St. Thomas Aquinas says that no one can live without pleasure. Certainly no one can live a full, satisfying life without contemplation.
To engage in the natural art of contemplation is to look long and steadily, leisurely and lovingly at a thing — a tree, a child, a pear, a kitten, a hippopotamus; to really “see” it, the whole of it; and to know it, not to steal an idea of it, but to know it by experience, by love.
From time to time, we’ve got to stop, be still, and contemplate. Because we see things as they really are — existentially — contemplation restores our taste for things, gives us a taste for the right things.
There’s a single Latin word that is the equivalent of that phrase, “a taste for the right things.” The word is sapientia. The English word is wisdom. Is not this a key crisis of our society — the absence of a ruling wisdom? A real God escapes us too, as long as we refuse to take time, enter into positive leisure or holy repose and contemplate. We miss him in the busy hustle-bustle of a omplicated, unintelligible liturgy.
We miss him in our self-propelled, over-rationalized meditation. We miss him in sermons and books that are moralistic, legalistic, negative, and childish, where there is no splendor or glory; no epiphany — “a shining forth of the Godhead.” We miss him, above all, in our education, the goal of which is supposed to be contemplation, according to Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, the Fathers of the Church, Thomas Aquinas, and all other ancient and modern educators worth listening to. Our word “school” comes from the Greek word schola, which means “leisure.”
The Greek schools provided the opportunity and established the discipline necessary for contemplation. Today the schools have expelled leisure, and students, after sixteen to twenty years of schooling, have never learned to cultivate the attitudes and predispositions needed for contemplation.
The most important kind of contemplation is knowing God by experience: a pure intuition born of love. The only way toward this “religious experience” is prayer. Prayer, real mental prayer, is the most central and yet the least known area of awareness of Catholics today. And this is true of Protestants and Jews, too. We miss God in Catholic Action — busy, efficient, well-organized, but not all “aglow” with the Spirit (St. Paul).
Everything that we can bear witness to concerning the reality of God derives from contemplation
— the contemplation of Christ, of the Church and ourselves. But no one can proclaim the contemplation of Christ and the Church in an effective and lasting way unless he himself participates in it; unless, like Peter, he announces that he has seen and heard.
We have not by following artificial tales made known to you the power and presence of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eye-witnesses of his greatness. For he received from God the Father, honor and glory, this voice coming down to him from the excellent glory. This is My beloved Son in whom I am well pleased. Hear ye him. And this voice we heard brought forth from heaven, when we were with him on the holy mount . . . whereunto you do well to attend. (2 Pt 1:16-19)
How much time have our modern apostles spent with him on the holy mount? Have we seen, heard, touched Christ? How, then, can we be sent to witness him? How can we proclaim or spread abroad
activity, however zealous, what we have never known in a personal, experiential way? For all these reasons, and many more, I contend that, more than anything else, we need contemplation. Without contemplation we can only look back in anger or forward in fear, cannot look around in awareness.
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