What is a Christian contemplative?

The word “contemplative” can mean many things, but in this case, a contemplative is a person who feels called to live his or her life with a special emphasis on simple living, prayer, Scripture study, Christian meditation, and digging deep into the Christian tradition, while also learning from other faith traditions. For many years, I have been attempting to live a “simple lifestyle” and now I think that what I am really trying to do is something akin to being a “Christian contemplative.” In my case, I am not a monk, hermit, or nun. I am a married woman who lives “in the world,” so some might call me a “lay contemplative.” (Read more below)

Dig deeper: What is a Christian contemplative? 

A Christian contemplative is a person following Christ out “into the desert” with a special emphasis on the more reflective dimension of spiritual life. This means that his or her style of living will include a special emphasis on prayer, Scripture, study, spiritual reading, silence, solitude, or similar spiritual disciplines as a way of opening the heart, mind, and soul more fully to the intimate presence of God.

Being a Christian contemplative does not mean one “has arrived” or has “found nirvana,” although one may well desire the ultimate goal of experiencing union with God as much as possible in this life. Living a contemplative lifestyle does not mean isolation from other people, although one may find periods of solitude or time on retreat helpful in order to deepen one’s relationship with God. Contrary to what some might think, the contemplative life is not a selfish or self-centered way of living, at least not when seriously lived as a Christian vocation.

Certainly all followers of Christ are called to prayer and reflective living, but the Christian contemplative feels drawn to this in a special way. By way of comparison, all Christians are called to care for the poor in our midst, but some are called to work daily at charitable organizations; all are called to participate in the priesthood of Christ by their baptism, yet some are especially gifted by the Spirit to become church leaders. In similar fashion, all Christians are called to pray, develop their spiritual lives, and explore spirituality, but Christian contemplatives feel it is their gift and vocation to focus more intentionally on these tasks. Christian contemplatives find inspiration in biblical stories such as Elijah experiencing God in the silence of the cave (I Kings 19:11-13), Moses encountering the burning bush (Exodus 3:2f), Jesus enduring temptations in the desert (Matthew 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13), or Martha’s sister, Mary, sitting at the feet of Jesus with a listening heart (Luke 10:38-42).

Dig even deeper: See the book The Lay Contemplative, edited by Virginia Manss and Mary Frohlich.

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