Recovering Our Dominican Contemplative Tradition
By Richard Woods, O.P.
Anyone who heard or has read Paul Murray’s address to the General Chapter at Providence on “Recovering the Contemplative Dimension” will have come to appreciate the depth of our spiritual tradition as he described it, but, also from my perspective, the risk of trying to add anything substantial to Paul’s remarks — if not the temptation just to steal from them outright. Since plagiarism has fallen out of favor since the Middle Ages, my contribution to the discussion will be fairly summary, or at least a bit shorter than Paul’s address. But it goes without saying that neither he nor I or anyone else can hardly lay claim to providing the last word on the subject of recovering our Dominican contemplative tradition.
By way of introduction, let me say that I have come to appreciate even more what it means that, as Meister Eckhart said,
We find people who like the taste of God in one way but not in another, and they want to have God only in one way of contemplation, not in another. I raise no objection, but they are quite wrong. If you want to take God properly, you should take Him equally in all things, in hardship as in comfort, in weeping as in joy, it should be all the same to you. (1)
Speaking on the Dominican contemplative tradition originally seemed like a relatively simple matter of capitalizing on the course I had recently taught on Dominican spirituality. But as the deadline approached, not only did I find myself finishing up a demanding semester of teaching, but my computer came under a series of assaults from the Klez virus among others, and finally had a complete nervous breakdown requiring hospitalization. Then my car radiator went out the afternoon I picked up my computer from the shop and also needed serious surgical attention, including an organ transplant. I have also been in the midst of moving from my residence at Loyola University, where I had been living for almost fourteen years, to the priory of St. Thomas. My books are presently in a number of cartons large enough to start a pyramid and tended to be 20 miles away when I suddenly needed one. On top of all that, my new community has been in the midst of a prioral election for the past few days.
As I ruminated about solitude, leisure, and the tranquility of order, jotting notes in repair shops and during the wee hours of the morning, I sometimes found myself suddenly laughing at what seemed like the incongruity of it all. But such circumstances are not incongruous with contemplation, and certainly not unusual for Dominicans.
My thinking was also sharpened by an exchange with a friend, a former Dominican whom I had known many years ago in the studium. He had been three years ahead of me, and so I had thought of him as a paragon of spiritual wisdom. When he learned about the present topic, he wrote,
I recall John Connell being pretty esoteric about the subject [of contemplation] in my novitiate. Then, I read Arintero and he convinced me that contemplation was beyond my reach. A few years ago, I looked back at him to see if I had misinterpreted what he says. Nope. So, now, I just ignore him and go on my way.
Dominican and other spiritual writers of the last century, including Juan Arintero and Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, ably defended the unity of the spiritual life, insisting that contemplative union was in the normal way of sanctification and not some esoteric side-track reserved to monks and nuns and people with peculiar sensibilities and a lot time to spare. But they also created the impression that attaining the “heights of contemplation” as they liked to put it was a very complex, difficult, and lengthy process in which few souls ever truly got very far. The demands of ordinary active life are simply too great.
This, of course, is simply the ancient and traditional problem of the tension between action and contemplation. Any number of recent commentators, Paul Murray included, have observed that the emphasis on pastoral theology and social action following the Second Vatican Council considerably diminished the status of the contemplative life in the Church. The sheer amount of work incumbent on those engaged in ministry today did the rest. So it is not an idle endeavor to recover the contemplative dimension of our tradition — or perhaps more accurately, to rediscover it. But this begs the question to some degree. First, we need to remember why we should bother to. Why not just get on with our work?
My approach involves three main points and a few lesser ones.
First, the original place of contemplation in Dominican life was simpler and much less esoteric than later formulations imply. But it was foundational.
Second, although contemplative experiences can be gratuitous, preparation and training, including study, are required to develop and maintain a contemplative spirit. But that is easier than one might think.
Third, despite the serious obstacles to contemplation presented by contemporary culture, ordinary life situations, including active ministry, far from being a barrier to contemplation are, in fact, the necessary condition for and normal occasion of contemplation.
