Contemplative Meditation: Seeing Spiritual Truths

This a continuation of last week’s article Study, Reflection, and Prayer. The Cloud of Unknowing says that these three practices are absolutely necessary for beginners, and even those somewhat advanced, in contemplation. The word reflection is actually used synonymously with the word meditation. Meditation means to think over something and reflect upon it.

Before we get started, let’s quickly break down what the words contemplation and meditation mean. Their use in the Christian tradition, especially in the medieval contemplatives and mystics, differs from the usual modern understanding. There is no moral imperative to use one way over the other, but it is important to note the difference if you want to read books like The Cloud of Unknowing.

If you’re a nerd like me and you like to understand where words come from and how they’ve changed here are a couple links to the Online Etymology Dictionary breaking it down for each word:

Contemplation & Meditation 

In most modern conversation people think of meditation as sitting in silence and trying not to think of anything and they think of contemplation as deliberating about something and trying to figure it out. This is actually the exact opposite of how the words are used in the Christian tradition, and realistically for most of the history of the English language.

I don’t know this for sure, but I imagine that when the Eastern and Western religious traditions started to have a dialogue, lots of people didn’t even realise we had a tradition of inner silent prayer in Christianity. The word contemplation had been largely forgotten. So, when they met Buddhists sitting there and doing something silent and purely interior the closest thing they could compare it with was meditation. They must have been sitting there reflecting on great truths.

And so, when Eastern contemplative practices made their way to the West, I am guessing they were mislabeled as meditation. For the most part, this doesn’t really matter. The words we assign to these things aren’t really important, which can be seen by the fact that many people practice contemplation while calling it meditation and still greatly benefit.

Either way, The Cloud of Unknowing talks about both contemplation and meditation. We are told that meditation is something extremely important which must come before contemplation. Meditation, or reflecting on and trying to apply knowledge to a situation, is a very important practice. It helps us determine the difference between our True Self and False Self.

However, once a person has sufficiently advanced in the contemplative practice, the nature of meditation changes. Where previously meditation was a practice of reading scripture and reflecting upon it with the guidance of an anamcara or spiritual director, for the advanced contemplative meditation becomes something completely different.

The author makes very sure that you should not leave behind the previous kind of meditation unless you have been called by grace and discussed the matter with a trusted spiritual friend first. But, if you are called to this kind of meditation, this is how it is described:

Those, however, who are continually occupied in the work of contemplation experience all this differently. Their meditation is more like sudden intuition or obscure certainty…For it is quite sufficient to focus your attention on a simple word such as ‘sin’ or ‘God’ (or any other you might prefer) and without the intervention of analytical thought allow yourself to experience directly the reality it signifies.

In this practice, one combines meditation and contemplation together. It is meditation in that you are reflecting on a spiritual question, and it is contemplation in that you are doing so without analyzing or scrutinizing. In this way we can learn the spiritual truth of ‘God’ or ‘sin’ or any other important word by means of unknowing, which is a different kind of knowledge.

When you read the word ‘tree’ it brings up all kinds of things within you. Some of them may be expressed with words but some of them are knowledge without words. You might see your favourite tree from your childhood as an image. You might smell the apple blossoms in the spring as a memory. You might feel the energy of the tree and its wordless wisdom.

These are all kinds of knowledge which do not require words. However, only the last one, the wordless wisdom of the tree falls into the category of unknowing. Because images and smells are still like words in many ways, they are matters of the senses.

In contemplative meditation one is trying to find the wordless wisdom of these concepts. Try to feel the essence of the words ‘God’ and ‘sin’ and let their reality penetrate your soul. If you are truly ready for this more advanced kind of meditation the truths of these words will come upon you as a sudden intuition or obscure certainty.

This practice will lead into the kind of personal prayer common to contemplatives, and that is something we will be discussing next week.


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