I remember the story of the old peasant, in the time of the Curé d’Ars, who spent long moments at the back of the church gazing at the image of Jesus. One day someone asked him: “What are you doing during all this time?”. . . “I don’t do anything. I look at Him and He looks at me.”
The practice of contemplative prayer takes a lot of heat from some corners of Christianity. It is seen by some as unbiblical or to Catholic or to passive or to quiet or to mystic or a waste of time. Is this true?
There has been much written on both sides of the debate; rather than rehash these arguments I’d like to look at it from two different perspectives.
First is to imagine what God was doing before creation. To even ask this question forces one to wrestle with the preceding questions of the nature of time itself and God’s relationship to it. For example: When did time begin? Is time itself dynamic or static? Does God exist within time now or outside of time? Has God changed His relationship with time? If so, has God changed?
I believe the arguments are better that prior to creating, God existed timelessly and without beginning. To exist timelessly means that God existed “changelessly alone, and no event disturbs this tranquility. There is no before, no after, no temporal passage, no future phase of His life. There is just God.” (Time and Eternity, Wm Lane Craig). If so, then, one cannot even ask the question, “What did God do prior to creation?”. God did not do anything, He could only be, only exist as God.
However, God has eternally existed as the three-in-one God: Father, Son [Jesus], Holy Spirit. Somehow in this unchanging timelessness God has the ability to love. Jesus, while on earth in human physical form, said this: …”for You [Father God] loved me [Jesus] before the foundation of the world” (John 17:24). Further, this changeless timelessness allowed Jesus to exist in a state of glory with His Father (John 17:5). So, whatever we mean by a state of timelessness before creation–an existence of perfect tranquility–it must allow for love and glory between persons.
What if this timeless state was a state of perfect contemplation? Father experiencing the Son, the Son experiencing the Father, each in perfectly loving union with the Other through the Spirit. Perhaps this is perfect contemplation.
A second perspective is to consider what it means to be happy. Plato (Symposium) recognized that our desire for happiness is intrinsic to us; we desire to be happy by nature. In practice, we notice that we don’t seem to ask each other, “Why do you want to be happy?” None of us would know the answer…it just seems obvious that we would due to something beyond us.
Yet, in our pursuit to fulfill our desire for happiness we run headlong into the paradox of hedonism: we desire happiness by nature; however, we cannot make ourselves happy. This itself is a source of great unhappiness; our deepest desire is for something that we cannot give ourselves. We seem to expend great time, energy, and resources seeking happiness. We collect stuff, have adventures, change jobs, pack our heads with knowledge, and perhaps even collect people in our pursuit of our own happiness. This may succeed for some time; however, we seem to know in the depths of our soul that the happiness gained even from the best of these things is somehow lacking. We find ourselves desiring something more, something deeper than pleasure gained from them.
Back to God. As a perfect being, God is perfectly happy. He depends on nothing for His happiness, He finds perfect happiness in Himself alone not needing us or any of His creation. And, as we saw above, prior to creation God was in perfect contemplation within Himself, Father, Son, Spirit. Perfect happiness in perfect contemplation.
One thing I have asked from the Lord, that I shall seek: That I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord…
What, then, if our happiness comes from contemplation? As the image-bearers of God, this shouldn’t surprise us. If God Himself was perfectly happy in timeless contemplation before creating the universe, why wouldn’t we also find happiness in contemplation? Who among us has not contemplated a particularly beautiful sunset, a work of art, a piece of music, etc., and found some kind of deep happiness in that moment?
If we find happiness in contemplating these earthly things, how much more so will we find in contemplating God? “The common element in all the special forms of contemplation,” says philosopher Joseph Pieper, “is the loving, yearning, affirming bent toward happiness which is the same as God Himself…love alone makes it possible for contemplation to satiate the human heart with the experience of supreme happiness” (Happiness & Contemplation).
“In…contemplation,” Pieper goes on to say, “man takes a step out of time.” Evelyn Underhill puts it this way: “This is the ‘passive union’ of contemplation: a temporary condition in which the subject receives a double conviction of ineffable happiness and ultimate reality” (Mysticism).
Perhaps in the fleeting moments of true contemplative prayer we step out of time and into the timelessness of our eternal God where we find both true happiness and ultimate reality.