For a fairly long time in my professional life I have been interested in contemplation. As I so often comment, “contemplation” is not a word I heard while growing up as a young Quaker in Indiana. I am confident I was not paying attention. I don’t think Quakers I knew were using that word, “contemplation.” So if I had been asked about it, I would have offered a blank stare.
I am sure I heard about the word, “contemplation,” while I was in school. I may have heard of it in college, but more likely I first heard about it in graduate school. I can guess I encountered it first in some kind of history of Christianity class. Because Quakerism dates from the 17th century, we have a bad habit of skipping from Jesus to the 17th century. I knew almost nothing about the sixteen hundred years between Jesus and the origins of my tradition. Quite a bit happened during that time!
Early Christian contemplative tradition is rooted in the early Christian developments of monasticism. After the first couple centuries, some Christians began to feel like the Christian movement had begun to be watered down. You can almost hear some of them saying, “It’s not like it was in the good old days.” Of course, in the good old days, you could die for your faith---you could be martyred! I think I am one of the lukewarm Christians, too!
So some of these serious guys and gals headed to the desert. In effect, they went to the margins of their culture. They wanted to walk away from the superficiality of their environment. They wanted a more rigorous way to live like they thought Jesus had lived. They felt like Jesus had been counter-cultural and they wanted the same thing. In effect, their goal was imitation Christi---imitating Christ. They wanted to pattern their lives after his model of prayer, meditation, etc. And so the monks set up a different way of life than most of their peers.
Part of that monastic creativity was the attention they gave to contemplation. This is the part of monastic creativity that I have appreciated and tried to adapt into my own spiritual journey. There are many ways to describe contemplation, but I like the way Gerald May does it in his book, The Awakened Heart. May says, “It is most frequently defined as an open, panoramic, and all-embracing awareness, but it is really this all-embracing awareness brought into fullness of living and action, an attitude of the heart and a quality of presence rather than just a state of consciousness.” Let’s unpack and develop some of the thoughts in this wonderful sentence.
Even though May goes further, he does begin with a basic definition of contemplation. It is an awareness. Contemplatives are very aware of themselves and of things. Contrast this with the huge number of people who sleepwalk through life. Many of us are walking robots ambling through the motions. Contemplatives are aware; sometimes they are quite alert---paying attention to themselves and to others.
May describes with some detail the nature of this awareness. It is an open, panoramic and all-embracing awareness. I can resonate with the idea of openness. I know it, if I am open. Again, robotic living is not openness. Going through the motions is not openness. May adds to this the idea of panoramic awareness. That is awareness in a broad sweep. It is not narrow or minutely focused. It is a kind of sweeping awareness. And this awareness is all-embracing.
The good news is we can cultivate this kind of awareness. It can be practiced. Others can help us. And this sets us up for the rest of May’s definition of being contemplative. This points to contemplation being a way of life and an action. One misconception of contemplation is that it is a kind of navel-gazing, mystical experience that has nothing to do with real life. May counters this stereotype by suggesting contemplation can be a way to live everyday life. That kind of life is grounded in the basic kind of awareness just outlined. This appeals to me.
May tries to offer one more detail. This kind of awareness is an attitude of the heart---a quality of presence. I like the idea that it is a quality of the heart. I think of other spiritual qualities of the heart. One such quality would be a loving heart. It is not hard for me to claim that a contemplative is one with that kind of quality of heart---a loving quality grounded in the all-embracing awareness.
The final piece from May is my favorite. I like his focus on contemplation as a kind of presence. Again it makes sense to contrast this with the opposite: absence. So many of us can live absently---absent-mindedness. A contemplative is present and has a kind of presence. I strive to do this. I aim to be present and to be a presence in any situation in which I find myself. To this end, I practice contemplation.