Carl McColman: Why Contemplation is Revolutionary (Part 1)


In my last post (The Archbishop and the Community Theologian) I quoted two renowned living contemplatives - emeritus Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and author/community theologian Kenneth Leech - both speaking of the communal and social implications of contemplative prayer.

Naysayers, stand aside. Contemplative prayer is not about navel-gazing or self-absorbed "spiritual experiences." Indeed, anyone who explores contemplation only out of a desire for mystical experience or personal fulfillment will probably not stick with it for too long (unless he or she realizes that prayer is more about what you give than what you get). As these two Anglican divines have so eloquently stated, contemplation changes things - from the inside out, of course; but it is by the way in which we are changed from within that we are inspired to create, to heal, and to transform the world in which we live.

In that post I identified ten key points about contemplation and transformation from what Williams and Leech had to say on the topic. Now I'd like to take a closer look at each of these ten points in turn. So today's post is the first of a series. My hope is that by the time we consider all ten of the points, we will have a strong case for why contemplative prayer is one of the most transformational practices available to people of faith.

The first point about contemplation: "it is the key to prayer, liturgy, art and ethics," in the words of the Archbishop. I'll assume since he was speaking as a Christian leader to a gathering of Christian bishops, he means specifically Christian prayer, liturgy, art, and ethics. But certainly one could argue that in a general sense, contemplative practice is a key to each of these topics also in a general sense. But for the sake of simplicity and focus, I'll leave that discussion for others to explore.

Contemplation is a way of seeing. Specifically, it is a form of silent, wordless prayer which seeks to behold God with the same eye with which God beholds us, as pointed out by Meister Eckhart in his Sermon 16 (Selected Writings, p. 179). Of course, such a way of seeing is not something we can engineer or achieve, but by grace, trusting in the love of God and the promise of Christ that through him we are one with God (John 17:20-24). So to say contemplation is the key to prayer & liturgy, or art, or ethics, we are saying that in God we seek to see these things in a new way, a new light - with the eyes of God, that is to say, to see from God's point of view. So through wordless silence, which on the surface feels like doing nothing and wasting time, we are in fact opening our eyes, our mind and heart, our spirit to God, seeking to be able to see as God would have us see.

In this new, contemplative, way of seeing, prayer becomes much more than simply "talking to God" as most of us learned as children ("Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep"). Childlike, prayerful self-disclosure to God remains always a lovely avenue of spirituality, but within the eyes of contemplation, prayer beomes a way to radically listen to God - God speaks in "the sound of sheer silence" (I Kings 19:12), at a level deeper than words, feelings, or thought. So prayer is true communion, where God acts, and we respond, by loving presence in the silence. Such silent prayer does not render all the other, "wordy" types of prayer unnecessary, but rather transforms verbal prayer into that same loving communion - for every word is spoken against a backdrop of silence.

Likewise, liturgy becomes so much more than just public ritual and worship: it becomes a shimmering three-way conversation between the self (the individual), the community, and God. The words of liturgy come to us through the community and the tradition, whether grounded in scripture, in the Psalms and canticles, or in the countless antiphons, responsories, hymns and prayers that have come to comprise the liturgy. When we pray the liturgy, we always pray with others, even if we are physically alone, for we pray with the words of those who have gone before us. So liturgical prayer unites love of God and love of neighbor into a single chorus of prayerful words, again, against the backdrop of infinite silence. A contemplative approach to the liturgy reveals that God is truly the nexus, the heart of the action: we receive words from the tradition, we offer them prayerfully to God, who receives those prayers in silence, and loves us in the silence even while using those same words to nurture our continual growth in the Spirit. Contemplation, in short, makes liturgy come alive.

To approach art in a spirit of contemplation means to make oneself vulnerable to behold the beauty in art - or, sometimes, to behold the lack of beauty when art testifies to its absence. But contemplative silence is subtle training in the relationship between presence and absence: in the initially-terrifying spaciousness of deep silence, we discover that even when God "feels absent" God is present in and under the sense-of-absence. So even art which purports to shock, to repel, or to disgust - art which is about not beauty, but beauty's absence - can, when approached contemplatively rather than dualistically, reveal the hidden mystery of Divine Splendor (I should also mention that this works both ways, and a contemplative approach to art, even classically "beautiful" art like traditional Christian imagery, can through contemplation reveal its social and political undertones, which sometimes are not nearly as edifying as the art itself is said to be).

Finally, how does contemplation provide the key to ethics? One important difference between seeing things through "ordinary" eyes of humanity, and the contemplative way of beholding as God's eye would see, is the difference between being caught in what has been called "oppositional" reality - where conflict, discord, or behavior are seen in terms of division, such as right-vs.-wrong, good-vs.-evil, acceptable-vs.-unacceptable - and non-oppositional or nondual awareness, where even our conflicts and divisions are seen primarily through the all-embracing, all-encompassing, unifying love of God. Such nondual view does not negate the realities of ethical concerns - harmful, wrong, or sinful actions remain as such, as well as benevolent, good, or helpful acts still fundamentally so - but contemplation sees all things, good or bad, evil or holy, through the eyes of God, which is to say, through the eyes of love. So contemplative ethics are grounded in love rather than wrath, in reconciliation rather than rejection, in rehabilitation rather than punishment. Contemplative ethics are the ethics of grace, of compassion, and of inclusion. It's an ethics where "everything belongs" (as taken from the title of Richard Rohr's book on contemplation). So when we weigh matters of right and wrong, law and morality, and other ethical concerns, contemplation is the key to an ethics that is grounded in Divine Love rather than human conditionality.

To summarize: contemplation is the key to prayer because it teaches us to listen rather than to talk all the time. It is the key to liturgy because it beckons us to view liturgy through the eyes of Divine Love, rather than just our own limited perception, which makes the liturgy come alive as communal prayer, even when prayed in physical solitude. It is the key to art because it conditions us to appreciate beauty (and even the lack of beauty) from a God's-eye perspective. And finally, it is the key to ethics because contemplation opens us to approach ethics from the expansive, grace-filled inclusion of Divine love and compassion, where forgiveness and mercy take precedence over vengeance or retribution.

Next up: how contemplation is a key to a renewed humanity.

Taken with permission from Carl's website.