When I wrote The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, the publisher came up with this subtitle: The Essential Guide to Contemplative Spirituality. I’m not crazy about the word “essential” but other than that, I think it’s a helpful subtitle. Why? Because before you even open the book, you discover that “Christian mysticism” has something to do with “contemplative spirituality.”
When it comes to mysticism, contemplation is pretty much a core concept. It’s a concept that shows up in a variety of ways: there is contemplative prayer, the contemplative life (and contemplative living), and people who engage in these activities are called, simply enough, contemplatives. This is clearly parallel to the language of mysticism, which encompasses mystical prayer, the mystical life, and persons who are recognized as mystics.
So are contemplation and mysticism essentially interchangeable concepts? In other words, would it be a redundancy to talk about contemplative mysticism or mystical contemplation?
No, I don’t think they’re completely interchangeable — even though there is clearly some overlap between the terms. I think the distinctions between contemplation and mysticism are subtle, but real. In this post I’ll offer some insight into what contemplation and its related words mean — specifically in the context of Christian mysticism — and hopefully by the end of the post we’ll be able to discern how these terms are not identical.
What is Contemplation?
Contemplation; contemplative prayer; contemplative life; contemplatives. What do these terms mean? Especially, what do they mean in relationship to Christian spirituality and mysticism?
To begin my exploration of this topic, I turned to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).
The OED defines contemplation as:
The action of beholding, or looking at with attention and thought…
The action of contemplating or mentally viewing; the action of thinking about a thing continuously; attentive consideration, study…
Without reference to a particular object: Continued thinking, meditation, musing…
Sometimes, a meditation expressed in writing…
Religious musing, devout meditation. (The earliest sense; very common down to 17th c.)
The secular sense of contemplation has a meaning similar to pondering or cogitating. It’s a word that implies thoughtful consideration of an object of one’s attention: I contemplate a thorny problem, or a mystery such as death, or perhaps a work of art. Recently my wife and I visited the Manchester Gallery of Art where I saw one of my favorite paintings, William Holman Hunt’s The Hireling Shepherd. As I stood in front of the painting, simply taking it all it, one might say I was contemplating its beauty and technical genius.
It’s interesting that the OED acknowledges that there can be a religious dimension to contemplation — it even goes so far as to note that the religious sense of the word is the earliest sense, and was the most common sense through to the 1600s. But we live in a secular age now, and for most people the spiritual sense of contemplation is not something they are familiar with. But how is spiritual contemplation distinct from contemplation in general?
What leaps out at me about the OED definition of contemplation is how much it anchors contemplation in thought. “Look at with attention and thought,” “continued thinking,” “thinking about a thing continuously.” It sounds exhausting to me! And this, perhaps, is where the mystical meaning of contemplation differs from the mainstream or secular meaning of the word.
To begin to appreciate the spiritual dimension of contemplation, let’s turn to another definition; but this time, from the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
CONTEMPLATION: A form of wordless prayer in which mind and heart focus on God’s greatness and goodness in affective, loving adoration; to look on Jesus and the mysteries of his life with faith and love.
So instead of the heart of contemplation being thought or cogitation, in a spiritual sense, contemplation is wordless prayer.
It’s not about thought — in fact, contemplation takes us to a place beyond thought.
Wordless Prayer: Into the Silence
It’s hard to define something by what it is not. What, exactly, is wordless prayer? The Catechism goes on to suggest that it is a prayer of “affective, loving adoration.” In other words, contemplation is a prayer of the heart, more so than a prayer of the mind.
We do not think our way into contemplation. We enter into contemplation through love, through faith and love.
Spiritual contemplation still can be understood using some of the concepts found in the OED: it’s a beholding, it’s a type of meditation, perhaps we can even say it’s a way of musing. But strictly speaking, spiritual contemplation only has one object: God. Sure, you can contemplate the virtues, the mysteries of the faith, the lives of the saints, and so forth. But there, you’re back to using the word contemplation in its broader, not-strictly-religious sense. For a narrower understanding of contemplation that brings us into the world of mysticism, the beholding, the music, the wordless meditation and prayer are all directed toward God.
Indeed, traditionally contemplation has been understood as a gift from God: no one contemplates God without God’s leading and directing the process. Contemplation is a gift given by God to the person who is doing the contemplating.
So, therefore, contemplation is relational. It is a description of a dimension of relatedness between God and the contemplative (the human being who is contemplating God).
