My favorite definition of contemplation is “the act of viewing steadfastly and attentively—as a piece of art for its own sake.” When we leave an art museum, having contemplated great art, we see life differently. Viewing art steadfastly and attentively affects us.
When we contemplate the God of the universe, greater than ourselves and our lives, we are also changed—touched by God’s grace. But why do we need to contemplate God? To paraphrase Bob Dylan, we either contemplate God, or we contemplate other issues, passions, or problems. We need God’s view of ourselves and of the world, or the distractions, temptations, and pressures of life will keep us from God, keep us self-centered and self-absorbed. Somewhere deep inside, we know our need to take time, sometimes several times a day, to focus on God and turn ourselves back in God’s direction, to ask for his mercy and guidance, for his view of the world.
Gazing on God, contemplating him, is a nice idea, something, as Christians, we would like to do, but it is not an easy discipline. In time, we may find that though we like the idea of contemplation and know our lives are enriched, blessed, and calmed by it, we don’t look forward to our devotional time. Contemplation becomes something we want to have done.
The early Christians who fled to the desert to escape the ease of life after Constantine faced this. It was a new foe, which they named the noonday temptation. We call it boredom—a major hindrance to spirituality in our contemporary world. We want to be entertained, amused, distracted from the realities of life that are tedious, burdensome, and boring. But we discover that when we face our realities and bring God into the mundane, we experience his blessing and his help in living truly Christian lives.
Gazing on God is a choice. The days I don’t choose properly are my most difficult days. Sometimes I choose to contemplate God morning, noon, and night, to regroup in his divine presence. I can have a great devotional hour in the morning, then drift. Then I need to reorient at noon. In general, though, I try to maintain a regular rhythm of conversations with God.
01. God in the Routines: Celtic Christian Prayer
The early Celtic Christians handed down a prayer tradition of including God in everyday routines. Here is a short example:
Covering the Fire
Lord, preserve the fire
as Christ preserves us all.
Lord, may its warmth remain in our midst,
as Christ is always among us.
Lord may it rise to life in the morning
as we shall rise with Christ to eternal life.Robert Van de Weyer, Celtic Prayers (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1997), 26.
We no longer kindle fires or milk cows or do many of the things reflected in Celtic prayers. But we can create prayer around contemporary life. I can look at the phone after conversing with a friend and ask God’s blessing on her day. I can look at a photograph of a past time and thank God for the person who is pictured there and pray for his well-being.
A modern Celtic prayer can encompass a ride on an escalator or a trip to the city:
In our journeying this day,
Keep us, Father, in your way.
In seeking of a vision true,
Keep us, Savior, close to you,
In our desire to do your will,
Keep us, Spirit, guide us still
In our striving to be free,
Keep and help us, Blest Trinity.David Adam, “The City,” Power Lines: Celtic Prayers About Work (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2000), 35.
A friend offered this practical and poetic prayer for a common daily routine:
As I brew this coffee to warm and waken my body,
Send your Spirit, oh Lord,
To warm and waken my soul.
We can see routines as sacred and value them as opportunities to turn our face once again to the Giver of Life, incorporating God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit into them.
One Saturday, when Marian, my wife, and I had our grandchildren with us, the morning was already noisier than usual, the kids bouncing around earlier that we would have liked. Suddenly Marian screamed because the dog had bitten her. She ran into the bathroom, frightened and panicking. A little later, the toilet overflowed. I had to call a friend and reschedule a morning appointment so I could address the crisis. It was not a very contemplative beginning to the day.
But by the end of the day, the crisis had passed, and I had settled once again into the normal rhythm of life. Three things highlighted the day: the rescheduled conversation with my friend, a glass of wine with Marian out on our deck, and a prayer of thanksgiving to God for the day. The crisis, though it shattered the morning’s peace, did not destroy the day because there was a normal rhythm that I could quickly fall back on. The structure of most of my day did not suffer. It upheld me. Since all of my life is not chaos, the chaos of a few hours could be handled, and life brought back to normal with the habitual rhythms.