I recent­ly con­duct­ed the funer­al of a man who lived just five short months after being told he had inop­er­a­ble lung can­cer. Dur­ing those five months Peter’s body dete­ri­o­rat­ed, but his soul grew immense­ly. While he was well, he loved to take care of his fam­i­ly. When he was sick, they took won­der­ful care of him at home.

He con­tem­plat­ed life dur­ing those five months, and dur­ing that time both the seen and unseen worlds came into focus. He was not a church­man dur­ing his life­time, but Christ became so real to him at the end that he could say to his best friend, I’ll see you up there,” before he died in peace.

One of my own rel­a­tives was recent­ly bap­tized at 69 years of age only three weeks after his wife died because he per­ceived that he wouldn’t go where his hon­ey” had gone if he didn’t. He had thought about it for a year, but her prod­ding after death” aware­ness brought him to that sud­den moment — while he was pay­ing bills — when he saw every­thing whole. In front of a rather staid” con­gre­ga­tion he con­fessed Jesus Christ and was bap­tized. After the bap­tism, he said in a loud voice, Yes! Yes!” and the con­gre­ga­tion respond­ed with a ring­ing clap.

The Ongo­ing Dialogue

Philip Nary was the late six­teenth-cen­tu­ry Ital­ian saint whose inner joy and humor drew all class­es and types of peo­ple to him for counsel. 

One day Nary was vis­it­ed by a stu­dent of phi­los­o­phy who was full of him­self, bub­bling with ambi­tious plans for his life. Like the wise coun­selor that he was, Nary restrict­ed his part of the con­ver­sa­tion to an occa­sion­al ques­tion. The stu­dent hur­ried on to tell Nary that he was now engaged in get­ting his Ph.D. in phi­los­o­phy. What then?” Philip asked. Then he would go on to get a doc­tor­ate in both civ­il and com­mon law. He’d inher­it his family’s large estate and would mar­ry bril­liant­ly and have a fine fam­i­ly of his own. What then?” Well, then he would win a name for him­self in the courts and he’d achieve many hon­ors, per­haps even be elect­ed an audi­tor. What then?” the old counselor/​saint con­tin­ued to ask him. Well, then he sup­posed he’d grow old sur­round­ed by an illus­tri­ous fam­i­ly and die like every­one else. And, Philip Nary asked once more, What then?”

With­in each and every one of us resides both the voice of the court philoso­pher and the ques­tion­ing voice of the counselor/​saint. When we become tru­ly aware, there is some­thing with­in us that asks these same ques­tions about all we do and about the very direc­tion our life is tak­ing. There is in all human beings who have not been robbed of their birthright an inte­ri­or dia­logue, an inner con­ver­sa­tion that nev­er ceas­es. Some­times this con­ver­sa­tion is buried beneath the thresh­old of con­scious­ness for weeks or months or even years.

But then, like the ancient lim­er­ick about the old man from Peru who dreamt he was eat­ing his shoe. He woke in the night with a ter­ri­ble fright and found it was per­fect­ly true,” a per­son can be star­tled out of his dark dream-like tun­nel and dis­cov­er that the dia­logue is going on. Maybe it comes dur­ing an ill­ness (as in Peter’s case) or a crush­ing humil­i­a­tion or a loss (as in the case of my rel­a­tive) or a rad­i­cal change. Or it can come through wor­ship or prayer. Con­tem­pla­tion comes in var­i­ous forms and degrees and is brought about in innu­mer­able ways and at any vari­ety of times.

Some­times peo­ple are rav­ished by some beau­ti­ful scene. Our fam­i­ly vis­it­ed Banff, Cana­da, a few years ago. I was sim­ply over­whelmed by the breath­tak­ing view of Lake Louise, so much so that I could only hold my breath. 

Great hero­ic acts deeply touch some peo­ple, while mov­ing friend­ships or deep loves touch oth­ers. The best male friend I have ever had in this life was a man named Joe. He was every­thing a per­son would ever want in a friend — car­ing, accept­ing, gen­er­ous, open, hon­est, and faith­ful. He once said to me about God, not mean­ing to sound haughty at all, just truth­ful: You know, Willy, I know, you just believe.” I wasn’t offend­ed. He had seen some­thing I had not seen. He had con­tem­plat­ed life at a deep­er lev­el than I because he was dying of leukemia.

When this hap­pens and the dia­logue with­in is recov­ered; when the amaz­ing sanc­tu­ary of the soul is dis­cov­ered and the only place with­in, the God place, becomes clear­ly present; then, despite its hav­ing been ignored, every­thing changes — things that were impor­tant become unim­por­tant and unim­por­tant things become of pri­ma­ry impor­tance. This strange and mys­te­ri­ous­ly awe­some pow­er enables us to car­ry on this inner ques­tion­ing about Who are we?”, Where did we come from?”, and What then?” This pow­er pen­e­trates the inner con­nec­tions of our expe­ri­ences in a mean­ing­ful way, and our life and the work of our hands and brains relate to what our knowl­edge and expe­ri­ence have com­mu­ni­cat­ed to us about the world we live in. This pow­er is the pow­er of contemplation.

