Con•tem•pla•tive: I stumbled over this word in the summer of 1995. After two decades of longing and yearning for more of God’s love, I was beginning to actually taste the reality of my spiritual adoption by Abba, Father (Gal. 4:4-7) and beginning to sense the security of my core identity in Christ – I was a beloved son of God (Eph. 5:1-2). Yet I struggled with two desires which seemed contradictory in my brand of cloudy, confused Christianity: I desired a life of deeper devotion and I desired a well-reasoned, deeply thoughtful knowledge of my faith. Could reason and devotion coexist? Could I move within an intellectually oriented belief system and simultaneously experience a relationally rich and rewarding fellowship with God?
Contemplative Defined: At first I feared it. The word conjured my own stifling assumptions of monastery life - cold, dark rooms, long hours of silent prayer and brooding introspection. My fear eased only a little when I read a definition: “Denoting, concerned with, or inclined to contemplation; meditative; a person dedicated to religious contemplation or to a way of life conductive to this” (Collins English Dictionary).
Contemplative Desired: That summer as I read David Hazard’s paraphrased selections from the writings of John of The Cross (You Set My Spirit Free, Bethany House, 1994), I learned that I wanted what Hazard reported John of The Cross possessed: “fire of devotion” and “piercing intelligence.” I wanted both and had neither. Hazard indicated that becoming ‘contemplative’ was the route to opening the heart so that God’s transformations, God’s renewal of the soul could be cultivated and experienced. Deep, rich, rewarding relationship with God through contemplation of Him and His holy scriptures – this was John’s journey. Would it be mine? Could it be yours?
Kənˈtemplədiv: This word has been used (and abused) many ways and most North American Christians simply have not been introduced to the beauty, depth and importance of the contemplative way to knowing God and living life. What follows is what I have come to understand as the widest, deepest and most glorious version of what it means to become contemplative. Let’s start with what it is not.
Being contemplative is not simply a type of praying, although the contemplative way of life includes intimate prayer with a great emphasis on listening to God and receiving ‘life’ —“taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8).
Being contemplative is not about becoming some kind of cloistered loner who lives in a monastery or cave, although the contemplative way of life encourages regular times of solitude allowing stillness of soul and quietness of heart—“be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).
Being contemplative is not a rigid, legalistic code of conduct, although being contemplative shapes, molds and slowly purifies everything about us: our conscience, motives, desires, thinking, imagination, emotions and behavior—all of the functions of the ‘heart.’ “God blesses those whose hearts are pure, for they will see God” (Matthew 5: 8).
Being Contemplative: It’s all about living the Christ life in the Christ way. Stated more accurately, it is all about Christ living His life, in us, in His way. Eugene Peterson has been faithfully practicing the contemplative life for decades and describes it...
[Positively] “...the contemplative life, living the Christ life in the Christ way. The words of Jesus that keep this in focus are ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’ (John 14:6). Only when we do the Jesus truth in the Jesus way do we get the Jesus life.”
[Negatively] “Christ is the way as well as the truth and the life. When we don’t do it his way, we mess up the truth and we miss out on the life” (Transparent Lives, The Christian Century, November 29, 2003, pp. 20-27).
Christ came that we may have His life and have it abundantly (John 10:10). Being contemplative opens us for His abundant life. So we summarize: being contemplative involves every aspect of life—it includes all the ways and means by which we hope to achieve this end—becoming mature, Christ-like disciples who make disciples. Peterson is realistic about the challenges of being contemplative:
“But this isn’t easy. It has always been more difficult to come to terms with Jesus as the way than with Jesus as the truth, more difficult to realize the ways our thinking and behavior get fused into a life of relational love and adoration with neighbor and God, God and neighbor” (Transparent Lives, The Christian Century, November 29, 2003).
Jesus’ Metaphor – Awareness and Responsiveness to God. Jesus told a story to illustrate two of the ways and means of being contemplative. In the parable of the wedding banquet (Luke 14:15-24) Jesus reveals our tragic disinterest in God and our obsessive/compulsive busyness with self-focused things. We so often turn down God’s invitations—invitations to be aware of what He is doing and how He is doing it. And we often decline to receive the blessings of His presence. Author/theologian Ronald Rolheiser elaborates:
“The non-contemplative is work oriented and too busy to go to the wedding banquet. ...the people were too preoccupied with measuring land, testing oxen, and going on honeymoons to take notice of the ongoing feast. This parable is Jesus’ own metaphor for non-contemplative lack of awareness. The preoccupation ...reduces the chances of being aware that there is a divinely initiated banquet going on at the heart of ordinary life” (The Shattered Lantern, CrossRoad Publ., 2004).
How many of God’s banquets have we missed out on? How often have we turned down His invitations to be truly ‘with’ Him? How often are we simply unaware of His invitations and unaware of His presence? The contemplative approach emphasizes God awareness and responsiveness, daily, in our ordinary lives. I continue to desire to become contemplative – to search my Abba’s scriptures, to ponder and meditate, to chew on the Word, listen for Christ’s voice, respond to the drawing and leading of the Holy Spirit. God has invited us to the banquet and He calls us to taste and see that He and His life of contemplation are good. Participating in the banquet is spiritual formation.