To say contemplation is about relationship is also to say that it is a dimension of intimacy with God. To contemplate God is to be engaged with God in a heart-to-heart, intimate way. Indeed, many mystics might suggest that contemplation takes us to the place where God and the self are no longer “two.”
I’m struck by the irony of all this: because since contemplation is wordless, do you see the irony? I’m trying to describe, using words, something that exists beyond the limits of human language.
Contemplative Prayer, Life, and Living
Now that we have a basic sense of both secular and spiritual contemplation, the various other forms of the word can begin to make more sense. Contemplative prayer, is essentially the same thing as spiritual contemplation. Prayer is also relationship and intimacy. Many forms of prayer rely on communication using language — words and thought — to establish or nurture that intimacy. We “talk to God” when we say our prayers, when we ask for forgiveness, or make intercessions, etc. Such “vocal prayers” are good and beautiful, but contemplation goes beyond the reliance on words, language and syntax to establish such Divine intimacy. Contemplation is simply a form of prayer where words are no longer necessary, because the heart, in silence, is communing directly with God (because God is communing directly with the heart). Not only are words unnecessary in contemplation, but they would even prove to be a hindrance. Contemplation is like a kiss from God. If you’re busy talking, you can’t receive the kiss!
A contemplative is simply a person who has given his or her spiritual attention to the cultivation of contemplative prayer — or, at the very least, is open and receptive to receiving the gift of contemplation, according to God’s design. Some would say it is presumptuous to say “I am a contemplative” as if we humans get to call the mystical shots. God is in charge of mystical spirituality; we do not achieve it, we receive it. So to say “I am a contemplative” can be a humble way of simply saying “I commit to making myself available for the gift of contemplation, whenever God seeks to bestow it.”
Incidentally, traditionally the contemplative life meant living in a monastic or religious community devoted to contemplation. Nowadays the word can be used more loosely: to lead a contemplative life means to order one’s entire life, including a daily spiritual practice, toward the cultivation of spiritual contemplation. But in a more broad or general sense, we could also speak of contemplation as approaching life meditatively and thoughtfully, rather than always being quick to act. So we can speak of a “contemplative life” or perhaps “contemplative living” in this general sense of orienting one’s entire life toward a habit of meditation, beholding, wondering, and musing.
My wife teaches a class on contemplative photography, as do many other artists and spiritual teachers. Here, she is using the concept of contemplation in the broad sense of meditation/musing/beholding, but also in the more narrow sense of wordlessness and adoration. Following the Ignatian or Celtic ideals of “finding God in all things,” a contemplative photographer (or any kind of artist) relates to the world in that same kind of open-hearted, silent adoration, encountering the Divine presence in natural beauty and then receiving it in a spirit of wonder, appreciation, and musing.
Contemplation and Mysticism
Finally, we can return to the question of what is the relationship between contemplation and mysticism?
Here’s how I see it. Contemplation is a way — a way of seeing, a way of praying, a way of beholding, a way of wondering — of meditating, of musing, of recognizing. Contemplation, at its heart, is a dimension of consciousness: what many call a nondual consciousness, since at its heart contemplation meets God in oneness and communion. “God and I are not-two,” might be the motto of the contemplative way.
Mysticism is also a way, but it’s a broader way. It incorporates the contemplative way, but it also has a dimension of theology, of philosophy, of discourse about it. Many of the greatest mystics were, in fact, great thinkers: figures like Meister Eckhart, Julian of Norwich, John of the Cross, Teresa of Ávila, John Ruusbroec, Simone Weil, Thomas Merton, Hildegard of Bingen… these great mystics were true contemplatives but were also great teachers, visionaries, poets, philosophers and theologians. They not only lived in a contemplative manner, but they also were capable of communicating their profound union with God to others.
Clearly, there is much overlap: at its heart, mysticism is deeply contemplative: it invites us into that place of wordless adoration where prayer unfolds in communion and union. Where Meister Eckhart proclaims, “The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me. My eye and God’s eye is one eye, and one sight, and one knowledge, and one love.” (Sermon 16) But mysticism both is contemplation and embraces contemplation: it is a way of seeing, but also a way of thinking, a school of knowledge, a path of formation and discipline.
Can a person be a contemplative without being a mystic? Well, certainly a person can be a contemplative without having studied mystical theology or being conversant on all the nuances of mystical thinking. But the true heart of contemplative union with God is identical with mystical union: they are not different experiences.
Can a person be a mystic without being a contemplative? Certainly you can be a student of mysticism without entering the contemplative way: such persons can often be found in academic/university settings. But to truly taste the splendor of mystical spirituality, sooner or later one must walk the contemplative way.