I call myself a contemplative. And lately, as I take rest to reconnect with my spiritual practice, I realize not only had I lost touch with the core of my contemplative self, but that many others do not understand the nature of contemplation or what it means to be a contemplative.
I’ve always been a thinker, even a self-confessed over-thinker. It’s kind of a pre-requisite for being a writer. Always ideas, always an active imagination, always an ongoing dialogue in my head, always a propensity to being still, because after all, you must be still enough to capture an idea when it comes. But being a contemplative doesn’t just suggest that one spends hours on end mulling over the meaning of life. Contemplation is a practice of cultivating an attitude of listening and responding to the movement of God in our lives. William J. Barry, who has written a lot about the practice of spiritual direction and contemplation says that, contemplation begins “when a person stops being totally preoccupied with his own concerns and lets another person, event, or object take his attention.” Contemplation then means a movement away from self-absorption towards becoming absorbed in a Being beyond oneself.
Contemplative prayer, more recognizably known as meditation, is the practice of going beyond oneself. And it is very challenging. As I sat in meditation this morning, my thoughts were going a mile a minute. The goal of contemplative prayer is not having no thoughts, rather it is allowing thoughts to come and pass, without latching onto them and being carried away by the stream of thoughts that pass constantly. That’s what makes the practice of meditation so difficult. Training the mind not follow its every whim is daily exercise and it can be a frustrating, never-ending journey. But this is the spiritual life. And at its core, a commitment to the spiritual life is a commitment to the work of freeing oneself from self-absorption and self-preoccupation. And when we are free from our self-determined ideas about who we are and what we must do, we are open to the movement of God and able to hear more clearly the activity to which God invites us to.
It’s easy to be busy doing, not so easy to get busy being. But the truth we all confront at some point in our lives, and the source of most all discontent is coming to terms with the reality that what we are doing does not wholly satisfy us. The question of the contemplative is always, “Who am I being?” And the answer to that question lay not in the doing, but always in the being. It can be a scary place to live, in the being of who we are, and we will always come up with every good reason not to stop and rest there.