What is contemplation?

It’s a difficult question. To answer it, we have to use words to describe something beyond words. But let’s have a go anyway:

How I describe it. Contemplation is living from the inside out. We take the world into the depths of our souls; in those depths, we listen openheartedly to the world, its people, and especially the one many of us call God, Reality, or the Universe. We live our lives out of those inner depths and the wisdom they produce. Over time, this becomes a lifetime of awakeness to the presence of God. Want more? Check out this article about solitude, contemplation, and doing good in the world.

How my friends describe it. I asked a version of this question on Facebook a while back: when you hear the word “contemplative,” what comes to mind? Dozens of people chimed in, and their penetrating answers produced some recurring themes. Quiet. Listening. Reflective thought. Letting the rational “left brain” shut up and shut down to see what emerges. All of this taking place within oneself.

How to get there. From a spiritual standpoint, it involves practices that expose us ever more deeply to the presence of God (or Reality, etc.). Silent prayer. Centering prayer. Meditation. The reading and praying of sacred texts. All of these allow the deepest part of ourselves to encounter wisdom outside ourselves, day after day after day. This makes us larger of spirit, which in turn impels us to engage the world with the values close to God’s heart: compassion, wisdom, justice, empathy.

What Thomas Merton says. Few modern folks have plumbed the depths of contemplation like the monk and author Thomas Merton, so it’s worth quoting him here:

Contemplation is the highest expression of our intellectual and spiritual life. It is that life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive. It is spiritual wonder. It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being. It is gratitude for life, for awareness and for being. It is a vivid realization of the fact that life and being in us proceed from an invisible, transcendent and infinitely abundant source. Contemplation is, above all, awareness of the reality of that source.  —from New Seeds of Contemplation