The witnesses I plan to call include those I consider the greatest teachers of contemplation in our early tradition – Thomas Aquinas, Meister Eckhart, and Catherine of Siena. If we wish to recover our tradition, where better to look?
By way of prelude, I’d like to remind you briefly of the origin and meaning of the term “contemplation” itself – something usually neglected in discussions like this, as if we all of course knew exactly what we were talking about. In fact, the meaning of the word has changed considerably even since the Middle Ages.
Tom O’Meara recently pointed out that the greatest enemy of Fundamentalism is history. Looking back at how our language developed can help us avoid some costly mistakes even in the area of rediscovering our contemplative tradition. I promise that this will be a brief digression, however.
The word “contemplation” is a Latin rendering of the Greek term “theoria,” which stems from the word for “seeing” and basically means “that which someone looks at.” It gives us the English word “theory.” In Greek philosophical circles, it referred to mental perception, insight into the reality of something, and was – and still is – contrasted with praxis — activity, business, or undertaking. In later usage, theoria acquired the deeper meaning “to perceive spiritually,” and in early Christian writings, it meant a gift consequent on faith [See John 14:17, 19b, and 17:24]. Contemplare and contemplatio developed from the practice by pagan priests and augurs of concentrating with fixed attention on a designated area – usually an inscribed circle of some kind, a templum – which had been consecrated to the god or gods and in which the divine will was expected to become manifest in some way.
As the practice of “beholding” or paying close attention to an object of spiritual concern developed in early Christianity, the mystical element entered in the belief that by spiritual perception, the hidden or secret presence of God would be disclosed in the sacramental elements, especially baptism and the Eucharist, Creation itself, prayer, and the events of daily life, particularly suffering, martyrdom, and the works of charity. For Latin-speaking Christians, the word they adopted for this was contemplation. By the sixth century, contemplation and the mystical life had come to mean the same thing – the perception of the presence of God in the objects and events of life, both as a direct inspiration of God – grace, or what would much later be called “infused contemplation,” or by dint of long experience or praxis – what was later called “acquired contemplation.” (2) Time permitting, I’ll return later on to the distinction and its significance for us, which is not, in fact, very great.
But hold in mind the notion of contemplation as spiritual perception or insight and even the sense of “waiting on God” while paying close attention to the events of life that we find brilliantly described in the book of that name by Simone Weil, whose spirituality was so Dominican at heart.
Long before contemplation was inscribed among the elements of Dominican life in our primitive constitution, its central importance was already observed in the life of St. Dominic himself. Among the earliest testimonies at the time of his canonization, Stephen Salagnac affirmed that
“Truly the holy father was a Jacob in his preaching and an Israel in his contemplation, so that neither Leah nor Rachel was lacking to him in this way of life.” [Testimony of Stephen Salagnac, c. 1233. ] (3)
And in the Nine Ways of Prayer, that charming manuscript from the latter half of the thirteenth century, we read
“The man of God had a prophetic way of passing quickly from reading to prayer and from meditation to contemplation.” (4)
These are the elements of spiritual development enshrined in the great tradition passed on by the Benedictines, Carthusians, and Victorines. As Simon Tugwell notes in his translation of this precious little work,
“The classic progression was reading – meditation – prayer – contemplation.. The implication here is that St. Dominic misses out the middle term, going directly from 1 to 3, and from 2 to 4.” (5)
Dominic’s meddling with the tradition by disengaging and reassembling the classic elements points to his revolutionary approach to the apostolate in respect to other aspects of monastic life, which as a canon regular, he knew intimately. The most radical innovation was reversing the conventional wisdom about ends and means, a move cemented by the exegesis of St. Thomas Aquinas. As a result, despite its eventual alliance with (if not adoption of) Aristotle by Dominicans in the thirteenth century, the character and place of contemplation in our spiritual tradition differs considerably from the classical model and in a specifically Christian way.
