[I was invited by the Lumen Christi Institute to lead a discussion on contemplation with a group of students on Saturday night. I composed this text to begin the conversation.]
Human beings have typically made use of metaphors when thinking about the mind. In the last two or three generations, we have tended to imagine the human mind as a computer, a storer of information. The mind certainly is this, but this metaphor is part of a myopic turn in human thought, perhaps begun with Descartes, that has brought about many misunderstandings of the ancient idea of contemplation. Let us note here that a computer, at least as we have built them so far, is not capable of having desires, intentions, or insights into the meaning of things. And this is the heart of contemplation.
I listed desire first because desire is necessarily a trait of an embodied, limited, incomplete being…with intimations of fulfillment. The second quality of human minds that separate us from computers is that of intention, which is another quality that admits of fulfillment. The concept of fulfillment itself is central to the proclamation of the gospel: Christ comes to fulfill the Scriptures and the hopes of God’s people Israel. Internalizing this fulfillment is one way of understanding the Christian tradition of contemplation. There is thus an important continuity between desire, intention, and meaning that leads the human mind properly toward contemplation.
Desire and intention–where we begin–belong to a life of action, and it is significant that the active and contemplative life are often paired together. Unfortunately, this pairing is frequently one of opposition, rather than sympathy. The monastic tradition harkens back to a time when these two types of activity were seen not as exclusive, but linked in an important hierarchy. The active life, or–as I would prefer that we call it, the practical life–is the necessary condition for the contemplative life. We see this hierarchy in the thinking of Plato and Aristotle in their distinction between practical reason and theoretical reason. Practical reason is aimed at goals, the satisfaction of desires. As rational beings, many of our desires partake of a higher type of fulfillment than that of simpler bodily desires. In addition to desiring bodily nourishment, we desire understanding. Each of these desires is connected to different types of practical responses, that is to say, different sets of practices.
Let me offer an example of how practices lead naturally into contemplation. To do this, I would like to use a concept related to that of practices. Instead of speaking about practices, which tend to denote simple types of activities, let me introduce a word that denotes a somewhat more complex set of activities, the notion of a craft.
As a former musician, the idea of craft interests me, and it is something familiar. For my illustration, however, let me use a rather different craft, that of accounting.
The active life of an accountant requires a rigorous training in double-entry techniques, learning from masters of the craft how to interpret human action in quantifiable terms, how to prepare different types of reports, how to maintain proper files for audits. In other words, there are standards of excellence in the craft, but these only become clear to the student of accounting after she has learned how to carry out many routine actions internal to the craft itself. At a certain point, the mind is freed from earlier misconceptions about what accounting is. This is the transition from student (or disciple) to master, and it parallels the transition from active to contemplative practice.
At the point of transition, the newly minted accounting professional may begin to notice ways to characterize human behavior that are more accurate than previous standards of the craft. She may realize that certain practices pose a danger to ethical standards, and so need to reflect on how to train future accountants to identify those dangers and deal with them in a way that upholds the important ethical component of the craft. She may also begin to see more correlations between the work of accounting and the work of management, or of distribution, marketing, and so on. In other words, the master accountant begins to see how her craft fits into a larger and larger perspective.
It is this reason that the contemplative life is traditionally characterized as higher, but not separate from the active life. Contemplation makes possible the perception of necessary connections between crafts, how to understand their contributions to the common good. But this understanding and wisdom is only available after one has apprenticed in some disciplined activity, which serves as an induction into a set of practices by which one can come to understand the commonly held standards of excellence, have one’s mind changed and formed by these standards of excellence, and so have the mind freed more and more from a merely local and subjective set of concerns.
Before I conclude, I would like to make a few last suggestive remarks. First of all, I introduced the notion of “standards of excellence” as something desirable within a craft, something toward which we intend. Excellence, as you may well know, is an acceptable translation of the Greek word arete, which is more normally translated as “virtue.” Thus the practical life is a training in virtue, and once again, Plato and Aristotle, not to mention Saint Paul, assume that there is no rational life without a prior training in virtue.
Second, the ancient monastic tradition included a third term in our ascent to contemplation proper. Between praktike, the practical life, and theoretike, or the “theoretical” or contemplative life, was physike or “natural contemplation.” This notion has been almost entirely lost, and I believe it to be of some importance that we recover its meaning.
We are hampered in this recovery by a novel meaning of the word “nature.” Most people today, when using the word “nature,” tend to mean our earthly environment as a whole, perhaps the material world considered as separate from “spirit” or “the supernatural.” This distinction is entirely modern, with roots in the break from Aristotle that took place gradually throughout the fifteenth century and definitively in the sixteenth. What Aristotle meant by nature is physis, the set of characteristics specific to actual species of things. So humans have a nature determined by our animality, political organization, and rationality. We are, by nature, rational and political animals. A dog has a different nature, as does a starfish. Clouds, stars, nebulae, and quarks have natures in their own domains. Natural contemplation is a deepening understanding of the natures of different species of creatures, seen more and more from the perspective of the Creator Himself. What I am suggesting here is that actual human practices initiate us into understanding the natures of things, by seeing their interconnections. We climb the ladder of significations by making a kind of scaffolding of these interconnected concepts in our own minds and hearts, and gradually the face of God is revealed in His creatures. And by habituation to His presence in created things, we come to know God as God is in Himself. This is the practice of contemplation in its deepest meaning. While there are practices specific to this highest level of contemplation, we must prepare for it by a grounding in the cardinal virtues, gained from our participation in craft, and by a training in wisdom by an initial contemplation of natures. We partake of contemplation proper at each step of the way, by our initial desire for the goal and our intention to reach it, so any of us can begin now on this road, if we so desire.