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01 - How I Became a Contemplative

Updated: Jul 25, 2023

It all started…, well, how does anything start. These things often begin before we realize it. Like a tiny pebble tossed in a lake, the ripples of consequence can reverberate through the water long after the pebble has hit the bottom, reaching the shore of our consciousness much later than the initial event.

The moment I knew I was a contemplative was preceded by so many others leading up to that. But at least I can start with that moment, and work from.

I remember it well. I was working at the Texas Childrens Hospital in Houston, installing a system of LED lights along the outside concourse. This particular job was a two-week undertaking, and the work was physically taxing. We were a two-man crew, working off a lift, installing lights in the ceiling, which meant we were constantly working over our heads. We were also required to work at night in order to stay out of the daily traffic of patients and staff. Needless to say, it was a tiring two weeks. I was working nights, sleeping mornings, and spending my afternoons riding my bike through the city. I was also reading the Thomas Merton book “New Seeds of Contemplation.” Reading that book was how I first realized I was a contemplative.

I grew up in church and heard all my early life about being a good Christian. But in my twenties, I realized something. All that learning had only taught me theories about being a Christian. I hadn't actually come to know Christ at all. That desire to know God personally set me on a path, out of the Christian religion and towards something else. It was that desire that eventually led me to that two-week experience in Houston, nearly twenty years later. The twenty years in between was spent seeking real experiences of God.

That in between time was spent trying to lean into the promises of the Christian religion; namely, that Jesus wanted to live life with me, in a real and present way. There was a lot of frustration, doubt, and struggle in that journey. But the one thing that kept me going was the belief God was there to be experienced. I don’t know why that belief never faltered in me, but it didn’t, and that’s how I came to be a contemplative.

A contemplative is someone who seeks to know God experientially. There are other words for that, of course, and other traditions which include the same basic idea and pursuit. It’s what every religion calls a mystic and usually a monk.

The neat thing about coming to knowing God is that it also helps us know ourselves. The two go hand in hand. Deep down I think we all know that we're who we're meant to be, and that there is some kind of growth/journey that needs to take place in order to become who we truly are. And if there is that becoming, then there is also the idea that we start out not being fully who we are meant to be. It’s what the Christian religion calls "The Fall" or "sin". It's the idea that we all must grow up, outgrow some things, and become more ourselves somehow.

Religious language aside, I think we all hunger to be more, to get better. We don’t always know how to do that, or even what the end goal looks like. That’s where contemplation comes into play. The end goal, for the contemplative, is getting back into contact with God, in order to understand the original intent behind the created world. For contemplatives and mystics, coming to know God is central.

It wasn't uncommon for Jesus to called out the religious leaders of His day for using Judaism to promote their own power while keeping others from knowing God. A personal God, not personal power, was the point of Judaism. The same is true in the Christian religion. The danger of religion is fostering a relationship with institutions and rituals instead of a relationship with God. Contemplation begins when we wake up to the idea that beyond words and rituals, God is there to be known. That has been my journey.

In my twenties, I woke up to the reality that I knew a lot about God, but not God Himself. In that awakening, I also had to realize that my religion was better at teaching me about God, than about how to know God for myself. A contemplative is someone who recognizes the limitations of religious systems, and seeks to know the God they point to. These systems can be helpful, in as much as they inform us about the path and the objective. But they can also be harmful, when they become the objective instead of God.

I’ve had to sort through my own religion in order to sort out the good from the bad. I never threw out Christianity. I just began throwing out the things which weren’t in line with a true following of Christ, who stated clearly that His goal was to bring all people back into a relationship with God.

Jesus taught that every person had the opportunity to know God. It’s what he called abiding, or communion. It's also what he called Oneness. It’s a kind of connection with God that is deeper than human connection.

We live with other humans side by side. With God we can have a deeper relationship, a deeper abiding. God can live in us, and us in God. God can lead us in our everyday lives, revealing in the process who we are and what we were meant for. A contemplative is someone who has entered this process with God.

Being a contemplative is not a short-term goal. It's a lifelong pursuit of God. When I read Merton's book about the contemplative life it merely confirmed the twenty-year journey I’d already been on. Towards the end of the book, I heard God tell me, “you are a contemplative.” And that’s what makes someone a contemplative, not only that God confirms it, but that you are able to hear when he does.

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