We live in a world driven by production, action, and success. Money doesn’t make itself. We need to act if we want to see change. We work so we can “play.” Action is required in the face of injustice, and inaction is portrayed as implicit approval of injustice. In such a world, one who does not respond or act quickly, but sits quietly pondering, is often viewed as cold and uncaring. Even in the church, silent reflection on difficult subjects can be mocked and despised, either by those who think that the subjects being thought about cannot possibly be all that complicated or by those who prefer action and good deeds to contemplation and good doctrine. We should, we are told, spend less time thinking deeply about difficult doctrines, and spend more time doing acts of charity.
In the face of contemporary “activism,” I would suggest, we need an apology for contemplation—we need to rediscover the joy of silently thinking about a subject until the truth is found, or about a situation or possible action until we discover the right thing to do. Contemplation is necessary, in fact, on both of these levels: the practical and the speculative. On the one hand, the practical, we might simply point to the fact that no action done well, whether it be helping those in need or being a faithful employee at your place of work, is ever done without reflection. Success in practical endeavors is measured by the degree to which one attains the purpose of the endeavor, in accord with the most appropriate and best means, in the actual situation or circumstances. Obtaining that success requires, therefore, reflection on the desired goal and the means of obtaining that goal. For example, even the contractor, before jumping into a job, must observe the environment where the work is to be done, take a number of factors into account, and reflect upon the best way to accomplish his work. In martial arts, one of the ways in which the martial artist learns their kata, is to reflect upon it by visualizing themselves performing it. The same could be said of almost any athletic endeavor. I myself have struggled to learn juggling routines until I stopped and took time to think about what I was trying to do—visualizing myself doing the tricks. It seems, then, that even in active or practical endeavors, we will have greater success if we learn the art of contemplation.
If contemplation is important for success in practical endeavors, it is supremely important in speculative endeavors—whether that be the study of theology, philosophy, the natural sciences, or literature—which are engaged in for themselves, and no other purpose. That is, truth is itself desirable. Whereas we build houses, plant fields, and fabricate utensils for goals other than either the act of building or bringing something into existence (houses are built to be inhabited, crops grown to be eaten, and utensils made as tools to eat with); we seek truth for no other reason than to know. Wisdom is an end in itself. Knowing the truth, however, requires contemplation. As he introduces his commentary to Boethius’s Hebdomads, Aquinas uses a passage from Ecclesiasticus to discuss not just the importance of contemplation, but how to engage in contemplation. It is to this that we turn.
Using the aforementioned passage from Ecclesiasticus, Aquinas suggests 4 steps to pursuing wisdom. First, “run into your own house.” That is, retreat from the distractions of this world into the solitude of your mind. We live in a society filled with people and institutions which are constantly vying to occupy our thoughts. Social media, in all its convoluted forms, draws us away from the very real people around us—a ding, a vibration, and all of a sudden we are enthralled with post after post of meaningless pictures, videos, and ads. Netflix and other streaming platforms encourage binge-watching tv shows and create ever-new shows to excite our imaginations and keep us in front of a screen. We could go on—radio shows, music streaming platforms, billboards, door-to-door salesmen. In a world of distractions, the first step is to flee distraction. This does not necessarily mean that we flee the city. This may mean turning off our devices and learning to sit in solitude and silence.
Second, “there call them in.” Having escaped the sights and sounds of the circus, having fled into the recesses of your mind, invite the object of your contemplation in to join you. That is, put all of your attention here, on this matter, becoming fully present to it. Perhaps you seek to better understand a passage of Scripture or the words of some extrabiblical author. Perhaps there is a complicated situation that perplexes you. Here, having withdrawn from distraction, bring it before your mind, and….
Third, “and there play,” that is, contemplate. In a surprising comment, Aquinas draws an analogy between contemplation and “play,” explaining that there are two ways in which they resemble each other. First of all, “because play is delightful and the contemplation of Wisdom possesses maximum delight” (p. 5). Here we think of Ecclesiastes 12:10, where we read how the Preacher sought out words of delight and wrote words of truth. There is delight in the contemplation of Wisdom. Play and contemplation are alike, secondly, “because things done in play are sought for their own sake and this same trait belongs to the delights of Wisdom” (p. 5). Indeed, “the delight of contemplating Wisdom has within itself the cause of delight” (p. 5). Like play, contemplation is both delightful, and delightful in itself. We desire it, and desire it for itself. It is interesting to consider the possibility that here, Aquinas may be alluding (as many Christians have throughout the centuries) to the fact that Christ—the Logos—is the Wisdom of God. Read with this nuance in mind, Aquinas is reminding us that the contemplation of Christ is both delightful—something that brings joy, and, one might argue, that which brings the greatest joy—and is delightful in itself. We desire Christ and delight to contemplate Him, for Himself and for no other reason.
Finally, the fourth and final step, it is here that humans discover and obtain knowledge and Wisdom. Having withdrawn from distraction, brought all of our attention and presence to the issue at hand, and considered it, we come to knowledge of the Truth and the possession of Wisdom. This is the goal, the end of contemplation, where the intellect rests in the Truth.
Contemplation is one of the lost disciplines of the Christian life, as we inhabit what Josef Pieper often describes as our work-a-day world—a world which is dominated by the practical, success, and money-driven concerns of “work.” A world in which we no longer work in order to be able to contemplate, but in which we work, then distract ourselves with shallow amusements, only to return to work. We have forgotten how to withdraw from the busyness and distractions of this world to contemplate Wisdom. This lost discipline is also a lost art of living. For the sake of a life well-lived, we must rediscover the joy of the ancient, but important, practice of contemplation.
David Haines, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Theology and Philosophy
- Pray that we each would discover or rediscover the practice of contemplation and thereby more of Christ.
- Pray for our incoming students arriving next week to make friends quickly, settle into new routines, and eagerly seek the Lord this next year.
- Pray for our returning students as they begin returning to classes and jobs requiring more of their time and attention.
- Pray for the faculty and staff as they make final preparations for welcome week and the school year.
- Pray for full support of the Alex Steddom International Student Fund.
1. All quotes from Aquinas’s commentary taken from Thomas Aquinas, An Exposition of the ‘On the Hebdomads’ of Boethius, trans. Janice L. Schultz and Edward A. Synan (Washington, D.C.: CUA Press, 2001).