For Aristotle, contemplation is an end in itself, in fact the end or goal of human life. In this he differs very little from his teacher, Plato. The Christian Neoplatonic vision that provided the philosophical scaffolding of theology and spirituality for nearly a thousand years shared the same assumption. The Christian and particularly Dominican vision changed that view radically, and St. Thomas was perhaps its most vigorous and provocative proponent. For contemplation was redefined precisely as a means to a further end. To Dominicans, beginning with Dominic himself, contemplation was preparation for preaching – the work and distinctive mission of the Order.
St. Thomas’ defense of that revolution in understanding and practice gave rise to the motto of the Order – contemplata aliis tradere. (6) Or to give it its fuller expression, contemplare et contemplata aliis tradere. Since the turn of the last century, that phrase has been often translated as
“to contemplate and to give to others the fruits of contemplation.”
Whatever the English translator meant by “fruits,” — and I once suggested to a group of young Dominicans that they call their band “the Fruits of Contemplation,” which they didn’t think was very funny – that is a misleading translation. Contemplata simply means “what was contemplated.” Aristotle was right here, and Thomas knew that – contemplation does not produce anything. It is wholly immanent activity. But that is not to say that it cannot be a means to a further end, contrary to Aristotle’s view – although even he recognized that in reality, human life had a double finality – theoria in the strict sense and sophia, or practical wisdom, the application of theoretical wisdom to the necessities of daily existence. (7)
It is important to get Thomas right here. What we contemplate, as Dominicans, is Truth – with a capital T – Divine Truth. And it is that Truth which we have encountered in contemplation that we hand on to others through our preaching and teaching and other ministry. William Hinnebusch pointed out long ago in this regard that the simply word “Truth” does not merely point to the object of our collective vision and mission, but expresses exactly what we mean by “contemplation.”
Contemplation can be regarded, therefore, if not actually defined, as an unflinching and loving look at Reality as divine, or in Meister Eckhart’s language a generation after Thomas,
“seeing God in all things and all things in God.”
In his instructions to the young Dominicans at Erfurt, Eckhart said, and it is worth quoting him at length,
A man should receive God in all things and train his mind to keep God ever present in his mind, in his aims and in his love. Note how you regard God: keep the same attitude that you have in church or in your cell, and carry it with you in the crowd and in unrest and inequality. (8)
He who has God thus essentially, takes Him divinely, and for him God shines forth in all things, for all things taste divinely to him, and God’s image appears to him from out of all things. God flashes forth in him always, in him there is detachment and turning away, and he bears the imprint of his beloved, present God. (9)
The presence of love in these statements is not accidental. St. Catherine similarly insists that Dominicans should “contemplate the truth in the abyss of divine charity” [Letter T46 to Neri di Landoccio Pagliaresi]. (10) Contemplation is not mere speculation: it is a glance of the heart as well as the mind. It is to gaze on all things, as was said of Jesus in regard to the rich young man, “with love.” [Mark 10:21.]
Nor is the contemplation of truth limited to the confines of our priories and houses. “We must recognize the truth in everything,” Catherine writes to Queen Giovanna of Naples. “I mean, we must love in God and for God’s sake everything that has being, because God is Truth itself, and without God nothing has being.” [Letter T317.]
This may sound difficult, and considered from the end point, really formidable. But learning the have a contemplative spirit proceeds simply and subtly, not by following some esoteric school of meditation, but by being what I would call an ordinary Dominican. That does not mean it is just a matter of falling into line. And there are serious forces both within and outside our walls that hinder and would even prevent the development of a contemplative spirit. I’d like to consider just a few.
From the time of Aristotle, specific obstacles to the contemplative life have been recognized. And while our understanding of contemplation has shifted over the centuries, the nature, if not the name, of these obstacles has remained more constant. The first and most obvious is business, or, in its original meaning, busyness. Being totally engaged in activity, whether work or play, militates against developing a contemplative attitude, because our mind, our consciousness, is exactly what the word suggests, preoccupied.(11) In this regard, the United States is perhaps the most preoccupied society ever to appear on earth. We work harder and longer than any industrialized nation, and we devote more time and money to recreation than any other country. Significantly, athletes, movie stars, and corporate executives make the highest salaries in the world. (The average pro baseball player today makes upwards of $2 million a year.)
