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02 - What is a Contemplative? Part 1

Updated: Jul 25, 2023

A contemplative is a Christian mystic. A mystic is someone who experiences God. There are mystics in every form of religion. Without mystics, we wouldn't have any religion, because all religions began with an experience of God.

So, what is a Christian mystic, also known as a contemplative?

The tradition of Christian contemplation began with the desert fathers of the third century AD. This was during a time when Christianity was being adopted into Rome, and transitioning from a grass-roots sect of Judaism to a religion of empires. That imperial element has continued to dominate Christianity up to this day. Because of that influence, two kinds of Christianity were forming during that time. One was more akin to the grass-root element of Christianity, and the other was the more institutional form more familiar to us today.

The desert fathers of the 3rd century created a sub-culture by leaving the city and going out into the desert in order to reconnect with God. They saw, in this new Roman Christianity, a growing schism from the call of Jesus to know God. "Knowing God," in imperial Christianity, became synonymous with Roman Catholic sacraments; rituals and symbols which reflected the teachings of Jesus, but didn't always pass along their true intent.

The pursuits and practices of the desert fathers eventually coalesced into what we now call Christian monasticism; into abbeys and convents where Christians went to practice an elite form of Christianity focused on knowing God. This pursuit was called contemplation. But even contemplation within the monastery became, at times, too institutionalized, and experienced periods of decline and reform just like the larger church in which it existed. When one form of monasticism became too institutionalized, another monastic movement would arise. These different movements became the different orders within Christian monasticism, each growing out of a desire to get back to the original intent of contemplation. Thus, today, we have monastic orders such as the Trappists, Franciscans, Dominicans, Cistercians, Benedictines, and so on, each representing a certain style of monasticism with certain teachings, but all focused on a singular devotion to God. That’s why many of these orders require participants to take vows, such as poverty, chastity, because the goal of the monk is to forsake all else in their pursuit of God.

So, a Christian contemplative, in the traditional/historical sense is someone who enters the monastery in order to dedicate their whole life to God. This has come to represent a special calling. But the original monks were the desert fathers who pursued, not a special calling to follow Jesus, but the original calling that was being lost within the larger imperial church. They were allowed to continue, as a sub-culture of that church, because they became known as a special calling within the Church. However, as the centuries turned to millennia, and Christianity grew into a major world religion, the monastic movement became more and more obscure. When the Protestant reformation happened, it carried very little of Roman Catholicism with it, especially the practices and ideas of the monastery. Where the meaningful form of Roman Catholic protest had been monasticism, the less meaningful Protestant protest was just to divide. Even though the Protestant Reformation was founded as a new kind of protest against a corrupt Catholic Church, that protest did not effectively overcome the same problems of the Catholic Church, which were the over-ritualized forms of Jesus teachings. Both churches have continued practicing the same form of imperial Christianity, which often misses the true function of what Christ came to do; to reunite every person back to God. Thus, the sacraments still tend to dominate Protestantism as much as Catholicism, often producing a form of being Christian while missing its true function.

That's why a return to contemplation is important in these times. Contemplation brings us back to relationship with God as central to Christianity.

The question is, what do you think? Is being a contemplative something that sounds good to you? Is it worth the investment and time? Can we even really know God at all? These are the questions we must ask, and answer. I can’t tell you what to think about any of this. I can only tell you that, in my twenties, I reached a point where I wanted to know God, and realized that my own religion wasn't doing a very good job helping me do that. Thankfully, I have become a contemplative, and am still becoming one. I hope you’ll continue learning with me just what that really means.

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