Contemplation (the prayer beyond words and ideas) is a way to describe what Jesus did in the desert. It is not learning as much as it is unlearning. It is not explaining as much as containing and receiving everything, and holding onto nothing. It is refusing to judge too quickly and refining your own thoughts and feelings by calm observation and awareness over time—in the light of the Big Picture.
You cannot understand anything well once you have approved or disapproved of it. There is too much you there. Contemplation is loosening our attachment to ourselves so that Reality can get at us, especially the Absolute Reality that we call God.
Contemplation is the most radical form of self-abandonment that I can imagine. It is most difficult if there is not a profound trust that there is Someone to whom I can be abandoned! Such self-forgetfulness paradoxically leads one to a firm and somewhat fearless sense of responsibility. Now I can risk responsibility precisely because I know the buck does not stop here. There is a co-creation going on, a life giving synergism that is found somewhere between surrender and personal responsibility, God fully “co-operating with those who love God” (Romans 8.28), as St. Paul says it.
Richard Rohr, Near Occasions of Grace
As we draw near to Lent, I’m reminded strongly of my own call to contemplative prayer, and the urgent need to reconcile with it the other calls of my Christian life: my own local church, TSSF, my contacts in the other churches on the Isle of Purbeck.
Contemplation allows us to get caught up, consciously, in the purposes of God. (Note that I said consciously, not conceptually. This is awareness, not ratiocination; reason is too blunt an instrument.) Paul goes on to say:
[C]reation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption… the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God's will.
Romans 8.20-27 NIV
As humans we cannot avoid our fallenness being caught up in the brokenness of creation (theologians call this Original Sin) but instead of acting this out in the relationships and obligations of our lives (moral theologians call this sin) we allow our connectedness to make us somehow available in prayer to become part of the very cry of creation. There is in each of us, if only we will look clearly into the lens of grace offered us in prayer, that which will echo every pain, and each cause of pain, in all that is made. Our surrender to this call is, in its very little way, like our Lord’s surrender to the Cross, and as voluntary.
It was once explained to me by a dear friend and mentor that one of the reasons those called to the contemplative life tend to live in community is that the love and discipline of community life support and protect its members in this hard and vulnerable vocation. Those of us who live outside community have opportunities, and struggles, our more enclosed sisters and brothers are spared. In some way we must resist the ever-growing temptation to plunge ourselves into activity—much of it good and blessed in itself—rather than risk this appalling surrender that is the only door to our true healing, and to the healing of those for whom we pray.
Jesus said it all, really, in one short sentence: “Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it.” (Luke 17.33)