But as Josef Pieper reminded us, and Aristotle insisted, leisure is not only the basis of culture, it is the necessary condition for the possibility of developing contemplative skill. But working less strenuously and continuously would help little if the leisure gained was frittered away in what Aristotle called “amusements” and today we know as “entertainment.” Recreation would be a fit term if it only were true.
Today, not only American society, but Western industrial culture as a whole militates against both true leisure and contemplation. In her 1994 book Earth Crammed with Heaven, Elizabeth Dreyer reported that a computer search for the word “contemplation” turned up over a thousand hits, while “contemplation and action” brought up only six. I’m not sure what search engine she was using, but last week, according to Google, those figures had risen to 379,000 and 152,000 respectively, with a large overlap. But “action” alone brought up 4,760,000 hits. It’s tempting to draw conclusions from such simple calculations, as Dreyer did in estimating the degree to which the notion of contemplation-in-action has failed to penetrate our spiritual consciousness, but I would be hesitant to read too much into it. But the fact remains that for many contemporary Christians, the gap between action and contemplation is still large and, not surprisingly, action and its cognates are favored far in excess of contemplative pursuits.
The Dominican tradition has erected defenses against the enemies of contemplation – against the all-consuming claim of work, which for Dominic would have meant manual labor, our way of life has developed a life of study. The Constitutions state clearly,
“Continuous study nourishes contemplation, encourages fulfillment of the counsels with shining fidelity, constitutes a form of asceticism by its own perseverance and difficulty, and, as an essential element of our whole life, it is an excellent religious observance.” (12)
Against the claims of acquisitive materialism, conspicuous consumption, and the waste economy that typifies our time, vowed poverty — a culture of evangelical sufficiency – has characterized Dominican spirituality from the beginning. Again, this is not poverty for its own sake, but as means to further our principal objective – preaching and teaching the Word of God.
Chastity, as St. Thomas insists, also disposes the mind effectively for contemplation: “the moral virtues belong to the contemplative life dispositively,” he says in the Summa Theologiae.
“For the act of contemplation, wherein the contemplative life essentially consists, is hindered both by the impetuosity of the passions which withdraw the soul’s attention from intelligible to sensible things, and by outward disturbances . . .”. (13)
He goes on to say, “the moral virtues dispose one to the contemplative life by causing peace and cleanness of heart.” Further, ” the virtue of chastity most of all makes man apt for contemplation, since venereal pleasures most of all weigh the mind down to sensible objects, as Augustine says.”
The so-called “monastic observances” and structures, some physical, also serve to impart and enhance the contemplative dimension of Dominican life. The Constitutions still maintain
“That the brethren may be able to devote themselves better to contemplation and study, that the intimacy of their religious family may be increased, and that the authenticity and character of our religious life may be revealed, the cloister must be observed in our convents.” (14)
The physical cloister permits two important conditions for developing a contemplative attitude – quiet and solitude, principal ingredients of leisure.
The Constitutions are eloquent in connecting contemplation to other aspects of our life, which also permit, develop, and enhance that spirit, chief among which are the Divine Liturgy and personal prayer:
In the liturgy, especially in the Eucharist, the mystery of salvation is present and at work which the brethren share and contemplate and even proclaim in preaching to others so that they may be incorporated into Christ through the sacraments of faith.
Since the contemplation of divine things and intimate conversation and friendship with God are to be sought not only in liturgical celebrations and in reading Scripture but also in diligent private prayer, the brethren shall zealously cultivate this type of prayer. (15)
We should not, of course, confuse the physical structures and practices of our life with contemplation itself. They are there to foster a contemplative spirit, but that mindful insight into the real nature of things cannot be limited to our customs or houses nor was it ever intended to be. As Meister Eckhart taught, the summit of contemplation can occur anywhere – and more likely in the marketplace than the chapel:
A man may go out into the fields and say his prayers and know God, or he may go to church and know God: but if he is more aware of God because he is in a quiet place, as is usual, that comes from his imperfection and not from God: for God is equally in all things and all places, and is equally ready to give Himself as far as in Him lies: and he knows God rightly who knows God equally (in all things). (16)
Catherine’s vision is the same, as Suzanne Noffke has recently reminded us. It is when we find ourselves and our neighbor both swimming in the Sea of God’s Being that we finally begin to get useful. And if we don’t find ourselves there, we’ll never find ourselves at all. We won’t be of much help to anyone else, either.
