What is a Contemplative?
They call us to lay hold of what really
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
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.