03 - What is a Contemplative? Part 2
Updated: May 14, 2020
If you’ve been following along with me so far, then you at least know a bit about what a contemplative is, and is not. If you haven’t, I’ll catch you up, but I’d also encourage you to go back to the beginning and read the first two posts. To put it simply, a contemplative is someone who seeks to experience God for themselves. I’ve briefly explained how I became a contemplative, and given a definition of historical contemplation, but as you may have noticed, this project is not called “The Contemplative,” but “The Modern Contemplative.” So, what is a modern contemplative? Good question! Glad you asked.
As I’ve already said, being a contemplative has, up to this point, been synonymous with monasticism. But, guess what, I’m not a monk. I’m a guy with a wife, three kids, and a small construction company living in middle America. I’m not even Catholic, for goodness sake. In reality, I’m about as far from the traditional sense of being a contemplative as one can get. And yet, I am a contemplative. Even within the monastic culture, one could not become a monk solely through personal desire. One couldn’t even be a monk by being accepted into the monastery. One could only be a monk by the call of God. It was up to the proper authorities, not to accept individuals as monks into the monastery, but to determine whether or not they had truly received the call of God. It was maintained as a sober truth that, if God had not called them to it, an individual attempting to become a monk by sheer will power would fail miserably, and eventually default out. It was simply to hard a path to knowing God to be achieved by human effort. God had to call an individual, and sustain and individual on the path to becoming a contemplative. The same has been true for me. God has called me to this, and continues to sustain me on this path. The difference being that I have stumbled on this quite by accident, though there are no accidents with God. None-the-less, I did not first become a monk, and learn the art of contemplation within the monastery. Up till now a monk was a contemplative, and a contemplative was a monk. So, getting to the point, a modern contemplative, as distinguished from a traditional contemplative, is someone like me. Someone who has become a contemplative apart from the monastery.
In all reality, this shouldn’t be such a big deal. After all, what made for a contemplative wasn’t the monastery itself, but the path it offered. As I’ve already said, eventually even monks lost the true practice of contemplation, even though the rituals formed around it still remained. So, it was the path that mattered most, not the traditional environment which originally fostered it. And that path, I believe, can exist outside the monastery. Don’t get me wrong. The monastery certainly created an ideal environment for contemplative practice. It was created and centered around that very thing. But just as one can practice contemplative forms and still miss being a contemplative, so one can be a contemplative apart from the forms. The forms are not what matter most. What matters most is the reality of what being a contemplative means. Remember, being a contemplative is about experiencing God. There are, for sure, certain practices and teachings that can help lead us to that, but the thing itself is what really matters. I believe the thing itself can be arrived at in many ways, and some completely outside of traditional religion. Just as religion can practice empty forms and rituals without knowing God, so too can religious contemplation. That is, we can practice the forms associated with contemplation but never really make contact with God. The other hopeful aspect in this is that God is trying to reach us. Contemplation is not a method of breaking through some dense spiritual barrier in order to get to God. Contemplation is not the work of getting to God, but the practice of tuning our souls to a God who is already with us. Contemplation is merely helps open our eyes a God who is ready and willing to be known. It’s a knowable God that makes all this possible, a God who is desperately trying to help us in every way possible to know Him/Her. I know that may sound fantastical, even foolish. It can also be very contrary to our experience. If it were easy and evident, more people would know God. We'll talk later about why knowing God seems so hard for us. The important point in this moment is that the way of contemplation is open to all. It’s open to all because God is open to all, though this is not what religion and even some forms of contemplation have always taught us. But I’m here to tell you it’s true, because I have become a contemplative outside the traditional path, purely by the effort and invitation of God. That’s what a modern contemplative is.
Remember Thomas Merton, that guy who wrote a book about contemplation, which first helped me understand that I was a contemplative. Well, later in life he developed this idea called “hidden contemplatives.” Thomas Merton was a trappiest monk who lived most of his life at the Abbey of Gethsemane in Kentucky. He became a contemplative the traditional way. The ironic thing is that he became a contemplative in the very environment created to produce contemplatives, but which hadn’t been for a while. In many ways he became a contemplative just like me, kind of by accident. Thomas Merton is often considered the Father of modern contemplation, because he re-awakened the practice of it in our modern times. But Merton recognized that one didn’t need the monastery to be a contemplative. One could be a “hidden contemplative” outside the monastery. I am one of those hidden contemplatives. I am following in his footsteps, and yet not within the environment that made it possible for him. He recognized that one didn’t need the monastery to do that. One could be a contemplative in the path of everyday, normal life. It is my mission to help others understand how to do that, because that is also what I’m learning. I remember, when reading Merton’s “New Seeds of Contemplation,” thinking, “Wow, this is good stuff, but someone needs to translate it into normal, everyday life and language.” That is my goal. Of course, in between Merton and me there is another important figure in the revival of modern contemplation. That figure is Richard Rohr. If Merton is the Father of modern contemplation, then Rohr is the mother, and I am their illegitimate child. I was born into contemplation outside the standard environment of Merton and Rohr, as a result of their teachings. Richard Rohr, for those who don’t know, also became a contemplative inside the traditional environment of Catholic Monasticism. He’s a Franciscan priest and friar who’s dedicated most of his life to teaching anyone and everyone about the contemplative life. He’s actually gone a lot further than Merton in translating contemplative practice into modern language. I love that about Rohr. The main difference between Rohr and myself is that I am a modern contemplative to the fullest extent. I am one of the first contemplative practitioners and teachers that has become so apart from Catholic monasticism. In fact, I didn’t even discover the ideas and framework of contemplative practice until I was already there. God did not call me to become a contemplative, when I read Merton’s book on the subject. He told me that l already was. All that I’ve read and heard from Merton, Rohr, Nouwen and other such contemplative teachers has mostly given me language and insight to what God has already been doing, and helped me to greater understand how to communicate that. It has, at the same time, helped further my journey, and I am grateful for that. But all this has been supplemental to my deepening relationship with God, and that is important. That’s because contemplative teachers can’t create contemplatives, they can only point them down the path towards God. Only God can instigate this process. This has always been true for contemplatives, even in the monastery, as I’ve already said. A contemplative teacher can only illuminate what God is already doing, because connection to God is the heart of what makes one a contemplative. Still, that illumination is important.
It’s important to note that, while God has called me to this task, it is a continuation of what Merton, Rohr, and others have already started, all the way back to the desert fathers and Jesus. No man is an island. We never walk the path alone. It is a path which has been walked for a very long time, even before the time of Jesus, so we must understand the phrase “modern contemplative” in very loose terms. In many ways there is no such thing. Any contemplative is one practicing very old forms of knowing God, perhaps the oldest of all. It’s just that, before now being a true contemplative was only for the elite. It has only been a calling for the few. But if Jesus came to show us anything, it’s that knowing God is open to all. Unfortunately, religion, even Christianity, has struggled to understand and teach that. But now, more than ever, I believe an awakening of the average person to the reality of contemplation is occurring. At least that’s my hope. It’s also what God has put on my heart to step into; that is, to help others know God. I hope you’ll continue learning and growing with me, as we discover together what it means to be a modern contemplative.