Who We Are
Our Dominican Contemplative Tradition
The Meaning of Contemplation
Contemplation at the Source
Obstacles to Contemplation
that Exploit Our Attention
Summary and Conclusion
by Richard Woods, O.P.
Anyone who heard or has read Paul Murray's
address to the General Chapter at Providence on "Recovering
the Contemplative Dimension" will have come to appreciate
the depth of our spiritual tradition as he described it, but,
also from my perspective, the risk of trying to add anything
substantial to Paul's remarks -- if not the temptation just
to steal from them outright. Since plagiarism has fallen
out of favor since the Middle Ages, my contribution to the
discussion will be fairly summary, or at least a bit shorter
than Paul's address. But it goes without saying that neither
he nor I or anyone else can hardly lay claim to providing
the last word on the subject of recovering our Dominican contemplative
By way of introduction, let me say that I have come to appreciate
even more what it means that, as Meister Eckhart said,
people who like the taste of God in one
way but not in another, and they want to
have God only in one way of contemplation,
not in another. I raise no objection, but
they are quite wrong. If you want to take
God properly, you should take Him equally
in all things, in hardship as in comfort,
in weeping as in joy, it should be all the
same to you. (1)
Speaking on the Dominican contemplative tradition originally
seemed like a relatively simple matter of capitalizing on the
course I had recently taught on Dominican spirituality.
But as the deadline approached, not only did I find myself finishing
up a demanding semester of teaching, but my computer came under
a series of assaults from the Klez virus among others, and finally
had a complete nervous breakdown requiring hospitalization.
Then my car radiator went out the afternoon I picked up my computer
from the shop and also needed serious surgical attention, including
an organ transplant. I have also been in the midst of
moving from my residence at Loyola University, where I had been
living for almost fourteen years, to the priory of St. Thomas.
My books are presently in a number of cartons large enough to
start a pyramid and tended to be 20 miles away when I suddenly
needed one. On top of all that, my new community has been in
the midst of a prioral election for the past few days.
As I ruminated about solitude, leisure, and the tranquility
of order, jotting notes in repair shops and during the wee hours
of the morning, I sometimes found myself suddenly laughing at
what seemed like the incongruity of it all. But such circumstances
are not incongruous with contemplation, and certainly not unusual
My thinking was also sharpened by an exchange with a friend,
a former Dominican whom I had known many years ago in
the studium. He had been three years ahead of me, and so I had
thought of him as a paragon of spiritual wisdom. When he learned
about the present topic, he wrote,
John Connell being pretty esoteric about
the subject [of contemplation] in my novitiate.
Then, I read Arintero and he convinced me
that contemplation was beyond my reach.
A few years ago, I looked back at him to
see if I had misinterpreted what he says.
Nope. So, now, I just ignore him and go
on my way.
Dominican and other spiritual writers of the last century, including
Juan Arintero and Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, ably defended
the unity of the spiritual life, insisting that contemplative
union was in the normal way of sanctification and not some esoteric
side-track reserved to monks and nuns and people with peculiar
sensibilities and a lot time to spare. But they also created
the impression that attaining the "heights of contemplation"
as they liked to put it was a very complex, difficult, and lengthy
process in which few souls ever truly got very far. The demands
of ordinary active life are simply too great.
This, of course, is simply the ancient and traditional problem
of the tension between action and contemplation. Any
number of recent commentators, Paul Murray included, have observed
that the emphasis on pastoral theology and social action following
the Second Vatican Council considerably diminished the status
of the contemplative life in the Church. The sheer amount of
work incumbent on those engaged in ministry today did the rest.
So it is not an idle endeavor to recover the contemplative dimension
of our tradition -- or perhaps more accurately, to rediscover
it. But this begs the question to some degree. First, we need
to remember why we should bother to. Why not just get on with
My approach involves three main points and a few lesser
First, the original
place of contemplation in Dominican life
was simpler and much less esoteric than
later formulations imply. But it was foundational.
