I walk down the gravel hill, and for a moment, I escape suburbia. The sky beams azure and the wind embraces breath and I sigh: this is eternity. This is the little white lambs aglow in the sun as they fritter among the brush; this is the stooks at summer’s dusk hinting at autumn in their pallid yellow. And this is me, walking, my brown leather boots pacing me forth as the grey ground humbles me.
Internal critic: “Get real. Scrap the lyrical rhapsodizing – this is me taking a walk.”
Yes. And this is me contemplating.
Contemplation. The word conjures up images of ethereal hermits and rapturous nuns, but I stake my claim: contemplation is for all of us. Denise Levertov points out what you might be able to see in this word contemplation. The word contains within it the root templum, or temple; this gives us a clue as to what contemplation is all about. 1 If a temple is where we become aware of the bigger picture – nature and its rhythms; the larger community around me; God – then contemplation is the ‘templifying’ of our lives, the re-conception of our everyday existence as grounds for divine action. Everyone has an ordinary, workaday, “just-putting-in-the-hours” life. As this is the case, everyone can contemplate. It simply requires imagination – and this will take some getting used to.
We live in a technological, consumerist age, and as we let it, this landscape of light-speed information and cheap commodities threatens to erode our imaginative capacities. In the warp and whirl of our society’s addiction to the “next best thing,” we feel un-placed, and un-practiced; we fail to see how our quotidian particularities could ever be avenues for grace and glory. In a frenzy, we occupy ourselves with things “too great and too marvelous” (Ps. 131:1), and forget that the dog needs a walk, and that our roommate needs help with the dishes. How will we learn to attend to these everyday details with contemplative imagination – seeing the walk with the dog as a chance to get outside and breathe in “God’s grandeur,”2 and the dish-washing as a precious rehearsal of fidelity? What will steady us, enough to notice this place, these things, and these people?
In the Christian tradition, the saints have identified the biblical Scriptures as the fuel for this contemplative imagination. Far from isolating proof-texts or extracting theological propositions, through a contemplative lens, Scripture is approached as a narrative into which we enter, and find ourselves participants. “Your sins are forgiven” – we hear these words of Jesus spoken over a Palestinian woman in the house of a Pharisee, and we look up from the page and notice that staring back at us, in the mirror and among our friends, are others in need of forgiveness. Or, lest we sentimentalize the contemplative practice, we read along with the psalmist, “How long, O Lord, will you hide your face from me?” and find ourselves asking the same question. We realize that not much has changed; we still inhabit a world in which God’s activity is confusing as all get-out, a world in which, nevertheless, we are invited to voice our doubts and our pain. In any case, we engage in a kind of communal “deep memory” that, 3 perplexingly, deigns to touch our seemingly mundane circumstances. Read and look around. And then, repeat.
Yes, repeat. Repetition is key. Whether it be the reading of Scripture or not, partaking of practices that we commit to over time has the cumulative effect of sharpening our perceptions, readying us to notice connections that we hadn’t seen before, intimations of the divine that we previously missed. For me, repetition means walking down the gravel road by my house to 64th Avenue as often as I can, listening to the wind and to the birds and, indeed, to my life.
It occurred to me, one day out walking, that an essential part of contemplation is engaging memory. Contemplation occurs when I slow myself down enough to cease from simply “doing,” and take time to consider what has been done, what has occurred, and how that might have an impact on what can or will be done in the future. When I engage my memory in this way – going over moments from the day in my head, for example – I find myself seeing connections everywhere. One experience resonates with a thought I had elsewhere, or a thought that didn’t make sense becomes understandable when I relate it to some other occurrence, and eventually, I find myself experiencing something that is hard to put to words: a sense of coherence, of congruence, of wholeness, of “being.” 4
Walking, reading, remembering, seeing. These are everyday things. These are loci of contemplation. The world around us would readily have us discard such activities, in favor of the spectacle of screens and the amusements of the shopping mall. And while iPhones and retail outlets are not irredeemable, we must be on our alert: in what ways might the richness of these things seduce us away from seeing the even greater abundance in our own neighborhoods? The resplendent YouTube clips; the neon billboards; the charming Netflix series; these have a way of convincing us that the “pizzazz” of life – the good stuff – is all located “out there,” in the hyperreality of a media-saturated life. In contrast, the austerity of a book (black squiggles on paper!) and the immediacy of a walk invite us to look closer to home, for glory: “It is here. We are on it. It is under our feet.” 5
What’s stopping you? Pick up the book, put on your runners, and enter the temple. This is holy ground.
- Quoted in Peterson, Eugene, Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading, p. 111.
- Hopkins, Gerard Manley, “God’s Grandeur” in The Major Works, p. 128.
- The term is Walter Brueggemann’s. See his Deep Memory, Exuberant Hope: Contested Truth in a Post-Christian World (Augsburg Fortress 2000).
- This paragraph was adapted from a submitted assignment for my English class, completed in Spring 2017.
- Siegel, Robert “Looking for Mt. Monadnock”. Quoted in Peterson, Eugene, Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing Up in Christ, p. 87.