Based on a beautiful ancient sculpture in Northern France, here are the six stages of the contemplative journey.
It may be hard to measure the spiritual, but the masters of the spiritual life have understood how helpful it is to have a map and a sense of the steps we pass through. The time involved for each step varies for individuals; and there is no pill for speeding up the process, only the medicine of faith, which saves us from wasting time.
Chartres cathedral in Northern France is itself a book in stone with the stories and doctrines of our tradition illustrated with great beauty, in a powerful harmony of art and faith that the modern mind can barely understand. In a pre-literate age this was how the people learned. The stained glass and the sculptures were the comic books of their time but also one of the highest achievements of civilisation. On the west portal of the building, inserted among the many small sculptures expressing the most important beliefs and ideas by which people once made sense of their lives, there is a special sequence of six. They show a veiled seated woman holding a book in different ways, representing the stages of contemplation.
These were the pictures that informed our daily conference during the warm days of the Monte Oliveto retreat. After meditation, breakfast and yoga the same silent converging took place, this time in the Aula S Benedeto, the conference room we entered in the far left corner of a large red-tiled courtyard that had absorbed the sun for centuries. To keep people awake but also to remember how mind and body together are our organs of perception, we took a break half way through each conference. We filed out into the courtyard and were led in simple sense-awakening exercises, touching the ancient smooth, stone walls or stretching up into the blueness above. Then filing back refreshed and smiling for the second half of the talk.
Stage One of the Contemplative Journey
In the first sculpture of the sequence the woman is in a pre-contemplative state. As soon as we have started the journey of meditation we become aware of this lack of awareness in ourselves. Until this awareness dawns we are really lost. Perhaps later we remember it as a stage, not so distant, where we couldn’t understand or feel interest in whatever contemplation or meditation might mean. We were either too busy or too frightened. We may have been chasing after the ‘something’ we hoped would satisfy or justify our existence without really knowing what the ‘more’ was that we lusted for. Or we may have been disillusioned and depressed, unconvinced that the ‘something else’ beyond what we were and had in our lives even existed.
The woman has a vague and spacey look. She is holding the unopened book in her left hand. Her right hand is hidden. The active and contemplative aspects of the person are not integrated or even aware of each other. In this pre-contemplative stage it is hard for us to see why we should change, let alone how. Or, if we can, change is a thought that we kick into the un-seeable future. Sometimes this attitude is straight denial, as in the alcoholic whose life is being ruined by his addiction but who says he has no problem and, even if he did, he could control it. Or it is simple resistance to change because the devil we know is better than the one we don’t. Much of life, decades, can pass fruitlessly, stuck in this stage. Only later do we see the meaning of the opportunities we missed and wonder why for so long our own heart was indeed a closed book to us.
Stage Two of the Contemplative Journey
The book is a symbol here not of conceptual knowledge but of the heart, which has reasons that reason does not know. In the second sculpture Lady Gaga becomes Lady Contemplation. Her expression is more awake and engaged and there is the sense of exploration and discovery that accompanies receiving and opening a new book.
St Bernard said that the first stage is to ‘consider constantly what God wants, what is pleasing and acceptable to him.’ This is coded language for most people today so we must paraphrase it. To discover God’s will is only possible when – as St Paul says – we are into a process of transformation of consciousness in which all our ways of knowing are being expanded. ‘Let your minds be remade and your whole nature thus transformed’, he says, and then you will know what God wants. Psychologically, this means we must cut through the jungle and undergrowth of our conflicting desires and fantasies and penetrate to what we really want.
Bernard means that when you start to open the book of the heart, don’t give up half-way through the jungle. Eventually we simplify and purify the rag and bone shop of the heart so that we connect with the ‘will of God’ in itself, rather than merely as it egotistically affects us. This shifting from our usual egocentric approach is the big change in consciousness and in daily life. We may sense that something mysterious is happening in us. Other people just find us a little easier to live with.
