What constitutes a theological understanding of the Christian Life as “contemplation in action?” How do we as persons become more united to Christ so that we can be more aware of God’s presence in us, before us, and in the midst of our everyday lives? How does the Christian practice of prayer serve to foster more contemplative lives?
Union WIth Christ British poet Evelyn Underhill describes the contemplative eye as one that sees as a “spiritual artist” (1) what God is disclosing. Underhill emphasizes that central to seeing what God is revealing is a personal relationship with God. “We know a thing only by uniting with it; by assimilating it; by an interpretation of it and ourselves.” (2) To know God more intimately, we must turn our attention toward God, make sense of our experience of God, and continue to reinterpret who we are in relationship with God. At the heart of Christian contemplative spirituality is union with God through Christ because he is the total revelation of God. Christ demonstrates for us how to live a divinely human life and we, therefore, must look to him as our model for contemplative living.
The New Testament provides many resources that support the vision of life lived contemplatively in the world. John 13-17, also known as the Farewell Discourse, offers a wonderful portrait of the invitation to live contemplatively in the world, conscious of God’s desire to be in intimate relationship with us and responsive to the amazing invitation to live fully in Christ. In John’s Gospel, Jesus affirms in his own words that the path to God is made possible only through him. He said: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, then you will also know my Father.” (Jn 14:6-7) In his commentary on the passage, William Barclay helps us understand how these words--way, truth, and life--were meaningful for his disciples’ lives so that we can further understand Jesus’ message for our own lives. He explains that the Jews (3) would have been familiar with the term way as it is referred to in the book of Deuteronomy in terms of walking in the way God has commanded (Deuteronomy 5: 32-33), as well in the Psalmist’s prayer: “Teach me thy way, O Lord.” (Psalm 27:11) Barclay explains that Jesus’ message would have been clear to the Jews. “The Jews knew much about the way of God in which a man must walk. And Jesus said, ‘I am the Way.’” (4) Jesus was confident they would understand his message that the path toward developing an intimate relationship with God could be reached by following in his footsteps.
Barclay points out that the notion of truth is also found in the Psalms and would be equally familiar for Jesus’ disciples, who read: “Teach me the way, O Lord, that I may walk in thy truth.” (Psalm 86:11) and “I have chosen the way of truth.” (Psalm 119:30) This helps us to see that Jesus’ statement: “I am the truth” means more than just that he always told the truth. Jesus revealed to his disciples that he is the embodiment of truth. Barclay says: “The tremendous thing about Jesus is not simply that the statement of moral perfection finds its peak in him; it is that the fact of moral perfection finds its realization in him.”(5) The search for truth ends in the person of Jesus in whom God became incarnate. Jesus’ words: “I am the truth” was more than an invitation to the disciples to follow him. It was an affirmation that in knowing him they also know the Father.
Jesus’ statement: “I am the life” serves as a summation of the previous two statements and speaks to the very nature of God. God gave life to human beings; and as a testament of God’s love, became incarnate in the person of Jesus so that human beings could know God and know the fullness of life. Jesus’ message here is that the fullness of life is only made possible through relationship with God. Jesus begs his disciples to believe him: “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” (Jn 14:11) Jesus’ message: “I am the Life” is a promise that he embodies the fullness of life and that those who follow him will also receive the fullness of life. Thus, in order to deepen in relationship with God, the first aspect in any contemplative spirituality in Christianity, one must turn to Jesus Christ who is the revelation of God.
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1. Evelyn Underhill, Practical Mysticism: A Little Book for Normal People, (New York: Vintage Spiritual Classics, 2003), 16
2. Evelyn Underhill, Practical Mysticism: A Little Book for Normal People, (New York: Vintage Spiritual Classics, 2003), 11
3. When the author speaks of the Iudaicoi, the “Jews,” he is speaking not about the Jewish religion, as we will come to understand it, but the Jewish party, who were involved in removing the Johannine community from the synagogue.
4. William Barclay, The Gospel of John: Volume 2, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1975), 157
5. William Barclay, The Gospel of John: Volume 2, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1975), 158