What seems to be most difficult today is finding anyplace that is free from the din of raucous entertainment media or the pressures of work.
Leisure is not only the basis of culture; it is the condition for the possibility of contemplation, if we take leisure to mean time and place not devoted to work. (17) But having leisure time and space is not sufficient – it matters greatly what we do with our leisure.
One of the most insidious enemies of contemplative spirit is the all-pervasive presence of modern electronic media, from the Internet to pagers, hand-held computers, electronic books, cell-phones, and even old-fashioned Walkmans. One of the bizarre and disturbing phenomena of contemporary life is the spectacle of a dozen or so people milling around and all talking at once – not to each other, whom they mutually ignore, but to people far away on the receiving end of their cell phones. I also find that my students do not spend much time watching television or going to movies, but devote enormous amounts of time to chatting on the Internet or just idly “surfing.”
It might not seem obvious, but the attractive and actually distracting power of the media bears importantly on the passive or receptive concentration associated with contemplation. From a modern rather than medieval perspective, William Ernest Hocking observed early in the twentieth century that “‘Contemplation,’ as used by the medieval mystic, implies that the effort of ‘meditation,’ in which one holds the object before the mind by force of will, gives way to a state in which the object attracts and holds attention without further conscious effort.” (18)
Well and good is in Aristotlelian or Thomistic terms, we are held fast by the power of the Good or Truth, or the hidden Presence of God. But what if there are other contenders that exploit the same tendency to surrender our attention to a powerfully compelling object of attention?
The image of Darth Vader comes to mind, and as William Johnston reminded us years ago, there is a long tradition of left-hand or dark contemplation in some of the traditions of Asian mysticism.
It is in this regard that the observations of the anonymous fourteenth-century author of The Cloud of Unknowing have some bearing on our situation. I should add here that Dom David Knowles thought might have been a Dominican hermit because of his affinities with Rhineland mysticism. In any case, this master of the inner life points out that contemplation is not in itself necessarily virtuous. “The devil has his own contemplatives,” he warned, “as God has his” [Chapter 45]. Deception is always possible, and it is not difficult to be led astray by what the author calls “false feeling and false knowing.” The image of Darth Vader comes to mind, and as William Johnston reminded us years ago, there is a long tradition of left-hand or dark contemplation in some of the traditions of Asian mysticism. Far more likely, however, is the simple possibility of co-optation and self-delusion.
What this means, first, is not so much that contemplation is dangerous, which it can be, because anything powerful is dangerous, but that from a Christian perspective, especially a Dominican one, the value of contemplation is determined by its object. It is not an idle addition when we claim that the mystical heart of our spirituality is the contemplation of the Truth. Secondly, there are other claimants for our contemplative gaze that must be recognized. In the ancient world, as Marshall McLuhan pointed out, that danger was experienced in the form of the temptation to idolatry. Idols – false images of the divine — have the power to fascinate – that is, to arrest our attention and to focus our spiritual energies con themselves. And because of that, they have the power to convert their beholders into what they are, as Psalm 115 has it,
They have mouths, but they cannot speak;
they have eyes, but they cannot see.
They have ears, but they cannot hear;
they have nostrils, but they cannot smell.
With their hands they cannot feel;
With their feet they cannot walk;
no sound comes from their throats.
Their makers will come to be like them;
And so will all who trust in them.
[Ps. 115: 3-8, Grail translation.]
