A Case for Contemplation
When I called my friend Eduardo Santo for this interview on a Friday morning in September, I had just seen the news that a terror attack had struck his home city of London. 29 people were injured after a bomb detonated in the Underground. I held my breath as I waited for his response and was relieved when he picked up. “I heard about the attack, how’s everything over there?” I asked. “The bomb went off six tube stops away from where I am,” he replied. “People seem a bit rattled but it feels like everything is going back to normal.” The hum of traffic, the banter between colleagues—the general hustle and bustle of city life—carried through the phone as if the attack were nothing but a blip in the radar of daily life. This is our new reality: fear and terror are commonplace, and yet the world spins on.
Now, more than ever, contemplation quietly beckons us to return to ourselves and to our First Love. I’ve spent the better part of a year infusing my life with more meditative and contemplative practices—an antidote to my sorrowful disposition toward the state of our humanity. Please don’t misread me; I am not advocating to disconnect and disengage from the world and the restorative work to which we’ve been called. Yet I am confident that we are our best selves—and thus the best servants of Jesus—when we operate from a place of attunement toward the Holy Spirit. If we truly long for a world that more rightly resembles the Kingdom of God, our hands and feet must be led by the Spirit who already dwells within us (1 Corinthians 3:16).
Contemplative practices have gained a renewed interest amongst a Western culture starved for silence, solitude, and love. In fact, Thomas Merton recognized this trend back in the early 20th century: “We have more power at our disposal today than we have ever had, and yet we are more alienated and estranged from the inner ground of meaning and of love than we have ever been.”
“[Contemplation] is not something to which we can attain alone, by intellectual effort, by perfecting our natural powers. It is not a kind of self-hypnosis, resulting from concentration on our own inner spiritual being. It is not the fruit of our own efforts. It is the gift of God who, in his mercy, completes the hidden and mysterious work of creation in us by enlightening our minds and hearts, by awakening in us the awareness that we are words spoken in his one Word, and that creating Spirit dwells in us, and we in him.”
– Thomas Merton
The following piece on meditation and contemplation offers just a few ways of engaging with the Holy Spirit and is by no means definitive. The breadth of practice in which people relate to God is wide and beautiful in its diversity. Perhaps the following is just a starting place for you. I pray it guides you into a richer understanding of the Spirit at work in ourselves and in each other.
On a cold, unassuming night in January 2015, Eduardo Santo’s life changed forever. He began the quiet evening just like any other: seated on the floor of his apartment for what would be the last meditation session of its kind.
For years Eduardo had searched for spiritual meaning in various forms of meditation. More than anything, he yearned for an antidote to the stress that had lodged in his body after four frenetic years in New York City as a financial analyst. That quest for meaning took him all over the world until he came home to London, and to the end of himself.
”The promises from these practices that people had given me were not true, and what I was seeing in my life was actually the opposite,” he says. “I was seeing financial ruin. I was seeing relationships being shattered. I saw lives being broken, and I saw within me huge anxiety and stress, even suicidal thoughts…something within me was off.”
That night he made a decision to discontinue his practices.
“And it was at that moment when something spiritually shifted inside of me. All of a sudden, I felt this energy awakened within me…It was an invisible force moving up from the bottom of my spine. I thought, something is not right here, this is out of my control, I don’t know what this is.”
Something within Eduardo compelled him to call out the name of Jesus. “[The name of Jesus] had an immediate effect on this invisible force and it started going back down my spine,” he recalls.
That encounter sent Eduardo on a journey to know this Jesus and the power experienced in His name. “After the Holy Spirit came into my life, I started reading the Bible. I realized that just reading the Word of God would have an effect on the spiritual force inside of me. Things would leave my body and my mind. I read it all night and all day for so long.”
By meditating on words and phrases from scripture, Eduardo discovered a new framework for the practices he had forfeited. Biblical meditation unlocked what he now identifies as “genuine peace and wholeness through the Shalom of the Holy Spirit.”
“That’s what we experience—the kingdom of God manifesting through this wellness practice of meditating on the Word of God. [I began dreaming of] bringing this not only into the wellness world, but into the world of entrepreneurs, of startups, of refugees, of places where you have people that need healing from war and trauma. The possibilities are endless.”
“Only when we rest in God can we find the safety, the spaciousness, and the scary freedom to be who we are, all that we are, more than we are, and less than we are.”
– Richard Rohr
That desire to see others experience the true peace he found led Eduardo to create Ancient Gates, a wellness platform and retreat experience that extracts concepts directly from the ancient Hebraic and Greek testaments. Eduardo has since taken Ancient Gates around the world to both corporate and humanitarian spheres. We met Eduardo when he was introducing these practices to a group of Yazidi refugees in Germany during a pilot program led by Jacqueline Isaac’s organization Roads of Success.
“What we’ve seen is that even just one, two or three sessions have significantly powerful transformational effects. [With the girls in Germany] we’ve seen ailments and headaches being cured, sadness turned into laughter and joy. And it’s through the peace [of the Holy Spirit] that they have psychological transformation and hope.”
What we witnessed in Germany only scratches the surface of what desert father Thomas Keating identifies as a benefit of contemplative practice: an entry point into the healing process. He writes, “If you are faithful to the daily practice of contemplative prayer, your psychic wounds will be healed without your being re-traumatized.”
