“Nowhere can man find a quieter or more untroubled retreat than in his own soul” (Marcus Aurelius).
AT PRESENT, THE WORD “CONTEMPLATION” MAY HAVE A SLIGHTLY MYSTICAL SOUND TO IT, BUT IT’S REALLY NOT A WORD TO BE AFRAID OF. When we “contemplate” we simply think about something very quietly and carefully. We go to that “untroubled retreat” in our own soul and turn the thing over in our minds, looking thoughtfully at the various facets of the subject we’re meditating on. Certainly there are many things worth contemplating, and we’re the losers if we don’t take the time to contemplate them well.
The value of contemplation lies in two directions: we come to see things with greater understanding and also to see them with greater appreciation. When we reflect thoughtfully on what we know, we not only see the true importance of certain principles, but we are moved to respond with gratitude to the grace that has been shown to us.
There is a danger, of course, especially for those whose nature tends toward contemplation. The danger is that we may spend too much time thinking and not enough time acting on behalf of others. Contemplation is wonderful, but if all we ever did was contemplate, we wouldn’t fill a very worthy place in the world. As Thomas Merton said, “No man who ignores the rights and needs of others can hope to walk in the light of contemplation because his way has turned aside from truth, from compassion, and therefore from God.”
But if we may fail by contemplating and not acting, we may also fail by acting and not contemplating, and that may be the more common problem for most of us. We rush through our days with such a focus on being productive that we take too little time to reflect on the meaning and purpose of the things we do. Even when we stop to do something as apparently thoughtful as reading, we don’t really meditate on what we’re reading — we speed-read it and move on to the next piece of information. Is it any wonder, then, that we don’t grow any stronger in our spirits? Is it any surprise that we’re so shallow?
“He [Thomas Hobbes] had read much, if one considers his long life; but his contemplation was more than his reading. He was wont to say that if he had read as much as other men, he should have known no more than other men” (John Aubrey).