Meister Eckhart said that the shell must be broken and what is inside must come out. As the chick needs to peck itself out of the shell so we can only open the book and start the journey of self-knowledge. Sadly no one can give us this self-knowledge. At first, because it is so different, we feel disoriented. Time slows down, space changes – neurological science seems to have found the parts of the brain where this experience is mirrored. But what is happening cannot be so easily explained. We are evolving in consciousness as we open the book and start learning what it has to teach us.
Chapter forty-four of The Cloud of Unknowing says that we will at times feel a ‘strong and deep ghostly sorrow.’ It is not a psychological depression or a negative state at all and in fact the mystical tradition says it is good for us to get to this sorrow. It is not about what we have and don’t like or what we don’t have but want. It concerns the unshakeable sense of separation, the shadow cast by the ego, between ourselves and everything we are in relationship with. The Cloud says that this sorrow cleanses the heart, not only of sin, but also of the pain (the karma) that sin has earned. And what makes this intermittent sorrow endurable is that it reveals to us what we most deeply want and have been programmed to find.
This is not consumer spirituality. Speaking about a purifying sorrow sounds odd but it truthfully reflects the experience of the journey of meditation. We learn at this stage what the Bhagavad Gita means by saying that we must do our work without attachment to its fruits. Or what the parable of the workers in the vineyard tells us about the distance between ourselves and God, (the ego’s perception of things and the knowledge of love), that is bridged not by our demanding our rights, but in the ministration of grace.
Thomas Aquinas liked asking questions. He asked, “Is attention really necessary in prayer?” He liked multiple-choice answers too. So, 1) Attention is not necessary for us to gain basic merit for the time we give to prayer. Like some cushy jobs, you get paid just for turning up. There are people who feel relatively satisfied if they merely say their prayers. 2) Attention is not necessary either for gaining favors from God. Some benefits accrue just with the practice. Cholesterol and stress are all improved. 3) But attention is absolutely necessary for the “refreshment of our soul.” The more radical and lasting transformation, the opening to the life-giving and enlightening depths of the book of the heart come from the work of attention which is the essence of prayer, at least of “pure prayer.” As with any book we can skim it, toss it aside for the easier entertainment of TV. But a good book rewards the work of reading and can change our life.
Stage Three of the Contemplative Journey
This is what is happening in the third sculpture. The woman is holding the book with both hands, deeply concentrated and attentive. She’s fully into it. Recollection (mindfulness) is the term used to describe the state where we both recall what we have forgotten and pay attention fully to the presence of God here and now. Between the two is what researchers into memory call the ToT point, the “tip of the tongue” moment, where we can almost recall a name or a face but can’t quite complete the process. The same brain research shows, not surprisingly, that it is more difficult for us to remember things that we took in when our attention was distracted or divided. The more attention we give, the easier it is to pull it back into consciousness.
How do we view this state of attention? As hard work, like revising for an exam or as being absorbed effortlessly in something delightful? Children take so well to meditation, I think, simply because they enjoy it and because they enjoy it simply. One of our coordinators for the Meditation in Schools project told me recently that he has been struck by so many reports of the children – who learn to meditate at school – practicing it on their own at home as well. This is having a noticeable impact on many families and their internal relationships. Not a few parents have started meditating as a result.
A child likes to play and takes play very seriously. Play is observable in birds and mammals because of the long periods of time they have to pass in a state of complete dependence on their parents.
Perhaps it is from play that human culture and religion develops. In sport the game is governed by rules and children too enforce the rules in their made-up games. To break the rules in order to win is human but universally considered to be wrong. What if we were to approach meditation as a form of sacred play, with simple but clear rules governing what happens in the space and time allocated to it? The rules are inherited as part of a tradition in which they have worked effectively a long time and which makes them easier to trust. They must be freely accepted – no discipline that is harshly imposed works at a spiritual level. But the point is to play well, to find joy in the absorption in the game, to shake off at least for a while the burden of our self-consciousness and egotism.
