In classical Greece, contemplation was definitely aristocratic and intellectual. It was the privilege of a philosophical minority, for whom it was a matter of study and reflection rather than of prayer. But the classical Greek idea of contemplation, for all its beauty, is one-sided and incomplete. The contemplative (theoretikos) is a man of leisure who devotes himself to study and reasoned reflection in the quest of pure truth…. The contemplative is the professional philosopher. But in such a concept, the essentially religious aspect of contemplation tends to get lost. Furthermore, here the “erotic” desire for contemplation of truth as a “highest good” that can give man “perfect happiness” tends to become too hedonistic and therefore to defeat its own ends….
The Christian contemplative tradition owes much…to classical Greece. The Christian Platonists of Alexandria (especially Origen and Clement) adopted something of the intellectual hedonism of Plato, and as a result we still tend to think of the contemplative life, unconsciously, as one of ease, aestheticism, and speculation.
The great practitioners of contemplation who were the Desert Fathers of Egypt and the Near East did their best to dispel the illusion. They went into the desert not to seek pure spiritual beauty or an intellectual light, but to see the face of God. And they knew that before they could see His Face, they would have to struggle, instead, with His adversary. They would have to cast out the devil subtly lodged in their exterior self. They went into the desert not to study speculative truth, but to wrestle with practical evil; not to perfect their analytical intelligence, but to purify thir4 hearts. They went into solitude no to get something, but in order to give themselves, for “He that would save his life must lose it, and he that will lose his life, for the sake of Christ, shall save it.” By their renunciation of passion and attachment, their crucifixion of the exterior self, they liberated the inner man, the new man “in Christ.”
The fact that “contemplation” (theoria) is not mentioned in the New Testament should not mislead us…. The teaching of Christ is essentially “contemplative” in a much higher, more practical, and less esoteric sense than Plato’s.In the Christian tradition…contemplation is simply the “experience” (or, better, the quasi-experiential knowledge) of God in a luminous darkness which is the perfection of faith illuminating our inmost self. It is the “meeting” of the spirit with God in a communion of love and understanding which is a gift of the Holy Spirit and a penetration into the Mystery of Christ. The word “contemplation” suggests lingering enjoyment, timelessness, and a kind of suave passivity. All these elements are there, but they smack rather of pagan theoria. The important thing in contemplation is not gratification and rest, but awareness, life, creativity, and freedom. In fact, contemplation is man’s highest and most essential spiritual activity. It is his most creative and dynamic affirmation of his divine sonship. It is not just the sleepy, suave, restful embrace of “being” in a dark, generalised contentment: it is a flash of the lightning of divinity piercing the darkness of nothingness and sin. Not something general and abstract, but something, on the contrary, as concrete, particular, and “existential” as it can possibly be. It is the confrontation of man with his God, of the Son with His Father. It is the awakening of Christ within us, the establishment of the Kingdom of God in our own souls, the triumph of the Truth and of Divine Freedom in the inmost “I” in which the Father becomes one with the Son in the Spirit Who is given to the believer.