The Contemporary Contemplative

An interesting and somewhat paradoxical trend is emerging in our contemporary society: although traditional contemplative communities have been shrinking for many years, we see a rapidly increasing interest in lay contemplative practice. This “contemporary contemplative” trend has manifested in a wide variety of forms. Today we can find many educational programs with titles such as Contemplative Psychotherapy, Contemplative Pastoral Care, Contemplative Medicine, Contemplative Social Action and Contemplative Education. This is closely related to the trend of integrating mindfulness practice into a wide variety of human activities and professional practices. Mindfulness is a topic that today can be found in a wide variety of books, magazines, websites, retreats, conferences and presentations. To some degree the term “mindful” is synonymous with the word “contemplative;” however, there is a subtle, but important difference. Mindfulness practice can be applied with very secular and pragmatic motives (e.g. to lower one’s blood pressure), whereas contemplative practice is more overtly spiritual in orientation.

Contemplative practice always includes a spiritual dimension, but it is not necessarily religious in form. Indeed, one of the characteristics of this trend lies in the distinction between “spiritual” and “religious.” Traditionally, these have been seen as s largely synonymous; and thus, to live the contemplative life one would need to affiliate with a religious community. Not so today.

The defining characteristic of the contemporary contemplative movement is not the form or structure of one’s community but rather the intentionality with which one lives ones life. I believe that intention can be described by the apostle Paul’s words in the Book of Romans: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the perfect will of God.” (12:2) Historically, being “not conformed to this world” meant joining a religious order or going to a monastery, but today’s trend is that of “being in the world but not of it.” As spirituality is now differentiating itself from religion, contemplative practice is now differentiating itself from the religious traditions that historically have sponsored it. A new paradigm is emerging: that of the contemporary contemplative.

We will return to this idea in a moment, but first let’s look at another trend: Not only is the monastic population shrinking, but church attendance is dwindling in almost every Christian denomination. There are multiple reasons for this phenomenon but perhaps the most significant one is that religious belief and ritual are no longer relevant for many of us. Today people are hungry for spiritual experience.

The Jesuit priest and theologian, Karl Rahner writes: “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist at all” [1] By mysticism, Rahner means “a genuine experience of God emerging from the very heart of our existence.” He goes on to comment that the source of spiritual conviction must come not from theology but from the personal experience of God.

This statement, made late in Rahner’s career, is similar to the comment reported of Thomas Aquinas, who near the end of his life had a spiritual vision. After having this experience he looked at the volumes of theological treatises he had written and said, “Everything I have written seems like straw by comparison to what I have seen and what has been revealed to me.”

This distinction between belief and experience distinguishes the mystic from the theologian. And yet the contemplative life does not dismiss theology, rather, it sees theology as “the menu, but not the meal itself.” Conversely, in contemplative practice mysticism is also embraced, yet it too is not seen as an end in itself. Both mysticism and theology can inform the way we live in the world as contemplatives.

One American pioneer of the contemporary contemplative movement is Ralph Waldo Emerson. In his essay on Self-Reliance he writes: “It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” [2] Here, Emerson echoes Paul’s sentiment of being “in the world but not of it.”

The contemporary contemplative seeks spiritual awakening in the midst of everyday life: to “live in the midst of the crowd with the sweet independence of solitude.” This path may be more challenging than the traditional contemplative life. Waking up in the midst of this busy, complex, and sometimes crazy world is not easy. But then, as the Zen proverb tells us: “If you want a small enlightenment, go to the mountain; if you want a big enlightenment, go to the city!”

[1] Theological Investigations. XX, 149

[2] “Self-Reliance,” Essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson (New York: Harper & Row, 1926), 38.