Second, although contemplative
experiences can be gratuitous, preparation
and training, including study, are required
to develop and maintain a contemplative
spirit. But that is easier than one might
Third, despite the serious
obstacles to contemplation presented by
contemporary culture, ordinary life situations,
including active ministry, far from being
a barrier to contemplation are, in fact,
the necessary condition for and normal occasion
The witnesses I plan to call include those I consider the greatest
teachers of contemplation in our early tradition - Thomas
Aquinas, Meister Eckhart, and Catherine of Siena. If we
wish to recover our tradition, where better to look?
Meaning of "Contemplation"
By way of prelude, I'd like to remind you briefly
of the origin and meaning of the term "contemplation"
itself - something usually neglected in discussions like this,
as if we all of course knew exactly what we were talking about.
In fact, the meaning of the word has changed considerably
even since the Middle Ages.
Tom O'Meara recently pointed out that the greatest enemy of
Fundamentalism is history. Looking back at how our language
developed can help us avoid some costly mistakes even in the
area of rediscovering our contemplative tradition. I promise
that this will be a brief digression, however.
The word "contemplation" is a Latin rendering of
the Greek term "theoria," which stems from the word
for "seeing" and basically means "that which
someone looks at." It gives us the English word "theory."
In Greek philosophical circles, it referred to mental perception,
insight into the reality of something, and was - and still
is - contrasted with praxis -- activity, business, or undertaking.
In later usage, theoria acquired the deeper meaning "to
perceive spiritually," and in early Christian writings,
it meant a gift consequent on faith [See John 14:17, 19b,
and 17:24]. Contemplare and contemplatio developed from the
practice by pagan priests and augurs of concentrating with
fixed attention on a designated area - usually an inscribed
circle of some kind, a templum - which had been consecrated
to the god or gods and in which the divine will was expected
to become manifest in some way.
As the practice of "beholding" or paying close attention
to an object of spiritual concern developed in early Christianity,
the mystical element entered in the belief that by spiritual
perception, the hidden or secret presence of God would be
disclosed in the sacramental elements, especially baptism
and the Eucharist, Creation itself, prayer, and the events
of daily life, particularly suffering, martyrdom, and the
works of charity. For Latin-speaking Christians, the word
they adopted for this was contemplation. By the sixth century,
contemplation and the mystical life had come to mean the same
thing - the perception of the presence of God in the objects
and events of life, both as a direct inspiration of God -
grace, or what would much later be called "infused contemplation,"
or by dint of long experience or praxis - what was later called
"acquired contemplation." (2)
Time permitting, I'll return later on to the distinction and
its significance for us, which is not, in fact, very great.
But hold in mind the notion of contemplation as spiritual
perception or insight and even the sense of "waiting
on God" while paying close attention to the events of
life that we find brilliantly described in the book of that
name by Simone Weil, whose spirituality was so Dominican at
at the Source
Long before contemplation was inscribed among
the elements of Dominican life in our primitive constitution,
its central importance was already observed in the life of
St. Dominic himself. Among the earliest testimonies at the
time of his canonization, Stephen Salagnac affirmed
the holy father was a Jacob in his preaching
and an Israel in his contemplation, so that
neither Leah nor Rachel was lacking to him
in this way of life." [Testimony
of Stephen Salagnac, c. 1233. ] (3)
And in the Nine Ways of Prayer, that charming manuscript
from the latter half of the thirteenth century, we read
man of God had a prophetic way of passing
quickly from reading to prayer and from
meditation to contemplation."
These are the elements of spiritual development enshrined in
the great tradition passed on by the Benedictines, Carthusians,
and Victorines. As Simon Tugwell notes in his translation
of this precious little work,
classic progression was reading - meditation
- prayer - contemplation.. The implication
here is that St. Dominic misses out the
middle term, going directly from 1 to 3,
and from 2 to 4." (5)
Dominic's meddling with the tradition by disengaging and reassembling
the classic elements points to his revolutionary approach to
the apostolate in respect to other aspects of monastic life,
which as a canon regular, he knew intimately. The most radical
innovation was reversing the conventional wisdom about ends
and means, a move cemented by the exegesis of St. Thomas
Aquinas. As a result, despite its eventual alliance with
(if not adoption of) Aristotle by Dominicans in the thirteenth
century, the character and place of contemplation in our spiritual
tradition differs considerably from the classical model and
in a specifically Christian way.
