What is contemplation?

IN CONTEMPLATION, ONE IS AWARE OF THE PRESENCE OF GOD. Often a person in prayer remains in complete silence, reflecting on spiritual things. Through "centering prayer" and other approaches, contem-platives take time to get behind the busyness, noise, wordiness, and information overload of today's world. Contemplative prayer does not replace all other types of prayer. It simply balances words and activity with silence and repose.

The Trappist monk and writer Thomas Merton's description of his way of praying is as good a definition of contemplation as any: "I have a very simple way of prayer. It is centered entirely on the presence of God and to [God's] will and [God's] love."

Due largely to Merton--who exposed many to contemplative life through his books The Seven Storey Mountain and New Seeds of Contemplation--as well to the efforts of his brother Trappists, Thomas Keating, Basil Pennington, and William Menninger, the modern contemplative movement seeks to restore a tradition somewhat neglected in the history of Christian spirituality.

Since the Protestant Reformation, Catholic spirituality has been dominated by prayer involving words and formulas, obscuring the contemplative tradition evident in figures such as Gregory of Nyssa, John Cassian, Bernard of Clairvaux, Teresa of Ávila, John of the Cross, and Thérèse of Lisieux.

But God's first language, contemplatives remind us, is silence. Before creation, there was utter silence, and that silence has remained, like a backdrop to the universe. Contemplation is a movement beyond conversation with God to communion with God and a more powerful sense of God's active presence in every person and situation of our lives.

Though the ex-perience of contemplative prayer may produce relaxation, inner peace, greater creativity, personal insights, a greater acceptance of others and circumstances, and even lessening of compulsive behavior and painful emotions and thoughts, these effects flow out of its main purpose of developing a deep relationship with God that carries over into the rest of life.

While not asceticism or self-denial, contemplation moves us beyond selfishness and attachment to a place where our true and natural selves find completion, transformation, and fulfillment.

At Gethsemane Abbey in Kentucky, for many years the home of Thomas Merton, a sign on one of the library shelves reads: "Silence is spoken here." By connecting to that silence through contemplation, we can hear the "voice" of God.

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