The Lost Tradition of Contemplation
Tuesday, January 9, 2018
The awesome and even presumptuous message of divinization is found in the Judeo-Christian story of Creation: we are “created in the image and likeness of God” (Genesis 1:27 and 5:2). Many tomes of theology have been written to clarify this claim, and this is theologians’ primary consensus: “Image” is our objective DNA that marks us as creatures of God from the very beginning. “Likeness” is our personal appropriation and gradual realization of this utterly free gift of the image of God. It’s all too easy to recognize our daily unlikeness to God in ourselves and others, so we have a hard time believing this could be true in ourselves or others. But some form of contemplative practice will allow us to rest in and trust this deeper and truest self.
Actually, who you are in God and who God is in you is the only self that has ever existed. It’s the only self that exists right now. The trouble is, most people don’t know it. It’s not their fault; we just have not given them the tools they need to connect with who they really are. The dualistic and argumentative mind will never get you there. Thus we have an identity crisis on a massive scale!
The contemplative mind has not been systematically taught in the West for the last five hundred years. The Spanish Carmelites Teresa of Ávila (1515-1582) and John of the Cross (1542-1591) were the last well-known teachers of contemplative awareness in European thought. With the so-called “Enlightenment” and the argumentative Reformation, Western Christianity almost abandoned contemplation in favor of dualistic thinking and its own strange form of “rational” thought, which actually produced fundamentalism in both its Catholic and Protestant forms. Thomas Merton (1915-1968) felt that even the monasteries no longer taught the contemplative mind in any systematic way, as monks just “said prayers” with their old dualistic minds. Without contemplation, there is not much depth or interiority to Christianity. It is just beliefs and belonging systems. That is probably why the Reformation was so necessary. Unfortunately, reacting to unjust or unhealthy systems with only dualistic thinking will produce more of the same.
You cannot know God the way you know anything else; you only know God or the soul of anything subject to subject, center to center, by a process of “mirroring” where like knows like and love knows love—“deep calling unto deep” (Psalm 42:7). The Divine Spirit planted deep inside each of us yearns for and responds to God—and vice versa (see James 4:5). The contemplative is deeply attuned and surrendered to this process.
We are not so much human beings trying to become spiritual. We’re already inherently spiritual beings and our job is learning how to be good humans! I believe that’s why Jesus came as a human being: not to teach us how to go to heaven, but to teach us how to be a fully alive human being here on this earth.
Adapted from Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond: The Search for Our True Self (Jossey-Bass: 2013), 121, 122;
Contemplative Prayer (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2003), CD, MP3 download;
Transforming the World through Contemplative Prayer, disc 3 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2013), CD, MP3 download;
The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See (The Crossroad Publishing Company: 2009), 16; and
Just This (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2017), 39.