Editorial by Rev. Peter John Cameron, O.P.
The Apostles, brimming with stories and enthusiasm after having been sent by Christ two by two to expel demons, work cures, and preach repentance, return to Jesus excited and fired up. The Lord says to them, Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while (Mk 6:31). Jesus is inviting his disciples to contemplation.
What is contemplation?
Saint Thomas Aquinas calls contemplation a simple, intuitive gaze on God and divine things proceeding from love and tending toward love. Saint Francis de Sales offers a similar description: Contemplation is a loving, simple, and permanent attentiveness of the mind to divine things. Theophan the Recluse († 1894) speaks of the state of contemplation as “a captivity of the mind and of the entire vision by a spiritual object so overpowering that all outward things are forgotten, and wholly absent from the consciousness. The mind and consciousness become so completely immersed in the object contemplated that it is as though we no longer possess them.”
Contemplation is a divine gift. It is God who calls a soul to contemplation as a sign of his favor. For contemplation is essentially a gratuitous kindness from God—a special inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
Why would God do this? The Catechism of the Catholic Church answers: “Contemplation is a gaze of faith, fixed on Jesus…. Contemplation also turns its gaze on the mysteries
of the life of Christ. Thus it learns the ‘interior knowledge of our Lord,’ the more to love him and follow him” (2715; cf. St. Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises, 104).
It is possible to get carried away by what Jesus does at the
expense of forgetting who Jesus is. For this reason, Pope Francis, in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), summons us to live a contemplative spirit:
The best incentive for sharing the Gospel comes from contemplating it with love, lingering over its pages and reading it with the heart. If we approach it in this way, its beauty will amaze and constantly excite us. But if this is to come about, we need to recover a contemplative spirit which can help us to realize ever anew that we have been entrusted with a treasure which makes us more human and helps us to lead a new life. There is nothing more precious which we can give to others (#264).
Recovering a contemplative spirit
“The happy life,” wrote the theologian Josef Pieper, “means possessing what we love—a possession that takes place in an act of cognition, in seeing, in intuition, in contemplation.”
We do well to predispose ourselves for the gift of contemplation God wishes to give us. The Imitation of Christ comments that “the reason why so few contemplative persons are found is that so few know how to separate themselves entirely from what is transitory and created.” In his book The Ways of Mental Prayer, Dom Vital Lehodey counsels, “The budding forth of contemplation, its blossoming, and its fruits depend altogether on the divine pleasure and on the zeal the soul shows in preparing herself and in cooperating with grace.”
Dom Lehodey suggests four ways to prepare for contemplation. First, we are to increase our zeal to purify and pacify our conscience. Which means being more generous in combating our vicious inclinations and avoiding venial sins. We must purify our mind. We do this by expelling all images, thoughts, and memories that distract, defile, or dissipate the soul. We must cultivate purity of heart—detachment from all that can lead to sin and trouble the soul. “How can we pretend to the favors and intimate familiarity of the Spouse if our heart abandons him for the love of anything else?” And we must perfect the purity of the will. This entails mortifying our curiosity and simplifying our affections. “We must labor to strip ourselves of our caprices, our fancies, our projects, our judgments, our attachments, our repugnances—in a word, of everything which is not the will of God.”
The effects of contemplation
“This focus on Jesus [contemplation] is a renunciation of self. His gaze purifies our heart; the light of the countenance of Jesus illumines the eyes of our heart and teaches us to see everything in the light of his truth and his compassion for all men” (CCC 2715).
Saint Thomas Aquinas adds: it brings us into God’s sweetness; it decreases sadness; it gives us rest from the distraction of the senses, blessing us with the ability to perceive more keenly interior inspirations from God; and it increases, strengthens, and directs our affections toward God.
Pope Francis says: “How good it is for us to contemplate the closeness which Jesus shows to everyone!”