For Aristotle, contemplation is an end in itself, in fact the
end or goal of human life. In this he differs very little from
his teacher, Plato. The Christian Neoplatonic vision that provided
the philosophical scaffolding of theology and spirituality for
nearly a thousand years shared the same assumption. The Christian
and particularly Dominican vision changed that view radically,
and St. Thomas was perhaps its most vigorous and provocative
proponent. For contemplation was redefined precisely as a means
to a further end. To Dominicans, beginning with Dominic himself,
contemplation was preparation for preaching - the work and distinctive
mission of the Order.
St. Thomas' defense of that revolution in understanding and
practice gave rise to the motto of the Order - contemplata
aliis tradere. (6)
Or to give it its fuller expression, contemplare et contemplata
aliis tradere. Since the turn of the last century, that
phrase has been often translated as
contemplate and to give to others the fruits
Whatever the English translator meant by "fruits,"
-- and I once suggested to a group of young Dominicans that
they call their band "the Fruits of Contemplation,"
which they didn't think was very funny - that is a misleading
translation. Contemplata simply means "what was
contemplated." Aristotle was right here, and Thomas knew
that - contemplation does not produce anything. It is wholly
immanent activity. But that is not to say that it cannot be
a means to a further end, contrary to Aristotle's view - although
even he recognized that in reality, human life had a double
finality - theoria in the strict sense and sophia, or practical
wisdom, the application of theoretical wisdom to the necessities
of daily existence. (7)
It is important to get Thomas right here. What we contemplate,
as Dominicans, is Truth - with a capital T - Divine Truth.
And it is that Truth which we have encountered in contemplation
that we hand on to others through our preaching and teaching
and other ministry. William Hinnebusch pointed out long ago
in this regard that the simply word "Truth" does not
merely point to the object of our collective vision and mission,
but expresses exactly what we mean by "contemplation."
Contemplation can be regarded, therefore, if not actually defined,
as an unflinching and loving look at Reality as divine, or in
Meister Eckhart's language a generation after Thomas,
God in all things and all things in God."
In his instructions to the young Dominicans at Erfurt, Eckhart
said, and it is worth quoting him at length,
man should receive God in all things and
train his mind to keep God ever present
in his mind, in his aims and in his love.
Note how you regard God: keep the same attitude
that you have in church or in your cell,
and carry it with you in the crowd and in
unrest and inequality. (8)
He who has God thus essentially, takes
Him divinely, and for him God shines forth
in all things, for all things taste divinely
to him, and God's image appears to him from
out of all things. God flashes forth in
him always, in him there is detachment and
turning away, and he bears the imprint of
his beloved, present God. (9)
The presence of love in these statements is not accidental.
St. Catherine similarly insists that Dominicans should "contemplate
the truth in the abyss of divine charity" [Letter T46 to
Neri di Landoccio Pagliaresi]. (10)
Contemplation is not mere speculation: it is a glance of the
heart as well as the mind. It is to gaze on all things, as was
said of Jesus in regard to the rich young man, "with love."
Nor is the contemplation of truth limited to the confines of
our priories and houses. "We must recognize the truth in
everything," Catherine writes to Queen Giovanna of Naples.
"I mean, we must love in God and for God's sake everything
that has being, because God is Truth itself, and without God
nothing has being." [Letter T317.]
This may sound difficult, and considered from the end point,
really formidable. But learning the have a contemplative spirit
proceeds simply and subtly, not by following some esoteric school
of meditation, but by being what I would call an ordinary Dominican.
That does not mean it is just a matter of falling into line.
And there are serious forces both within and outside our walls
that hinder and would even prevent the development of a contemplative
spirit. I'd like to consider just a few.
From the time of Aristotle, specific obstacles
to the contemplative life have been recognized. And while
our understanding of contemplation has shifted over the centuries,
the nature, if not the name, of these obstacles has remained
more constant. The first and most obvious is business, or,
in its original meaning, busyness. Being totally engaged in
activity, whether work or play, militates against developing
a contemplative attitude, because our mind, our consciousness,
is exactly what the word suggests, preoccupied. (11)
In this regard, the United States is perhaps the most preoccupied
society ever to appear on earth. We work harder and longer
than any industrialized nation, and we devote more time and
money to recreation than any other country. Significantly,
athletes, movie stars, and corporate executives make the highest
salaries in the world. (The average pro baseball player today
makes upwards of $2 million a year.)
