Conversatio Divina

Part 12 of 16

Contemplation: The Aim of the Christian Life

Ancient Christian Wisdom for a Postmodern Age

Michael Glerup

The term, contemplation, is derived from the Latin word, templum, which referred to a “space in earth or the sky set apart for the sacred examination of animals’ entrails for indications of divine meaning.”See Evan Howard, The Brazos Introduction to Christian Spirituality (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2008). Hence the temple became the dwelling place of the gods and the place in which oracles discerned divine meaning and purposes. Contemplation refers not so much to place but to the “seeing into” or “looking at” the insides of reality. And what is at the source of this reality? Or what is the really real? God. So, contemplation refers to the “looking at” or the “seeing of” God.

The Greek word for contemplation is theoria, which also incorporates this idea of “looking at” something intently for meaning. For Christian thinkers, the term refers to the vision (seeing with the eyes of the heart) of the presence of God, either in the created world or in the loving affection of God, which results in union with God.

Evan Howard has made sense of the complicated use of the term contemplation by describing it as a way of prayer (wordless), an attitude of prayer (openness and receptivity), and an aim of prayer—the apex of Christian prayer and the Christian life.Christian Spirituality. Patristic use of the term contemplation incorporates all three of these aspects, yet its primary use refers to the latter: the aim of the Christian life.

Early Christian writers’ thinking on contemplation has deep roots in Greek philosophy, especially Plato and Aristotle, and the Christian Scriptures. The Scriptures and key figures of Scripture served as paradigms for understanding the life of contemplation.

01.  Origen: Contemplation as the Aim of the Christian Life

Origen (ca. 185–255) understood the Christian life as a three-stage journey of contemplation: the moral, natural, and unitive (contemplative). The moral represents the beginning of moral purification, keeping the law, and the attaining of virtue. The natural is the discernment of the deeper purposes of creation and the deepening of Christian love. The unitive (contemplative), a special gift of God, signifies divine illumination and the gaining of spiritual knowledge of God.

In his widely read prologue to his Commentary on the Song of Songs,J. Robert Wright, ed., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005). Origen detects this three-stage movement in the organization of the three books of Solomon:


Let us examine why it is, since the churches of God acknowledge three books written by Solomon, that of them the book of Proverbs is put first, the one called Ecclesiastes second, and the book Song of Songs has third place. . . . We can give them the terms moral, natural, and contemplative. . . . The moral discipline is defined as the one by which an honorable manner of life is equipped and habits conducive to virtue are prepared. The natural discipline is defined as the consideration of each individual thing, according to which nothing in life happens contrary to nature, but each individual thing is assigned those uses for which it has been brought forth by the Creator. The contemplative discipline is defined as that by which we transcend visible things and contemplate something of divine and heavenly things and gaze at them with the mind alone, since they transcend corporeal appearance. . . . Thus he first taught in Proverbs the subject of morals, setting regulations for life together, as was fitting, in concise and brief maxims. And he included the second subject, which is called the natural discipline, in Ecclesiastes, in which he discusses many natural things. And by distinguishing them as empty and vain from what is useful and necessary, he warns that vanity must be abandoned, and what is useful and right must be pursued. He also handed down the subject of contemplation in the book we have in hand, that is, Song of Songs, in which he urges upon the soul the love of the heavenly and the divine under the figure of the bride and the bridegroom, teaching us that we must attain fellowship with God by the paths of loving affection and of love. . . .


So indeed, this book occupies the last place, so that a person may come to it when he has been purged in morals and has learned the knowledge and distinction of corruptible and incorruptible things. For with these preliminaries accomplished by which the soul is purified through its acts and habits and conducted to the discernment of natural things, the soul comes suitably to doctrines and mysteries and is led up to the contemplation of the Godhead by a genuine and spiritual love.ACCS OT IX: 287.

As with subsequent writers, Origen considers ascetical practices as the beginning of the contemplative life. The aim of these ascetical practices was to develop habits of virtue and to gain the interior freedom necessary for contemplation. Once this freedom is gained, a person enters what is described as the contemplative life, which may be further divided into natural contemplation (theoria) and spiritual or unitive contemplation (theologia).


