The word ‘contemplation’ has a variety of meanings in religious writing over the centuries. Its basic meaning involves the idea of looking, perhaps gazing. There has been an upsurge of interest in contemplation in our own time as people search for meaning, for depth, for something to satisfy their deepest hungers. In the Carmelite tradition this is all part of our searching for God.
Contemplation has quite a specific sense for the Carmelites. It is primarily something we receive, not something we do. For the Carmelite, contemplation is essentially a gift of God which we prepare to receive through ‘de-centering’, making God and others, rather than ourselves, the centre of our lives and everything we do. Preparation to receive the gift of contemplation involves two key elements of Carmelite spirituality: emptying ourselves in order to receive God (vacare Deo) and purity of heart (puritas cordis). This means that we seek, with the help of God, to remove ‘false gods’ and sinfulness from our lives so as to be open to welcome His grace and inner healing.
Contemplation is an encounter with God which transforms us. It is a kind of letting go. It means resting in God, beyond words, beyond thoughts, beyond activity. It is taking to heart the words of God in the psalm: ‘Be still and know that I am God.’
An important emphasis in the Carmelite tradition is the need to alert people to the fact that contemplation, as God’s gift, is open to all: it is not the preserve of monks, or friars, or nuns, or those with plenty of leisure time. It is as much for busy people, leading busy lives, as for anyone else.
According to Carmelite reflection, contemplation involves developing a contemplative outlook on life, acquiring an attitude of openness to God’s presence, learning to see the world with God’s eyes, inspiring us to seek, recognise, love, and serve God in those around us. The Carmelite Constitutions speak of contemplation in this way: ‘Contemplation is the inner journey of Carmelites, arising out of the free initiative of God, who touches and transforms us leading towards unity in love with him, raising us up so that we may enjoy his gratuitous love and living in his loving presence. It is a transforming experience of the overpowering love of God. This love empties us of our limited and imperfect human ways of thinking, loving, and behaving, transforming them into divine ways.’ (Carmelite Constitutions (1995), 17)