But as Josef Pieper reminded us, and Aristotle insisted, leisure
is not only the basis of culture, it is the necessary condition
for the possibility of developing contemplative skill. But
working less strenuously and continuously would help little
if the leisure gained was frittered away in what Aristotle
called "amusements" and today we know as "entertainment."
Recreation would be a fit term if it only were true.
Today, not only American society, but Western industrial culture
as a whole militates against both true leisure and contemplation.
In her 1994 book Earth Crammed with Heaven, Elizabeth Dreyer
reported that a computer search for the word "contemplation"
turned up over a thousand hits, while "contemplation
and action" brought up only six. I'm not sure what search
engine she was using, but last week, according to Google,
those figures had risen to 379,000 and 152,000 respectively,
with a large overlap. But "action" alone brought
up 4,760,000 hits. It's tempting to draw conclusions from
such simple calculations, as Dreyer did in estimating the
degree to which the notion of contemplation-in-action has
failed to penetrate our spiritual consciousness, but I would
be hesitant to read too much into it. But the fact remains
that for many contemporary Christians, the gap between action
and contemplation is still large and, not surprisingly, action
and its cognates are favored far in excess of contemplative
The Dominican tradition has erected defenses
against the enemies of contemplation - against the all-consuming
claim of work, which for Dominic would have meant manual labor,
our way of life has developed a life of study. The Constitutions
study nourishes contemplation, encourages
fulfillment of the counsels with shining
fidelity, constitutes a form of asceticism
by its own perseverance and difficulty,
and, as an essential element of our whole
life, it is an excellent religious observance."
Against the claims of acquisitive materialism, conspicuous
consumption, and the waste economy that typifies our time,
vowed poverty -- a culture of evangelical sufficiency - has
characterized Dominican spirituality from the beginning. Again,
this is not poverty for its own sake, but as means to further
our principal objective - preaching and teaching the Word of
Chastity, as St. Thomas insists, also disposes the mind
effectively for contemplation: "the moral virtues belong
to the contemplative life dispositively," he says in the
the act of contemplation, wherein the contemplative
life essentially consists, is hindered both
by the impetuosity of the passions which
withdraw the soul's attention from intelligible
to sensible things, and by outward disturbances
. . .". (13)
He goes on to say, "the moral virtues dispose one to the
contemplative life by causing peace and cleanness of heart."
Further, " the virtue of chastity most of all makes man
apt for contemplation, since venereal pleasures most of all
weigh the mind down to sensible objects, as Augustine says."
The so-called "monastic observances" and structures,
some physical, also serve to impart and enhance the contemplative
dimension of Dominican life. The Constitutions still
"That the brethren may be able
to devote themselves better to contemplation
and study, that the intimacy of their religious
family may be increased, and that the authenticity
and character of our religious life may
be revealed, the cloister must be observed
in our convents." (14)
The physical cloister permits two important conditions for developing
a contemplative attitude - quiet and solitude, principal ingredients
The Constitutions are eloquent in connecting contemplation
to other aspects of our life, which also permit, develop, and
enhance that spirit, chief among which are the Divine Liturgy
and personal prayer:
liturgy, especially in the Eucharist, the
mystery of salvation is present and at work
which the brethren share and contemplate
and even proclaim in preaching to others
so that they may be incorporated into Christ
through the sacraments of faith.
Since the contemplation of divine things
and intimate conversation and friendship
with God are to be sought not only in liturgical
celebrations and in reading Scripture but
also in diligent private prayer, the brethren
shall zealously cultivate this type of prayer.
