Four Questions 2B--What is Contemplation?

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Now we approach formal definitions that come closer to the heart of what we are talking about.

I start with the least formal of these, but one that gives a very good intuitive feel for what it is about. This is Tom of Disputations paraphrase of Fr. William McNamara. Comtemplation is "a long, lingering, loving look at the real."

An excellent start, if a little nebulous.

Here is a portion of Evelyn Underhill's magistgerial discussion. We have here not so much a definition but a delineation of what contemplation is NOT.

from Mysticism: A Study in Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness
Evelyn Underhill

Here, the most important work has been done in France; and especially by the Abbé Bremond, whose “Prière et Poésie” and “Introduction a la Philosophie de la Prière”—based on a vast acquaintance with mystical literature—mark, I believe, the beginning of a new understanding of the character of contemplation. The Thomist philosophy of Maritain, and the psychological researches of Maréchal, tend to support this developing view of the mystical experience, even in its elementary forms, as an activity of the transcendental self; genuinely supernatural, yet not necessarily involving any abnormal manifestations, and linked by the ascending “degrees of prayer” with the subject’s “ordinary” religious life. This disentangling of the substance of mysticism from the psycho-physical accidents of trance, ecstasy, vision and other abnormal phenomena which often accompany it, and its vindication as something which gives the self a genuine knowledge of transcendental Reality—with its accompanying demonstration of the soberness and sanity of the greatest contemplative saints—is the last of the beneficent changes which have transformed our study of the mystics.

Later in the same work we find this:

This act of perfect concentration, 49 the passionate focussing of the self upon one point, when it is applied “with a naked intent” to real and transcendental things, constitutes in the technical language of mysticism the state of recollection: 64 a condition which is peculiarly characteristic of the mystical consciousness, and is the necessary prelude of pure contemplation, that state in which the mystic enters into communion with Reality.

(Emphasis added to accentuate what I thnk Underhill's "definition" of contemplation entails.) In the following paragraphs, quoted at length here for future reference, Underhill has some interesting points to make regarding the contemplative and the goal of contemplation.

from Mysticism
Evelyn Underhill

We have then arrived so far in our description of the mechanism of the mystic. Possessed like other men of powers of feeling, thought, and will, it is essential that his love and his determination, even more than his thought, should be set upon Transcendent Reality. He must feel a strong emotional attraction toward the supersensual Object of his quest: that love which scholastic philosophy defined as the force or power which causes every creature to follow out the trend of its own nature. Of this must be born the will to attain communion with that Absolute Object. This will, this burning and active desire, must crystallize into and express itself by that definite and conscious concentration of the whole self upon the Object, which precedes the contemplative state. We see already how far astray are those who look upon the mystical temperament as passive in type.

Our next concern, then, would seem to be with this condition of contemplation: what it does and whither it leads. What is (a) its psychological explanation and (b) its empirical value? Now, in dealing with this, and other rare mental conditions, we are of course trying to describe from without that which can only adequately be described from within; which is as much as to say that only mystics can really write about mysticism. Fortunately, many mystics have so written; and we, from their experiences and from the explorations of psychology upon another plane, are able to make certain elementary deductions. It appears generally from these that the act of contemplation is for the mystic a psychic gateway; a method of going from one level of consciousness to another. In technical language it is the condition under which he shifts his “field of perception” and obtains his characteristic outlook on the universe. That there is such a characteristic outlook, peculiar to no creed or race, is proved by the history of mysticism; which demonstrates plainly enough that in some men another sort of consciousness, another “sense,” may be liberated beyond the normal powers we have discussed. This “sense” has attachments at each point to emotion, to intellect, and to will. It can express itself under each of the aspects which these terms connote. Yet it differs from and transcends the emotional,intellectual, and volitional life of ordinary men. It was recognized by 50 Plato as that consciousness which could apprehend the real world of the Ideas. Its development is the final object of that education which his “Republic” describes. It is called by Plotinus “Another intellect, different from that which reasons and is denominated rational.” Its business, he says, is the perception of the supersensual—or, in Neoplatonic language, the intelligible world. It is the sense which, in the words of the “Theologia Germanica,” has “the power of seeing into eternity,” the “mysterious eye of the soul” by which St. Augustine saw “the light that never changes.” It is, says Al Ghazzali, a Persian mystic of the eleventh century, “like an immediate perception, as if one touched its object with one’s hand.” In the words of his great Christian successor, St. Bernard, “it may be defined as the soul’s true unerring intuition, the unhesitating apprehension of truth”: which “simple vision of truth,” says St. Thomas Aquinas, “ends in a movement of desire.”

