As I understand this word, a contemplative is one who “seeks to make visible that which is hidden from ordinary sight.” Evagrius Ponticus calls contemplation a vision of the real nature of things. (Note: I honestly have no idea who Evagrius Ponticus is. But you have to admit that his name adds a degree of credibility to whatever it is he says…)
I’m reading a book that is a compilation of Henri Nouwen writings and speeches. It is entitled, “Spiritual Formation.” In his book he says that “the contemplative is someone who sees things for what they really are, who sees the real connections of how things hang together.” For most of my life I figured that a contemplative was a guy who lived with a bunch of other guys, committed to not talk much, and always wore the same clothes. (This sounds strangely like college, but I digress…)
Nouwen quotes Ponticus mentioning that the steps towards a contemplative life require taking away the blindfolds that prevent us from seeing clearly. “We must move from opaqueness to transparency – from the place where things are dark, thick, impenetrable, and closed to the place where these same things are translucent, open and offer vision far beyond themselves.”
Contemplative Prayer is a way of praying that reveals the true nature of things. Prayer may not change “the things,” but this type of praying is key to revealing the true nature of “the things.”
I’m finding that opaqueness – a lack of clarity and understanding about how things really are – is relentless. As an illustration, it is miserably humid and sticky in Tampa right now. I drive in my air-conditioned car, comfortably tooling around town, but as soon as I step out the car a wave of moisture-laden, 96-degree air hits my glasses, coating them in a thick fog. In order to not walk into other cars on the parking lot, the first thing I gotta do is stop as I use the edge of my shirt to wipe my glasses clear.
In much the same way that I wipe my glasses at random times throughout the day, I need my spiritual vision cleared, sharpened.
But not just any prayer cleans my lenses. A Complaining Prayer (recorded frequently in the psalms) is Biblical and appropriate for certain situations, but by itself this form of prayer may further smudge my glasses, distorting my vision. Petitionary Prayer (asking God for stuff) is also good, but it is sometimes like asking for a new pair of trendy frames rather than a new prescription, which is more what I need at the time.
That’s where Contemplative Prayer comes in: it is a special, lint-free cloth that removes the human fingerprints of do-it-yourself-ism, the fog of heavy, loveless and cold communication that dampens my thoughts.
Here is what I find challenging: Contemplative Prayer takes times. I have found that this type of praying requires me to be more intentional and less impulsive. Petitions and complaints, for example, come quite natural and spontaneously to me. But I have to really focus and choose contemplation. I have to stop what I’m doing – or at least pause momentarily – as I “wipe my glasses with my shirttail,” so to speak.
As I mentioned already, I repeatedly remove my glasses in order to wipe them clean. The foggy moments are pretty obvious, but there are often smudge marks accumulating slowly throughout the day, without my realizing it – that is until I find it difficult to focus on a specific object or activity. It is at this time in which I realize how clouded my sight has become, and how desperately I need the “contemplative cloth” to clean my glasses, to clear my vision and renew my outlook on the world around me.
When I choose to intentionally enter into a contemplative lifestyle of unceasing prayer, these are three ways that I see my world more clearly:
- People – People are not simply random human interactions in my life, placed there for me to maximize their usefulness, or to avoid because they may drain me; instead, people are avenues by which I see God in new ways as I quit looking AT them and begin looking THROUGH them to their Creator.
- Time – Time is not a chronological dimension that I waste or spend, but rather time is redeemed through contemplative prayer. How? Contemplation awakens me to live fully in the “Now” of the present moment rather than regretfully in the past or anxiously worried about the future.
- Nature – Even nature becomes a window through which I see God’s beautiful handiwork. Left to my own devices and impulses, I am prone to view nature for its usefulness – simply as a way to make my life easier, better, or more lucrative. Contemplative Prayer, though, clears my vision and lifts my eyes to live in awe of God’s creative genius.
So here is my question for you: Do you think that each of us is called to a contemplative lifestyle? Or is contemplative prayer and a contemplative approach to life a unique calling for certain individuals? I guess what I’m really wondering is whether I should seek to teach and lead others towards a more contemplative lifestyle, or should this only be expected of people who are likeminded and seem to have a personality type that has a contemplative bent.
Let me be very clear: I am nowhere close to being the contemplative man that I believe God has called me to be. But it is also worth noting that, because of God’s grace, I am much more contemplative than I used to be. For example, my high school, college, and most years in my twenties were never marked by contemplation. The word itself was completely foreign to me.
This leads me to think that if I can begin growing into a contemplative lifestyle of seeing people and things in life as they really are, then I am prone to think that anyone could.
And everyone should.
What do you think???