John Cassian: The Contemplative Life 

John CassianSee John Cassian, Conferences, The Classics in Western Christianity Series (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1985). (d. 430), a very important interpreter of Origen, and a widely read writer in the monastic tradition, found in the figures of Mary and Martha a scriptural paradigm of the contemplative life.


To cling always to God and to the things of God—this must be our major effort; this must be the road that the heart follows unswervingly. Any diversion, however impressive, must be regarded as secondary, low-grade, and certainly dangerous. Martha and Mary provide a most beautiful scriptural paradigm of this outlook and of this mode of activity. In looking after the Lord and His disciples, Martha did a very holy service. Mary, however, was intent on the spiritual teaching of Jesus, and she stayed by His feet, which she kissed and anointed with the oil of her good faith. And she got more credit from the Lord because she had chosen the better part, one which could not be taken away from her. For while Martha was working hard, responsibly and fully intent on her job, she realized that she could not do all the work herself, and she demanded the help of her sister from the Lord. “Does it not bother you that my sister leaves me to do the work alone?” she said. “Tell her to come and help me.”Luke 10:40.Certainly she summons Mary to a task that is not inconsequential but is a praiseworthy service. Yet what does she hear from the Lord? “Martha, Martha, you are full of worry and are upset over many things where actually it should be over a few or even one thing. Mary has chosen the good part, and it will not be taken away from her.” Luke 10:41–42. You will note that the Lord establishes as the prime good—contemplation, that is, the gaze turned in the direction of the things of God. Hence we say that the other virtues, however useful and good we may say they are, must nevertheless be put on a secondary level, since they are all practiced for the sake of this one. “You are full of worry and are upset over many things when actually it should be over a few or even one.” In saying this, the Lord locates the primary good not in activity, however praiseworthy, however abundantly fruitful, but in the truly simple and unified contemplation of Himself. He says that not much is needed for perfect blessedness. He means here that type of contemplation which is primarily concerned with the example of a few saints. Contemplating these, someone still on the upward road comes at last to that which is unique, namely the sight of God Himself, which comes with God’s help. Having passed beyond the activities and the ministry of holy men, he will live solely on the beauty and the knowledge of God. “Mary therefore chose the good part, and it will not be taken away from her.” But one must look carefully at this. In saying, “Mary chose the good part,” He was saying nothing about Martha, and in no way was He giving the appearance of criticizing her. Still, by praising the one, He was saying that the other was a step below her. Again, by saying, “It will not be taken away from her,” He was showing that Martha’s role could be taken away from her—since the service of the body can only last as long as the human being is there—whereas the zeal of Mary can never end.Conferences, Vol. I, 8, 42–43.


We glean from this section that the principal good, that is, the aim of life, is contemplation: the fixing of one’s eyes on the things of God and ultimately on God himself through grace. Throughout this comparison of the active life and the contemplative life, Cassian cautions his readers not to denigrate the active life but to see it as a good and necessary step in the journey to the heart’s ultimate fulfillment: seeing the beauty of God. For Cassian, only those who are “pure in heart” will see God “face to face.”

02.  Natural Contemplation

Cassian stresses in a number of his writings that contemplation refers to the interior gaze not only on God, but also on creation and God’s loving action towards humanity:


Contemplation of God can be understood in more than one fashion. For God is not solely known by way of that astonished gaze at His ungraspable nature, something hidden thus far in the hope that comes with what has been promised us. He can also be sensed in the magnificence of His creation, in the spectacle of His justice, and in the help He extends each day to the running of the world. He can be sensed, too, when with well-purified minds we consider what He has achieved in each generation by means of His saints. He can be sensed when we gaze with trembling hearts at that power of His which controls, guides, and rules everything, when we contemplate His immense knowledge and His knowing look, which the secrets of the heart cannot evade. His presence is known when we meditate on the fact that the sands of the sea are numbered by Him, that He keeps a count of the waves. Astounded, we reflect that every drop of rain, every day and every hour of all the centuries, everything past and everything to come are all facts of which He is aware. Overwhelmed with wonder, we think of that unspeakable mercy of His which allows Him to endure with unfailing patience the numberless crimes committed at every moment while He watches. We think of how in His pity for us He has called us to Him, though we had done nothing previously to deserve it. We think of all the times when He made it possible for us to be saved as His adopted sons. He ordained that our birth was to be such that His grace and the knowledge of His Law would be available to us from the cradle. . . . We think too of the incarnation, which He arranged for our salvation, and we think of how He spread to all people the wonder of His mysteries.Conferences, Vol. I, 15, 50–51.


