The terms contemplation and meditation are often used synonymously. In Christian mysticism, however, contemplation is regarded as a higher and nobler activity than mere meditation. As the scholar of religion, Evelyn Underhill, puts it:
Now meditation is a half-way house between thinking and contemplating: and as a discipline, it derives its chief value from this transitional character.¹
This definition represents a developmental approach. Instead of being ‘this or that,’ as so many fundamentalists and conservatives tend to depict the world, meditation leads to contemplation. Along these lines, many Christians hope that those who don’t understand the unique beauty of their Christian contemplative experience would come to realize it with the assistance of the Holy Spirit.
Contemplation emphasizes and encourages an inner union of the individual with God, which, at some point, involves intercession. By way of contrast, meditation doesn’t necessarily imply the existence of the individual or God, as we find in most forms of Buddhism.
Some Buddhists, however, use the word contemplation within their own social and religious framework. Whether or not Buddhists entirely escape the cultural assumptions and obligations bound up within that religion, as so many claim to, seems highly debatable.
In Catholicism, contemplation (as intercession) is recognized as a type of work distinct from more visibly active works, such as teaching or ditch digging. However, not all Catholics – to include priests, monks and sisters – immediately recognize this type of work when present in saintly individuals. Some Catholics are arguably just too conventional (or perverse) to see a holy person when they’re right in front of their eyes.
For instance, St. Faustina Kowalska is now hailed as a great contemplative saint within mainstream Catholicism. But in her Divine Mercy Diary she writes that she encountered harsh skepticism from some of her religious superiors who really should have known better.
Perhaps part of the difficulty in recognizing bona fide saints whose contemplation is, in fact, their main work has to do with cultural preconceptions and stereotypes about the idea of holiness. We tend to applaud people who make their good works highly visible. Imagine, for example, a churchgoer who’s having clandestine sex with her minister and cheating on her husband. As long as everyone thinks she’s a “good Christian,” organizing religious events and sitting on the boards of charities, she can fool almost everyone into thinking she’s a saint.
Aside from religious hypocrites who never try to improve their immoral behavior, as in the above scenario, many people expect a saint to be flawless and without sin. This too is misguided.
In addition, the psychologically injured or, perhaps, spiritually deceived among us might claim to be saints when they’re not. And then, if that’s not enough, there’s the reality of outright charlatans and hoaxers. Taken together, these pseudo and potential saints complicate the picture as to just what a saint is. At least, they do in the eyes of humanity.
At a Catholic Mass the following was written in the church bulletin. No mention is made of intercession, which arguably is crucial to the contemplative life. But this brief passage probably represents the average Catholic’s understanding of the idea of contemplation:
In contemplative prayer, we learn to create silence to allow God to transform us; to strive to create a peace which surpasses all understanding; and to heal the wounds of a lifetime.²
¹ Evelyn Underhill, Practical Mysticism: A little book for normal people (London, Dent: 1914), p. 46.
² From “Contemplative Prayer Workshop” in Bulletin (September 5, 2010), St. Michael’s Cathedral, Toronto, Canada.
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