Seeing in a New Way

Contemplation moves us to “see” in new ways. It is taking  “a long loving look at the real” but it is not a seeing that keeps the seer and the seen separate. Rather in contemplation we enter into the heart of reality returning to the Source of our being. It is coming home to one’s self and experiencing our oneness with all of creation. In experiencing the fullness of who we are we participate in the ongoing creative act.

Mary Conrow Coelho in Awakening Universe, Emerging Personhood, writes that this is the basis of the active life of the contemplative. “With the return in contemplation we participate in the dynamic reality of life, a dynamism grounded in the One. We enter the fullness of living and productive power, not a state of moral perfection….We become productive and creative in a way impossible apart from contemplation. Here the person is concerned with the daily world that needs her care. Furthermore, there is a joy, which is the joy of life. In the ongoing healing of our habits and complexes, in the reaching out to other people, and in the creation of ideas and activities that bring forth new and reformed personal and cultural patterns….”

It is important to remember that contemplation or the mystical path is not only for an elite few. Evelyn Underhill says that it is an organic process and an ordered movement which implies that it is a native human capacity. One’s capacity for contemplation is not based on education, intelligence nor is it earned. Rather, it needs to be nurtured. One needs to cooperate with the transformative process. It takes time, commitment and a willingness to change.

Although organic to us this mystical path is often blocked or stymied in us and so we have to awaken to it. Coehlo writes “it can recommence in a number of ways, which include a severe personal crisis that causes the breakdown of the daily ways of coping, physical illness, an “awakening” experience, or simply a persistent longing that impels a spiritual search.” Within the Western Christian contemplative tradition the mystics describe the contemplative journey in similar ways. They describe different stages which have been named “awakening,” “purgation,” “illumination,” “dark night,” and “union.” Thomas Keating, a Cistercian monk and prime mover in the centering prayer movement, states that “the Christian tradition maintained uninterrupted for the first fifteen centuries that contemplation is the normal development of the genuine spiritual life in response to listening to the word of God, and hence is open to all Christians.”

We must reclaim contemplation as our natural organic spiritual path. It is in the contemplative experience that the necessary transformation of consciousness can occur that is so urgently needed to address our current planetary crisis.

Many scholars believe we are engaged in a major paradigm shift. The worldview shaped by the Enlightenment no longer serves us well. The mechanistic approach of Newtonian physics coupled with the philosophy of Descartes provided immense progress in science and technology. But it saw the human person separate from nature. Nature belonged to us to serve our needs and our wants. It saw matter as isolated particles which interacted with each other like billiard balls. It discounted all ways of knowing other than the rational and scientific approaches.

Today we are experiencing the extreme consequences of this worldview. The very health of the planet of which we are part is at risk. The insights of quantum physics and the new cosmology show us a related universe where everything interacts with each other in a connected web of relationships. The human species belongs to the universe and shares life with all other beings. We all come from the same stardust and we all are unique.

How to grasp this new consciousness and begin to act out of it is the task before us. Data alone is not enough. We need to reclaim our natural path of contemplation. We need to “see” in new ways. Coelho writes, “The creative heart of the world dwells within and among us and within and among the natural world. The individual is no longer an isolated entity grasping for a place in the world, but is given a remarkable intrinsic place, a place that is sacred.” She believes that this “new way of seeing” can envision new possibilities for the individual and the Earth community. She writes that “the source of this hope lies, in part, in actions that may arise from transformed personhood in the context of the new story. The creative, active side of the contemplative life, long recognized by the tradition, becomes now an urgent matter for human survival and the creation of a viable future.”

Meister Eckhart understood this active side of contemplation. The person who has become one with the Godhead becomes fertile and creative. He describes this creativity with terms like “going out,” a “speaking forth,” a “boiling over,” and a “melting.” Dorothy Soelle, in The Silent Cry, also understands this when she writes that “the two voices, the mystical and the prophetic, belong together; indeed, whenever they assume that they can do without each other they lose themselves.” When Soelle reflects on the options open to the mystics regarding their relation to the world she finds “whether it be withdrawal, renunciation, disagreement, divergence, dissent, reform, resistance, rebellion, or revolution, in all of these forms there is a NO! to the world as it exists now…all of them lived their mysticism in the repudiation of the values that ruled in their worlds.”

The contemplative path is calling us home. It is a risk and it is transforming. And the dangers of not beginning this journey are life threatening. Let us risk this sacred journey so that in the words of Constance FitzGerald, OCD, we can “be freed for nonviolent, selfless, liberating action.”

Written by Nancy Sylvester, IHM

© 2003-2019 Institute for Communal Contemplation and Dialogue

For Further Reading:
Coelho, Mary Conrow. Awakening Universe, Emerging Personhood: The Power of Contemplation in an Evolving Universe. Lima, Ohio: Wyndham Hall Press, 2002.
This is an exciting book. Coelho does a remarkable job of showing how the insights of the new cosmology and the insights of the tradition of Western Christian contemplation complement and confirm each other. Because the contemplative/mystical path involves transformation of consciousness and of self, she integrates Jungian psychology into the development of her thinking showing the power of contemplation in an evolving universe.

Soelle, Dorothee. The Silent Cry—Mysticism and Resistance. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2001.
This is an excellent book for anyone who is trying to integrate contemplation and action. Soelle draws from her experience as well as from many world leaders in mysticism and non-violent resistance. She explores how the religious impulse of mysticism, the “silent cry” is at the heart of all the world’s religions. Soelle argues for the importance of mysticism in countering the destructive aspects of ego, group bias, materialism, and violence. Religion in the third millennium, Soelle argues, will either be mystical or it will be dead.

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