Contemplation was something I had difficulty relating to. That is until the time I first came across the Jesuit Walter Burghardt’s description. “Contemplation is taking a long, loving look at the real”.
Isn’t that what lovers often do as they sit, perhaps even in silence, simply enjoying one another? His insight took me out of my mind, literally, and into a heartfelt understanding of contemplation.
There is a lot to unpack in his simple description.
Long… Loving… Look!
Long! It is not the look at an office cocktail party. So often these looks are fleeting as we scan the room to see who else is there. It speaks of focus, paying attention. It speaks of more than just a passing glance.
Loving! It is not the look of an angry third-grade teacher or a demanding employer. It speaks of a relationship. Not just any relationship but a tender and appreciative relationship.
Look! It is not a look through either rose-colored or heavily tinted and dark sunglasses. It is more like the clear-eyed look of a person who sees not only what he or she wants to see. It is the look that sees the beauty and disfiguration of another person.
I suspect you can relate to your own awareness of some person’s loving look at you. Pause for a moment. Remember such an experience. Let the feeling sink in. Rejoice… and give thanks!
Another light dawns
I must admit when I think of contemplation and God, I think of one-way traffic. I think of my call to sit still long enough to discover a loving God. I never thought of God contemplating me! Now that’s a thought!
God taking the time to focus on me.
God’s loving look at me.
God’s seeing the “real me” not just what I want God to see.
The “Courage to Be”
Paul Tillich, a great Protestant theologian of the last century, titled an influential book, “The Courage to Be”. His point was that it takes courage to find meaning in a higher power outside ourselves. As I now think about contemplation, I realize his phrase might be adapted to my understanding of contemplation. It takes courage to become aware of God’s long, loving look at me.
We seem to be infected with the deeply ingrained habit of not looking at our faults (original sin?). If we recognize our faults, we fear that God will not love us. So, we look for fig leaves to cover up our self-centeredness. We make God into our own image and likeness. God can only love us if we are perfect. It takes courage to look at ourselves with God’s “long, loving, look”!
As I write this I remember another Jesuit. John Powell wrote, “Why Am I afraid To Tell You Who I Am?” His direct answer was because “If I tell you who I really am you may not like me”. He spends the rest of the book describing a multi-stage process of increasing risk in communication. His companion book Fully Human, Fully Alive: A New Life Through a New Vision further develops this insight.
On this feast of St. Vincent, I am certain that all of our founders and holy ones in our Vincentian family had the courage to rest in God’s loving look at them. I think it is what changed them. I leave it to someone else to uncover for us this process in their lives.
To what degree do you have the courage to see yourself as God sees you?
Click below for an audio version of this Vincentian Mindwalk