Means of Contemplation: Exercise the Mind

(This post continues exploring Augustine’s view of contemplation and spiritual development. To begin the series, read Toward the Contemplative Soul.)

I have a wandering mind.

To focus on the Lord and His word requires extraordinary ability to put off the many pressing thoughts running laps in my brain. I’ve done a lot of running in my life.

I ran track in high school… indoor track in the winter and outdoor track in the spring. I trained every day, even running on the weekends and holidays. My team mates also committed to a disciplined training regimen. Our team went all the way to win the District championship one year!

Now, my greatest training challenge is disciplining my mind. I long to spend hours with the Lord. Even when I make the time in my schedule, though, I occasionally do not cooperate with myself (!) … my mind wanders off onto the trail of to-do’s and lists of needs for work and family.

Augustine, philosopher and Christian theologian (354-430 A.D.), taught that believers need a trained mind to be able to focus on God. So true!

But let me be clear, crystal clear…. this is NOT about getting in touch with your inner self so you focus your energy. There is no higher power to reach through ancient knowledge. Special breathing, magical essences, postures and mantras are not involved. There is no power we need to become one with. And, the answers do not lie deep within you or me or some wise master. These eastern thoughts are of great concern to me. Christian author and former astrologer Marcia Montenegro cautions and articulates the increasing New Age influences into the lives of believers.

We are created in God’s image with the ability to reason and use our minds (Job 12:1-3; Romans 14:5, 1 Corinthians 14:14-15; 1 Peter 1:13). But we are distracted and disobedient (2 Corinthians 10:5; Romans 8:5-8). Nevertheless, scripture passages call us to meditate on the precepts of God…this is where we gain wisdom.  (Joshua 1:8; Psalm 1:1-3; Psalm 119:15-16). Spend time studying God’s word.

Augustine called man to pray for guidance to remove ignorance. Lack of knowledge can be overcome by exercising the mind. He viewed knowledge as a food toward the healing of the soul.

The Bible is the source of truth from which knowledge emanates. “The authority of Scripture should be respected and accepted with the purest faith, because while all can read it with ease, it also has a deeper meaning in which its secrets are locked away.”[1] These are not mystical, ancient secrets to be discovered, however. They are truths available to all who read, study and prayerfully seek wisdom (2 Corinthians 4:6; James 1:5;  Romans 12:1-2; Psalm 51:10).

Sidebar reminder: Augustine cautioned students of Scripture, however, that it is love that builds up … not knowledge. One must ponder this incessantly as wisdom is gained.

Fallen Human Mind and Challenges of Language

This chosen means of revelation is fraught with difficulties to the weak human eye. The problem of evil remains basic to our inability to comprehend Scripture. Our fallen minds distort and corrupt the truth. (Romans 1:18-25; Ephesians 4:21-24)

Furthermore, the limitations of language thwart the most sincere efforts to understand the written Word. “Like man’s temporal state, language is mutable and fleeting.”[2]

Augustine noted that words were a “labor into the obscurity and ambiguity, veils and symbols of the temporal, mutable realm, far removed from the intuitive vision enjoyed within.”[3] He believed, nevertheless, that language served to lead man back to the truth.

Augustine wrote extensively about the numerous literary styles in the Bible — literal and figurative passages, perplexing passages and plain passages. He understood the plain passages’ purposes to explain the more difficult ones. Scriptural ambiguities reduce feelings of pride as they require admission of ignorance and diligence to decipher.

Allegory particularly served a valuable masking function, according to Augustine, “(God) hides the treasures of Scripture…that He might excite in thee a desire to search for things hidden. For such is the excellence of secrecy.” [4] “The more obscure the text is, so much the sweeter is one’s delight in finding its truth,” Augustine observed. [5] Hence, we have the gift of the Holy Bible to enlighten and enable man on his journey in this life.

Use of Reasoning to Discipline the Mind

Augustine encouraged reasoning to expand and discipline the mind. His sense of inquiry never failed him. He pursued logic with great vigor extensively outlining rules about syllogisms, definitions, and classification. His writings seem laborious at times when he explores all possible hypotheses.

The function of reason was “to exercise the mind so that it will be capable of beholding spiritual things.”[6] Man cannot rely on reason alone, however. His corrupted, reasoned image of God cannot be corrected by himself. In Augustine’s later years, he especially believed the primacy of faith necessary for understanding, stressing “man’s reasoning to be essentially flawed and fallen.”[7]

Pondering Our Physical World

We can also exercise our minds through knowledge of the physical world around us. Augustine recognized the need to understand the nature of minerals, plants and animals in order to better interpret the Bible. “The symbolism of the Sacred Text is unintelligible to anyone who does not know the things themselves in which he tries to find symbols. Whence the need for an extensive knowledge of the natural sciences including geography, mineralogy, botany, and zoology.” [8]   Psalm 8 beautifully renders creation as an object of study which directs our praise to the Lord!

Pondering Liberal Arts

Augustine cautiously encouraged exploring the liberal arts. He viewed them as a means to apprehending the truth.

