I realize this is not a word used in typical conversations in our world. Many people do not even know what the word means. And if they know what the word means, it might seem normal to assign it to the monks and mystics in the world. Ordinary people do not aspire to become contemplatives. So once again, I am abnormal!
Let’s begin by finding out what contemplation means. Rather than coming with my own definition, let me cite the words of the 20th century monk, Thomas Merton. But just because it comes from the pen of a monk does not mean it is solely for monks and abnormal people like me. Merton tells us “Contemplation is the highest expression of man’s intellectual and spiritual life. It is that life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive. It is spiritual wonder. It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being. It is a vivid realization of the fact that life and being in us proceed from an invisible, transcendent and infinitely abundant Source. Contemplation is, above all, awareness of the reality of that Source.” This is a long quotation, so let’s break it down.
Merton contends that contemplation is the highest achievement of being human. I am sure there are many who would scoff and laugh at this assertion. I happen to think he is correct, but let’s pursue the matter further. It is interesting to me that he does not initially assert that contemplation is religion. Of course, for many of us it will be associated with being religious, or preferably for me, spiritual. Instead, Merton hooks contemplation with life. I like that.
Merton says that contemplation is life itself. But it is a special kind of life. It is life fully awake, fully active, and fully alive. This is the reason I want to become contemplative. I want to live fully awake. I get tired of sleepwalking through the days. I don’t want to “wake up” a few years down the road and wonder what I did or why I did it! We all know that when we are asleep, we miss things. I want to be wide-awake. Becoming contemplative will help me know how to do this.
I suspect many of us live under the illusion that we are awake. Of course, we are not literally asleep. But figuratively we are asleep. We don’t see the subtleties of life. We don’t see the hues in life’s colors. We miss the music to focus on the noise. We talk too much and listen too little. If I am fully awake, then I have a chance to be fully active and fully alive. That’s what I want.
Merton intrigues me when he says contemplation is spiritual wonder. I think I know what this means, but I am not sure. I fear I only have a hint of what he means. I am guessing I will not know the depth of spiritual wonder if I don’t become contemplative. I suspect wonder is not simply something we look at. I think spiritual wonder is the ability to participate in and deeply appreciate the wonder that is ours. And perhaps the most wonderful thing is the gift of life, the grace of love, and the lure of community.
This does lead to Merton’s next step in the contemplative life. The contemplative is able to experience the spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life. I am sure that I will never have this awe if I just live life normally. If I don’t become contemplative, I doubt that I will have any sense that life is sacred. I will be content to live in the profanity of routine. That does not mean routine is wrong or immoral; it is just not sacred.
Having mentioned the sacred takes us to the heart of the matter. To become a contemplative is to be aware of the reality of the Source, as Merton calls it. For many of us the Source will be the same as God. Again, awareness is the key. Awareness takes into account what already is there. We don’t create God; we become aware of God.
It is a simple calling, namely, to become contemplative. It is not a job; it is not even a mission. It is a way of life. It is a way of living fully aware, fully active, fully alive. I cannot imagine anything better.