Perhaps the most dramatic assertion about human nature, in part because of the difficulty in comprehending it and its implications, is that man is at root a contemplative being.

The great Josef Pieper famously asserts this point with unapologetic force:
“Man, physical, historical, ‘earthly’ man, has a basic craving to see; strictly speaking, he craves nothing else; his make-up is such that he lives most purely as a see-er: in contemplation.”

As Pieper was well aware, this strikes even Christian ears as an odd assertion. I think the main reason for this is that it can seem to leave out love, and even loved ones. ‘Contemplation’ raises images of a person ‘doing his own thing,’ ‘taking in the world,’ perhaps in a sort of disinterested or detached way. How could this be the ultimate perfection of the person?

This is not the place for a treatise in exposition of Thomas Aquinas’s understanding of human perfection and so happiness as consisting essentially in an act of knowing or intellectual vision. But we might offer a brief reflection about the life-implications of this point. Aquinas sees his view of contemplation, far from leaving out or denigrating love, as giving the ground for the nature and dignity of love.

Man is indeed made for love: to be loved, and to give love. Contemplation refers to an intellectual gazing; ‘intellectual’ here means with our intellect as opposed to with our senses—though the senses can certainly be involved. Rightly done, this gaze begins in love and ends in love. Yet a key point here is that contemplation is the highest expression of a what lover actually does. If I really love you, I want two things: I want you to flourish, and I want to be with you. This means, then, that I want you to see (for your seeing most constitutes your flourishing); and I want to see you, and see together with you (for this constitutes our closest union with one another).

I think the heart of our problem with contemplation is that we have not yet understood what it is. Or perhaps more to the point, we are inexperienced in really doing it. Yet there is no need to be discouraged. It comes as no surprise that what we are called to do, each according to his state in life, is an arduous good that will require much study, cultivation, and prayer. The more we begin to recognize and practice real contemplation in its various forms, the more we will see the truth and importance of Pieper’s assertion that we are made for ‘seeing.’

Implications are many of this challenging philosophical/theological point about human identity. One thing is sure, it has practical implications for every aspect of our life. But where do we begin? We can start by thinking about how our contemplative identity finds expression in our daily life.

Two common, dominant forces today are working against our contemplative identity. First, there is busyness and noise in our day, and second there is the implicit if not explicit primacy of ‘practicality’—experienced as ‘what’s the practical value of doing that?’ I want to be direct: I think many of us have been deeply if unconsciously formed by both forces. We find it difficult to make space for the contemplative and to justify doing so. Indeed, our contemplative identity is so underdeveloped we’re not sure what it is.

So what then can I do? Here are two significant steps we can take every day:
1. Take a walk, and just look, notice, and reflect. Don’t listen to a podcast; don’t go over in your mind ‘next steps’ in your day or how to address this or that problem. Just look, notice, and reflect. If the third—reflecting—doesn’t come easily, then start with the first two. Look and notice: birds, trees, people, sky, sun, architecture…maybe even angels. Truly, this is not some tool to help you relax. Nor is it a tool to make you more productive!—as though it needed that justification! This is a potent means to discover your humanity.

2. Reflective prayer. Let me again be direct: I do not purport to give the principles of prayer. But this much I say with confidence: aside from the all-important prayer of petition—of asking for things we need, there is a form of prayer that seeks most of all to see, to enter into the reality of who God is, and what he has done and is doing. It seeks to grow in knowledge, because we love; to grow in knowledge, as way a serving him, and a way of being with him. We don’t do this because it’s ‘practical,’ any more than we seek to know a human friend because it’s ‘practical.’ This need not take long each day. But it is life-giving; indeed it is, in a sense, life itself.

One need not have a precise understanding of exactly what contemplation is; one certainly need not be a philosopher or theologian in the proper sense. We all can start with the above or other such simple steps to discover and become ourselves. To discover and enact our ultimate identity. ~ ~ ~

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