Meditations for Layfolks - Contemplation

The particular form of prayer that is here recommended, namely contemplation, will no doubt sound too ideal, too far up in the clouds to be of any practical use to the ordinary individual. It has been so shut out from our ordinary notions of the sanctity required from men and women that the result has been that it is relegated in most people's mind to the cloisters. Contemplation! Oh yes; monks and nuns may contemplate, but not layfolk! That is the tyranny of a prejudice which is based on a misconception; for contemplation is an essential to all those who would live godly in Christ Jesus. Prayer is too often robbed of all its effects, is reduced to hard and fast rules, is mapped out and labelled and regimented till it hardly seems at all to be the language of the heart. It becomes instead (and the elaborate instructions of so many books on mental prayer amply bear out this view) a highly artificial science, where notices meet us at every step, burly policemen in the guise of theologians bar our passage, and definite and well-ordered paths, macadamized and straight and uninteresting, stretch out in military fashion to the skyline. All adventure has gone, all the personal touches, and all the contemplation. We are too worried and harassed to think of God. The instructions are so detailed and insistent that we forget what we are trying to learn. As a consequence we get bored, and so no doubt does God.

But to contemplate is perfectly simple; to contemplate is to gaze. The Egyptian statues seem crystallized contemplation: they sit so silently after the fashion of the changeless East, with their hands upon their knees and their eyes fixed at a dead level, gazing far out into the even desert. The statues, too, of Buddha, despite their gesture and their corpulency, and the self-satisfied air they usually suggest, have about them the sense of restfulness. They are still and contemplative. Even the writhing figure of the Crucified, stript of all accidental dignity and composure, yet, by its hushed and brooding inertness, speaks of deep-souled peace; and we are sure that the prayer of our Master on the hillside by the lake or in the garden of Mount Olivet, for all its agony and its oppression at the near thought of death, was the still prayer of contemplation, the gazing with questioning yet patient eyes upon the infinite being of God. This surely is prayer an upraising of the heart through the mind, a speech with God such as friend with friend, or such as lover has with beloved when the mere sight and presence is enough to make glad the heart. It is prayer; but surely it is a far easier and more natural form than the over-busy and irritating attitude I try to take up towards my soul. "Martha, Martha, one thing alone is necessary; Mary has chosen the better part."

To achieve this I must begin by faith. It is only by true knowledge that I shall be led to gaze on God; it is only by an accurate acquaintance with Eternal Truth and Beauty that I shall be able to appreciate all that contemplation means. My mind, lit up by the truth of Revelation which the Church has taught me, is fixed upon some mystery or portion of a mystery. I try to think out the deep meaning of it, then reach the further end of all my know ledge, and wait before the Truth. It will appear to me at first dimly, looming out from the darkness, where my own ignorance must leave it. Slowly, as I gaze, the details, unguessed, unnoticed, will appear, emerging against the more shadowed background. Across the distance steals, perhaps, the fragrance of God; I can even hear the whisper of His voice. Gradually I find that there are inner meanings to all these sanctities of God, which come to those only who patiently await the unfolding of the seed of the Kingdom. All this is contemplation: not preludes, nor composition, nor colloquies, but the bare, naked truth, clearing in outline to the soul that is content to watch in silence at the feet of Christ. By faith, then, I learn from the Church the truths of God. These I understand in the sense in which she explains them. Tften with deep trust I watch and listen for the Voice of God.

- text taken from Meditations for Layfolk by Father Bede Jarrett, O.P.