I don’t think it was incidental to his concern that McLuhan was a devout Catholic. But he also reminded us that in Greek mythology looking on the Gorgons turned the viewer equally to stone. Uncritical viewing easily becomes a hypnotic and from a spiritual perspective, a petrifying experience. (19)
In our world, modern electronic media can exert the same dangerous power that idols once exercised…
In our world, modern electronic media can exert the same dangerous power that idols once exercised, and here again, it was Marshall McLuhan who prophetically pointed this out to us, citing what Dr. Paul Lazarfield had named their “narcotizing dysfunction.” An “idol” here means any medium of communication which redirects attention and therefore value to itself.
Small children have been known to sit and stare at a blank television screen, waiting for something to appear – even if it is only Big Bird. Their older brothers and sisters and parents are likely to spend dozens of hours a week watching whatever comes across the screen. I have often visited people’s homes in this country and Ireland and found that the television is on all the time –during breakfast and supper, during the day, when people come to visit, and even when no one is in the room. We are perhaps all familiar with restaurants and other places of refreshment where the ubiquitous TV monitors are constantly on, whether or not there is any sound to accompany them. In my own case, I have found it difficult even when having a very good conversation with someone, to keep my eyes from straying to the big colorful screen with its insistently flashing images.
The world of the Internet, powered by even more powerful computers on both the sending and receiving end, adds a much more active element – surfing or cruising or whatever else we call what was once known as spinning the dial.
The other night, I asked a young professional friend of mine what he would include among questions to spark conversation about recovering contemplation in our communities. “Ask them how much time they spend watching television,” he said. He had a point, although these days I am more inclined to wonder how much time we spend surfing the Internet. I know that my college students spend hours every day involved in e-mail, chat-rooms, and just cruising up and down the old Information Superhighway.
Why would either of these pastimes matter, other than in terms of time spent (or misspent) and the trickle-up cost of on-line services, broad-band optical cable or DSL lines, telephone usage, satellite fees, or whatnot? The answer is pretty simple: they absorb us. They compete for our attention, and psychologically it is attention that contemplation is concerned with.
It is increasingly common for people to have laptops and especially cell-phones on camping trips and jungle safaris.
There is another aspect of the almost universal spread of electronic media today that concerns me. Although many people enjoy using scenes of great natural beauty as screen-savers and wallpaper on the computer monitors, almost all of these devices remove us physically from the world of nature. It is increasingly common for people to have laptops and especially cell-phones on camping trips and jungle safaris. Recently, I had occasion to accompany a bunch of college students on a trek into the forests of Costa Rica. I was startled, to say the least, to find that several of them had their CD players along and were happily plugged into them as we walked through some of the most beautiful scenery – visual and audible – in the world. But were they really present?
At this point, I would like to turn to some possible implications of all this in our lives as Dominicans committed to a life of contemplation and action.
Dominican spiritual writers always give scope to the activity and gifts of the Holy Spirit in our life as preachers, and this is no less true in regard to contemplation. A contemplative penetration into Reality may erupt suddenly in consciousness without obvious preparation – moments of grace abound, often without our being aware that such moments are in fact divine gifts. But for Dominicans, contemplation is a way of life as well as a grace, what was later referred to as infused contemplation – the gift flowing directly from the Holy Spirit. Acquired contemplation is our business and it is our calling. We pray, we read, we meditate like St. Dominic before us in order to acquire a certain cast of mind and heart, an affinity for the divine presence that flames out “like shining from shook foil” in nature and in the faces and lives of the people we encounter.
Precisely as Dominicans, study, the “manual labor” of the Order, is essentially related to contemplation, as Eckhart taught his students:
a man must learn to acquire an inward desert, wherever and with whomever he is. He must learn to break through things and seize his God in them, and to make His image grow in himself in essential wise. It is just like learning to write: truly, if a man is to acquire this art, he must apply himself and practice hard, however heavy and bitter a task it seems to him, and however impossible. If he is prepared to practice diligently and often, he will learn and master the art. Of course, at first he has to remember every letter and fix it firmly in his mind. Later on, when he has acquired the art, he will be completely free of the image and will not have to stop and think, but will write fluently and freely-and the same with playing the fiddle or any other task that requires skill. All he needs to know is that he intends to exercise his skill, and even if he is not paying full attention, wherever his thoughts may stray, he will do the job because he has the skill. Thus a man should be pervaded with God’s presence, transformed with the form of his beloved God, and made essential by Him, so that God’s presence shines for him without any effort; rather he will find emptiness in all things and be totally free of things. But first there must be thought and attentive study, just as with a pupil in any art. [Talks of Instruction, p. 19.]
