Principles for Contemplative Spirituality (Part One)

Contemplation: the art of beholding God's beauty
Contemplation: the art of beholding God’s beauty

A couple of years ago Rob Bell wrote a book with the title What We Talk About When We Talk About God. I haven’t read the book, but I love the title. So I suppose this blog post could be called “What we talk about when we talk about contemplation.”

If that seems funny to you, I admit I’m being ironic. Why talk about something that takes us — or at least invites us — to a place beyond language, beyond words, beyond grammar? But as silent as contemplation is, the reality of being human is that we love to talk about, well, everything. We talk about God. We talk about love. We talk about mystery. And yes, we talk about contemplation.

So for today’s post (and next Wednesday’s as well), I’m sharing with you two sets of six quotations, both from sacred scripture and from other writings that I have found useful, that function as a set of “guiding principles” that help me to remain focused on my understanding of contemplation. It’s a total of twelve quotations: six today, and six next week.

I hope you will read over these quotations, and reflect on their meaning, and how they can provide us with a kind of trellis on which we can hang our understanding of this deeply silent way of beholding God and all things. Yes, I know it’s a paradox, and I know that the best way to understand contemplation is simply to do it (which means being silent rather than chattering on about it).

Nevertheless, since it is human nature to think, and to reflect on what gives life meaning, I hope you will reflect on these principles. Just don’t do it until after you’ve spent some time in silence.

  • Silence is praise. (Psalm 65:1 translated literally)
    Contemplation is not a practice or a technique; it is a way of seeing, of listening and of paying attention, that is grounded in silence. Silence is more than just the absence of sound, it is the presence of the open present moment, where we make ourselves available to attend to God. This attentiveness is an actual form of praise, of worship.
  • Know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:19)
    Contemplation begins in love and takes us beyond thought or knowledge, leading us to that place where we recognize God’s presence in our lives, empowering us to love God and one another, to find meaning in suffering, and to remain grounded in hope and joy.
  • The Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist. (Karl Rahner)
    We are all called to contemplation. Silent prayer is not just for nuns or monks, priests or ministers, saints or visionaries. It’s for all of us. Christianity is in crisis today at least in part because the church has abandoned its contemplative heritage. It is vital that we reclaim that heritage for ourselves and for the future.
  • Contemplation is the only ultimate answer to the unreal and insane world that our financial systems and our advertising culture and our chaotic and unexamined emotions encourage us to inhabit. (Archbishop Rowan Williams)
    Contemplative living provides an alternative to the forces in life that foster consumerism, materialism, low self-worth, and environmental degradation. Contemplation helps us to create a happier, healthier life. It is a spiritual discipline, but even more than that: it is a way of putting our faith into action, with practical, and even social, ramifications.
  • Contemplatives explore the waste of their own being. It is in the midst of chaos and crisis that they pursue the vision of God and experience the conflict which is at the core of the contemplative search. (Kenneth Leech)
    Contemplation is not an escape from the messiness of life. Rather, it is a fearless entry into life’s “chaos and crisis” so that we might foster healing, renewal, and wellness for our selves, our relationships, and our world.
  • Contemplative practice is not a technique but a surrendering of deeply imbedded resistances that allows the sacred within gradually to reveal itself as a simple, fundamental fact. (Martin Laird)
    What Orthodox Christianity calls theosis is the summit of the spiritual life: the recognition that “God and I are not two” and that our destiny as children of God is nothing less than union with God.

Do these principles resonate with you? Please let me know: leave a comment here, or on social media. And be sure to click here for my other six principles of contemplative spirituality.

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Carl McColman
Soul Friend and Storyteller. Lay Cistercian, Catechist, Author, Blogger, Podcaster, Speaker, Teacher, Retreat Leader.


  1. That quote from Martin Laird resonated with me: “…a surrendering of deeply inbedded resistances…”. Resistances–I deal with those daily. Surrendering rather than fighting them is what I need to do. Thank you for sharing all of these quotes. I always look forward to your postings even if I don’t comment.

  2. I am ready to embrace silence. I feel like I’ve had more silence than now in the country. I don’t get to listen to Nature anymore, or just be quiet with my thoughts. Every minute is filled with sound. I even sleep with the TV on to shut my mind off so I can sleep.

    I had a hellish lunch at a restaurant where people were talking loudly in their phones, the background music was so loud my mom and I couldn’t talk, the kid at the next table was playing his video game very loudly. I got the biggest headache.

    Rode home in the car with the radio on.

    Where is the silence?