For Cassian, as for other early Christian writers, the Giver is perceived in the gift.

03.  Isaac of Nineveh: Contemplation as Wordless Prayer

As has been shown so far, contemplation is the aim and ultimate end of the Christian life. It refers not only to the interior gaze on the beauty of God, but also to the contemplation of created things and their purposes. In addition to these, contemplation refers to the way of wordless prayer. Isaac of Nineveh (seventh century), one of the greatest spiritual thinkers of the Christian East, describes this form of prayer in his Ascetic Treatise 31:


The joy of prayer is one thing; the prayer of contemplation is another. The latter is more precious than the former, as an adult is more advanced than a child. The verses of a psalm may be very delightful on the tongue, and the singing of a single verse during prayer may prevent us from continuing and passing on to another verse, so inexhaustible is it. But it may also happen that prayer gives rise to contemplation, which interrupts what the lips are saying. Then the person is in ecstasy. Contemplation makes him, as it were, a body without breath. This is what we call the prayer of contemplation . . . but there is still a measure in this contemplation . . . it is always a prayer. The meditation has not yet reached the point where there is no longer any prayer. It has not yet arrived at the higher state. In fact, the movements of the tongue and of the heart are keys. And what comes next is entry into the treasure house. Here every tongue and every mouth falls silent and the heart, too, that gathers together the thoughts, and the spirit that governs the senses, and the work of meditation. They are like a flutter of impudent birds. Let their activity cease . . . for the Master of the house has come.Oliver Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism (New York: New City Press, 1995), 208–9.

04.  The Challenge of Hellenism

Many Protestants, and even some Catholics, have regarded contemplation and the stages of the contemplative life as a deviation from biblical religion resulting from an undue influence of Hellenistic (Greek) culture on Christianity. It is undeniable that early Christian understandings of the contemplative life stemmed from Hellenic thought, and these early writers readily adopted the language of the philosophy of their day, but they did so with significant modification. The aim of the contemplative life of both Hellenic philosophers and the early Christian writers was knowledge, and it is here that Christians significantly differed from the semi-aesthetic knowledge of Plato or the purely intellectual knowledge of Aristotle.

The knowledge the early Christian writers sought through the contemplative life was a biblical knowledge. As the following passage from John Cassian illustrates, a truly biblical knowledge is knowledge of God as Father and our condition as his adopted children:


A more elevated state of the soul will follow upon these various kinds of prayer [petition, promise, intercession, pure praise] . . . it is the contemplation of God alone, an immeasurable fire of love. The soul settles in it and sinks into its depths. It converses with God as with its own Father, very familiarly, with special tenderness. That we have a duty to aim for this state of the soul, we are taught by the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer, when it says, “Our Father.” Here we proclaim that the God and Lord of the universe is our Father, and therefore express the certainty that we have been called from the condition of slaves to that of adopted children.Cassian, Conferences IX, 18, 111–112.

05.  Summary

As Cassian suggests above, contemplative prayer is fundamentally a plunging of the soul into the divine love of God. This love that is communicated and experienced is the love that eternally exists between the Father and the Son and is the fulfillment of Jesus’ prayer: I ask . . . that the love with which you loved me may be in them. . . . that they all may be one, as you, Father, are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us” (John 17:20, 26, 21).All Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™ As this love penetrates our hearts by the virtue of contemplative prayer, then “God will become all our love, our desire . . . he will be all that we think about, all that we talk about, our very breath.”Cassian, Conferences IX, 18, 129. It is here, when we enter into the “treasure house,”See above reference in Isaac of Nineveh. the aim of the Christian life, that all words fall silent and the heart rests in God.


Michael Glerup, PhD, serves as the Research and Acquisitions editor for the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (ACCS), a twenty-eight volume patristic commentary on Scripture. ACCS, published by InterVarsity Press, is an ecumenical project promoting a vital link of communication between the varied Christian traditions of today and their common ancient ancestors in the faith.