Between 2015 and 2016, Kelly Palmer bore witness to unimaginable trauma. After eight months on the frontlines of the refugee crisis, serving in camps on the Greek island of Lesvos, she began to experience symptoms of second-hand PTSD herself. “As much as I loved the work and felt purposeful in being there, living and working in the midst of a humanitarian aid crisis took an incredible toll of my whole being,” she admits. “When I got home, I was at an all-time low. My capacity was completely spent and I felt in many ways like a skeleton of my former self.”
Kelly knew that she had to seek professional help. Through trauma-focused therapy her counselor helped her realize the ways in which her body had stored vicarious trauma, and suggested mindfulness practices such as meditation. “Meditation offered me so many of the things that I was starving for in Greece, but felt like I didn’t have access to: respite from the noise, refuge from responsibility, and a space to be still and met by God.”
“Christ is not only offering to enter our hearts and take up residence; He is offering to dine with us…But there is more. There is His invitation to us to answer His deeper knocking at the inner recesses of our hearts. We are meant to be, not do; we are meant to be in love. For it is in this feast of love, which we are invited to daily, even hourly, that we are truly equipped with the inner resources necessary to be love to our world.”
– Claudia Volkman
Now nearly a year and half since her return from the island, Kelly is aware that certain memories of that time still trigger strong physical reactions in her body. “That’s a really practical indicator for me of which components of my time there are still in the messy middle of being processed. This stress or tension in my body is not a bad thing, it’s merely something for me to take note of and bring to God. As followers of Jesus, we have incredible access to Wisdom and Peace. We can bring our worries, grief, and trauma to the Holy One to work out and journey through together.”
When asked how Christians might begin to see past any preconceived notions of meditation, Kelly brings it back to the model of Christ: “I can’t help but think of Jesus as being the picture of peace. What I see of his character as demonstrated in the scriptures is a person who is thoughtful, centered, and wise—someone who chooses his words with incredible precision and responds in ways that are kind and true. Meditation can be an incredible tool for building these kinds of virtues in our own lives.”
What Eduardo and Kelly experienced in a modern context—Biblical meditation, contemplative prayer, whatever you might call it—has deep, ancient roots in Christianity. For centuries contemplatives like St. Francis and Thomas Merton practiced “unity with the divine”—a posture of silence, listening, and resting in the healing presence of God. This experience of moving deeper into the inner world was perhaps best personified through the Desert Fathers and Mothers who spent years in the wilderness in this very posture. Some of these forebearers have given us invaluable insight and resources to guide our contemplative journeys in an increasingly noisy world.
The following are some practices that may usher you into a contemplative rhythm:
Lectio Divina (source: The Way of Meditation and Contemplation by Teresa Tillson)
- Choose a scripture or other sacred reading
- Sit comfortably, but not too comfortably, back straight, chest open so the breath is free and open.
- Read the passage slowly. Savor each phrase. What word phrase or idea speaks to you?
- Read the passage again. Where does this passage touch your life? What do you see, hear, touch, or remember?
- Read the passage a third time. Listen quietly.
- Note insights, reflections, and personal response to the reading in your journal.
- Follow the steps in order or go back and forth between them as you feel moved.
- Finish by waiting for a few moments in silence.
Contemplative/centering/listening prayer (source: The Method of Centering Prayer by Thomas Keating)
- Choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within. (i.e. love, shalom)
- Sit comfortably and with eyes closed. Settle briefly, and silently introduce the sacred word as the symbol of your consent to God’s presence and action within.
- When you become aware of thoughts, return ever-so-gently to the sacred word.
- At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes.
- First we get settled in a comfortable chair and in a quiet place where we won’t be distracted. Our first gesture might be to open our hands on our lap, and to ask God to open our hearts and imaginations.
- Then pick a story out of scripture. Read through it once slowly and put it down. Now we begin to imagine the scene as if we are standing right there. What is around me? Who else is there? What do I hear in the scene? If I am in a house, what noises are in the house or in the street outside? What are the smells I can pick up?
- Now we begin to imagine the scene we read about. Who is in it? What conversation takes place? What is the mood – tense? joyful? confused? angry?
- Feel free to paint this picture in any way your imagination takes you. If we worry about historical accuracy, it can be a distraction that takes us away from prayer. This isn’t scripture – this is letting God take our imaginations and reveal to us something of the intimate life of Jesus or others. If, in our prayer, Mary pulls the toddler Jesus onto her lap to tie his shoes or zip his coat, we can let it happen that way.
- It helps if we imagine Jesus and his disciples as the real people they were who walked the earth. St. Ignatius imagined that the first person Jesus appeared to after the Resurrection was his mother and he encourages us to picture Jesus appearing at home to Mary, watching the joy and emotion in the scene.
Other resources and recommendations on contemplation:
- St. Teresa of Avila: The Interior Castle
- Richard Rohr/Center for Action and Contemplation
- Basking in His Presence by Bill Volkman
- Open Mind, Open Heart by Thomas Keating
- Benedict’s Way
- The Liturgists’ episode on meditation
Brianna is a Pacific Northwest-based writer and editor who seeks stories that breathe hope and inspire action. Her favorite kinds of people are peacemakers, bridge-builders, storytellers, and dreamers. She is the Senior Writer at Nations Media.