Contemplation—A Treatise on Mysticism

(Author’s Note: The purpose of this article is to bring to the reader’s attention that there need not be a complex progression in the spiritual journey to bring one to mystical contemplation nor is it an exercise for just the exceptionally pious.)

    It seems to me that if Jesus came to Los Angeles today to talk about the inner journey, He would head for the inner city, to the homeless and the poor and He would speak directly and simply in the “language of the streets,” as He spoke to the shepherds and the fishermen in their “language” 1900 years ago. Contemplation is meeting reality in its simplest and most direct form.

    The words mysticism and contemplation are essentially the same. Many mystical people are totally involved in affairs of the world. What makes them mystical is their great love of God and how their lives stem upward from the all-consumed love. We don’t have to grasp all the classic prescriptions on contemplation according to the master teachers, namely the saints known by their mysticism. It is not extraordinary that God is within and wants to speak to us, we need only to search within ourselves and discover that God may be calling us to a mystical life.

    There is an inordinate search for the mystical. Every bookstore has a section devoted to mysticism. The modern press moves us to conjure up strange images of weird psychics and phenomenal yogis performing feats that blow the mind. What I am discussing here is not the false mysticism of a fanatical movement that captivates a person and pulls them out of touch with reality. The mysticism that I will describe is not what drug enthusiasts call ‘tripping out’. It is more like ‘jumping in’. The contemporary hermit monk, William McNamara,OCD, author of numerous books on Christian mysticism, teaches: “The mystic is not an isolated thinker who simply loves to reflect, prowling around in the sanctuary of his own psyche. Most of the mystics I know are strong , robust and vibrant, almost fierce, obsessed with a Zorba-like, or better, Christ-like madness.” [1]

    The authentic Christian mystic does not look for the extraordinary. A mystic has a direct intuition of ultimate reality and is convinced of his divine intimacy with God. The genuine mystic is known by joy, patience, trustfulness and peace.

    Contemplation, although the highest form of prayer, is not an elite, lofty endeavor for special ‘holy’ people. It is for ordinary, happy, uncomplicated people who enjoy being with God.

    Contemplation is a long, loving, listening, joyful look at the real God, at our real self, at real people and at the real world. Down in the depths of contemplation, we play no games…. we are dealing there “in the sacred sanctuary of the core of our being,” says St. Augustine. Simply stated, it is a personal experience of God, a direct and immediate contact with the divine. It is as Moses experienced…seeing God face-to-face, not through a concept or an image but directly through faith.

    As a mother knows her child, the artist knows his work, a musician recognizes his created music, the contemplative knows God. It is knowing God deeper than the intellect, will or external senses; it is knowing God at the core. Contemplation is a spiritual knowledge, communicated spirit-to-spirit. It is an authentic, mysterious knowledge, a sacredness of self and of God, a pure, serene light inward. We cannot analyze it, nor really conceptualize it, it is a view of the divine. It is relaxing in God, it is enjoying God in holy leisure, it is an act of sublime adoration. “I look at God, looking at me!” [2]  It is when our two natures are united in union. We feel His love, and we are united in serenity, unity and harmony. What we feel is a joy and tenderness, and we find ourselves in an ocean of tranquility.

    When we are free from external fears, cravings, desires, drives, pains, compulsions or attachments, we pass the world and traveling in faith, we go to that place where we shed all our human senses and we are filled with the supernatural.

—How Can We Come to Know God?

    It is through self knowledge that we enter the world of contemplation. There are no college degrees or prerequisites. Nor is it mandatory to dissect the wisdom in the classic books written by the masters of contemplation, St. Theresa of Avila or St. John of the Cross, we need only to listen to the director of our soul, God. The works of the mystics are a fine means of study and comparison, but we are not dependent on any exact pattern.

    When we relax, listen, are still and let go, God speaks to us. “He alone will map the individual course to lead us to the still waters of contemplation.” [3]

    In order to understand what Christian contemplation is, it is prudent to realize what it is not. It is not a theory learned from a text , it is not meditation. It is not a theology, a ritual, or learning through natural knowledge. It is not metaphysical or arising out of effects. It is not philosophy, nor a form of escapism, Zen, Yoga or oriental. It is not weird physics and, above all, it is not magic or the occult. It cannot be produced by hypnosis or by using drugs. Finally, it is not locutions [4], ecstacies [5], visions [6], or the levitations [7], found in the lives of some of the greatest mystical saints. Mystical saints warn us against such consolations or phenomena. We are to seek the God of consolation—not the consolations of God.

    The act of contemplation is very simple, subtle, supernatural, loving, pure, divine, and very deep. It is as a ray of darkness that gives light.

    There are three signs that will direct us to contemplation, assuming that true self-knowledge is present (it always helps to have a wise, discerning Spiritual Director):

1. No longer is meditation (which was once helpful) enjoyable;

2. Attentiveness to meditation is impossible; and

3. There is a pleasure just being alone with God.

    Acknowledging these three signs, with the coordination of a few efforts, just as one might prepare for an athletic competition, the door to contemplation can be opened.

—How Do We Contemplate?