The soul is ordered by an ascent through the disciplines of liberal arts, which enable reason to be exercised, purified, and led to divine truth… (They) lead away from the concrete, sensible and corporeal. Thus they constitute the preliminary training and stages on the way towards truth or philosophy. [9]

The purpose is to help think beyond the black-and-white, linear thinking that we tend to develop. Appreciating the liberal arts enables “growth away from the sensible toward the soul’s true home in the vision and contemplation of God.” [10]

Augustine warned, however, that discretion must be practiced in aesthetics so as not to embark upon superfluous and self-indulgent practices. [11] It must be remembered that art is not reality, but is the memory of experiences. Its form and harmony though can reflect the Divine. Guardedly, as man engages the senses through memory, the arts, and the imagination, he becomes equipped to turn away from the world in order to cleanse and purify…and to enter into the contemplation of God.

Toward the Contemplative Soul …

Begin to work out with the primary tool of contemplation: the Holy Bible. Prayerfully explore the Scripture. Approach the Word with the faith that the Spirit will illuminate and clarify it.

Consider beginning with the study of the gospel of John. Containing the Words of Christ and description of His actions incarnate, it offers an intimate and rich place to begin. Read John completely. Context was of utmost importance to Augustine. [12] Then reread it and pause for reflection. Use the mind’s natural capability to reason intelligently. Do word associations, cross-referencing, word studies, and informal discussions with other believers.[13]

Take time to record your reflections and revelations from God’s Word in your journal. In addition, memorize Bible verses. Committing passages to the heart disciplines the mind and allows their recollection at times appropos during one’s daily walk.

Please note that being a Biblical scholar is not a prerequisite to study. Consider what one scholar noted about this great church father:

Augustine was not primarily an exegete nor an interpreter of Scripture (limited linguistic skills and scholarly patience) nor a grammarian…(instead) all his activities were dominated by a concern to engage himself directly with real problems, to inquire into the truth, to convince others, and to persuade them to decide and to act in accordance with it. [14]

Many have come before us and have recorded their divine lessons. Commit to reading books and to discussing them with your prayer partner or another believer. A couple suggestions:

Confessions (Augustine)
Practicing the Presence of God (Brother Lawrence)
Pilgrim’s Progress (John Bunyan)
In His Steps (Charles Shelton)

The wisdom offered in these volumes demonstrates truths uncovered in the Word of God. Augustine encouraged his students to cull whatever they could from available literature. He implored them, however, to sustain their awareness of God in all their non-Scriptural readings.

Additional exercise of the mind ensues from marveling at the physical world. Consider nature as a most beautiful and loving gift from the Creator (Psalm 104; Matthew 6:26-30; Proverbs 6:6)…

Ponder the perfection of an oak leaf. Watch in splendid awe as the sun sets in the western sky. Pause and scrutinize the purposeful activity of an anthill. Each observation will enrich your study of Scripture when you then read about the mighty oak, the streaming rays of the sun, or the wise ant. Then, seek to express these experiences in your journal. Do not disregard this chronicling of God’s Hand during your journey toward a disciplined mind.

Another exercise for the mind: visit a local art museum. Appreciation of the fine arts helps us to overcome the bindings of this world. [15] Meander slowly. Allow yourself to perceive an impression of life different from your own. God is creative and, we, His image-bearers impart this truth. Dwell on thoughts of the living God by seeing Him with each new observation. Once more, record your reflections in your journal.

Through study, the mind is being trained to minimize the distractions of this life and to focus upon God. By the purging of worldly distractions, the mind moves toward embracing God. He is beyond our finite bounds and beyond any comprehensive description, hence the discipline of the mind is imperative in seeking the face of God.

<<Previous post in the Contemplation Series  **  Means to Contemplation: Prayer

Next post in the series… Means to Contemplation: Purify the Soul>>


Back to Post 1 Saint Augustine. Confessions, trans., R.S. Pine-Coffin (Oxford: Penguin Books, 1984), 6.5.
Back to Post 2 Carol Harrison, Beauty and Revelation in the Thought of Saint Augustine (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), p.55.
Back to Post 3 Ibid., 61.
Back to Post 4 Anthony Tonny-Barthet, The Christian Life (NY: Frederick Pustet Co., 1929), p. 108
Back to Post 5 Harrison, p. 95.
Back to Post 6 Eugene TeSelle, Augustine the Theologian (NY: Herder and Herder, 1970), p. 67.
Back to Post 7 Harrison, p. 26.
Back to Post 8 Etienne Gilson, The Christian Philosophy of Saint Augustine, trans. L.E.M. Lynch (New York: Random House, 1960), p. 29.
Back to Post 9 Harrison, p. 24.
Back to Post 10 Ibid., p. 15.
Back to Post 11 Saint Augustine, On Christian Teaching, trans. R.P.H. Green (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 3.37.
Back to Post 12 Ibid., 2.12.
Back to Post 13 Numerous resources exist in the Christian publishing community (online and paper books) to guide in personal Bible study. Review the options and choose the one best suited to one’s own learning style and place in one’s spiritual journey.
Back to Post 14 Eugene TeSelle, Augustine the Theologian (New York: Herder and Herder, 1970), p. 346.
Back to Post 15 Saint Augustine, Divine Providence and The Problem of Evil (De ordine), trans. by Robert P. Russell (Villanova College), p. 296.

Photo credit: orensbruli (Esteban Martinena) via photopin cc

Posted by Sharon R. Hoover

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 Means of Contemplation: Exercise the Mind

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

  2. Pingback: Means of Contemplation: Purify the Soul | a Journal of Missional Living

  3. Pingback: Means of Contemplation: Prayer | Journal of Missional Living

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