What Is Contemplation?

At a family dinner some years ago, I made passing reference to Richard Rohr’s Center for Action and Contemplation. My brother, a pragmatic businessman, quietly repeated the word “contemplation” to himself. Then he shook his head.

We usually use the term contemplation to mean taking an object or idea into consideration for an extended period of time. For pragmatic people, that can sound an awful lot like an intentional waste of time. But respected teachers like Richard Rohr and others seem to think it refers to something hugely important. If the practice of contemplation contains within it the potential for radical transformation, as some teachers claim, clearly the term is widely misunderstood.

So what is contemplation?

In the Christian mystical tradition, contemplation refers to resting in the presence of God. This may in fact seem outwardly like a waste of time, since our culture is obsessed with doing, or at least thinking. So the radical and transformative act of simply being before the divine is mostly lost on us. It can be helpful to take a look at how this term came about in its present form to understand its implications:

  • Da’ath is a Hebrew word used in the Old Testament to refer to experiential knowledge of God
  • The Greek translation of these Old Testament passages rendered the term as gnosis.
  • Later,  the Desert Fathers and Mothers used to the word theoria to mean both intellectual knowledge and this primary experiential knowing through love, or da’ath.
  • When these writings were later translated into Latin, the term theoria became contemplatio, or contemplation.

In fact it was the term meditation that was used early on to mean carefully considering the words of the sacred text in the practice of Lectio Divina, or divine reading. In this practice, we listen to a passage of Scripture, meditate or reflect on its meaning, respond through mental or verbal prayer, and finally rest in a receptive state. Here we cultivate a deep inner attention to the divine presence communicated through the text. The process of Lectio is often communicated today as read, reflect, respond, rest.

But it is this ever deepening capacity for awareness that the practice of contemplation is meant to bring about. This ripples out through our lives, and through us to the world around us, as we make space for divine transformation to occur in and through us. Over time we learn to let go of our sin nature, our false self, our ego. Rather than wasting time idly pondering or considering, contemplation is the deepest form of prayer, exposing our entire being to the divine transformation.  

Part of our task as contemplative educators is that soon, our family, friends, and neighbors can understand this intuitively, without shaking their heads in confusion.

Going Further

Contemplative Practices overview from Contemplative Outreach

Contemplative Outreach on the Christian contemplative tradition

Carl McColman on 5 Ideas That Shape Contemplative Prayer