Contemplative Spiritual Formation:
an Introduction

by Gerald May, M.D.
Senior Fellow, Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation

When people come to Shalem for the first time, they often have no clear sense of what they’re looking for. They know they are seeking something, and most would identify it as something spiritual. But what does that mean?  Some people think spirituality is about ethics and morality. Others think it is something like counseling for healing and personal growth. Still others think it involves communication with spirits.

Spirituality can have as many meanings as there are people interested in it, and at present, a lot of people are interested. 25 years ago, I thought the growing interest in spirituality might be a passing fad. Now it is obviously much more than that. Polls indicate that 95% of Americans believe in a universal Spirit and two-thirds feel a need for “spiritual growth.” Spiritual publications, workshops and retreats have multiplied astronomically in the past two decades and various forms of spirituality are finding their ways into health care and business. Many churches that viewed spirituality with suspicion in the past are now sponsoring spiritual formation programs of their own.

It is common for cultures to experience waves of heightened spiritual interest, often at times of disillusionment and re-examination of societal values. The current surge is different, however, because it has assumed a global context. As technology shrinks our world, different cultures find themselves exposed to one another’s spiritual traditions. Three fourths of Americans now believe there is no “one true faith” and that a variety of spiritual paths can be equally authentic. This globalization enriches our experience and at the same time deepens the question: what are we talking about when we use words like “spirituality,” “spiritual formation” and “contemplation?”

One way to approach this question is to turn to the abiding traditions of spiritual pilgrims who have gone before us, struggling in their own ways and cultures to express their yearnings and insights. Their teachings and writings through the centuries are priceless resources in helping us clarify our own experience. It is upon this gathered wisdom that I base the following discussion.

What Is Spirituality?

In many religious traditions “spirit” refers to life-force, the basic energy of being. Symbolically, spirit is the breath of life. The Hebrew ruah, Greek pneuma, Latin spiritus, and Sanskrit prajna all mean both “breath” and “spirit.” Traditionally, this life force is seen as manifest in our love--in the passions and inspirations that motivate us and connect us with the world and one another.

In this view, spirituality has to do with the fundamental propelling forces of our lives, our most profound loves, passions and concerns. As such, it is the wellspring of our sense of meaning and of our will to live, the source of our deepest desires, values and dreams. Spirituality, then, is not a thing apart from our daily lives, but rather a part of all our emotions, relationships, work, and everything else we consider meaningful.

Nor is spirituality relegated to extraordinary or supernatural things; it is instead absolutely ordinary and completely natural. Everyone has a spiritual life. We express it in many different ways: not only in places of worship but also in work, community and family, in all our creativity and commitments. The spiritual life is like a deep ocean current, often unseen but flowing through all our experience, moving us to seek fulfillment and connectedness, impelling us towards truth, goodness and beauty. As William Wordsworth said, it is something “deeply interfused” that “rolls through all things.”

Spirituality is the living heart of all the great world religions. Each faith tradition in its own way proclaims that the essence of spirituality is love. The Christian expression is in the two great commandments: to love God with one’s whole self and to love one’s neighbor as oneself. Theologically, spirituality is our desire for love’s fulfillment which, in turn, is our response to God’s loving us first (1 Jn 4:19). We participate in the divine love that created us “so that we might seek God” (Acts 17:27). Further, the Christian contemplative tradition views God as always active in our lives, inviting, drawing and empowering us towards deepening love. In this light, I assume that people participating in Shalem are somehow responding to this movement of the Divine in their lives.

Three Paths

An ancient understanding in both western and eastern thought says that love impels people to express their spirituality in three main ways: knowing, acting and feeling. In Christian philosophy, these ways are classically associated with the attributes of God. God is ultimate Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, and these qualities draw people along the Way of the True, the Way of the Good, and the Way of the Beautiful. The more ancient system of Hinduism describes the three ways as yogas (disciplines) or margas (paths). These consist of jnana (knowledge or wisdom), karma (action or service), and bhakti (devotion or worship). Both eastern and western systems understand that all three ways find some degree of expression in everyone, but that at any given time an individual is likely to be more attracted to one than to the others.

The Way of the True is associated with knowledge, understanding, realization, and enlightenment: “...and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32). For people most drawn toward this quality, loving God and neighbor involves intimate knowing and clear understanding. They are interested in theology, philosophy and psychology. They enjoy thought-provoking sermons and are interested in discerning the accurate meanings of scripture. While this path often relies heavily on intellectual understanding, it also includes openness to intuitive insight and inspired realization.

The Way of the Good is concerned with action, righteousness, offering service and seeking justice: “...just as you did it to one of the least of did it to me” (Matt 25:40). People attracted to this quality express their love of God and neighbor by helping the poor, visiting the sick, making peace and seeking justice. They have a strong concern for morality, though they may differ widely in the values they hold. In church they are drawn to mission groups and other volunteer services. In scripture, they tend to look for moral guidelines and calls to action.

The Way of the Beautiful is the path of feeling, of affective experience and devotion: “As a deer longs for running streams, so my soul longs for you, O God” (Ps 42:1). People drawn to this quality are especially responsive to the sensory and emotional dimensions of the spiritual life. For them, love of God and neighbor is associated with passion, empathy and intimacy. They are concerned with direct, sensed experience of relationship with God and others and are drawn to praise, thanksgiving, and adoration. They especially appreciate the aesthetic and inspirational aspects of worship and the moving, heartfelt passages of scripture.

