Opening Our Eyes to Contemplation

young man thinking

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.

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Andy Otto
Andy Otto is an Ignatian blogger and spiritual director. He currently works in adult faith formation and retreat direction at a Jesuit parish and retreat center in Atlanta, GA, where he lives with his wife and daughter. Andy is the author of God Moments and holds a master’s degree in theology and ministry from Boston College.


  1. Thank you for making me realize what im doing being contemplative in a simple way and finding peace deep,deep inside.

  2. Thank you for de-constructing the act of contemplation for me. I’ve been reading and studying about it and feeling inadequate to pursue it, and now I accept with gratitude that just watching the squirrels chasing each other and thinking about how remarkable and wondrous is God’s world and giving Him thanks for my eyesight to see it, that this simple act is worthy of being an act of contemplation.

  3. Appreciate your explanation of “contemplation”. I suppose before I used to think it in terms of more theological, dare I say “highbrow”. I think now I have been contemplating when
    I have not even realised it.

  4. I like the way contemplation is explained; it is like seeing God in His creation and seeing every creation in its Creator or Maker God. And by just looking at these creation one is lead to be in awe of how marvelous, how great and how powerful and loving this God that I called Papa or Father as Jesus told me/us to do so and to call Him everyday.

  5. I needed this right now. Sometimes life really deals us some confusing situations and i find myself wondering about what prayer is really all about. Its living the here and now, its going about everyday life trying our best to love one another, its looking at a genuine smile, listening to a heart rendering experience without being able to offer a solution other than offering a simple hug or a squeeze of the hand, its facing the world without any pretence of understanding or having control over anything, its enjoying some me time and some simple but meaningful moments with another, its looking at my husband and thanking God for giving me him and my family who make my life worth living. Thankyou for offering me this eyeopener and may we all succeed at taking a long loving look at the real.

  6. How beautiful and simply explained – are you sure you want to spoil all that simplicity with academia? So often we read in the bible that we need to be like children, yet we really don’t understand the importance of that message – academia doesnt make the message any clearer!! Keep it simple Andy – you’ve got it already !
    Ps neither Christ nor St Francis needed to be titled or robed – the message is just so simple

  7. What an eye opener! My desire to spend time with friends 30 years my senior stems from the graces I receive listening to them contemplate their surroundings. They see God everywhere and are at peace. I didn’t know I was praying and pleasing God. I will continue to have patience to work with them. Our fast pace society doesn’t notice senior citizens..


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