Spiritual disciplines are the embodiment of our attempt to be configured to Christ. These can be grouped
into two very broad categories; the mental and the practical disciplines. The goal of the mental disciplines is to pay attention
to God. Traditionally, this has been done through cultivating a contemplative attitude and reflecting on God’s will.
The goal of the practical disciplines is to act as a Christian. This has been divided into the two broad categories of moral/ethical
behavior and worship.
The terms contemplation and meditation are almost as common as the terms spirituality and about as
ambiguous in their meanings. Mitch Finney comments that “there is no such thing as Christian meditation, formally and
officially designated as such, if by that we mean some specific way to meditate.” (Mitch Finney, 2004: 23) He goes on
to comment that a review of the mystics provides a wide range of meditative techniques and terms that vary from author to
author. This has been my experience as well. What one author will describe as a form of meditation, another will describe
as contemplation; and visa-versa. However, if you examine what they are talking about in terms of the experience itself, the
goals seems to be that the student learns how to pay attention. This sounds like a strange goal for a spiritual discipline
but consider its value to our spiritual journey.
Everyone acknowledges prayer as an important part of the spiritual life. Prayer is understood as lifting
our heart and mind to God. However, consider what actually happens when we pray. We barely get a sentence or two into our
prayer when we are distracted. The words “give us this day our daily bread” may give way to stray thoughts about
going to the store because we are almost out of bread. Mentioning the name of the Father in our prayer may cause us to ruminate
about the argument we had with our father a few days earlier and off we go trying mentally to defend our position in the argument.
Before long, the prayer is over and we don’t even realize it. Have we raised our hearts and mind to God or simply ruminated
on some emotional cud? At Mass are we
fully engaged in the liturgical experience or off in mental worlds far from what is going on, only to check in mentally now
and then? So, the value of learning to pay attention begins to make sense, even if it only helps us to focus better on what
we are doing when we pray.
Prayer is not just speaking to God. An important part of prayer is learning to listen to God. God speaks
to us in prayer. It isn’t often that a voice will come from a burning bush or we will be struck to the ground by a blinding
light and we will hear the voice of God. However, as we pray the psalms slowly, with our full attention the words may strike
a chord deep within us. Our full attention given to the words, gestures, rhythm, and music of the Mass may reveal God’s
presence to us in ways that are impossible when we are present at Mass in body only. Simply sitting, looking out the window
at a tree gently moving in the breeze with our full attention can be an experience of grace.
Learning to pay attention is one of the most basic skills we can learn among the spiritual disciplines
and is the foundation upon which most other spiritual disciplines are built. Our minds have tendency to be scattered and fragmented.
In addition, mind has the tendency to lose itself in a self-created and self-centered mental world that obscures our vision.
This mental world becomes a filter through which phenomena are perceived.
Contemplation is the term most often within Christianity which refers to mindfulness; that is, paying
attention. Contemplation begins when a person stops being totally preoccupied with his own concerns and lets another person,
event, or object take his attention. Contemplative prayer in the Christian tradition simply means paying attention to and
becoming at least slightly absorbed in the person of Jesus, in God or other elements of the tradition. A contemplative attitude
can develop from such prayer and allows one to find some ease and spontaneity in paying attention to the Lord as he reveals
himself in Scripture, creation, one’s own life, and the life of the world. To contemplate is to let the other be the
other and to allow one’s responses to be elicited by the reality of the other. When we contemplate God, we let him be
himself and not our projection of him, and to be real ourselves before God.
Thomas Merton notes that traditionally there are two understandings of the nature of contemplation.
One is an active idea of prayer: it accompanies work and sanctifies work. The other a more passive concept of prayer which,
in order to penetrate more deeply into the mystery of God, must rest from exterior action. The first is derived from Cassian
and views contemplation as flowering in the liturgy and the active life. St. Basil also expresses this view of contemplative
prayer, stating that private prayer is carried on while the ascetic is at work or going about his normal duties. “Thus
we acquire a recollected spirit, when in every action we beg from God the success of our labors…and when we keep before
our minds the aim of pleasing him.” Contemplative prayer is seen as a quality of mindfulness and openness to God that
is brought to every aspect of our lives. This approach to contemplative prayer is also found in a more recent classic of spirituality,
The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection.
Pope St. Gregory the Great provides the classic description of the other, more apophatic understanding
of contemplative prayer. “The contemplative life is to retain with all one’s mind the love of God and neighbor
but to rest from exterior motion and cleave only to the desire of the Maker, that the mind may now take no pleasure in doing
anything.” It is the more active, Basilian understanding of contemplation that is referred to when the terms “mindfulness/contemplation”
in this introductory course. However, in later courses to be offered on this website we will also explore this more passive
approach to contemplation.