Though it has acquired other meanings and connotations in recent centuries, the word contemplation had a specific meaning for the first 16 centuries of the Christian era. St. Gregory the Great summed up this meaning at the end of the 6th century as the knowledge of God that is impregnated with love. For Gregory, contemplation was both the fruit of reflecting on the Word of God in scripture and a precious gift of God. He referred to contemplation as “resting in God.” In this “resting,” the mind and heart are not so much seeking God, as beginning to experience what they have been seeking. This state is not the suspension of all activity, but the reduction of many acts and reflections to a single act or thought in order to sustain one’s consent to God’s presence and action.
In this traditional understanding, contemplation, or contemplative prayer, is not something that can be achieved through will, but rather is God’s gift. It is the opening of mind and heart – one’s whole being – to God. Contemplative prayer is a process of interior transformation. It is a relationship initiated by God and leading, if one consents, to divine union.
Christian Contemplatives and Contemplative Practices Throughout History
Contemplative prayer is by no means a modern addition to Christianity. Contemplative Christian prayer has representatives in every age. A form of contemplative prayer was first practiced and taught by the Desert Fathers of Egypt, Palestine and Syria including Evagrius, St. Augustine and St. Gregory the Great in the West, and Pseudo-Dionysius and the Hesychasts in the East.
In the Middle Ages, St. Bernard of Clarivaux, William of St. Thierry and Guigo the Carthusian represent the Christian contemplative tradition, as well as the Rhineland mystics, including St. Hildegard, St. Mechtilde, Meister Eckhart, Ruysbroek and Tauler. Later, the author of The Imitation of Christ and the English mystics of the 14th century such as the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, Walter Hilton, Richard Rolle, and Julian of Norwich became part of the Christian contemplative heritage.
After the Reformation, the Carmelites of St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross and St. Therese of Lisieux; the French school of spiritual writers, including St. Francis de Sales, St. Jane de Chantal and Cardinal Berulle; the Jesuits, including fathers De Caussade, Lallemont and Surin; the Benedictines, like Dom Augustine Baker and Dom John Chapman, and modern Cistercians such as Dom Vital Lehodey and Thomas Merton, all cultivated practices in their lives that they believed led to the spiritual gift of contemplation.
Modern Contemplative Practices
In the 20th and 21st centuries, initiatives have been taken by various religious orders, notably by the Jesuits and Discalced Carmelites, to renew the contemplative orientation of their founders and to share their spirituality with laypeople. In addition, several monks, such as Fathers Thomas Keating and John Main, have pioneered efforts to answer the call of Vatican II to return to the Gospels and to biblical theology as the primary sources of Catholic spirituality. The product of these initiatives is a myriad of modern prayer practices based on historical contemplative teachings.
Prayer of Faith, Prayer of the Heart, Pure Prayer, Prayer of Simplicity, Prayer of Simple Regard, Active Recollection, Active Quiet, and Acquired Contemplation are all names of modern practices based on historical practices and meant to prepare their practitioners for contemplation. The practices around which Contemplative Outreach was built, Centering Prayer and Lectio Divina, are two such practices. Centering Prayer and Lectio Divina are closely derived from ancient contemplative Christian practices and are attempts to present these practices in updated formats that appeal to the lay community.
In many cases, modern Christian contemplative practices serve as a bridge in East/West dialogue as well as a way home for many Christians who have gone to the East in search of spiritual wisdom.