Asked what contemplation was, a great teacher replied: “Intimacy.”  Contemplation is about being intimate or fully present to experience.  We all manage this in moments of surprise or delight, but we soon return to our habitual tracks: thinking about what happened, or talking about it, or planning to talk about it later.  During the moments when we are fully present to something we have no words.  The event that brought us to silence does not have to be a cataclysmic one; next time you knock over a mug of coffee take time to notice what was going on in you in that moment.  Such moments may not be the stuff of history, but they are seeds of contemplation.   

‘Seeds of contemplation’ bring Thomas Merton to mind.  A monk from his monastery visited our priory in Cork, and I apologised to him for the many steps (exactly a hundred, as it happens) as we climbed the flights of stairs.  “There are many steps in Gethsemani abbey, too,” he replied.  Then he added, “I always count them as I climb….”  I asked how many there were, and to my surprise he said, “I don’t know!”  As I wondered silently what form of dementia this indicated he continued: “This is how I count them: one, one, one…!”  The mind can count until it tires of it, but the heart can count only as far as one.  This was one of the most profound and practical teachings I have ever received. 

In the spiritual life it is always the beginning.  The mind likes to run ahead; it is already on the top step as my foot is on the first.  It also likes to count and quantify everything: I knew, for example, that there were exactly one hundred steps in that priory.  But his way of counting was different: there was no accumulation and no projection into the future; everything was here and now.  The monastic life that shaped Thomas Merton had shaped his brother too. 

Contemplation has the name of being airy and unreal.  Yeats wrote of “Levelled lawns and gravelled ways / Where slippered Contemplation finds his ease.”  The temptation to escape from ordinary experience is almost overpowering at times (those lines from Yeats occur in a poem about civil war).  But contemplation is not an escape; instead it is a deeper and more intimate experience of our ordinary lives, whether these are difficult and painful or as simple as climbing a stairs.  Nor do we have to enter a monastery to find it.  We can find it where we are; in fact we can find it nowhere else.   

Different kinds of knowing

There are different kinds of knowing.  They contrast with one another and yet do not exclude one another.  There is factual knowledge, there is theoretical knowledge, and there is intimate knowledge.  To illustrate this: unless you had some training as an archivist or historian you could not write a satisfactory biography of your mother; yet in another way you know her more intimately than any historian or archivist ever could, whose knowledge was just factual.  As for theoretical knowledge, it would scarcely touch your mother at all: it is about mothers in general.  But intimate knowledge is not usually able to give a fluent account of itself, and so to the other kinds of knowledge it appears very simple and poor: no footnotes, no bibliography, no historical background, little or no relationship to contemporary events.  A historian would dismiss it at once.  But to your intimate knowledge the historian’s knowledge looks cold, impersonal and abstract. 


There is a special kind of intimate knowledge that Christians call contemplation.  It is poorer, Meister Eckhart said, than factual and theoretical knowledge – poorer and yet richer.  “Anyone who would see God must be blind….  God is ‘a light that shines in the darkness’…. The blinding of the soul means that she knows nothing.”  He is not alone among mystics in using this kind of language.  Mystics through the ages speak of darkness, emptiness, nothingness, the void.  These are words that may well frighten one away from the very thought of contemplation.  But they only mean that in this kind of knowledge there is nothing between us and God: no images, no theories, no stories…. The innermost part of the Jerusalem temple was called the Holy of Holies; it was “the place of meeting with God.”  By the time of Jesus it was completely empty.  This has become an abiding reassurance to Jews and Christians who seek to enter the heart of contemplation.  The Holy of Holies is empty.  There is nothing in it, or rather no thing; there is only God.  A less challenging word would be ‘presence’, but it has to mean full presence, intimate presence to the One who is not a ‘thing’.  The temple in Jerusalem no longer exists; we are now the Holy of Holies.  “You are God’s temple,” St Paul wrote (1 Cor 3:16,17) – meaning the Holy of Holies.  There are many teachers in the Church whose Holy of Holies is lined with books: books of theology and canon law.  These books may be good, but they are in the wrong place.  Their place is in an area of the temple known as the Holy Place, between the Holy of Holies and the outer courts.  Books and lectures may help guide us to the Holy of Holies, but only we can go inside.  Nobody is learned in the Holy of Holies; all learning is left outside and the one who enters “knows nothing.” 

Me a contemplative?

Since we don’t have to be learned to enter there, everyone has an equal chance.  God gives the supreme gift of Divine Presence to the ignorant and even to scoundrels, Eckhart said, to show that everything is gift.  This means that none of our excuses for turning away from contemplation is of any account.  We don’t have to be monks or nuns to do it; we don’t have to be learned or respectable; we don’t have to go anywhere.  We ourselves are God’s temple, and so it is nearer to us than we are to our own selves.  We often settle for less; we settle down in the outer courts, buying and selling – not only material objects but everything – trading even with God.  Jesus threw the buyers and sellers out of the temple, Eckhart said, because God does not trade with us; God insists on giving “freely and for nothing.” 

There is a world-wide interest in contemplation today (or meditation, as it is more usually called).  It crosses all divides of age and race and religious affiliation.  It is evidence of a great hunger for deeper life in God.  Millions are finding their way to the Holy of Holies, even when given little or no help or encouragement by their own religious leaders.  Only those who have experienced this intimate knowledge will think it worth mentioning.  But the crowd is swelling.  “Many peoples shall come, and say: 'Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob” (Isaiah 2:2)

Donagh O'Shea

These are brief articles, one per month,
on a wide variety of topics concerning the living of the Christian life.