What does it mean to be “contemplative” and what does a contemplative “do”?
One may be an introvert, thoughtful, a “quiet-type”, or a loner, but that is not the same as being a contemplative. Nor do robes, religious affiliation, shaven heads, or monastic or cloistered living guarantee that one is a contemplative, either.
It means, I think, to hold oneself in the deepest and most quiet places where there are no answers but where the very act of being exists as an enormous, awe-inspiring Question whose Presence is so delicate it requires one stop all other activities to sense it, or plug into it, but is so big as to outstrip all other aspects of self, revealing them to be of minuscule import by comparison, and demanding of one´s attention. All else is distraction. It means to retreat more and more to that place where one is there, holding that Question so close to oneself that they merge and one no longer sees the essence of living as separate from that depth. It means that when engaged in other things, there remains the Great Lingering Pull to go back “there” and to replenish oneself in the waters of the “farthest reaches” of my inner quiet.
I have met many priests, monks, and reclusive religious-types who were not contemplatives. I have also met naturalists, students, retirees, and workers who were. What distinguishes the contemplative from the person with a deep need for solitude or religious identity is the over-riding need above those others, for connection. This connection is not towards the world or the things of the world, but connection instead to the space of Being at its most primal depths. Without regular access to that, the contemplative suffers. Without tuning in to that frequency, the contemplative´s life is a scattered pulsing of impulses, needs and desires, many authentically deep, but not fully tapped into nor fully integrated.
When I was a child, I often sat on the ground across the street from my home, in the center of a schoolyard, and simply stared at clouds, sometimes for hours. That is where it began. This habit stayed throughout the otherwise tempestuous teens and I rarely took it as anything seriously. I also walked daily, sometimes again for hours, aimlessly wandering. I know it was deeper than loneliness because truth be told, I wasn’t´t really sad or lonely during those times.
I was fulfilled.
While there were many elements in my life which were unsatisfactory or wanting, they were not the cause nor the result of these inner excursions. They were tangential to the experience of retreating so far within that I managed to touch something nameless and yet still timeless inside me. Something that needed, and needs still, regular tending.
Today, I am comfortable in crowds, am quite sociable and enjoy and celebrate company and the fellowship of kindred spirits. Yet when I am alone, I am tapped into a deeper Source which fills me with the most wonderful feeling, the gift of holy interiority, in which I am driven to remain for a while, though the constraints of life interfere and activity beckons. As a very young man I dreamed of being a hermit in some Chinese mountaintop, of being a recluse in the forests of India, or a nameless monk hidden away in one of Japan´s remote monasteries. I lived for a time in many such environments and they remain the most fulfilling times of my life. When I worked “in the world” dealing with such interiority, as a Chaplain dealing with death and dying, I tapped into a social manifestation of that Great Work. Now, with children and home life, I am tried daily to retreat there for any substantial time and it is a struggle. I have deepened other aspects of living, “sympathetic joy” (mudita in Buddhism) around the joys of my children, for example, but extended periods fulfilling that call are far too few now. This is a sadness which requires addressing.