What is a Contemplative?

They call us to lay hold of what really matters.


Hermit IslandThe word "contemplative" comes from a Latin root that loosely means "to observe carefully." The contemplative remains at rest long enough to observe herself and the world around her at the deepest levels. Contemplation honors the world with undivided attention.

We seem both to love and to hate contemplation. When I was a monk-in-training people flocked to the monastery with insatiable curiosity about the inner lives of the monks. Yet why were they not insatiably curious about their own inner lives? Most of us rush around without giving a moment to really seeing, or deeply experiencing, or even resting! Idleness is despised.

Why? What is it about stopping and being still and "purposeless" that is so difficult? It is like being afraid to breathe because we might discover we have been suffocating. Our inner lives are a mess. Paying attention to our inner lives is tedious, humbling, and sometimes terrifying. It is much easier to romanticize the inner life of monks than to remain still and face reality. But stillness, even idleness, sustains us.

Contemplation is among the most subversive of activities. The contemplative is among the most radical of revolutionaries, and the most courageous of heroes. She dares to face the most terrifying demons: her own. He challenges the dominant social and economic order simply by ceasing all activity that is not essential to life. They demonstrate the lie that we need all the stuff we are incessantly commanded to buy. They remind us of our true nature, and move us to examine and reorder our lives, without doing anything aside from being what they are.

I have learned this lesson most clearly from what I regard to be some of the truest contemplatives on the Earth, the great whales. The fins and the blues, the rights and the humpbacks. I have no idea what the whales' inner lives are like. We don't even know that much about their external lives. But the effect of their very existence is like that of the contemplative.

Their silence and stillness remind us of our noisiness, our hectic scrambling for more stuff and more approval. Their untroubled breathing reminds us of the suffocating tightness in our chests. They call us to lay hold of what really matters, that which is essential to abundant life, and to let go of all that is superfluous. Thus they transform our lives and overturn the world order.

It is really no wonder that we seek out the contemplative, and endlessly resist following her example.