Contemplation isn't just for monks, it's for everyone
“Why are you here on earth?” the ancient Greek philosopher Anaxagoras considered. His answer: “To behold.”
This strange, mystical utterance is echoed in the teachings of the Church Fathers, principally St. Thomas Aquinas, and in more contemporary times by St. Josemaría Escrivá, who urged everyone to live as a “contemplative in the middle of the world.”
How strange that we so seldom think of the overriding point of our existence: to be beholders, contemplatives, seers.
Part of the reason, surely, is that we don’t really understand what it means to be a contemplative, much less one in the middle of the world. We tend to think that contemplation is for religious. And as for being a contemplative in the middle of the world? Well, that was obviously stated by someone with no idea of what life is really like in our hectic, hyper-managed, stressed-out society.
But the contemplative life is available to all, and that is because it’s not so much a special office within the Church as it is an activity that anyone can enjoy.
In fact, we enjoy contemplation all the time. On the weekend, we sit down to watch a movie. If you stop to think about it, what a strange activity that is! What are we doing there in the dark, watching moving images of human beings? What we’re doing is contemplating, beholding the wonder of the human being as he seeks, and perhaps fails to find, happiness. Interestingly, the Greek verb for “behold,” theorein, from which we ultimately get our word “contemplation,” is the same word from which get our word “theater.” A theater is a “seeing place,” a venue for contemplating human beings in action.
In the mundane activity of watching a movie, we find the basic elements of all contemplative activity: the turning over in the mind of some truth, and the cleaving of the heart to that truth.
This “turning over in the mind,” however, is not intellectual work of the kind that, say, an engineer undertakes when he designs a bridge, or that a developer undertakes when he designs a new smart phone app. These are worthwhile intellectual endeavors in their own right, but they are distinct from contemplation in that they involve the mind in a process of figuring something out and making something. They involve the mind in work. In contemplation, by contrast, there is no figuring out or making. Rather, the mind is more relaxed and receptive. We might say, the mind is “at its leisure.” When we contemplate, we are simply soaking up a truth that has already been achieved by the mind, as when the engineer beholds the magnificence of his completed bridge.
To return to our movie-watching example: we may not be in a position to contemplate the truth of a film even when we have finished it; we may still need to figure out what the movie is trying to say. But when we do get a handle on its truth, what we often do next is let it play in the mind. That is contemplation. How often, after seeing a really great movie, have you found yourself telling someone, “I can’t get that movie out of my head!”? It’s as if you’ve been living in the movie for a time. Or how often have you watched your favorite movie again and again? Why do you do this, if you know the ending? You do it not because you want to figure the story out, but to contemplate its truth.
We also contemplate when we watch our children march across the stage to pick up their diplomas at graduation. All at once our heart swells as we finally see the young adult we have been struggling to help form living in the truth.
And we contemplate, too, whenever our minds are captivated, however fleetingly, by a truth of mathematics or biology or economics.
Hopefully, then, it’s a little clearer how we can become contemplatives in the midst of our busy world. Of course, when St. Josemaría urges us to become contemplatives, he means most of all that we should become contemplatives in prayer. Contemplation is more perfect, says St. Thomas Aquinas, the more fundamental the truth it focuses on is. So when we contemplate the very fount of Truth – God Himself – our contemplation reaches its zenith.
Notice that prayerful contemplation of God is a specific form of prayer. That is, it is not the prayer of petition, when we ask God for the things we need. It is, rather, the prayer of the mind and heart “at leisure” to soak up the transcendent truth, beauty, and goodness of God.
During our time here on earth, our exercise of contemplation, whether in watching a movie or in prayer, will necessarily be intermittent. We can’t be before the Blessed Sacrament twenty-four hours a day. We need to work, we need to sleep, we need to take care of practical affairs. But as long as all of our practical activity is undertaken for the sake of our contemplative moments, we will have earned the right to be called contemplatives in the middle of the world.
And in the next life? We will, hopefully, have realized the purpose of our existence and thus be able to behold the very face of God for all eternity.
Daniel McInerny is an author, journalist, and brand storytelling strategist at The Comic Muse. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.