The Christian Contemplative Tradition
Thursday, July 2, 2015
Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy have a long tradition of teaching contemplation or non-dual thinking. It is very clear in the Desert Fathers and Mothers, in Celtic Christianity, and in the Eastern Church’s Philokalia. Contemplation was taught directly or indirectly in the monastic history of all the ancient Christian orders (for example, by Dionysius, John Cassian, and the famous monastery of St. Victor in Paris) and by those such as Bonaventure, Francisco de Osuna, and the unknown author of The Cloud of Unknowing.
We know non-dual consciousness was systematically taught until as late as the eleventh and twelfth centuries, usually among Benedictines or Cistercians. The early Franciscans benefited from this ancient understanding, the Rhineland Dominicans beautifully exemplified it, and the Carmelites gathered it from their ancient history in Palestine at Mount Carmel. Its final flower, even supernova, of expression was in Teresa of Ávila and John of the Cross in the sixteenth century, who retaught contemplation at great cost. Most of our Western mystics exemplified contemplation, as did Jesus, much more than they actually taught it directly. Maybe this is part of the reason we lost it, and why good theological teaching and practice is now so important today.
But after the fights of the Reformation, and after the over-rationalization of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Enlightenment, we all became very defensive and circled the wagons around our rational arguments. Wanting to prove we were smart and could win arguments with the new secularism, we religious folks imitated the rationalists while using pious Christian vocabulary. Our own doctrines (such as transubstantiation, biblical inerrancy, and papal infallibility) were henceforth presented in a dualistic, argumentative way. It was no longer non-dual consciousness, but dualistic thinking about deep Christian beliefs, which frankly inspires no one and drives many away from Christianity. Most priests were educated this way until the much needed reforms of Vatican II in the 1960s. Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was key in reintroducing the contemplative mind to the Western world. Now it is again taught all over the world under different names.
Despite the centuries without systematic teaching of non-dual consciousness, I think many have always come to the contemplative mind as the fruit of great suffering or great love. These are the quickest ways to destabilize the self-referential ego. Those transformed by life and grace find themselves thinking simply, clearly, and in a non-argumentative way, without recognizing how they got there. They come to enjoy God, others, and even themselves, and do not need to pick fights in their minds about everything. It is such a pleasant way to live! Read Philippians 2:1-4 where the non-dual mind is on full display, which then leads to the inspired and self-emptying hymn of verses 5-11, where Paul tells us that we now have “the same mind which is in Christ Jesus.” I believe the contemplative, non-dual mind is indeed the mind of Christ. Paul also describes this in Philippians 4:4-7 and in 1 Corinthians 2 and 3, lest you think this is not scriptural. Jesus both lived and exemplified this non-dual mind during his forty days in the desert and his frequent visits to “quiet” and “lonely” places (e.g., Mark 1:35, Luke 4:42).
Gateway to Silence:
God is all in all.
Adapted from Silent Compassion: Finding God in Contemplation, pp. 63-65