We should not, of course, confuse the physical structures and
practices of our life with contemplation itself. They are there
to foster a contemplative spirit, but that mindful insight into
the real nature of things cannot be limited to our customs or
houses nor was it ever intended to be. As Meister Eckhart taught,
the summit of contemplation can occur anywhere - and more likely
in the marketplace than the chapel:
A man may
go out into the fields and say his prayers
and know God, or he may go to church and
know God: but if he is more aware of God
because he is in a quiet place, as is usual,
that comes from his imperfection and not
from God: for God is equally in all things
and all places, and is equally ready to
give Himself as far as in Him lies: and
he knows God rightly who knows God equally
(in all things). (16)
Catherine's vision is the same, as Suzanne Noffke has recently
reminded us. It is when we find ourselves and our neighbor both
swimming in the Sea of God's Being that we finally begin to
get useful. And if we don't find ourselves there, we'll never
find ourselves at all. We won't be of much help to anyone else,
that Exploit Our Attention
What seems to be most difficult today is finding
anyplace that is free from the din of raucous entertainment
media or the pressures of work.
One of the most insidious enemies of contemplative
spirit is the all-pervasive presence of modern electronic
media, from the Internet to pagers, hand-held computers,
electronic books, cell-phones, and even old-fashioned Walkmans.
One of the bizarre and disturbing phenomena of contemporary
life is the spectacle of a dozen or so people milling around
and all talking at once - not to each other, whom they mutually
ignore, but to people far away on the receiving end of their
cell phones. I also find that my students do not spend much
time watching television or going to movies, but devote enormous
amounts of time to chatting on the Internet or just idly "surfing."
Leisure is not only the basis of culture; it is the
condition for the possibility of contemplation, if we take
leisure to mean time and place not devoted to work. (17)
But having leisure time and space is not sufficient - it matters
greatly what we do with our leisure.
It might not seem obvious, but the attractive and actually distracting
power of the media bears importantly on the passive or receptive
concentration associated with contemplation. From a modern rather
than medieval perspective, William Ernest Hocking observed early
in the twentieth century that "'Contemplation,' as used
by the medieval mystic, implies that the effort of 'meditation,'
in which one holds the object before the mind by force of will,
gives way to a state in which the object attracts and holds
attention without further conscious effort." (18)
Well and good is in Aristotlelian or Thomistic
terms, we are held fast by the power of the Good or Truth,
or the hidden Presence of God. But what if there are other
contenders that exploit the same tendency to surrender our
attention to a powerfully compelling object of attention?
It is in this regard that the observations
of the anonymous fourteenth-century author of The Cloud of
Unknowing have some bearing on our situation. I should add
here that Dom David Knowles thought might have been a Dominican
hermit because of his affinities with Rhineland mysticism. In
any case, this master of the inner life points out that contemplation
is not in itself necessarily virtuous. "The devil has his
own contemplatives," he warned, "as God has his"
[Chapter 45]. Deception is always possible, and it is not difficult
to be led astray by what the author calls "false feeling
and false knowing." The image of Darth Vader comes to mind,
and as William Johnston reminded us years ago, there is a long
tradition of left-hand or dark contemplation in some of the
traditions of Asian mysticism. Far more likely, however, is
the simple possibility of co-optation and self-delusion.
image of Darth Vader comes to mind, and
as William Johnston reminded us years ago,
there is a long tradition of left-hand or
dark contemplation in some of the traditions
of Asian mysticism.
What this means, first, is not so much that contemplation is
dangerous, which it can be, because anything powerful is dangerous,
but that from a Christian perspective, especially a Dominican
one, the value of contemplation is determined by its object.
It is not an idle addition when we claim that the mystical heart
of our spirituality is the contemplation of the Truth. Secondly,
there are other claimants for our contemplative gaze that must
be recognized. In the ancient world, as Marshall McLuhan pointed
out, that danger was experienced in the form of the temptation
to idolatry. Idols - false images of the divine -- have the
power to fascinate - that is, to arrest our attention and to
focus our spiritual energies con themselves. And because of
that, they have the power to convert their beholders into what
they are, as Psalm 115 has it,
They have mouths, but they cannot speak;
they have eyes, but they cannot see.
They have ears, but they cannot hear;
they have nostrils, but they cannot smell.
With their hands they cannot feel;
With their feet they cannot walk;
no sound comes from their throats.
Their makers will come to be like them;
And so will all who trust in them.
[Ps. 115: 3-8, Grail translation.]
