I’ve recently begun a year-long course on spiritual direction. The purpose of the course is not just to learn how to listen to and companion someone in his or her journey with God, but to become a contemplative. Contemplation is a word we tend to associate with the mystics and the saints of yore who experienced fantastic visions. We make it into something complicated, as if becoming a contemplative takes years of prayer and effort. In reality, contemplation is a “long, loving look at the real,” as described by Walter Burghardt, SJ.
Contemplation is the most basic element of prayer, because it asks us simply to open our eyes and look. We cannot even begin to pray without looking at our reality. Spiritual direction involves the exploration of one’s prayer and how God moves within the life of the directee. The director helps the directee open his or her eyes and recognize God’s presence in his or her lived experience.
I am reminded of a time a few years ago when I was a hospital chaplain. I felt so drained at the end of the day that I did not feel I had the energy to pray. At times I would write in my journal so I could process some of my experiences with patients. I may have talked to others about the graces and challenges of the day, but I never sat down to pray. And because of my exhaustion I had little energy in the morning for prayer either. When I told my spiritual director that I had not been praying, he asked me what I was doing. I told him about the journaling, the talking with others about my patient visits, how the experiences and people in the hospital were often on my mind, and the bit of spiritual reading I was doing. “Sounds like you’re praying quite a lot,” he told me. My director helped me open my eyes to the reality of God all around me. I was indeed being attentive to my reality, but I had failed to recognize fully God’s presence there.
Many of us have practiced contemplation without even realizing it. When was the last time you people-watched? When did you stare out at the birds or notice the nuanced wisps of the clouds? That is contemplation: taking a long, loving look at the real. It’s when all distractions melt away for a moment, and we simply see what’s before us. The key, however, is opening our eyes wide enough to recognize where God is in what we see.