Writing about contemplation is strange. It’s weird because the fourth step of lectio divina is so unlike our everyday activities. The first three steps of lectio divina aren’t that difficult to describe, because we read, think, and pray every day. Those are activities we’re accustomed to. Contemplatio, on the other hand, is an inactivity.
The move from oratio to contemplatio is mostly an act of letting go. Contemplation is inner quietness. The transition from the active prayer of oratio to the silence of contemplatio is gradual and gentle.
In Latin, contemplatio means considering a concept with the heart or the mind. While that may seem to be an activity, considering stands in contrast to doing. Some ancient philosophers thought that the best life possible would be a purely contemplative one, and this concept of the ideal life has persisted even into our own time. Maybe you’ve heard about some of the computer scientists who believe that one day human beings will be able to shed our bodies, download all the information we need into a computer-brain, and live in utter contemplation. This idea directly contradicts the Christian understanding of life, in which body and spirit are inextricably united.
For Christians, contemplation is a discipline in which we don’t give up our bodies, but we temporarily quiet our bodies and minds for one purpose: to rest in God’s love. An anonymous Christian mystic who lived in England in the fourteenth century wrote a book called The Cloud of Unknowing, which is considered one of the best books ever written on contemplation. Here are some instructions from that book:
Here is what you are to do: lift your heart up to the Lord, with a gentle stirring of love desiring him for his own sake and not for his gifts. Center all your attention and desire on him and let this be the sole concern of your mind and heart. Do all in your power to forget everything else, keeping your thoughts and desires free from involvement with any of God’s creatures or their affairs in general or in particular. Perhaps this will seem like an irresponsible attitude, but I tell you, let them all be; pay no attention to them.
This final step of lectio divina, the utter rest and comfort and silence that come as we rest in the arms of our loving Savior, is a wonderful gift, no matter how disturbing or shocking the word you received that day may have been.
If you care to read more about lectio divina, please check out, Divine Intervention: Encountering God through the Ancient Practice of Lectio Divina.