by Religious News Service (Domestic Service). Friday, July 11, 1975. Page 8
DENVER (RNS) — “Contemplation is a form of prayer, probably the highest form of prayer,” according to Father Walter J. Burghardt, SJ recently.
The Jesuit scholar from the Catholic University of America where he teaches historical theology and is editor of Theological Studies, spoke at the convention of the National Federation of Spiritual Directors.
Some 150 spiritual directors at Roman Catholic seminaries around the country attended the sessions.
Contemplation, the priest declared, is a “long, loving look at the real.”
And the real “is not something tangible,” he said. “Reality is people; it’s a foaming mug of Michelob (or Coors, here); it is a sunset over the mountains; a doe in the forest; a striding woman with windblown hair; reality is Christ; it is God. People, things, and God are reality. It is the ‘concrete singular,’ as someone said.”
Contemplation, the Jesuit said, is the immediate union of the object or person with yourself. It is not studying or meditation or analysis or discussion. It happens when a person feels that oneness with life, like a mother feels with her child, or a mystic feels with God, or a husband and wife feel.
“It’s the highest form of knowledge,” Father Burghardt said. “It’s not like scientific knowledge where you know about something. It’s not like theology where you learn about God. It’s a feeling of oneness with God. It is deeper, closer, and more profound than knowledge.”
The Church in the West has “in large measure lost its tradition of contemplation,” he believes. He cited two reasons:
“One is the philosophy of utilitarianism that began in the 18th and 19th Centuries. It taught that only that which is useful is moral, valuable, meaningful. That thought has gradually become dominant in our culture. So we feel guilty unless we’re doing something.”
“I didn’t admit for a long time,” Father Burghardt said, “that I occasionally spent a day doing nothing. I’d say, ‘Oh, I didn’t do much– just odds and ends.’ For a long time I couldn’t say ‘I did nothing; I just enjoyed.’”
The whole idea of “doing something” permeates everything, he noted. We should ask not “what do you do?” but “who are you?”
“The other reason contemplation has been lost is our need to rectify the whole system of injustices in society. It has become highly important to get involved, so those in religious orders did get involved and felt guilty if they took time off to contemplate or go off and pray. Their attitude was ‘to work is to pray.’”
He does not criticize the need for social action but points out the need for contemplation as well. Contemplation is indispensable for the personal life and the work of a priest. “If they don’t have this, they might as well be social workers. There is nothing wrong with social workers, but you don’t have to be ordained to be one.”
Young persons today are looking, “legitimately,” to Eastern philosophies such as Zen and yoga to find this tradition of contemplation, the Jesuit said. “The Eastern spiritualists have been much more successful than we in the West. We’ve always looked on contemplation as a luxury.”
Problems of the world cannot be solved, he feels, unless people feel this oneness for others. The entire ecology crisis is a result of this lack of feeling for oneness, he said.
“We have made the earth and her resources our slave, and now it threatens to destroy us. We’ve exploited, ruined, ravaged, pillaged, and wasted the earth because we have not shown the respect for it that we ought to. Instead, we should be stewards of the earth and feel a oneness with it.”
“Everything that is a reflection of God, because God is life,” Father Burghardt concluded.