denotes our ability to respond to God by our very openness to the reality of God’s work and presence in the world. Contemplation is the acceptance of God’s word and echoing back to God God’s glory.
None of this is philosophical, or empirical, or rational, or static. It is not self-hypnosis. It is not something we attain by intellectual effort. It is an awakened awareness in our hearts and minds, reflecting back to God that which is God’s. Contemplation is the elevation of our natural lives, transformed and fulfilled in Christ through the Holy Spirit. It is no longer I that live but Christ who lives in me.
Some Christian traditions hold that it is the belief of the faithful, working on conjunction with God, which made the sacraments valid. But that’s not the good news. The evangel is that God does the work and we either accept it as such, or we do not, the former being the grounds for contemplation…the intuitive grasp by which love gains full certitude of God’s loving, creative, and dynamic intervention both in the world and in our daily lives.
The formal ecclesial opportunities for contemplating the mystery of the cross date back to Justin Martyr, Tertullian. St. Basil divided the Sacrament into three parts: one he consumed, one he shared with the community, and the third was placed in a dove-shaped container suspended over the altar, which was used for adoration.
It is a pure and virginal knowledge, poor in concepts, poorer still in reasoning, but able, by its very poverty and purity, to follow the Word wherever he may go.
– Thomas Merton
You cannot be a Christian and not be contemplative.