Contemplation is when the mind is in some sort lifted up to God and held above itself, so that it tastes the joys of everlasting sweetness.”
That is Guigo II (d. 1188) talking about the fourth and final step of lectio divina, the spiritual reading of Scripture. In his classic little book he compares the process to a ladder, and this is the top rung.
When I was a child my grandmother lived on the eleventh floor of an apartment tower. We would watch the ships coming and going in Commencement Bay, far below.
Sometimes, though, I would take the elevator to the seventeenth floor. I would climb a flight of stairs to a heavy steel door. Pushing it open I stepped out onto the roof. The bay and the city were below and, the sky spread out like a great dome above.
Awesome. Overused word these days, but still: awesome.
That grasps just a little of what Guigo is talking about. I’ve been blogging for a while on his little book The Ladder of Monks, the classic text on lectio divina.
- I compared the first step, reading, to laying a building’s foundation.
- You could imagine meditation, the second step, and prayer, the third step, as the main floors of the house, useful places where you do most of your daily living.
- Contemplation is like climbing up on the roof. You arrive at a place where you can reach out and touch the realities that Scripture has been presenting.
Stick with that building metaphor: You don’t have to go onto the roof to enjoy your house or find it useful. You can’t spend all your time up there. But if you do climb onto the roof on a clear night, you feel like you can reach out and touch the stars. And you can only do that if you complete the building. You need steps one, two, and three of The Ladder of Monks to reach the roof.
Guigo’s point is this: contemplation lays hold of the things reading and meditation made you aware of, and that you asked for in prayer. Here it is in his favorite metaphor of food (with italics added for emphasis):
Reading, as it were, puts food whole in the mouth, meditation chews it and breaks it up, prayer extracts its flavor, contemplation is the sweetness itself which gladdens and refreshes.
So is this the place of quiet escape from the Carol King song “Up On The Roof”?
Right smack dab in the middle of town
I found a paradise that’s trouble-proof
Up on the roof
I dearly love the song, but no.
Contemplation is not escaping something. Contemplation is finding something–the presence of God.
More accurately, as Guigo tells it, contemplation is being found by God. Remember that in step three we prayed for what Scripture had laid out as the life God intends for us. Here is contemplation:
But the Lord…does not wait until the longing soul has said all its say, but breaks in upon the middle of its prayer, runs to meet it in all haste…and He restores the weary soul, He slakes its thirst, He feeds its hunger, He makes the soul forget all earthly things:
I fear that in our time some are drawn to contemplative prayer because it seems touchy-feely, rather than intellectually rigorous or costly in a discipleship-and-service sort of way. Contemplation, in the very meaning of the word, is about looking at something, attending to something with the gaze of our heart and soul. Sometimes it seems we are just gazing at ourselves.
Guigo’s kind of contemplation turns our gaze beyond ourselves to the reality of God. We only know what we are looking at, or looking for, because we have studied Scripture, chewed on Scripture, and prayed Scripture. This kind of contemplation frees us from gods of our own creation and turns us directly toward the God of the Bible.
I’d love to hear from you in the comments. What has “contemplation” meant in your spiritual life?