A Pen­e­trat­ing Gaze at the Truth

Con­tem­pla­tion comes from opti­cal lan­guage and means to gaze steadi­ly at some­thing; to look at it calm­ly and con­tin­u­ous­ly, atten­tive­ly and search­ing­ly. Thomas Aquinas describes con­tem­pla­tion as a sim­ple, unim­ped­ed, pen­e­trat­ing gaze at the truth. 

I am remind­ed of a scene I saw yes­ter­day: a cat sat face-to-face one foot away from a huge frog, each star­ing at the oth­er, that is, until I grabbed the cat and the frog leaped to safe­ty. I think they both knew the real­i­ty of the sit­u­a­tion in the ani­mal kingdom.

Some­how we rec­og­nize that we are con­front­ed by a giv­en that is not us. We are not iden­ti­cal with it. There is a cleft between the con­tem­pla­tor and the con­tem­plat­ed. All con­tem­pla­tion acknowl­edges this cleft. Even our past can nev­er be ful­ly iden­ti­fied with the eye that exam­ines it.

In all Chris­t­ian wor­ship there is a sense of awe, rev­er­ence, and mys­tery. Ado­ra­tion is the only appro­pri­ate response of a human being before the source of all being. God is oth­er than me. He is total­ly oth­er and yet choos­es to be both tran­scen­dent and imma­nent. That God, in Jesus Christ, spent his first days in a manger in a sta­ble is awe­some. More awe­some still is that he comes to live in a sin­ful human heart, cre­at­ing the Body of Christ on earth.

At the phys­i­cal lev­el of con­tem­pla­tion not much per­son­al involve­ment is nec­es­sary as, for exam­ple, in sci­en­tif­ic obser­va­tion. At the per­son­al, eth­i­cal lev­el (as well as all social lev­els) a high­er response is need­ed by the con­tem­pla­tor. But the price to be paid by the con­tem­pla­tor at the deep­est lev­el — reli­gious faith — is extreme­ly high, involv­ing total par­tic­i­pa­tion, total sur­ren­der, total involvement.

In the Midst of Intense Activity

In the pop­u­lar mind con­tem­pla­tion is often asso­ci­at­ed with leisure. Being relaxed in a lawn chair with eyes closed is a mod­ern, idyl­lic pic­ture of con­tem­pla­tion. In the study alone or walk­ing in the woods hold­ing the hand of some­one you love is anoth­er pic­ture of rhap­sod­ic con­tem­pla­tion. While there is no deny­ing that con­tem­pla­tion is nat­u­ral­ly asso­ci­at­ed with a cer­tain holy leisure, it can also take place on a bus, in the kitchen, in traf­fic jams, in a busy office, even at meal­time. True con­tem­pla­tion is an inward open­ness to the mean­ing of things. I know a man who I think con­tem­plates all the time. Usu­al­ly it is bet­ter to have cer­tain times and places to con­tem­plate, but it need not be that limited.

Con­tem­pla­tion can even take place dur­ing intense activ­i­ty. One per­son I know con­tem­plates con­stant­ly as she pulls weeds in her love­ly gar­den. The work of con­tem­pla­tion is to sort out the activ­i­ties, frame them, weigh them, and eval­u­ate them. I have known some extreme­ly busy peo­ple who did not neglect con­tem­pla­tion but con­stant­ly car­ried it on at a low intensity.

Pos­si­ble for All

Not every­one is as gift­ed in con­tem­pla­tion as oth­ers, but I am aware of no evi­dence that cer­tain psy­cho­log­i­cal types or tem­pera­ments are more gift­ed and will always be able to con­tem­plate. There are no rules that say only spe­cial­ists can con­tem­plate. It is non­sense to believe so. Ordi­nary con­tem­pla­tion is pos­si­ble for any­one. With­out it, peo­ple are not whol­ly con­scious or whol­ly alive. Even so great an author­i­ty as Eve­lyn Under­hill says that The spring of the amaz­ing ener­gy which enables the great mys­tic to rise to free­dom is latent in all of us.” It is an inte­gral part of our humanity.

In des­per­a­tion have you ever looked into the abyss of your own life; or in depres­sion or in humil­i­a­tion or in search of God? Pas­cal says, The infi­nite abyss can only be filled by an infi­nite and immutable object — only God Himself.”

Our soci­ety today is haunt­ed by the absence of con­tem­pla­tion. The Church is awak­en­ing to it, but we still don’t know how to use this God-giv­en pow­er of relat­ing and assim­i­lat­ing the expe­ri­ences of work, wor­ship, fam­i­ly, com­mu­ni­ty, and world. It is the genius of con­tem­pla­tion to appre­hend uni­ty, to pierce through the sur­face, and to dis­cov­er what holds things togeth­er under­neath. I have come to see as through the fog dim­ly” that in Jesus Christ all things are held togeth­er” and in him all things have uni­ty and meaning. 

The deep­est lev­el of con­tem­pla­tion and the great­est gift God has giv­en us humans through his Holy Spir­it is that of being able to con­tem­plate the liv­ing God in Jesus Christ through prayer. Prayer is that atten­tive­ness to God and its sub­se­quent obedience.

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Orig­i­nal pub­lish date unknown.

Originally published December 1998