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The Contemplative Way

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The "contemplative way" affirms that the highest love of God is spiritual, not intellectual.

Because some people have negative associations with the idea of contemplation, let me make three points that should help reduce potential confusion in this area:

First, contemplative spirituality is not the beginning point for those who are new to the faith. Spiritual infants need to grow in their knowledge of Scripture and “the elementary principles of the oracles of God” (Hebrews 5:12). “For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant. But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil” (Hebrews 5:13-14). The disciplines of extensive Bible study and grounding in good theology should be regarded as prerequisites to the practices that will be discussed here. Followers of the contemplative approach make the love of God their supreme and unrivaled object in life. This hunger and thirst for righteousness is the soul’s love affair with its summum bonum, the highest good for which it was created. There will be seasons of dryness and darkness, but when our desire is for God’s manifest presence, the way of the heart will seek His embrace.

Second, meditation and contemplation must always be tethered to the truth of the Word. Contemplation is not an introspective New Age practice of altered consciousness or voiding the mind of content. Engagement in bogus mysticism and introspection leads at best to sloppy sentimentality and self-delusion, and at worst to demonic influences. We circumvent this dangerous territory by commitment to sound doctrine, by being comfortable with a high view of Scripture, and by approaching the Word with a willingness to study it and put it in practice. The contemplative way should never be regarded as an end in itself or a substitute for obedience and faithful living in this world.

Third, meditation and contemplation are not limited to people with certain personalities, temperaments, and abilities. Some will naturally find this approach to be more attractive and accessible than others. But regardless of natural attraction, this way of developing spiritual passion and longing for God is beneficial for all mature believers.

God’s grace is always previous to our desire to know Him. His love initiates our relationship with Him, and when we love God, this is simply our response to His interior invitation to personal intimacy. “We love, because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). He has lavished the riches of His grace upon us by calling us into the eternal life that our Lord defined as knowing the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom He sent into the world (John 17:3).

The nature of our response to God’s initiatives shapes the quality of our earthly sojourn and heavenly existence. Positive reciprocation and a developing habit of sensitivity to the loving overtures of the living God makes us increasingly attentive and receptive to the subtle activity of the Spirit within us. This answering love of the created personality inspires a holy quest for God and a spiritual receptivity that is sustained by humility, trust, and obedience. “When You said, ‘Seek My face,’ my heart said to You, ‘Your face, O Lord, I shall seek’” (Psalm 27:8). In this quest, we learn to approach God less as an object or intellectual construct and more as a Personality with whom we have an ongoing encounter in effective union. To rest in God who loves us, draws us near to Him, and lets us find Him is to lay hold of the power of obedient submission to grace.

The contemplative way affirms that the highest love of God is spiritual, not intellectual. John Chrysostom and Gregory of Nyssa wrote of the incomprehensibility of God and of the “mystical night” in which God is hidden in darkness that is beyond our understanding. God cannot be captured and possessed in the way we seek to grasp and investigate an object. We can only know Him as a transcendent Subject, a Person who chooses to reveal aspects of Himself to us. Knowing God surely involves the mind, but moves beyond reason and formulation to faith and trust.

Using an analogy from physics, the rainbow of colors we see with our eyes represents only a tiny fraction of the whole spectrum of electromagnetic radiation. This spectrum begins with high-energy and high-frequency particle gamma rays, nuclear gamma rays, and x-rays; it moves through the middle range of ultraviolet to infrared wavelengths of light; and it ends with the lower-energy and lower-frequency range of microwaves, radio and TV communications, and sound waves.

Just as the electromagnetic radiation that is visible to human eyesight is but a speck on a much larger spectrum, so human reason can perceive only a minute trace of the awesome mystery we call God. Acknowledging both the value and the limits of reason, we come to see that growth in the experiential and personal knowledge of God is produced by faith, hope, and love. Faith brings us to an awareness of ourselves not only as known by God, but as invited to participate in union and communion with Him. Hope inspires us to dare to long for the infinite and to transfer our aspirations from the earthly to the eternal as we “rest in the Lord and wait patiently for Him” (Psalm 37:7). And love seeks to “possess” the Beloved as it increasingly realizes the degree to which we have already been possessed by Him.

Taken from Ken Boa’s Handbook to Spiritual Growth.

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