In a previous post, I mentioned how the “culture of busyness” created and encouraged by our modern society distracts us from giving adequate value responses to things which are truly beautiful. We have a tendency to struggle in the enjoyment of something because we have come to value our productivity over all other areas of our lives. Amidst this chaos, it becomes necessary for one to defend and explain the nature and importance of contemplation in the life of man. Contemplation aids in pointing man towards appropriate value responses and appreciation of those things which call for value. Thus, contemplation is paramount in the life of man.
The act of contemplation itself has the intellectual life as its formal cause (1). Because the essence of contemplation is itself intellectual, many people would mistakenly place contemplation below acts of the will (such as love) in terms of merit since the tendency of modern culture is to value something outwardly productive over something internally edifying. If one were to speak of contemplation as being the most sublime accomplishment in life, one would likely just blame such a pious notion on the philosophical idealism of antiquity. However, to simply blame Aristotle would be an oversimplification of the issue. To remedy this, one must look more closely at the act of contemplation itself.
Peter Kreeft comments on Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae by saying, “the point of the quotation from St. Gregory the Great [the contemplative life is to cling with our whole mind to the love of God and our neighbor, and to desire nothing beside our Creator] is that contemplation is a ‘clinging’ as well as a seeing, and thus an act of the will as well as of the mind” (2). While the contemplation of something surely occurs in the intellect, the will must fix itself on the object to be contemplated. In other words, “the intellect is commanded by the will” (3). Thus, Kreeft breaks down the act of contemplation by speaking of it in terms of causality. Love of God (or love of beauty, goodness, truth, etc.) is the efficient cause (causes change/motion), material cause (what something is composed of), and final cause (the end or purpose of a thing) of any contemplative act. Only the formal cause (what makes something what it is, and not another thing) is found in the intellect (4). Therefore, it is love and love alone that motivates, composes, and is the goal of contemplation. To say that love or other good actions which require full participation of the will are more meritorious than contemplation is a simple misunderstanding of the nature of contemplation itself. Surely one can assent to this truth that both the intellect and the will are wholly engaged in this act.
Contemplation is a subject that is intimately connected to beauty. Those things which are truly beautiful necessarily lend themselves to be occasions for man to contemplate greater things --- namely, the First Cause which created such a thing to be. A friend once said to me, “I believe in God because I encountered Him by watching ‘Les Miserables’ for the first time. Beautiful things tell us about Him. And this [Les Mis.] is beautiful.” It is true. The beauty of the authentic fatherhood and selfless love of Jean Valjean told her something about God the Father --- and her perspective is forever changed. In discussing the intense raptures of the mystics, Kreeft points out that, “there are many remote prefigurings and suggestions of this rapture and ecstasy in many little ways in which we find ourselves wholly self-forgetful, even now. Great natural beauty, art or music, or the beauty of human love can provoke [contemplation]” (5). Beautiful things lead us back to Beauty Itself.
In this way, nature aids in contemplation. After a long and difficult hike, when one makes it to the top of a mountain overlooking the landscape below, one is naturally caught up in a sincere feeling of awe. The busy-hearted man pauses for a moment to snap a photo with his iPhone, and then keeps moving. The contemplative man pauses to allow the experience to penetrate him --- to raise up his intellect and his affections to higher things. In this way, however, contemplation is an utterly free gift. One cannot sit down and expect to “contemplate” this matter or that. Rather, Kreeft points out that these contemplative moments, especially when we’re encountering an incredible view in nature, have a tendency to surprise us. There is an element of feeling stunned by this sudden burst of beauty. This is because it is more than the “prettiness” itself that captivates us, but the reality that is being communicated by it which is calling out to us. When one sees a stunning view just around the corner, one usually gasps in surprise and delight. It is not merely pious or pretentious to find oneself caught up in contemplation in these moments --- rather, it is the most appropriate response. The contemplative lifestyle is the antithesis to our modern way of living. But, by returning to these deeply intentional and internal responses to beauty, man can cultivate genuine meaning in his life.
- Peter Kreeft, Practical Theology; Spiritual Direction from Saint Thomas Aquinas