Consecrated Life: Contemplation
It might seem that contemplation is reserved only for a few people who are chosen by God according to his mysterious plan. In fact, however, each of us is invited to contemplative life, as everyone is invited to live a full life. For contemplation means remaining attentive in God’s presence and seeking his face, that is, seeking his truth.
Franc Jalics, a Hungarian religious, at the beginning of his book Contemplative Life, encourages a short exercise. Go for a slow walk and try to watch with concentration all things which you pass. Try to notice as many details as possible and let yourself be surprised that in your surroundings there are so many things which you did not discern before. Such an experience lets us also notice how difficult it is to concentrate for a long time.
This simple exercise can help us grasp the characteristic features of contemplation. First, you have to be completely involved in this act. Contemplation requires attention, vigilance and concentration. That is the reason why each individual prayer demands silence. St Irenaeus of Lyons wrote that the Holy Spirit is Silence, and only in this Silence can the Word be born. Contemplation is a total opening up to the Word that wants to come to you. It may sound lofty but in reality it is very simple. For contemplation, for good prayer you need silence and concentration. Not only silence around you but also within you, in your mind.
Second, contemplation is not seeking silence for the sake of silence or for relaxation. Contemplation is seeking God. Concentration is only the condition for good prayer, but the goal is God himself. It is really important to find him in the silence of his presence. The truth is that God is always present to us but we are not always present to him. And we have to stand in his presence. When you read the Bible or say the rosary you should always return to an awareness of his presence. For this another prayer, the Jesus prayer, is really helpful. During this prayer you calmly repeat over and over just one sentence from the Gospel: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” and your attention should be direct to the words “Lord Jesus Christ”, which after a while will become the living Word by which God is present.
Third, as during the exercise you can be surprised by how many things are in your surroundings, so in contemplation let yourself be surprised by God. The Lord wants to speak to us. God wants to disclose himself and give us access to his truth. Contemplation is not fleeting rapture or a sudden outburst. Contemplation is the recognition of God, not of our ideas of God but of God himself. Hence, let yourself be surprised! St Thomas Aquinas writes that “Final and perfect happiness can consist in nothing else than the vision of the Divine Essence”. In heaven we will endure in perfect contemplation, that is in the recognition of God himself. Therefore, in our Dominican tradition one of the ways of contemplation is study. It is really important to seek God also through diligent and persistent study.
This good example of contemplative life was given us by St. Dominic. Among his nine ways of prayer there is one, the eighth, which show us how St. Dominic held himself in the presence of God:
“The holy father Dominic also had another beautiful way of praying, full of devotion and grace. After the canonical hours and the grace which is said in common after meals the father would go off quickly to some place where he could be alone, in a cell or somewhere. Sober and alert and anointed with a spirit of devotion which he had drawn from the words of God which had been sung in choir or during the meal, he would settle himself down to read or pray, recollecting himself in himself and fixing himself in the presence of God. Sitting there quietly, he would open some book before him, arming himself first with the sign of the cross, and then he would read. And he would be moved in his mind as delightfully as if he heard the Lord speaking to him. As the Psalm says, ‘I will hear what the Lord God is saying in me, because he will speak peace to his people and upon his saints, and to those who turn to him with all their heart’ (Psalms 84:9).”