    To achieve the state of contemplation we must prepare ourselves. It is a time when we stop, listen, and be still. Doing nothing is almost impossible for some people. The masters suggest we find a quiet place, and begin with the body. Still the feet, the hands, then close the eyes and ears. Then, still the emotions (especially discarding negative thoughts), shed all desires or feelings. Above all, still the imagination and memory. The memory is very powerful. What we remember we recall, what we recall we relive and what we relive, we make really present. If that thought or memory is good, then a sense of peace and joy pervades; if the thought is bad, then we allow unpleasant and sad thoughts and emotions to contaminate the “space” we are trying to achieve. Leaving curiosity behind, we don’t analyze, we let go. As a diver collects himself on the high board before entering the water, we must collect ourselves to enter the waters of contemplation. The diver images his dive, takes several deep breaths, centers, and goes down.

    As we collect ourselves, if we are distracted, we search to see if the obstacle is the present “activity”. The problem might be in the trying. We must relax and be still. Like the athlete, we prepare our mind, body and spirit. As a note of interest, consider the fact that the word silent contains the same letters as the word listen. We must be silent to listen.

    If we are sitting on the bank of a tranquil lake watching sailboats drifting gently, we ordinarily would not be involved in what is below the water surface, but we focus on the boat, the color of the sails, the people aboard, and other external things. In contemplation, we also let all that go by…go past every possible feeling, thought, or perception. If thoughts enter, just let them go, as we might treat the weather as we watched those sailboats drifting. We simply accepted the weather and didn’t dwell on it.

    Similarly, if we are engaged in a meaningful conversation and a noisy group of people pass by, we would not ordinarily stop talking to listen to their conversation, but we would ignore it and continue. So, too, with any distraction…ignore it and continue the journey inward. This is called the interior silence. Not just the absence of sound, but a delicate sense of inner tranquility. This is a time for faith and trust. God does not encourage us to do something beyond our nature. Nor does He oblige anything created to go beyond its nature. Fish do not walk, nor do felines fly. We have the ability to use our mystical powers, but we cannot rely on our own abilities, we must listen and wait, focus, recollect and center. God does the rest.

—How Do We Center Ourselves?

    To make ourselves really present to God where we can meet Him, we must be present to hear. We do not listen to our conscious thoughts, but rather to the super-concscious. We listen with a mystical ear. God wants our ears, He wills us to listen to His Word in faith. “The person who controls our ears, controls us.” When we give our inner ear to God, He controls us.

    We learn to drive away distraction and drive away ideas. This is accomplished by using a repetitive word. A sanskrit word…something to bring us into the presence of God, such as: Abba Father or Glory to God, Holy is Your Name. This mantra will be the only words used, since contemplatives do not speak words once in the superconscious state, a contemplative is merely present. God does the speaking.

    The key to contemplation is making time and persevering. Playing very soothing instrumental music or natural sounds such as ocean waves, birds, etc. aids in bringing us to stillness. If one stays with this regularly, it can become a conduit for great peace and joy. Don’t look for results, and don’t give up. Those who don’t want to know their real self and can’t go past their own ego to the true center will not be successsful. We can’t do this alone…it is up to God once we have prepared ourselves to listen. Moses, the prophets, Jesus—all went into the desert to contemplate. They rested, relaxed and came out refreshed.

    “The mystic is not a special kind of person. Everyone is (or ought to be) a special kind of mystic. It is an experience every one of us should know first hand.” [9]

Allegory10

    A little fish swam up to his mother one day and asked: “Mommy, what is this ocean I hear so much about ?”

    She replied, “You silly fish, it’s all around you and in you. Swim up onto the beach, lie there and you’ll find out!”

    A kitten asked his mother, “Mommy, what is this air I hear so much about?”

    She replied, “You silly kitten, it’s all around you and in you. Stick your head in the lake and you’ll find out!”

    Finally, there was a beginner on the spiritual journey who went to a Spiritual Director and said: “What is this God I hear so much about?”

    We all expect the Spiritual Director to reply, “He is all around you and in you .” But he is supposed to be able to tell him what to do to discover and experience this reality.

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Notes*


Christian Mysticism-The Art of the Inner Way, William McNamara, OCD., Amity House 1981
What St. John Vianney (patron of priests) said an old peasant man replied when asked what it was he said as he sat gazing at the tabernacle for hours daily.
The Eternal Mystic-St. Teresa of Avila by: Joseph Glynn, OCD., Vantage Press 1982
Locution: Supernatural communication beyond laws of nature.
Ecstacy: Supernatural state where senses are suspended & external sensations cannot interrupt.
Visions: Supernatural perception of something not visible naturally.
Levitation: Body being raised & suspended without support& external sensations cannot influence.
The Eternal Mystic-St. Teresa of Avila by: Joseph Glynn, OCD., Vantage Press 1982
Ibid
Based on a lecture by: Thomas Keating, OCS., Printed in Review for Religious Vol.37 1978

 

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*Reprinted from Volume 5, Number 4 of the Autumn 1990 issue of CARMELITE DIGEST, San Jose, California. Copyright by: Jacqueline Galloway, Santa Monica, California
Used with kind permission from the Carmelite Digest.  No portion of this article can be used without written permission from the author.


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