Here, Eckhart anticipates St. Catherine’s more direct metaphor. “Build yourself an interior cell,” she says, coining the phrase so familiar in the later tradition, “a cell of self-knowledge.” In the Life written after her death by Raymond of Capua, he recalls,
Catherine built for herself a cell not made with human hands, helped inwardly by Christ, and so was untroubled about losing a room made with walls built by men. I remember that whenever I used to find myself pressed with too much business, or had to go on a journey, Catherine would say again and again, ‘Make yourself a cell in your own mind from which you need never come out.’ (20)
That cell, Eckhart’s “inner desert,” ultimately encompasses the entire world.
The question this raises for me, and perhaps for you, is
“how can we construct such an inner cell or desert today?”
Some other questions arise that may be pertinent as we consider the role of contemplation in our lives in the years to come:
What will “cloister” come to mean for us? What physical accommodations will be necessary to preserve and enhance a contemplative spirit in young Dominicans who are in training?
How can we ourselves resist the increasingly distracting and alienating power of electronic media in order to develop a contemplative spirit of real presence?
What I have sought to show in these remarks is that contemplation was ingredient in the spirituality of the Order from the very beginning, starting with Dominic himself. The vowed life, especially poverty, chastity, and for us Dominicans, study, and so-called “monastic” observances such as the common and, I should add, the public celebration of the liturgy, the peace and freedom of the cloister, and set times for meditation, are preconditions for developing a contemplative spirit. And while privileged moments of contemplative insight are graced visitations of the Holy Spirit, and can be neither earned nor exacted, our way of life calls for us to acquire a contemplative attitude, as taught by Thomas, Eckhart, and Catherine among our greatest saints and teachers.
I would also contend, especially with Thomas, Eckhart, and Catherine, that despite obstacles to contemplation presented by contemporary culture, especially the distractions of electronic media, active ministry and everyday life situations, far from blocking contemplation are, in fact, the ordinary condition for and normal occasion of contemplation – provided that we have first acquired a contemplative spirit – a heart and mind fixed on the Lord our God.
For Dominicans contemplation and action are not separate elements of our life, but conjoined moments of prayer and ministry. Long before Ignatius of Loyola enjoined his followers to be “contemplatives in action,” it was an intrinsic part of our spirituality. Still, I like to cite old Walter Burkhardt, who once described contemplation as “a long loving look at the Real,” which is as good a definition as any. As a gift, contemplation is there for the taking, provided we’re open to it. But learning how to be open to it usually takes some training, whether formally in the disciplines of meditation, or by responding to life itself as a call and a question, which is a lot harder. One way or another, as Dominicans, our life as a whole is supposed to lead us to contemplative vision and action. On this, Thomas is still probably the best teacher.
As I rummage through the many passages where Thomas discusses aspects of contemplation, it is striking how he always comes back to the notion that it is Truth (not just truth) that we contemplate, and that Truth is ultimately God’s own presence. Truth is more than the way things are. It is the way God is. The contemplative moment occurs when those ways are revealed to be one. That can happen anywhere, at any time, no matter how busy we are, or troubled, or hurting. Meister Eckhart’s teaching is the same and phrased a bit more engagingly.
