HomeSpiritualityA Long, Loving Look at the Real

A Long, Loving Look at the Real

contemplation - seasideJesuit theologian Walter Burghardt once described contemplation as taking a “long, loving look at the real.” That sounds lovely. But what does it mean for you and me—people who most likely are not preachers, Jesuits, or philosophers?

Let’s take that phrase in three parts: long, loving, and look at the real.

Long. This is a sustained gaze, not a glance. It requires time, but it also requires focused attention. So whether I am looking at a Bible passage or reflecting on a conversation I had this morning, I set aside some uninterrupted moments. I take some deep breaths; I settle down and get comfortable. I give myself time to contemplate, and I also give myself time to become distracted and then bring myself back to contemplation. I am not in a hurry.

Loving. This can be tough. Especially when I’m contemplating something about my own life, I tend to be more judgmental than loving. If I contemplate in a loving way, this is what happens:

  • I look but do not judge. My purpose is to become absorbed in what I am contemplating. I am contemplating because I understand the need to be open to it without “doing” anything.
  • I look with the expectation of a good outcome. No matter what I’m contemplating—a conversation, a problem I face, a dream I have, a task I’m discerning—I expect that the Holy Spirit is in the middle of it and will show me what I need to see and then equip me to respond in the best way.
  • I look with the understanding that the world is flawed and that forgiveness is necessary every day if I am to move forward and grow spiritually. Today I might need to forgive someone else, or I might need to forgive myself. But I begin my contemplation expecting to bump up against something that calls for mercy and grace.

Look at the real. I think this is even tougher than the love part, because we are so skilled at fooling ourselves. I have so many defenses against the truth that sometimes prayer or contemplation is, first of all, an exercise in bringing down those defenses. I avoid “the real” because:

  • I’m afraid that reality is unfixable.
  • I’m afraid that I have messed up in some way, and I don’t want to experience guilt or shame.
  • I’m afraid that, if I see the real, I might have to change or do something really difficult.

These three possibilities might come to pass. However, the Real that overwhelms any and all of them is the eternal and fathomless love of God. We might picture it this way: I am one gardener on a huge estate, and today I am pruning, weeding, and transplanting. It’s hard and dirty work, and until it’s completed, my area looks like a wreck—tools everywhere, yard waste piled, dirt spilled. That’s “the real” for me. But in the middle of all this, I stand up and look around me. For as far as the eye can see, lush gardens, fields, forests, ponds, and streams form a landscape of glory and fruitfulness. This is the Real. In the midst of the glory and beauty, my patch is in disarray and I’m full of aches and complaints. But my real gets lost in the Real.

When we take a long, loving look at the real, we see the vast landscape of divine mercy, grace, and fruitfulness into which our single lives are planted. We contemplate our experience within God’s larger gaze, which shines over every moment of every day. In the safety of that loving gaze—as God takes a long, loving look at us—we can grow courageous enough and hopeful enough to look honestly at this moment, this problem, this hurt, or this dream. As God contemplates us, we can contemplate ourselves and know that we, even here and now, are loved and beautiful.

Vinita Hampton Wright
Vinita Hampton Wright
Vinita Hampton Wright edited books for 32 years, retiring in 2021. She has written various fiction and non-fiction books, including the novel Dwelling Places and spirituality books Days of Deepening Friendship, The Art of Spiritual Writing, Small Simple Ways: An Ignatian Daybook for Healthy Spiritual Living, and, most recently, Set the World on Fire: A 4-Week Personal Retreat with the Female Doctors of the Church. Vinita is a spiritual director and continues to facilitate retreats and write fiction and nonfiction. She lives with her husband, two dogs, and a cat in Springdale, Arkansas.


  1. I love Walter Burghardt. I once worked at a retreat center where the quote about a long, loving look at the real was finger-written into a pathway when the cement was still wet. But I think it is about time that credit be given where credit is due. This is one of the most misattributed quotes in spirituality circles. The quote is not Burghardt’s. It is William McNamara’s. WB didn’t make it very clear in the CHURCH article where he does quote McNamara. But he didn’t make it clear that this phrase and definition also was Mcnamara’s. The article was written (1989) long after McNamara’s book THE HUMAN ADVENTURE: Contemplation for Everyman (1974) where it’s the title of chapter 2—“A Long Loving Look at the Real.” I think WB would want the credit to go to McNamara as well.

    • Thanks for raising this. I heard the quote by many teachers including that from Jesuit retreat camp, all citing W.Burghardt as the source. I bought McNamara’s book The Human Adventure (published 1976) and found similar quote written throughout the book, such as “Unless Christians become unhurried and unharried enough to enjoy a long loving look at the real, then Christianity has failed” (p.186).
      Appreciate if someone knowing this issue better can clarify the source, such as W.B. has written it even earlier than 1976.

  2. Vinta,
    Such a beautiful reflection on contemplation. Walter Burghardt S.J. was such a gifted spiritual writer and homilist. My spouse and I counted him among our special friends. His humility and self-effacing humor both in his homilies, writings and in person, was marvelous to behold. God’s grace and love and humor were ever present. He actually attempted to offer a bit of a homily to our six children (all under the age of 10) just before dinner one evening. Incomprehension was the look on their faces as he spoke, and so he resorted to exaggerating certain words to sustain their attention. Lot’s of smiles, laughter and love conveyed by a person whose trust in the themes you describe so artfully – message delivered yet again by him and by you. Thank you.

  3. Dear Vinita, you always have teaching words for me. I thank the Lord for your presence in my virtual life, which meets my real life.

  4. I am always looking for ways to help me in prayer. Long loving look …has always been one of my favorites and I am thrilled to see it on your site! Thanks


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here


Loretta Pehanich
Marina Berzins McCoy
Tim Muldoon