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Contemplative Christianity Is the Great Tradition

Thursday, January 19, 2017


Contemplative Christianity Is the Great Tradition
Thursday, January 19, 2017

I believe the teaching of contemplation is absolutely key to rebuilding Christianity, otherwise our very style of “knowing” is off base and everything that follows is skewed. Our untransformed brains are hardwired to focus on the negative and to dualistically label and divide, it seems. While rational critique and logical judgment are important for practical matters, they can only get us so far. We need nondual consciousness—the mind of Christ—to process the great questions of love, suffering, death, infinity, and divinity and to be unafraid of diversity and welcoming of union at ever higher and more expansive levels.

We will explore contemplation and nondual consciousness more in a few weeks, but for now let me briefly define the practice of contemplative prayer: In a silent posture of self-emptying, we let go of habitual thoughts and sensations and connect with an Inner Witness (Romans 8:16)—God’s presence within—that gazes back at ourselves and out at reality with an Abiding Love. Contemplation is learning how to offer “a long, loving look at the Real.” [1]

Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy have a long but intermittent tradition of teaching contemplation. Catholics today may know the word contemplation, but that doesn’t mean we know the actual how or the important why. Instead of teaching silent mindfulness, in recent centuries the church emphasized repetition of rote, wordy prayers, and “attendance” at social prayer. Even most of the great contemplative Orders (Cistercian, Carmelite, Poor Clare, etc.) now recognize that they stopped directly teaching the practice of silent prayer to their own members. Contemplative prayer was largely lost after the dualistic, tribal fights of the Reformation and the Enlightenment. The utter vulnerability of silence did not allow us to “prove” anything and so was no longer attractive. The Protestant tradition does not have a strong history of contemplation beyond a few isolated individuals who discovered it on their own. The Orthodox tradition had it well-documented on paper and in a few monasteries, but it was far too tribal to go where contemplation always leads—toward universal compassion, inclusivity, and nonviolence.

So most traditionalists today are not traditional at all! They know so little about the Big Tradition beyond their ethnic version since the last national revolution in their country. That is what happens when you move into a defensive posture against others. You circle the wagons around externals and non-essentials, and the first thing to go is anything interior or as subversive to your own ego as is contemplation. Of course this is precisely what is essential for true transformation. Without it, we have the French and Spanish Catholic hierarchies largely opposing their own needed revolutions and reforms, English and German bishops blessing all their wars, and the majority of Orthodox hierarchies co-operating with communist dictators against their own people. This is the bad fruit of non-contemplative Christianity, which Thomas Merton was one of the first to be public and vocal about in the 1950s.

Christians need to retrieve our own tradition of accessing and living from an alternative consciousness. First we have to know that the Christian contemplative tradition even exists and once flourished. We’re not simply borrowing from Eastern religions and modern neuroscience. It is very clear in the Desert Fathers and Mothers, many of whom fled to the desert in the fourth century so they could practice what they felt was authentic Christianity, unhindered by the priorities of the new imperial religion that was based largely on externals.

The alternative contemplative tradition persisted in Celtic Christianity (outside the Roman Empire); in the Eastern Church’s collection of texts, called the Philokalia; and in the monastic history of all the ancient Orders of the East and West, which only sometimes taught it directly or indirectly (e.g., Dionysius, John Cassian, the monastery of St. Victor in Paris, the Franciscans Bonaventure and Francisco de Osuna, and the final explosion in the Spanish Carmelites). Otherwise, it was more exemplified in highly transformed people who came to it through conscious prayer, love, or suffering. There were anomalies like the Jesuits, Jean Pierre de Caussade and Teilhard de Chardin, and very many women foundresses of communities who show all the fruits of a contemplative life. Women and lay people had more easy access to contemplation precisely because they were not seminary and liturgically trained. Like Julian of Norwich, they learned it on the side and on the sly and often through suffering!

Gateway to Silence:
Give us wisdom. Give us love. 

[1] William McNamara as quoted by Walter J. Burghardt, “Contemplation: A Long, Loving Look at the Real,” Church, No. 5 (Winter 1989), 14-17.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Silent Compassion: Finding God in Contemplation (Franciscan Media: 2014), 63-64.

Image Credit: The Way of the Prophet (detail), silhouette image art work by Mike Van, concept by Vivienne Close.
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