The word contemplation, as used by the early Christian contemplatives such as St. John of the Cross, does not reflect our current dictionary definition: 1) the action of looking thoughtfully at something for a long time, 2) deep reflective thought, 3) the state of being thought about or planned.
When we talk about contemplation in the modern sense we are referring to an active process. When we contemplate something we are engaged in an active process of either thinking about something or being in the presence of something and engaging with it with some of our other senses besides intellect. This is completely different than the understanding of St. John of the Cross or St. Teresa of Avila as we shall see later in this post.
I was introduced to Christian Contemplation via Bernadette Roberts. I had a good foundation in the Buddhist path to enlightenment and was excited to learn of an account of a woman that had reached enlightenment using a Christian Contemplative approach. I was not very successful with reaching Shamata (calm abiding), a level of meditation considered necessary for Vipassana (insight), so I wanted to find out exactly what she did with hopes that it might be more suitable for me.
I approached my studies of Christian Contemplation with the hopes of learning exactly what they did so I could incorporate it into my spiritual practice. I first ran into Father’s Keating course on centering prayer and took that. It seemed exactly like meditation to me. This was both a let-down and a validation. I was hoping that I could find a path to enlightenment that didn’t require meditation, but I was also pleased that the Christians had found the same practice essential.
Centering Prayer, in practice, is very much like the objectless meditation my meditation teacher had prescribed for me just the year before. The only difference I could find was that in meditation one has the expectation that the mind will become stable and can be “trained” through repetition and persistence, while the contemplatives believe that reaching higher levels of “prayer” is dependent on God’s grace. I found the idea of grace exactly what I needed to take the pressure off.
The instruction that Father Keating gives for Centering Prayer is to open oneself to awareness and the action of God. To practice, you pick a one syllable word (your sacred word) that will be used to affirm you intention of being open to the action and presence of God, then whenever your mind drifts, and you become aware of your drifting, you silently say your word and center yourself again in your receptive state.
Father Keating explains that at first you may find yourself drifting over and over and hence saying your word over and over. He says that sometimes people fall asleep – “who knows how God will choose to act/commune with you”. What I really appreciated about Father Keating’s presentation is that he talked a little about the process of purgation, although I do not recall him using that term. He talked of being “taken over” by some arising where you really had no control over the process and would get caught up in it, then it would pass and you could come back to the sweetness of God. He said that this would repeat over and over. Although both Christian Contemplatives and Buddhist Meditators talk about purification, I’d never heard anyone really describe the process. Now I recognize this as one of the most severe deficiencies in the training I’d received.
After studying Father Keating, I went on to read St. John of the Cross (The Ascent and the Dark Night) as well as St. Teresa of Avila (The Way of Perfection and Interior Castle). However, I was still reading them from the point of view of the Buddhist path to enlightenment and Father Keating’s Centering Prayer. Then I met Shawn Ellison at a Bernadette Robert’s Retreat.
Shawn began his contemplative path when he was 15years old. After two years of dry practice he had his first experience of God (aka experience of no-self). When he turned 21 he entered the unitive stage. The unitive stage is characterized by continuous presence of God and all actions being motivated by the Holy Spirit. It can be described as being one with God and is a preliminary stage before reaching enlightenment or the permanent state of no-self.
He told me that he knew nothing of meditation when he started. His initial practice was simply praying to know God, studying scripture, and the morality that goes with dedicating oneself to a spiritual life. He reached the pivotal experience of no-self without meditation. This intrigued me. I wanted to know exactly what he did, so I could replicated it.
In subsequent conversations he has summarized his complete practice as a beginner and as a proficient as loving God. He says that Father Keating’s teaching is a modernization that is not founded in the Christian Contemplative Tradition and he doesn’t believe it will lead to realization of oneness with God. Now this was intriguing. I couldn’t really see anything different from what he was saying happened to him and the Centering Prayer Method.
I went back and reread St. John of the Cross with the intent of really opening myself to the possibility that meditation was not necessary. I kept translating contemplation as meditation or at least stillness. It seemed to me that contemplation was calm abiding or shamata. Indeed, by our modern definitions it is the same as meditation. However, here is the actual definition that St. John of the Cross uses for Contemplation:
The communion of God untied to the senses, or the particular, received passively by the spirit in an attitude of faith and love, of general loving attention. Also called Mystical Theology. May be referred to as infused because the soul receives it passively, just as one receives sunlight by doing no more than opening the shutters.
In accordance with its functions or effects, the adjectives purgative, illuminative, and unitive are used; the prevalence of some effects over others is what determines the use of these adjectives.
Its signs are: an inability to practice discursive prayer and meditation, a disinclination to fix the imagination on other things; the desire to remain alone in loving awareness of God without particular considerations; or in this latter case, when the contemplation is purgative, a solicitous and painful care about serving God and not turning back despite feelings of aversion or dryness in the things of God.
The key point that St. John of the Cross emphasizes is that it is a passive process. Both Centering Prayer and meditation are active processes. So this means that contemplation is neither of those. Further, contemplation is actually something that can occur “off the cushion” or outside of our prayer and meditation practice.
Contemplation is a passive “communion with God that is untied to the senses”. St. John of the Cross would call this an interior communion. I would translate this into modern language to mean it is taking place at the subconscious level. If it is “untied to the senses” then it would be something we cannot detect consciously as we would be unable to sense it. The communion with God is only detected by the effects of it.
St. John of the Cross kindly gives us the most clear effects of God bringing us into contemplation. The first is an inability to pray and meditate as we used to. Second, we are not interested in worldly things either. Third we are just wanting to “be” with God. Finally, if the contemplation is purgative we may be feeling horrible, but we are concerned primarily with our relationship to God.
The burning question I am left with is, “How do I get to contemplation?”
Now, even though perfect contemplation is the goal, we already know that it only happens passively. However, St. John of the Cross does describe what we can do to reach contemplation. Contemplation is part of the passive dark night of the soul and he talks extensively about the active dark night of the soul in The Ascent of Mount Carmel.
Not surprising, the main components of the active night are renunciation and morality. He goes into great deal about how to detach oneself from created things and especially warns of divesting ourselves of the visions and the like that can arise spontaneously. St. Teresa of Avila gives more detail on the discursive prayer and meditation that is suitable for making oneself a vessel for perfect contemplation. Her treatise emphases, as my friend Shawn does also, that love and devotion for God is paramount.
From a purely historical perspective, what we think of as meditation and centering prayer are not components of the Christian Contemplative Path. The desire for God (what we might call the desire for enlightenment) could be seen as the driving force with a total faith that God will lead one by the best path possible.
Centering Prayer and meditation may be important tools for realization (My meditation teacher says “go ahead and rely on grace for realization, but keep meditating to increase your odds.”), however, it seems that renunciation, morality and devotion are the universal essentials.