On Being a Contemplative

I don’t often use the word ‘contemplative’, partly because its history in the Catholic Church has not always been happy, forcing a divide between the so-called active Orders and the cloistered, or even being used to set up a false hierarchy of spiritual prowess in which the contemplative outranks everyone else, and partly because I’m not sure that those to whom I might use the word would understand by it the same thing that I intend. Nowadays nearly everyone seems to claim to be a contemplative so it probably doesn’t matter very much, but I still cling to the idea that contemplative prayer is simpler and less structured than formal meditation or the devotions that form the staple of many godly people today. It is also, in my experience, less visual.

This was brought home to me by a recent discussion on Facebook where a good friend suggested we might introduce a few images as background to our podcasts. You may have noticed that Facebook, like the BBC website, is increasingly geared towards video and the use of images . The problem for us is that we are not very good at the visual. Ours is what one might call a Word-centred spirituality in which lectio divina, the slow, prayerful reading of a text, is fundamental. Visual images can intrude on this process. Apart from anything else, we have comparatively few in the monastery, so those we see tend to stay with us, for good or ill. We don’t have a TV or (usually) watch films. We live in the same space, doing more or less the same things day after day. It is, some would say, a spartan existence as far as visual stimuli are concerned. In some ways, that makes us more sensitive to the world around us: the changing of the seasons, the beauty of garden and sky, the ordering of the monastery building, have an impact on us they might not on a more casual observer.

I don’t want to sound precious or over-complicated, but that is one reason why we are hesitant about using more images on our web sites or even this blog. The Word demands our full attention. Some people find an image helpful. For others it can be a distraction. I myself use images sparingly because they have a big impact on me. For example, Nicholas Mynheer’s marvellous painting of the mothers of Jesus and Judas embracing that I posted during Holy Week stays vividly in my mind; so, too, do others.

This morning, as I was thinking about St Athanasius whose feast-day this is, I realised anew that in the person of Jesus Christ we have the perfect visual, the perfect image, one who is both God and man. Who could improve on that? Not me, certainly.

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6 thoughts on “On Being a Contemplative”

  1. I thank you sister for presenting yours blogs in a reflective manner. I get too loss in the visual, to the point I havn’t heard a word been said! I like and need the steadiness , to gain any hope of being contemplative!

  2. We live in an age where we are bombarded with the visual, and you make a good point. On the other hand I am dyslexic and too many words, written and spoken, can easily overwhelm me. The visual is very important to dyslexics. My study walls have quite a few reproductions of icons. I am glad that the Word became flesh and came to dwell among us. I think the heart of my contemplation and prayer is neither image nor written word, but relationship.

    • How lovely to hear from you again, Nigel! We come back to both/and, I think. I was trying in my clumsy way to explain why we could never meet the expectations of those more familiar with the images found everywhere we look in the world today. I find images of any kind have a lasting impression on me, so I tend to concentrate on very few. Thirty years ago the community was given some wildlife films to watch during a community ‘holiday’. If I close my eyes, I can still see them in extraordinary detail.

  3. You’ve set me to thinking, Sister!
    While I’m very oriented to the Word, images are not absent from my devotions. As I work this through while writing this, I think that perhaps, for me, images can be the occasional punctuation point as I let the Scripture roll through my being. I would reference the image you used of the mothers of Jesus and Judas – a truly powerful image generating a paradigm shift in many of us perhaps.
    Or, they can be the occasional stumbling block as the image “translates” a Scripture rather one-dimensionally.
    I very much like Rev. Nigel’s comment about relationship being the heart of his contemplation and prayer.
    Still thinking…

  4. Like you, I find that I use very few images to help me to pray. When I’m in our church’s Blessed Sacrament Chapel, I can look at the processional cross, or, from the main Church either that cross or the wooden statue of the Risen Christ can lead me into prayer if I need it. There are some simple images in Joyce Huggett’s books of meditations ‘Open To God’ and ‘The Smile of Love’ but the famous picture of the Father and the Prodigal Son is one that remains in my mind.

    One thing I have noticed over the years is that most Catholics think automatically of the Hail Mary, Our Father and Glory Be when called on to pray. Taking part in Ecumenical Lent Groups and Christians At Work opened my mind to more open prayer, and that is what I tend to do today, aided very much by your daily prayer intentions. God is very much more in the daily chores of pots and pans, seeing people in the street or hearing the news.

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