I don't think it was incidental to his concern that McLuhan
was a devout Catholic. But he also reminded us that in Greek
mythology looking on the Gorgons turned the viewer equally to
stone. Uncritical viewing easily becomes a hypnotic and from
a spiritual perspective, a petrifying experience. (19)
In our world, modern electronic media can
exert the same dangerous power that idols once exercised, and
here again, it was Marshall McLuhan who prophetically pointed
this out to us, citing what Dr. Paul Lazarfield had named their
"narcotizing dysfunction." An "idol" here
means any medium of communication which redirects attention
and therefore value to itself.
our world, modern electronic media can exert
the same dangerous power that idols once
Small children have been known to sit and stare at a blank television
screen, waiting for something to appear - even if it is only
Big Bird. Their older brothers and sisters and parents are likely
to spend dozens of hours a week watching whatever comes across
the screen. I have often visited people's homes in this country
and Ireland and found that the television is on all the time
--during breakfast and supper, during the day, when people come
to visit, and even when no one is in the room. We are perhaps
all familiar with restaurants and other places of refreshment
where the ubiquitous TV monitors are constantly on, whether
or not there is any sound to accompany them. In my own case,
I have found it difficult even when having a very good conversation
with someone, to keep my eyes from straying to the big colorful
screen with its insistently flashing images.
The world of the Internet, powered by even more powerful
computers on both the sending and receiving end, adds a much
more active element - surfing or cruising or whatever else we
call what was once known as spinning the dial.
The other night, I asked a young professional friend of mine
what he would include among questions to spark conversation
about recovering contemplation in our communities. "Ask
them how much time they spend watching television," he
said. He had a point, although these days I am more inclined
to wonder how much time we spend surfing the Internet. I know
that my college students spend hours every day involved in e-mail,
chat-rooms, and just cruising up and down the old Information
Why would either of these pastimes matter, other than in terms
of time spent (or misspent) and the trickle-up cost of on-line
services, broad-band optical cable or DSL lines, telephone usage,
satellite fees, or whatnot? The answer is pretty simple: they
absorb us. They compete for our attention, and psychologically
it is attention that contemplation is concerned with.
There is another aspect of the almost universal
spread of electronic media today that concerns me. Although
many people enjoy using scenes of great natural beauty as screen-savers
and wallpaper on the computer monitors, almost all of these
devices remove us physically from the world of nature. It
is increasingly common for people to have laptops and especially
cell-phones on camping trips and jungle safaris. Recently, I
had occasion to accompany a bunch of college students on a trek
into the forests of Costa Rica. I was startled, to say the least,
to find that several of them had their CD players along and
were happily plugged into them as we walked through some of
the most beautiful scenery - visual and audible - in the world.
But were they really present?
is increasingly common for people to have
laptops and especially cell-phones on camping
trips and jungle safaris.
At this point, I would like to turn to some possible implications
of all this in our lives as Dominicans committed to a life of
contemplation and action.
Dominican spiritual writers always give scope
to the activity and gifts of the Holy Spirit in our life as
preachers, and this is no less true in regard to contemplation.
A contemplative penetration into Reality may erupt suddenly
in consciousness without obvious preparation - moments of
grace abound, often without our being aware that such moments
are in fact divine gifts. But for Dominicans, contemplation
is a way of life as well as a grace, what was later referred
to as infused contemplation - the gift flowing directly from
the Holy Spirit. Acquired contemplation is our business and
it is our calling. We pray, we read, we meditate like St.
Dominic before us in order to acquire a certain cast of mind
and heart, an affinity for the divine presence that flames
out "like shining from shook foil" in nature and
in the faces and lives of the people we encounter.
Precisely as Dominicans, study, the "manual labor"
of the Order, is essentially related to contemplation, as
Eckhart taught his students:
a man must
learn to acquire an inward desert, wherever
and with whomever he is. He must learn to
break through things and seize his God in
them, and to make His image grow in himself
in essential wise. It is just like learning
to write: truly, if a man is to acquire
this art, he must apply himself and practice
hard, however heavy and bitter a task it
seems to him, and however impossible. If
he is prepared to practice diligently and
often, he will learn and master the art.