    I need help with silence in my environment and silence in my mind.

  3. Several years ago I was taking a course using Karl Rahner as a text. I loved it but found it very difficult for me to understand him completely. This is the second time recently that I have read the quotation about the Xian of the future having to be a mystic or nothing at all. Still very difficult for me, although I would very much like to be one. Thank you so much for your efforts.

  4. hi Carl!

    I have been reading and tried to practice the way of a contemplative life although poorly I believe. But my hunger for anything on the topic of contemplation continues. Recently I have also been enticed into “mindfulness” practices. Now what or how do you relation contemplation and Mindfulness? They’re beginning to sound that there is a correlation? Thank you!

  5. Carl, thank you for this thoughtful entry. I think I shared on your site before: I believe the Holy Spirit led me to contemplation in February 2014, during a very low point in my life and marriage, when I found that my prior religious experience seemed to have little to offer. The next six months were “chaos and crisis” indeed. Without contemplation I’m not sure how I would have made it through, much less found meaning in suffering. Though it seemed at the time that I was driven there by desperation, I can see that God led me to contemplation, not just for a time, but as the next step in my journey.

  6. This was wonderful. I meet with a group of people every other week for food and discussion about spiritual concepts. One overwhelming issue is that of the loss of sanctity and contemplative spirit within the worship services we attend. As this world – and the churches within this world – spiral through chaos, it is nice to know and now have this specific points about the principles of contemplation.

  7. Hi, This is my first time on your site and it was a great experience. My heart sang at the quote from Karl Rahner. A connection was made as he is one of my favorites that almost no one knows about. I met him in New York years ago. Thank you for bringing Father back to me.

  8. Carl,

    You don’t know how good it is to hear this! That God is moving on the hearts of so many of us, drawing us into his presence, into the mysteries of eternity. It’s like iron sharpening iron when I read your work. What you say explodes in other area’s with little Aha’s, like the slow unfolding of a rose. It’s like you’re an ally in our spiritual journey.

    Thank You for your good work!

    Your brother,

    1. Thank you so much, Bob. Actually, that’s who I feel I am called to be: an ally, a companion, to all who seek to walk the path of contemplation. I’m not a priest, I’m not an academic theologian (God be praised). I’m simply a fellow traveler, and feel blessed that I have been given the privilege to share my journey with others in this way.

  9. Hello, I read Part 2 then Part 1. This is an interesting site, and I appreciate your open exploring of the mystery concerning the mysteries of God… found in the realm of quiet yet with the expectant desire for communion with our heavenly Father. I am not Orthodox nor Catholic but have my spiritual roots in Protestant evangelicalism with Baptist “take” on theology. Imagine my surprise when I unexpectantly discovered the joy of contemplation on my own through an open seeking of God after putting the ball in His court. I asked Him to teach me. He did so much more. The result has been, wow. Something fundamentally changes when a person goes from knowing about God to knowing God in ever-closer and closer relationship. I even wrote a book that has contemplation as part of its offering. It was scary to do since it is a rarity for many in the faith. How sad. Interestingly enough, the passages people like best in my book are the contemplative sections. I didn’t even know the correct term and called them Consolations. I wish more could experience the joy of being quiet with God. For it is in the quiet that He speaks to those who listen. I agree with the Rahner quote, it is for all of us. Thanks. God bless.

  10. Carl, I’m on your email list and get your blogs regularly, yet my reading is interrupted, sometimes more than once, by the prompt to sign up to get your blog. Isn’t there some way for the system to recognize that I have already signed up? If so, I would be grateful. If it isn’t possible, let us know. Thanks for sharing your wisdom with us!

    1. Nancy, the fault is with me — let me do some research to see if the plugin I’m using can be turned off like that. I thought I had it set up so that it would only show up once every 30 days, but obviously that’s not happening. If I can’t figure out how to make this plugin behave, I’ll look for a different one. In the meantime, my apologies, thanks for reading, and thanks for being patient while I get it sorted out!

  11. Oops! I goofed, Carl. I have been receiving your Patheos writings but not updates to your blog. I have now corrected this situation!

    1. Yes, it’s two different blogs, two different mailing lists — one belongs the Patheos, the other belongs to me. 🙂

  12. A reply to some of the comments below, but not about silence, although it is about calming oneself in frustrating situations. I listen to Taize chant and sing along while driving in traffic. I arrive at my destination in a much better attitude than when I listen to the news, other music, or have no sounds drowning out the traffic noise. My time alone in my car praying in chant is now something to which I look forward.

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