Contemplation?

Wednesday, May 20th, 2020. The Holy Island retreat on Thomas Merton continues with its second day.

Here’s the problem I have with the whole concept of contemplation. It is either presented as, or is often perceived as, a superior way of prayer, and those who practise it (‘contemplatives’) are perceived as a superior class of Christian. So the incentive is for people who aspire to go further in their Christian life, to read books about contemplation and seek to ‘do’ it. But we are also told that it’s impossible to achieve or attain contemplation – it can only ever be a gift of God, which presumably may or may not be bestowed according to God’s inscrutable purpose. But then again, we can’t receive this gift unless we practise it. And then again again, contemplation is not only for some special high caste of Christians, but for everyone.

I speak from personal experience as one of those who at one time wanted to make spiritual progress and thought I must do that by ‘practising contemplation’. The proposed ways of doing that emphasised such techniques as Centering Prayer (“Centering Prayer is a method of silent prayer that prepares us to receive the gift of contemplative prayer, prayer in which we experience God’s presence within us, closer than breathing, closer than thinking, closer than consciousness itself. This method of prayer is both a relationship with God and a discipline to foster that relationship,”) and also the method proposed in The Cloud of Unknowing. (“For He can well be loved, but he cannot be thought. By love he can be grasped and held, but by thought, neither grasped nor held. And therefore, though it may be good at times to think specifically of the kindness and excellence of God, and though this may be a light and a part of contemplation, all the same, in the work of contemplation itself, it must be cast down and covered with a cloud of forgetting. And you must step above it stoutly but deftly, with a devout and delightful stirring of love, and struggle to pierce that darkness above you; and beat on that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love, and do not give up, whatever happens.”) They are similar in their effort to still the mind and focus on God, ceasing to have any ‘thoughts’, and when thoughts rush in as they inevitably will, returning to the repetition of the single-syllable prayer word.

I’ve tried this stuff, and it defeats me. I’ve had much better results at approaching to something that may (or perhaps, may not) be contemplation, with techniques like the Rosary or the Jesus Prayer, stilling my mind by constant repetition of a simple prayer, which I find a better help at moving beyond thought.

And then, the mainstay of my prayer has always been the Daily Office and a reading of Scripture that I would like to make much more like Lectio Divina. I’m pleased to see that the Centering Prayer website says, “Like Centering Prayer, Lectio Divina cultivates contemplative prayer. Unlike Centering Prayer, Lectio Divina is a participatory, active practice that uses thoughts, images and insights to enter into a conversation with God. Lectio Divina also is distinguished from reading the Bible for edification or encouragement, Bible study, and praying the scriptures in common, which are all useful but separate practices.” But I would add that Lectio Divina often leads from ‘thoughts, images and insights’ to that imageless ‘being with God’ to which Centering Prayer aspires – which is, perhaps, pure contemplation.

Well, those are my musings on Contemplation.

Thomas Merton

When we meet up with David Cole today, his theme is what Thomas Merton has to say about The True Self and The False Self. The aim of prayer, as of the whole Christian life, is to discard the False Self which sin and the modern world favour, and to discover the True Self as we discover God, or discover God as we discover the True Self.

So long as we are in the world, it’s impossible to leave the False Self entirely behind. In fact, we may never discover the True Self until we die. So there’s a lifelong task for us. That’s what I like. I’d hate to run out of things to do.

☐ Discover True Self…

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