Of course, at first he has to remember every
letter and fix it firmly in his mind. Later
on, when he has acquired the art, he will
be completely free of the image and will
not have to stop and think, but will write
fluently and freely-and the same with playing
the fiddle or any other task that requires
skill. All he needs to know is that he intends
to exercise his skill, and even if he is
not paying full attention, wherever his
thoughts may stray, he will do the job because
he has the skill. Thus a man should be pervaded
with God's presence, transformed with the
form of his beloved God, and made essential
by Him, so that God's presence shines for
him without any effort; rather he will find
emptiness in all things and be totally free
of things. But first there must be thought
and attentive study, just as with a pupil
in any art. [Talks of Instruction, p. 19.]
Here, Eckhart anticipates St. Catherine's more direct metaphor.
"Build yourself an interior cell," she says, coining
the phrase so familiar in the later tradition, "a cell
of self-knowledge." In the Life written after her death
by Raymond of Capua, he recalls,
Catherine built for herself a cell not made with human hands,
helped inwardly by Christ, and so was untroubled about losing
a room made with walls built by men. I remember that whenever
I used to find myself pressed with too much business, or had
to go on a journey, Catherine would say again and again, 'Make
yourself a cell in your own mind from which you need never come
That cell, Eckhart's "inner desert," ultimately encompasses
the entire world.
The question this raises for me, and perhaps for you, is
can we construct such an inner cell or
Some other questions arise that may be pertinent as we consider
the role of contemplation in our lives in the years to come:
will "cloister" come to mean
for us? What physical accommodations will
be necessary to preserve and enhance a
contemplative spirit in young Dominicans
who are in training?
can we ourselves resist the increasingly
distracting and alienating power of electronic
media in order to develop a contemplative
spirit of real presence?
What I have sought to show in these remarks
is that contemplation was ingredient in the spirituality of
the Order from the very beginning, starting with Dominic himself.
The vowed life, especially poverty, chastity, and for us Dominicans,
study, and so-called "monastic" observances such
as the common and, I should add, the public celebration of
the liturgy, the peace and freedom of the cloister, and set
times for meditation, are preconditions for developing a contemplative
spirit. And while privileged moments of contemplative insight
are graced visitations of the Holy Spirit, and can be neither
earned nor exacted, our way of life calls for us to acquire
a contemplative attitude, as taught by Thomas, Eckhart, and
Catherine among our greatest saints and teachers.
I would also contend, especially with Thomas, Eckhart, and
Catherine, that despite obstacles to contemplation presented
by contemporary culture, especially the distractions of electronic
media, active ministry and everyday life situations, far from
blocking contemplation are, in fact, the ordinary condition
for and normal occasion of contemplation - provided that we
have first acquired a contemplative spirit - a heart and mind
fixed on the Lord our God.
For Dominicans contemplation and action are not separate elements
of our life, but conjoined moments of prayer and ministry.
Long before Ignatius of Loyola enjoined his followers to be
"contemplatives in action," it was an intrinsic
part of our spirituality. Still, I like to cite old Walter
Burkhardt, who once described contemplation as "a long
loving look at the Real," which is as good a definition
as any. As a gift, contemplation is there for the taking,
provided we're open to it. But learning how to be open to
it usually takes some training, whether formally in the disciplines
of meditation, or by responding to life itself as a call and
a question, which is a lot harder. One way or another, as
Dominicans, our life as a whole is supposed to lead us to
contemplative vision and action. On this, Thomas is still
probably the best teacher.
As I rummage through the many passages where Thomas discusses
aspects of contemplation, it is striking how he always comes
back to the notion that it is Truth (not just truth) that
we contemplate, and that Truth is ultimately God's own presence.
Truth is more than the way things are. It is the way God is.
The contemplative moment occurs when those ways are revealed
to be one. That can happen anywhere, at any time, no matter
how busy we are, or troubled, or hurting. Meister Eckhart's
teaching is the same and phrased a bit more engagingly.
Indeed, if a man thinks he will get more of God by meditation,
by devotion, by ecstasies or by special infusion of grace
than by the fireside or in the stable ?? that is nothing but
taking God, wrapping a cloak around His head and shoving Him
under a bench. For whoever seeks God in a special way gets
the way and misses God, who lies hidden in it. But whoever
seeks God without any special way gets Him as He is in Himself,
and that man lives with the Son, and he is life itself. (21)
In terms of ministry, the contemplative dimension is perhaps
best expressed for Dominicans (especially) as loving "mindfulness."