Indeed, if a man thinks he will get more of God by meditation, by devotion, by ecstasies or by special infusion of grace than by the fireside or in the stable ?? that is nothing but taking God, wrapping a cloak around His head and shoving Him under a bench. For whoever seeks God in a special way gets the way and misses God, who lies hidden in it. But whoever seeks God without any special way gets Him as He is in Himself, and that man lives with the Son, and he is life itself. (21)
In terms of ministry, the contemplative dimension is perhaps best expressed for Dominicans (especially) as loving “mindfulness.” It is not so much what we do as how we do it that counts. A sermon attributed to Eckhart, and certainly Dominican, is particularly clear here, and it is worth quoting at length:
St Thomas says the active life is better than the contemplative, in so far as in action one pours out for love that which one has gained in contemplation. It is actually the same thing, for we take only from the same ground of contemplation and make it fruitful in works, and thus the object of contemplation is achieved.. Thus too, in this activity, we remain in a state of contemplation in God. The one rests in the other, and perfects the other. For God’s purpose in the union of contemplation is fruitfulness in works: for in contemplation you serve yourself alone, but in works of charity you serve the many. (22)
- German Sermon 5a, Walshe trans. No. 13a, I, p. 112. For references, see the Bibliography.
- “The secret and delicious knowledge [God] taught her [the soul] is mystical theology which spiritual persons call contemplation. This knowledge is very delightful because it is knowledge through love.” Spiritual Canticle, 27.5.
- Tugwell, Early Dominicans, p. 91.
- The Nine Ways of Prayer of St. Dominic, c. 1260, cited by Tugwell, Early Dominicans, p. 101.
- Early Dominicans, p. 119, n. 184.
- Summa Theologiae, II-II, Q. 188, A. 7.
- See The Nicomachean Ethics, Books VI and X.
- Talks of Instruction 6, Walshe trans., III, p. 17.
- Ibid., p. 18.
- Cited in Fatula, Catherine of Siena’s Way, p. 67.
- It is worth recalling what Thomas Merton said in this regard many years ago: “When I speak of the contemplative life I do not mean the institutional cloistered life, the organized life of prayer . . . I am talking about a special dimension of inner discipline and experience, a certain integrity and fullness of personal development, which are not compatible with a purely external, alienated, busy-busy existence. This does not mean that they are incompatible with action, with creative work, with dedicated love. On the contrary, these all go together. A certain depth of disciplined experience is a necessary ground for fruitful action. .Traditionally, the ideas of prayer, meditation and contemplation have been associated with this deepening of one’s personal life and this expansion of the capacity to understand and serve others.” Thomas Merton, Contemplation in a World of Action, 172.
- Chapter III, On Study, Art. I – On the Importance of Study and its Sources, No. 83.
- Summa Theologiae, II-II, Q. 180, a. 2.
- Chapter I, On Religious Consecration, Art. V — On Regular Observance, No. 41.
- Chapter II, On the Sacred Liturgy and Prayer, Nos. 57 and 66.
- German Sermon 68, Walshe trans., No. 69, II, p. 167. Or, as he said in his instructions to the Dominican students, “Now if a man truly has God with him, God is with him everywhere, in the street or among people just as much as in church or in the desert or in a cell. If he possesses God truly and solely, such a man cannot be disturbed by anybody. Why? He has only God, thinks only of God, and all things are for him nothing but God. Such a man bears God in all his works and everywhere, and all that man’s works are wrought purely by God-for he who causes the work is more genuinely and truly the owner of the work than he who performs it.” Talks of Instruction 6, Walshe trans., III, pp. 16 -18.
- According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the primary meanings of leisure today are “Opportunity afforded by freedom from occupations,” and “The state of having time at one’s own disposal; time which one can spend as one pleases; free or unoccupied time.”
- The Meaning of God in Human Experience, p. 371.
- Contrast with this stupefying fixation the opposite situation described in Psalm 123:
To you I lifted up my eyes,
You who dwell in the heavens:
My eyes, like the eyes of slaves
On the hand of their lords.
Like the eyes of a servant
On the hand of her mistress,
So our eyes are on the Lord our God
Till he show us his mercy. [Ps 123: 1-2, Grail translation]
- The Dialogue, Gardner trans., pp. 74-75.
- German Sermon 13b, Walshe trans. No. 5b, I, pp. 117?18.
- Sermon 3, Walshe trans., I, p. 28. Considered dubious despite parallels.