Are you a contemplative?
by Martha Ainsworth
Those who are drawn to contemplative spirituality hunger for an ever-deepening experience of one-ness with God, something more than can be accomplished through an intellectual, rational approach. St. John of the Cross wrote, “As long as your spirit is filled with a God constructed from your images and words, there is no room for a God who goes beyond words.”
The contemplative path is sometimes thought of as a spiritual personality style. The diagram below imagines two “axes of preference” or directions in which you are drawn: Thinking-Feeling and Abstract-Concrete. In which quadrant would you place yourself?
The spiritual personality style labeled “mystic”* is that of the contemplative.
Contemplatives are more interested in feeling and experience than in logical understanding. Contemplatives are comfortable with not fully understanding; whereas theologians are not satisfied unless they can understand. If you tend to feel connectedness to God more through the abstract than the concrete, and more through feeling than intellect, you are probably a contemplative. If you prefer prayer groups to study groups, you may be a contemplative. If you like simplicity and silence in worship, you are probably a contemplative. If you find strength in emptying your mind of distractions and simply being in the presence of the Holy, then you are probably a contemplative.
One common experience of contemplative Christians is a sense of being out of place. Most Christian congregations are in quadrant 1 of the diagram above. They tend to place more value on intellect than on feeling, and on the concrete than on mystery; they are usually centered around activity and stimulation. These things do not help the contemplative feel closer to God; in fact, contemplatives find these things to be distractions that make them feel farther from God. In most Christian church communities, silence and prayerful contemplation are rare. The Christian contemplative, longing for silence, can feel quite abandoned. Contemplatives often must search outside their congregations for ways to satisfy their spiritual needs. If one does not intentionally seek community with others on this path, through prayer groups, spiritual direction or the like, the contemplative life can lead to isolation.
Many modern contemplative Christians meet for prayer in small groups once a month or more. Much of the prayer is silent, with anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour of silence at a time. Learning contemplative prayer involves learning how to use that silence to focus one’s mind and heart totally on God, not to say anything to God, but to open one’s heart to listen for God. Naturally we all have things constantly reverberating through our minds—our little to-do lists, conversations, commercial jingles, whatever. In contemplative prayer we seek to quiet all those distractions, the better to be open to God’s voice. The highest experience of contemplative prayer is simply to be aware of God’s presence and delight in it. There is no agenda other than: “Be still, and know that I am God.”
This type of prayer does not appeal to everyone. God calls some people to activity; God calls some people to intellect and study. But God calls the contemplative Christian to seek the Divine in this interior landscape, in a cloud of unknowing, in love and by faith.
*A Note On Terminology: Contemplative spirituality was once called “Christian mysticism.” The word “mysticism” was intended to convey the sense that humanity cannot fully understand God; God is a “mystery.” Unfortunately, fundamentalists and others have now co-opted the word “mysticism” and use it to describe occult practices. Such things have never been an element of Christian mysticism. The classic tradition of Christian mysticism is unrelated to the paranormal or occult; it involves no secret knowledge, no divination, no special powers, and nothing outside the Bible. It is 100% orthodox Christianity. Christian mysticism, also called contemplative spirituality, is a way of focusing one’s life completely on God, through prayer, living in love, and an awareness of God’s presence. To avoid misunderstanding, what was once called “Christian mysticism” is now more frequently referred to as “contemplative spirituality.”