It is not so much what we do as how we do it that counts.
A sermon attributed to Eckhart, and certainly Dominican, is
particularly clear here, and it is worth quoting at length:
says the active life is better than the
contemplative, in so far as in action one
pours out for love that which one has gained
in contemplation. It is actually the same
thing, for we take only from the same ground
of contemplation and make it fruitful in
works, and thus the object of contemplation
is achieved.. Thus too, in this activity,
we remain in a state of contemplation in
God. The one rests in the other, and perfects
the other. For God's purpose in the union
of contemplation is fruitfulness in works:
for in contemplation you serve yourself
alone, but in works of charity you serve
the many. (22)
1 German Sermon 5a, Walshe trans. No. 13a, I, p. 112. For
references, see the Bibliography.
2 "The secret and delicious knowledge [God] taught her
[the soul] is mystical theology which spiritual persons call
contemplation. This knowledge is very delightful because it
is knowledge through love." Spiritual Canticle, 27.5.
3 Tugwell, Early Dominicans, p. 91.
4 The Nine Ways of Prayer of St. Dominic, c. 1260, cited by
Tugwell, Early Dominicans, p. 101.
5 Early Dominicans, p. 119, n. 184.
6 Summa Theologiae, II-II, Q. 188, A. 7.
7 See The Nicomachean Ethics, Books VI and X.
8 Talks of Instruction 6, Walshe trans., III, p. 17.
9 Ibid., p. 18.
10 Cited in Fatula, Catherine of Siena's Way, p. 67.
11 It is worth recalling what Thomas Merton said in this regard
many years ago: "When I speak of the contemplative life
I do not mean the institutional cloistered life, the organized
life of prayer. . I am talking about a special dimension of
inner discipline and experience, a certain integrity and fullness
of personal development, which are not compatible with a purely
external, alienated, busy-busy existence. This does not mean
that they are incompatible with action, with creative work,
with dedicated love. On the contrary, these all go together.
A certain depth of disciplined experience is a necessary ground
for fruitful action. .Traditionally, the ideas of prayer,
meditation and contemplation have been associated with this
deepening of one's personal life and this expansion of the
capacity to understand and serve others." Thomas Merton,
Contemplation in a World of Action, 172.
12 Chapter III, On Study, Art. I - On the Importance of Study
and its Sources, No. 83.
13 Summa Theologiae, II-II, Q. 180, a. 2.
14 Chapter I, On Religious Consecration, Art. V -- On Regular
Observance, No. 41.
15 Chapter II, On the Sacred Liturgy and Prayer, Nos. 57 and
16 German Sermon 68, Walshe trans., No. 69, II, p. 167. Or,
as he said in his instructions to the Dominican students,
"Now if a man truly has God with him, God is with him
everywhere, in the street or among people just as much as
in church or in the desert or in a cell. If he possesses God
truly and solely, such a man cannot be disturbed by anybody.
Why? He has only God, thinks only of God, and all things are
for him nothing but God. Such a man bears God in all his works
and everywhere, and all that man's works are wrought purely
by God-for he who causes the work is more genuinely and truly
the owner of the work than he who performs it." Talks
of Instruction 6, Walshe trans., III, pp. 16 -18.
17 According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the primary
meanings of leisure today are "Opportunity afforded by
freedom from occupations," and "The state of having
time at one's own disposal; time which one can spend as one
pleases; free or unoccupied time."
18 The Meaning of God in Human Experience, p. 371.
19 Contrast with this stupefying fixation the opposite situation
described in Psalm 123:
To you I lifted up my eyes,
You who dwell in the heavens:
My eyes, like the eyes of slaves
On the hand of their lords.
Like the eyes of a servant
On the hand of her mistress,
So our eyes are on the Lord our God
Till he show us his mercy. [Ps 123: 1-2, Grail translation]
20 The Dialogue, Gardner trans., pp. 74-75.
21 German Sermon 13b, Walshe trans. No. 5b, I, pp. 117?18.
22 Sermon 3, Walshe trans., I, p. 28. Considered dubious despite