After receiving questions on the relationship between contemplation and meditation (and other spiritual practices), I thought I would write a short post to clarify the relationship. Ultimately, I will use the example of the monastic practice of lectio divina in order to describe the similarities and differences. The example will also serve as a holistic lens by which to understand the method or practice of contemplation.
While contemplation is related to and overlaps with other spiritual practices such as meditation and introspection, there is a firm distinction. For example, meditation seeks to saturate one’s mind with God’s Word and ruminate those words within. Introspection specifically seeks to understand the self (especially in terms of exposing sin). I would understand contemplation as the larger practice that organically integrates both elements as it actively seeks to understand and appraise the person’s union with God through Christ Jesus. Contemplation does not only seek reflective understanding of sin (introspection) or the text (meditation); it also seeks personal, intellectual, and practical integration of the gospel by mind-saturated, comprehensive, and cohesive rumination. Contemplation includes meditation and introspection, but not necessarily the other way around.
To use the example from last week’s post on Psalm 145: meditation is what we do when we absorb and apply God’s words through David, and contemplation is what David was doing as he ruminated on the unsearchable and mysterious greatness of God while also applying this truth to the world around him. Meditation’s content or object is Scripture, while contemplation’s object is God himself, especially as he is understood through the lens of the gospel. While they overlap in many ways, contemplation can be seen as the larger category with meditation as part. This difference was also implicit in Calvin’s heretofore seen distinction between meditation (of Scripture) and contemplation (of the acts of God, i.e., the gospel).
While one might disagree with my distinctions here, they go back to the earlier church. One can see a similar distinction within the lectio divina, an expression of the earlier Rule of St. Benedict. The lectio divina involves a synthesis of the love of letters (of Scripture) and the desire for God. It sought to understand Scripture, not so much as a text to be studied, but as the living Word with Christ as the center. Founded upon the tradition set forth by Origen, Benedict, and Gregory I, the process included up to four steps: read, meditate, pray, and contemplate. The last stage was often seen as the final end or purpose of the whole practice, that is, to see and savor the Lord (cf. Guigo II).
Read, meditate, pray, contemplate. The first stage consists of a prepared stillness wherein one asks for the Spirit to come alongside as he/she thoughtfully reads the passage (cf. Ps 46:10; 1 Cor 2:9-10). The second stage involves, after several readings, a deep and multi-perspectival pondering of the text as it relates to the gospel in Christ (cf. Ps 19; 119). The third stage prays such a meditation to God as the reader asks to live out the meaning of the passage. The fourth stage involves the total experience and appreciation of the person in communion with God.
While there may have been some less helpful forms of the lectio divina, the ancient practice helpfully clarifies the purpose and progression of reading Scripture. One must take a bite (lectio), chew (meditatio), savor the essence (oratio), and then digest and absorb and thereby imitate (contemplatio). The monastic reading was thus meditative and reflective, as the person’s goal was to experience the divine realities in Scripture (hence the term from Benedict and others, “divine readings”). In this sense, I would include meditation and introspection under the larger umbrella of this reading unto contemplation.
A concise example would help to express the intent of the lectio divina. Take, say, John 6:35: “Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.’” A more modern analytical reading would approach the text descriptively (e.g., what Jesus meant by “bread,” how his audience would interpret this kind of statement, the literary context of John’s organization, authorial intention, etc.), which accounts for why modern commentaries are so darn dry and boring. A lectio divina reading would ask other questions. After reading the passage aloud in context several times, the person would ruminate (lit.: masticate) on the passage, perceiving connections between Jesus words here and Israel’s wilderness wanderings, for example. Using words from the passage as a sort of concordance hook for the rest of Scripture, the person would continue to pray the Scripture for the world and their own life in God. In other words, they would not so much intellectually dissect the meaning of “Bread of life” but rather ingest, chew, and digest Jesus Christ as the bread. They wanted to know Scripture, certainly; but they wanted this knowledge to intersect and change their hearts.
(Notice, I am not advocating the mutual exclusion of the analytical and monastic methods.)
Summarizing the basic difference between this monastic method and scholastic theology (more akin to analytic methods), Jean Leclercq notes, “Rather than speculative insights [in scholastic theology], it gives them a certain appreciation, of savoring and clinging to the truth and, what is everything, the love of God” (4; cf. 72-73). Benedict, for example, wanted his monks to experience the gospel in their “divine reading;” the best way to do so, he believed, was by reading Scripture as speaking (not only to the ancient context but also) to them. As Leclercq says again, “Theology, spirituality, cultural history: these three realities were not separated in the real life of the monks, and they can never be dissociated” (6; cf. 28-34). It is no wonder that Benedict preferred the pastoral and personal writings of Origen and Gregory I over other more intellectual and esoteric writings. It is also no wonder that the monks—along with many other Christians in that day—interpreted Scripture through the fourfold witness (Scripture as literal, allegorical, tropological, and anagogical), but this is another topic for another time.
In total, reading Scripture includes and encompasses the holistic human capacity. This is in fact part of the reason that the ancient always sounded out the words while reading, weighing all words and releasing their full flavor. Without the lectio divina, I fear, one may easily fail to read Scripture in light of its intent and goal: the personal and reflective knowledge of Jesus Christ as your Lord. Without the lectio, or at least the contemplative and personal aspects of it, one simply reads to understand the meaning of Scripture and not necessarily its direct intent for you. Reading Scripture is—and ought to be—inescapably bound with personal meditation and gospel contemplation.
The Rule of St. Benedict: In Latin and English with Notes, ed. Timothy Fry (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 1981), chapter 48 (pgs. 249-252).
See Jean Leclercq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture, trans. Catharine Misrahi (New York: Fordham University Press, 1982), 16-22; D. Rees, Consider Your Call (London: SPCK, 1978), 261-273; D. Gorce, La Lectio Divina (Paris: Picard, 1925).