ATTENTIVENESS: What Does It Mean To Be Contemplative? by Leighton Ford

Discerning God's Presence in All Things

What Does It Mean To Be Contemplative? by Leighton Ford

From The Attentive Life

For many of us when we hear the word contemplative, we think of a monk, sitting for hours, eyes closed, hands folded, lost to the world around.  Of course such a monk is indeed a contemplative.  But the idea of being contemplative is much bigger.

Contemplate is a two-part word, compounded from the Latin con (meaning “with”) and templum (temple), thus to observe things within a special place, and especially to observe in the presence of a deity.  So a contemplative is one who looks at life in the presence of God, or we might say with the eyes of God, or through the eyes of Christ – at any time, not just at special times; anywhere, not just in certain places; toward anyone, not just “special” people.

Consider how a poet, a spiritual teacher, and a psychiatrist think of contemplation.

The poet Kathleen Norris believes “the true mystics of the quotidian are not those who contemplate holiness in isolation, reaching Godlike illumination in serene silence, but those who manage to find God in a world filled with noise, the demands of other people, and making a living.”

Pastor and teacher Eugene Peterson understands contemplation simply as living by the Biblical revelation.  “It has nothing to do with whether we spend our days as a grease monkey under an automobile or on our knees in a Benedictine choir.  The contemplative life is not a special kind of life; it is the Christian life, nothing more but also nothing less.  But lived.

For psychiatrist David Benner, contemplation is “wordless openness to the world,” knowing the heart of things by “the way of wonder…a way of knowing that is intuitive with children.”

I am sure I saw one of Benner’s child contemplatives one summer in Vancouver as I sat on a bench at the seawall on the edge of English Bay.  Along came a mother and infant son.  He – dressed in a navy-blue sweatshirt and a gray-brimmed hat – caught my attention when he suddenly whispered, “Oh, oh.”

He had spotted a drainage grate set into the paved walkway and was fascinated.  I watched, entranced, as he peered into it, then picked blades of grass and dropped them one at a time through the bars of the grate.  His mother waited, patiently, wise enough to indulge his curiosity.

I could almost see his little mind thinking, Oh.  Down.  Where does it go?

Soon his father caught up and, seeing me watching, explained, “We just got off a flight from Europe, and our time is skewed.”  For his son, it was clear that, whatever the time change, there was no rush.

“He doesn’t need a TV to keep him happy,” I said.

“We don’t have one,” said Father.

Ha!  I thought.  An imagination sprouts!

The great irony of our wired age of communication is that many of our children are growing up information rich and imagination poor – and so are many adults.  As I watched that boy with his wordless wonder, I asked myself: Do I ever stop, with a mind like a child, to look at the unexpected openings in my path, drop my blades of grass, and wonder where they go?  Or have I lost that sense of imagining wonder?  Much of the time I have to confess I am only half-looking and half-seeing, too preoccupied with my thoughts, running from what has been to what will be next, really to live in the present.

Slowly, so slowly, I am learning, even at this stage of my life, to observe my own version of Prime before I start the day’s work.  It may be just a short walk with my dog, Wrangler, by a nearby stream, standing still, looking at the sky and trees, breathing in the fresh air, remembering to stop, and look, before I go.

And often I pause to lift this prayer of Saint Fursey:

The arms of God be around my shoulders,
The touch of the Holy Spirit upon my head,
The sign of Christ’s cross upon my forehead,
The sound of the Holy Spirit in my ears,
The fragrance of the Holy Spirit in my nostrils,
The vision of Heaven’s company in my ears,
The conversation of Heaven’s company on my lips,
The work of God’s church in my hands,
The service of God and the neighbor in my feet,
A home for God in my heart,
And to God, the father of all, my entire being.


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