What is Contemplation?

I love the swing at our Fall retreat center. Carefree I sour over the lake. Leaning back, heels in the air, the pendulum rhythm carries me back and forth. After only the briefest time, my heart even stops racing from the initial precarious launch off the steep lake shore.

Pure joy.

God’s amazing creation surrounds me…rolling hills of oranges, reds, yellows and evergreens. Occasional shrieks of laughter from students and adults waft across the lake surface.

I am fully aware of God’s presence. My heart embraces the Lord. I want to dwell here as long as I am able…

Gazing into the heart of the Divine is not some special place within us that we have to find. No map to an internal maze needed. It’s a decision. Indeed the retreat center helps set the stage, but I don’t live here.

When I am home, well, I have to make the decision.

We can each resolve to live life enjoying God. We can choose to lead an integrated, contemplative life.

Please make your way through this post to explore the foundations of contemplation. Augustine, philosopher and Christian theologian (354-430 A.D.), articulated the ability of all believers to grasp the Holy. He believed that under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the scriptures are illuminated, prayer life deepens and we dwell in the presence of God. It’s that simple.

But it’s that difficult, too. Over the millenium, we have struggled to connect with God. We have sought new ways to reach God…searching for a simple, quantitative, manageable, step-by-step guide. Numerous Eastern religious practices sadly have made their way into present-day Christian circles to help us learn to quiet our soul, to breathe, to center ourselves. At best the techniques become the end goal…at worse they can draw us into a world without Christ.

Augustine was one of the first theologians to wrestle with this quest. He meticulously recorded his thoughts and extensive study. Understanding his conclusions helped me to clarify contemplation and meditation as a Christian practice.  Let’s begin…

What is Contemplation?

Augustine used the term “contemplation” to suggest more than thoughtful meditation. He perceived it as embracing God with one’s soul. He likened this spiritual embrace or possession of God with the ability to enjoy Him.[2] 

The enjoyment and appreciation of God requires the proper direction of one’s love toward Him. “And thus, by forming a correct judgment concerning our own misery and by loving God with the love He Himself bestowed, it is possible for us to lead holy and upright lives.”[3]

Augustine had spent decades prior to his conversion aspiring to explain, reason, and clarify the meaning of life. On his mental journeys he often became distracted by his enjoyment of worldly and sensual things. Recognizing his own desire for happiness, Augustine gradually came to purposefully direct his affections toward God alone.

Ultimately, the enjoyment of God revolves around this passionate love for Him. One loves God both in seeking fellowship with Him and in enjoying that fellowship with Him. “Man can desire the enjoyment of many things…but the proper end is the enjoyment of God through knowing Him and becoming as much like Him as possible.”[4]

Knowledge of the Holy

Augustine maintained that contemplation also yielded knowledge unattainable elsewhere. “In the contemplation of God, or specifically of the divine Wisdom, the object which is possessed and enjoyed through knowledge in turn influences and forms the mind, so that the mind itself becomes wise through participation.”[5]

Augustine found validity in human knowledge, but held that all wisdom is from God. Nothing mystical nor new revelations here…just that God Himself will illuminate His Word to us if we seek Him with passion and in truth.

Augustine believed man to be a rational being. He attributed to man the ability to reason and to think reflectively about himself. Man passes judgment on experiences, makes comparisons, and ponders the future.

He has a mind; in order to acquire knowledge his mind exercises an activity proper to him, namely reason; and finally, that the knowledge gained by reason, or the glimpse of truth thus gained, is understanding.[6]

Augustine saw contemplation of the Divine as “the proper exercise of man’s natural capacities” through which God could illuminate his mind and allow him to become aware of His presence.[7]

Duration of Contemplation

The contemplative possession of God can theoretically be a momentary experience or a constant gazing. Although in this life, man is unable to endure the splendor of His light. Augustine even wrote in Confessions, “but I didn’t possess the strength to keep my vision fixed.”[8] The soul’s moral status severs contemplative association with the eternal. With the impurity of the mind and the abundant distractions of this life, man is not capable of directing his whole attention toward God for any duration of time.

Furthermore, Augustine never proposed such a sustained contemplation as the goal of one’s spiritual journey on earth.

Contemplation is merely the means to the end which is the enjoyment of God. It is “to be understood only as a supreme type of spiritual cognition, but not a means of salvation.”[9] One should not get stymied, even, in the scholarly study of Scripture — such knowledge is not salvific in nature.

Nevertheless, Augustine did not think it abnormal or the result of any exceptional gifts to develop a contemplative life, as in other mystical theology, but did acknowledge that great effort was required.

When the obstacles of the cares of earthly life and the bondage of the affection of finite things are overcome, the mind becomes aware of God. Hence, it is possible to train and purify the mind to contemplate the Almighty; its protraction, however, is obtainable only upon entering into the joy of the Master in heaven.

Toward the Contemplative Soul…

In the coming days, seek to enjoy God.

Relax long enough to quiet the thoughts racing through your mind.

Watch the sun rise … or set. Gaze at God’s vivid color palette.

Enjoy the people around you … all created in His image.

Marvel in His creation. Take a walk. Have a swing over a lake.

Passionately seek God. Enjoy Him.

<<Previous post in the Series: Picture of Expectation

Next post coming soon: Why Does God Feel So Far Away?>>


Back to Post 2 Augustine, Divine Providence and The Problem of Evil (De ordine), trans. by Robert P. Russell (Villanova College), p. 296.
Back to Post 3 Augustine, Faith, Hope and Charity, trans. Louis A. Arand, Vol. 3, Ancient Christian Writers (NY: Newman Press), 20.76.
Back to Post 4 Eugene TeSelle, Augustine the Theologian (NY: Herder and Herder, 1970), p. 67.
Back to Post 5 Ibid., p. 114.
Back to Post 6 Etienne Gilson, The Christian Philosophy of Saint Augustine, trans. L.E.M. Lynch (NY: Random House, 1960), p.29.
Back to Post 7 TeSelle, p. 114.
Back to Post 8 Saint Augustine. Confessions, trans. R.S. Pine-Coffin (Oxford: Penguin Books, 1984), 7.17.
Back to Post 9 J.P. Kenney, “St. Augustine and the Invention of Mysticism,” in Studia Patristica, Vol. XXXIII, ed. Elizabeth A. Livingstone (Belgium: Peeters Publishers, 1997), p. 128.


About Sharon R Hoover

Serving the church for over twenty years in discipleship and mission ministries, I've walked alongside many people travelling and exploring the journey of faith. Add in my own crazy path and I hope my writing will offer glimpses of life worth sharing.
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3 Responses to What is Contemplation?

  1. Pingback: Road to a Contemplative Soul | a Journal of Missional Living

  2. Pingback: Why Does God Feel So Far Away? | Journal of Missional Living

  3. Pingback: Picture of Expectation | Journal of Missional Living

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