J. Randall Ory
02 - What is a Contemplative? Part 1
Updated: May 14, 2020
I know I’ve already begun to describe what a contemplative is, in my first post, but there is still a lot to know in this regard. I think it’s best to begin with a historical definition, and work from there. Traditionally, there have been contemplatives in every religion since the beginning of religion. We could say that all religion began with contemplatives, that is, with individuals who actually experienced God. Even if you’re skeptical of this whole religion thing, at least you can agree that the basis of religion is the history of individuals who claim to have had real encounters with God. Contemplatives have been the movers and founders of religion, because the basis of all religion is the idea that God is there, and can be experienced. It’s those experiences which constitute the basis of religion. But, for the sake of time, and my own expertise, I’m going to focus on Christian contemplation. That’s just the tradition my learning has come through. But don't get stuck on that tradition, or turned off by it. Since contemplation centers on experience above knowledge, all religions can eventually transcend to unity with the same God. That's the goal of contemplation. So, the tradition you start with or choose matters less than the place to which all traditions point. I say all that to assure you that I am, in no way, promoting the Christian religion above any other. It’s just the religious tradition through which I’ve come, and through which I am best able to illuminate the path to knowing God. I hope you can glean wisdom from this path, regardless your personal feelings about Christianity. How you feel about religion, whether positive or negative, can be a block to knowing God. I hope you can put all that aside for now and just listen. That’s a big part of what learning to be a contemplative is about.
The tradition of Christian contemplation began with the desert fathers of the third century AD. This was during a time when Christianity was being co-opted into imperial Rome, and transitioning from a grass-roots religion to a religion of empires. That imperial element has continued to dominate its formation and identity up to this day. But Christianity didn’t begin this way. It was never meant to be co-opted by government, as a form of government. It was formed by a Jewish mystic who spoke clearly to his own religion about the need to get back to knowing God. That mystic was Jesus, in case you hadn’t already guessed it. The core teachings of Jesus were centered on our ability to know and interact with God, for ourselves. In calling us back to God, Jesus also called out his own Jewish religion for being overly institutional. I’ve read the Jewish texts as much as I have the Christian ones, and those texts contain contemplative mystics (often called prophets) who are constantly decrying the empty religion of the Jews. Jesus was a contemplative mystic in that same vain. In an attempt to help people understand God’s desire for relationship, Jesus also had to combat the religious systems of His day which were often preventing that. The desert fathers of the 3rd century understood this about Jesus, and saw the same dire systems forming in the Christianity of their day. Although they were not able to prevent the imperial conversion of Christianity, they began a Christian sub-culture which continues to this day as a protest to its more imperial form. That sub-culture began with the desert fathers literally leaving the church and going out into the desert in order to reconnect with God. They saw, in this new Roman Christianity, a growing schism from the more earthy 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 without actually teaching them. Water baptism, communion, confession, prayer, mass, and other rituals became identified with a Christianity more bent on controlling the masses than setting them free. The desert fathers saw this, and tried to combat it by getting away in the desert in order to practice more closely what Jesus taught. The pursuits and practices of the desert fathers eventually coalesced into what we now call Christian monasticism; into abbeys and convents where a few dedicated 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 true 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 of the word, has become 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 only allowed to continue, as a protest to that church, because they became known as a special calling within the church, even though they understood themselves as simply continuing to do what Jesus wanted everyone to do. But, in a church that often excommunicated and executed it’s dissenters, it was safer for the monks to protest quietly through personal practice, and hope that their lived experience of God would naturally contrast the more mindless, ritualistic form of Christianity. However, as the centuries turned to millennia, and Christianity grew into a major world religion, the monastic movement became more and more obscure. Contemplation largely became just another Christian ritual. In other words, much of Christian monasticism forgot it’s mystical roots, and became just as institutionalized as the church it once protested. Throw in the Protestant reformation, and the monastic practice of contemplation became largely lost. 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 to this day practicing the same form of imperial Christianity, which has forgotten the true function of what Christ came to do, reunite every person back to God. Thus, the sacraments still tend to dominate protestant churches as much as Catholic ones, it’s just that protestant churched have less of them and tend to hold to them more loosely. It seems there is more freedom within Protestantism for individual preference, but not much true freedom from the forms of Christianity which have continued to prevent a true following of Christ. True contemplation, even from it’s very beginning, solves all these problems.
True contemplation emphasizes direct contact with God as central to the spiritual life. When we are truly connected to God, there is little need for external rituals in order to produce a sense of appeasing God. When we know God, and listen to God, we know that we are living as God desires. It becomes simple and clear what life is about when God is whispering in our ear. Then, all the confusing forms of differing religions becomes less important. When we know God, we know everything, because God is in everything. But knowing God is not an easy path to follow. Unfortunately, it’s much easier to follow a religious system which tells me that I’m doing what God wants, than to spend time attempting to know God for myself. And that’s why religions have succeeded and prevailed much more than contemplation. Religion is the quick fix for our need to know God. It can be a system claiming to help us know God, while actually preventing that. Religion can become a replacement for God. But there is no replacing the source. We wake up from these systems when we realize that religion is not meant to be a substitute for knowing God. That is the essence of contemplation, that is, the desire to know God for ourselves. Regardless how daunting that may seem, it is no better to trick ourselves through the magic show of religion. If religion is any good at all, it must point us to knowing God. It must, eventually, lead us to be contemplatives. That’s what Jesus came to do. It’s also what most other spiritual mystics have attempted to do, no matter how you may view other world religions and spiritual teachings.
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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