Contemplation as Power to Look

For the last few years I have had a special interest in the theme of contemplation.  In fact, I recognize I probably have been interested in it for quite a long time, but never used that word for the experience I saw other people have and wanted it for myself.  As is often the case, I realized that my own Quaker tradition actually “talked about” contemplation and the contemplative experience, although they never used that word.

Essentially, I talk about contemplation both as an experience and as a way of living.  For a few years I have been teaching a class entitled, “Contemplative Spirituality.”  When I see students on the first day of classes, I tell them the requirement is that they become a contemplative.  Of course, they have no clue what that means.  But most of them are up for the challenge.  And that is a huge step.  I am pretty sure no one will be a contemplative if he or she does not want to become one.  So they key question here is to learn what being a contemplative really means.

While there are many people who could offer a definition, I would like to share one from a wise old Quaker teacher and minister whom I personally knew.  Douglas Steere was a long-time professor of philosophy at Haverford College in the Philadelphia area.  He was an amazing guy.  In fact, he was an official observer at Vatican II in the early 60s.  I loved hearing stories about that transformative council that has affected Roman Catholicism ever since.

I am sure I was attracted to him as a person and mentor because he was a deeply committed Quaker, yet was so ecumenically open and engaging.  In fact, he was one of the pioneers of the ecumenical movement that gathered steam in the 60s and 70s, which impacted my own life when I was in graduate school.  So Steere was a Quaker, but had studied the Catholic mystics and contemplatives, so he could help me and other non-Catholics learn about that world and translate it into our own traditions.

In a little essay Steere shares this definition of contemplation.  “We, too, might find some help in defining contemplation if we put it in terms of a sustained scrutiny for meaning.  If we use the metaphor of the eye, contemplation could be described as the power to look steadily, continuously, calmly, attentively, and searchingly at something.  Thomas Aquinas paraphrases this nicely in calling contemplation, ‘A simple, unimpeded and penetrating gaze on truth.”

The first thing I like about Steere’s definition is the way he claims that it is “a sustained scrutiny for meaning.”  One of the ways I actually define spirituality is that it is a quest for meaning.  Spirituality is one way humans make meaning.  Steere adds depth in the way he expresses it.  It is not only a scrutiny for meaning, but also a sustained scrutiny.  I am absolutely convinced this is a key for contemplation.  The contemplative life is not simply the occasional visit to church or a random reading of some kind of religion book.

Scrutiny is the opposite of a casual look.  Scrutiny is a careful examination.  It is, in Steere’s word, a sustained examination or careful attention to the issue of God and God’s dealing with us.  In my own words a sustained scrutiny for meaning is close paying attention to what’s happening and what it means for us in our particular lives.  It is spiritually having someone routinely tell me, “pay attention.”  That surely means we cannot be living superficially---inattentively---and be contemplatives.

In his definition Steere moves on to use the metaphor of the eye to explain what he wants to do.  Effectively, he is saying contemplation is like having a special eye.  That contemplative eye has the power “to look steadily, continuously, calmly, attentively and searchingly at something.”  I love this string of adverbs used by Steere---steadily, continuously, calmly, attentively, searchingly.  These adverbs give us a good sense for the process of contemplation in action in our lives.  The contemplative life is not superficial, nor is it sporadic and haphazard.  It is sustained.

Steere says contemplation is this look “at something.”  I suppose my definition would simply have said look at God or at God’s work in us.  This is where Steere introduces Thomas Aquinas, the great medieval theologian, into the definition.  St. Thomas simply calls contemplation this sustained gaze on truth.  I am fine with this way of putting it, although I still prefer talking about a look or gaze upon the Holy One and the work of the Spirit in our lives.

In my own way of seeing things, the contemplative life is an attentive life in the Presence of the Divine One.  This presupposes our desire for this kind of life to happen.  It means we have to be aware of ourselves and aware of what God is doing within and with us.  In my experience almost all of this happens in the ordinariness of our life.  It is not some supercharged experience that leaves us breathless.  Generally it is not ecstatic.  It is a way of life lived in the Spirit and acting spiritually.

In short we become co-laborers in the spiritual work of God in the world.  We are ordinary people doing extraordinary work.  That’s what I am trying to do.

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