It is infused with burning love, for it seems to its possessors to be primarily a movement of the heart: with intellectual subtlety, for its ardour is wholly spent upon the most sublime object of thought: with unflinching will, for its adventures are undertaken in the teeth of the natural doubts, prejudices, languors, and self-indulgence of man. These adventures, looked upon by those who stay at home as a form of the Higher Laziness, are in reality the last and most arduous labours which the human spirit is called to perform. They are the only known methods by which we can come into conscious possession of all our powers; and, rising from the lower to the higher levels of consciousness, become aware of that larger life in which we are immersed, attain communion with the transcendent Personality in Whom that life is resumed.

Mary has chosen the better, not the idler part; for her gaze is directed towards those First Principles without which the activity of Martha would have no meaning at all. In vain does sardonic common sense, confronted with the contemplative type, reiterate the sneer of Mucius, “Encore sont-ils heureux que la pauvre Marthe leur fasse la cuisine.” It remains a paradox of the mystics that the passivity at which they appear to aim is really a state of the most intense activity: more, that where it is wholly absent no great creative action can take place. In it, the superficial self compels itself to be still, in order that it may liberate another more deep-seated power which is, in the ecstasy of the contemplative genius, raised to the highest pitch of efficiency.

“This restful travail,” said Walter Hilton, “is full far from fleshly idleness and from blind security. It is full of ghostly work but it is called rest, for grace looseth the heavy yoke of fleshly love from the soul and maketh it mighty and free through the gift of the holy ghostly love for to work gladly, softly, and delectably. . . . Therefore is it called an holy idleness and a rest most busy; and so is it in stillness from the great crying and the beastly noise of fleshly desires.”

. . . This act, this condition of consciousness, in which barriers are obliterated, the Absolute flows in on us, and we, rushing out to its embrace, “find and feel the Infinite above all reason and above all knowledge,” is the true “mystical state.” The value of contemplation is that it tends to produce this state, release this transcendental sense; and so turns the “lower servitude” in which the natural man lives under the sway of his earthly environment to the “higher servitude” of fully conscious dependence on that Reality “in Whom we live and move and have our being.”

Quotations such as these get at the point of contemplation, but fail to define it succinctly. In fact, one could peruse the entire work without becoming much more concrete than this last paragraph.

I've gone on too long as it is, but let me end this post with one, final, much more succinct, if rather dense definition and discussion from St. Thomas Aquinas:

from Summa Theolgiae
St. Thomas Aquinas

On the contrary, Life signifies here the operation on which a man is chiefly intent. Wherefore if there are several operations of the contemplative life, there will be, not one, but several contemplative lives.

I answer that, We are now speaking of the contemplative life as applicable to man. Now according to Dionysius (Div. Nom. vii) between man and angel there is this difference, that an angel perceives the truth by simple apprehension, whereas man arrives at the perception of a simple truth by a process from several premises. Accordingly, then, the contemplative life has one act wherein it is finally completed, namely the contemplation of truth, and from this act it derives its unity. Yet it has many acts whereby it arrives at this final act. Some of these pertain to the reception of principles, from which it proceeds to the contemplation of truth; others are concerned with deducing from the principles, the truth, the knowledge of which is sought; and the last and crowning act is the contemplation itself of the truth.

Reply to Objection 1. According to Richard of St. Victor "cogitation" would seem to regard the consideration of the many things from which a person intends to gather one simple truth. Hence cogitation may comprise not only the perceptions of the senses in taking cognizance of certain effects, but also the imaginations. and again the reason's discussion of the various signs or of anything that conduces to the truth in view: although, according to Augustine (De Trin. xiv, 7), cogitation may signify any actual operation of the intellect. "Meditation" would seem to be the process of reason from certain principles that lead to the contemplation of some truth: and "consideration" has the same meaning, according to Bernard (De Consid. ii, 2), although, according to the Philosopher (De Anima ii, 1), every operation of the intellect may be called "consideration." But "contemplation" regards the simple act of gazing on the truth; wherefore Richard says again (De Grat. Contempl. i, 4) that "contemplation is the soul's clear and free dwelling upon the object of its gaze; meditation is the survey of the mind while occupied in searching for the truth: and cogitation is the mind's glance which is prone to wander."

Now, this is by no means the fullness of what St. Thomas has to say regarding contemplation. Nor could we reasonably end a discussion of the definition of contemplation on such a note. However, this must suffice for the moment as the duties of the day beckon. I shall try to resume this somewhat later.

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By "entering into communion with Reality", into what has one entered communion, exactly? If the Christ is "the Way and the Truth and the Life" does this trio of attributes combine to be synonymous with "Reality?" Or is this, perhaps, Reality of a specifically *human* kind (that humanity having been morally pefected), but beyond which there is a transcendant reality? If so, is this transcendant reality (perhaps beyond good and evil) accessible through contemplation?



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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on April 27, 2004 8:00 AM.

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