Contemplative Spirituality

Just as each of the three ways is an expression of love, each can be contemplative. Because people use “contemplation” to describe especially profound qualities of prayer, we often associate it with silence and stillness--perhaps even withdrawal from the world. Classically, however, it means immediate open presence in the world, directly perceiving and lovingly responding to things as they really are. Perhaps the simplest definition is “presence to what is.” In a Christian context, because we “live and move and have our being” in God (Acts 17:28), being present to things as they are involves encountering the Christ who “fills the whole creation” (Eph. 1:23). In other words, Christian contemplation means finding God in all things and all things in God. Brother Lawrence, the 17th century Carmelite friar, called it “the loving gaze which finds God everywhere.”

In this sense, contemplation is an all-embracing quality of presence, including not only our own inner experience but also directly perceiving and responding to the needs of the world around us. Rather than trying to balance contemplation and action, it is more accurate to see contemplation in action, undergirding and embracing everything. In this way, knowing, acting and feeling can all be joined together in prayerful openness and loving responsiveness. In Hindu spirituality, the joining of the three ways with contemplation is raja marga, the “Royal Way.” It is contemplation, in fact, that grounds each of the three paths in the real world. The direct seeing-and-responding of contemplation keeps each path centered in direct responses to real situations. Without this grounding in things-as-they-are, the way of knowing can lose itself in intellectual abstraction, the way of acting can succumb to blind missionary zeal or burnout, and the way of feeling can give way to sentimentality.

Psychologically, contemplative presence is traditionally seen as immediate, grounded in the here-and-now. Plans for the future and memories of the past can happen as usual, but they don’t take one’s attention away from one’s desire for God or the needs of the situation at hand. Awareness is open, not focused on one thing to the exclusion of others. Most of us have been taught to concentrate (focus attention) on one thing at a time. The contemplative traditions, however, maintain that we function more lovingly--and can be more in touch with our desire for God’s guidance--when we’re more widely open to what is going on. Thus many contemplatively oriented practices involve an “unlearning” of our habit of focusing attention. In its place, one hopes to nurture a simple willingness to be open to God’s movements, leadings, and invitations.

In Christian tradition, the most important characteristic of contemplation is that it comes as a sheer gift from God; it cannot be achieved by personal will and effort. In this regard, classical understanding makes a strong distinction between meditation and contemplation. Both depend on God’s grace, but meditation requires some degree of our own efforts to manage our attention, quiet our minds or otherwise control our inner atmosphere. We can acquire the psychological qualities of present-centeredness and open awareness through meditative practices, and we can practice acting in loving and compassionate ways--all great religions encourage such action. But we cannot achieve love itself. Instead, real love comes as a gift; we discover it or more likely, we “fall” into it.

Actual contemplation happens only when God takes over and carries us beyond ourselves, beyond where we either can or would choose to go on our own. The gift comes when and how God desires to give it, and lasts for as long as God chooses. Moreover, it usually takes place in obscurity, without the person comprehending what is happening. St. John of the Cross said contemplation occurs in the noche oscura, the dark (obscure) night of the soul. In this hidden process, God increasingly frees the person for love. It is the gift of love that gives contemplation its meaning and its direction towards the fulfillment of the two great commandments.

Contemplative Spiritual Formation
and Spiritual Guidance

Spiritual formation is another classical term, which refers to all the activities and experiences that nurture people’s spiritual lives. This includes such things as personal prayer, meditation and journalling, corporate worship, religious education, spiritual groups, retreats and so on. Spiritual guidance, traditionally called spiritual direction, is one type of spiritual formation activity. Although spiritual guidance can come to us in an infinite variety of ways, the term usually refers to a one-to-one or small group relationship that assists a person in discerning God’s activity and invitations in his or her life.

The contemplative perspective sheds a radical light on spiritual formation and guidance. Modern western culture often brings a utilitarian quality to popular spiritual formation endeavors. For example, we are likely to expect prayer, meditation, scripture reading and other disciplines to produce tangible results in proportion to our efforts. Similarly, we may expect spiritual direction to both solve our spiritual problems and give us a clear understanding of where we are and where we need to go. In other words, we expect to “get something out of” all our spiritual enterprises, and we are likely to become impatient with ourselves if the results aren’t forthcoming, if we feel we’re not making sufficient progress.

We tend to look for results, whether in the form of insights, peace of mind, healing or some other substantial benefit. A contemplative perspective maintains that although such things may happen, they are by no means the goal of the spiritual life. In fact, whether they happen or not is almost irrelevant. The spiritual life is about love, not about particular accomplishments. Further, a contemplative view honors a sense of mystery and unknowing, and it encourages dependence upon God’s grace and mercy to guide and carry us where God would have us go.

The Christian contemplative approach always winds up putting primary emphasis on God’s initiative and action in life. We will not finally come to love God, our neighbors, our planet or ourselves by means of what we learn to do or accomplish on our own. Instead, we must receive the truth that will set us free, be guided in the good actions that truly serve our neighbors and world, and be given an appreciation of the beauty within and around us. Only as this happens, only as we let God lead the divine dance, can we more fully participate in God’s loving presence in and for the world.

By Gerald May, M.D.
Senior Fellow, Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation

© Copyright 2001, Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation, Bethesda, Maryland. Reproduced by permission. Visit the Shalem website for more information on contemplative spirituality, and extension programs in personal spiritual formation.

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