If you're like many other Christians, you aren't too familiar with the discipline of contemplation—you may even approach it with skepticism and concern. Those unfamiliar with the practice may guess it's similar to secular meditation, or perhaps assume it means asking yourself existential questions about the meaning of life. Not so, says author and theologian Phyllis Tickle.
True contemplation—the sort that was common practice for Christians prior to the Reformation—is much more than human-bound thought. In fact, living a life of contemplation is so essential to Tickle's faith that if just three hours go by without connecting with God, life "becomes so loud I can hardly think." Read on as she describes not only the definition and history of contemplation, but how this discipline is vital to your faith right now.
Contemplation can be a scary idea for many Christians—especially if we think in terms of mysticism, humanism, or eastern philosophy.
You're right. When we talk about contemplation I get antsy, because we're talking about something that's as much psychological as it is religious. We need to be very clear that biblical contemplation—which has been practiced for centuries—is not about yoga, or about being "good," or "emptying our minds and becoming one with the universe," or about the age-old joke of "contemplating my navel."
So what is the spiritual discipline of contemplation?
It must be in company with the Holy Spirit. It's an invitation to enter into deep conversation with Almighty Father.
Prior to the Reformation, contemplation was a considerable part of the Christian experience. It was fixed in the ancient disciplines, every one of which was a form of contemplation: communion, fasting, fixed-hour prayer, Sabbath observance, observance of the liturgical year, and pilgrimage.
The focus for a Christian has got to be on listening to and meditating with the Holy Spirit. It's much more interested in being holy than in being good. That's an important distinction.
What do you mean by that?
Too many secularists put the focus on being good—we contemplate who we are and why we're here and so on. But as Christians we're not about being good; we're about being holy. In the New Testament Jesus told us over and over that keeping the law isn't necessarily the holy life. We can "do" everything to be good, but our hearts and minds can still be far from God. Holiness involves love and mercy, compassion and just actions. Those qualities and perceptions come not from the head and logic, but from the head and the heart and the soul constantly attuned together to the direction of the Spirit.