The Christian Contemplative Tradition

Western Christianity

The Christian Contemplative Tradition
Sunday, September 16, 2018

Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy have a long tradition of teaching contemplation or nondual consciousness. But its systematic teaching was primarily held in the Eastern “Greek” church; the Western “Latin” church was more extroverted and aligned with empires.

Serious contemplative teaching—very upfront in the desert fathers and mothers—is surely found in Celtic Christianity (outside of empire), and is continued by leaders of many monasteries, for example, by John Cassian (360–435 CE), Pseudo-Dionysius (5th–6th centuries), and Hugh of St. Victor (1096–1141) in Paris. Later mystics like Bonaventure (1221–1274), Francisco de Osuna (1497–1541), the unknown author of The Cloud of Unknowing (late 14th century), and 16th century mystics Teresa of Ávila (1515–1582) and John of the Cross (1542–1591) also taught nondual consciousness. It held on much longer in the religious orders than the ordinary local church or with the common priest or bishop—whose ministry was an occupation more than a search for God or a “school for the Lord’s service,” as St. Benedict (480–547) described. [1]

Most Western mystics exemplified contemplation, as did Jesus, much more than they directly taught it. Maybe this is part of the reason many Christians lost it, and why good theological teaching and practice is now so important today. After the fights of the Reformation, and after the over-rationalization of the 17th and 18th century Enlightenment, many of us Western Christians became very defensive, wanting to prove we were smart and could win arguments with the new secularism. We imitated the rationalists while using pious Christian vocabulary. It took the form of heady Scholasticism and rote formulas in Catholicism, and led to fundamentalism and memorized Scripture verses providing their own kind of “rationalism” among many Protestants.

Catholic doctrines (such as transubstantiation, papal infallibility, and hierarchical authority) came to be presented in a largely academic and juridical way (or, for the sacraments, with an almost magical interpretation), as opposed to a contemplative or mystical way. Frankly, all of this inspired few and drove 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 very influential in reintroducing contemplation to the West. Now it is again taught in Christian arenas all over the world under different names.

What we now call contemplation—a unique way of knowing—is a rediscovery of our earlier Christian practice. Basically, contemplation is the way you know and think of yourself when you are sincerely praying and present—as opposed to thinking, arguing, or proving.

As Archbishop Rowan Williams, former leader of the Anglican Church, told the Synod of Catholic Bishops in Rome:

Contemplation is very far from being just one kind of thing that Christians do: it is the key to prayer, liturgy, art and ethics, the key to the essence of a renewed humanity that is capable of seeing the world and other subjects in the world with freedom—freedom from self-oriented, acquisitive habits and the distorted understanding that comes from them. To put it boldly, contemplation is the only ultimate answer to the unreal and insane world that our financial systems and our advertising culture and our chaotic and unexamined emotions encourage us to inhabit. To learn contemplative practice is to learn what we need so as to live truthfully and honestly and lovingly. It is a deeply revolutionary matter. [2]

Despite centuries without systematic teaching of nondual consciousness, many seekers have now come to contemplation as the fruit of great suffering or great love. These are the quickest and most universal ways that God uses to destabilize the self-referential ego. Those transformed by life and grace come to enjoy the presence of God, others, and even themselves. They have connected with their deepest Source, an identity that goes far beyond ideas of right and wrong.

Great suffering, great love, and contemplative practice can instill in us “the same mind which is in Christ Jesus” (see Philippians 2:5-11, 4:4-7, and 1 Corinthians 2 and 3). Indeed, I believe contemplative, nondual consciousness is the mind of Christ.

References:
[1] Benedict, Rule, Prologue. See Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: A Spirituality for the 21st Century (Crossroad Publishing: 2014, ©1992), 21.

[2] Archbishop Rowan Williams, Address to the Synod of Bishops in Rome (October 10, 2012), http://rowanwilliams.archbishopofcanterbury.org/articles.php/2645/archbishops-address-to-the-synod-of-bishops-in-rome.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Silent Compassion: Finding God in Contemplation (Franciscan Media: 2014), 63-65.

Image credit: Country Gate at Dawn (detail), Anton Goncharov.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: The word contemplation must press beyond the constraints of religious expectations to reach the potential for spiritual centering in the midst of danger. . . . During slavery, . . . crisis contemplation became a refuge, a wellspring of discernment in a suddenly disordered life space, and a geo-spiritual anvil for forging a new identity. —Barbara Holmes
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