Meditation is the work we do, the game we play in order to receive the gift of contemplation. Contemplation is knowledge born of love. It takes us on a journey of vaster inner proportions than intergalactic travel. The destination is an infinite degree of loving. A football manager once remarked about the ‘beautiful game’: ‘Football’s not a matter of life and death. It’s more important than that’.
Only in joy can we see how serious something really is.
Stage Four of the Contemplative Journey
Lady Contemplation now passes into silence. The book is again closed, on her lap. Her hands are joined and she appears to be completely in harmony, and serenity.
For the time being she has laid aside her thoughts, even good ideas and insights, and found the stillness of mind, which opens naturally into stillness of spirit. She is being with God rather than thinking about God. In this ‘offline’ state of pure prayer a real and profound work is being accomplished even though the meditator may have no sense of being actively involved in it. Not only are the roots of the negative states of mind – what the desert monks called the principal faults – being pulled up. Our understanding of God is also being remade along with our sense of ourselves.
Familiar or culturally shaped images of God may now seem irrelevant and false to the experience of God that has silently been opened to us at a level deeper than thought or imagination.
Outside of the meditation times this new theology has to be confronted. It can be disturbing or even feel as if we are losing our faith, whereas in fact we are deepening it. The soul, Meister Eckhart said, must become ‘empty and free’ so that she can attain the purity of a virgin in the ‘ground of her being.’ The virginal state is a metaphor, of course, for a way of being innocent and purely open to the conjugal embrace with reality, the spiritual marriage. Union with God is always the first time. We may experience this in fleeting moments or not even be aware that we have passed through such states – or that they have passed through us. But they are increasingly part of the journey we are making and, even if we are unaware of them, they leave a deposit in our ways of acting and reacting in the ‘online’, active aspects of our daily lives.
Stage Five of the Contemplative Journey
As with art or intimate relationships, so with the contemplative journey – which is the art of intimacy itself – there are moments of ecstasy. In the fifth sculpture the soul is shown in this state where we stand outside ourselves. The book is again closed in her left hand. Her right hand is raised and she is looking down to her right – whether in a sign of greeting, or peace or even an instinctive defense, is not definable. The left brain cannot easily explain a right brain event. It is not merely an out of the body experience or even ‘an ‘experience’ in the ordinary sense of the word at all.
Perhaps it is not only ecstasy but also enstasy – a word coined to describe the state of serenity and standing within oneself. Eastern and Western perspectives on contemplation come together in these two terms. But, however it is understood, it is less about a particular experience that we would like to repeat or sustain and more of a revealing of a whole level of experience that is continuously present, but of which we are rarely conscious. Yet it is what all our distractedness and dysfunctional behaviour is built on, and if these more disordered states of mind could be awakened to the existence of this deeper level of reality, they would be healed and calmed.
I want nothing. I know nothing. I am nothing. So elusive is this experience of union in God to description that it is often best evoked by the language of negation. Similarly, terms like poverty of spirit, stillness and silence have to be understood in relation to what they are trying to describe in a special way. Otherwise, they are easily understood negatively as meaning the absence of their opposites, which comprise our usual state: over-stimulation, hyper-activity and excessive communication through words and images.
Another term that attempts to do the fifth stage justice is detachment or non-attachment. All deeper spiritualities agree that this is the state that we need to embrace and cultivate in order to breakthrough into the deepest part of our selves where God, the ultimate reality, serenely shines. Union with God is impossible without union with ourselves and so the soul must penetrate to its own ground before God can be ‘born’ in the soul.
Detachment is not merely escape from the world but a way of living the online part of life while staying in touch with the offline state: contemplation in action, silence in the midst of thought. This is the secret of creativity and resilience. To be able to detach our mind from its usual patterns and prejudices, all its habits, is the pre-requisite of thinking outside the box, seeing what is beautifully simple. And yet once it has been seen it is absurdly obvious.
This explains why meditation needs to be integrated into daily life and why it is in daily life that we will see its fruits. Times of retreat, or participating in a weekly group, help us to achieve this; but it is in the field of daily life and work, relationships and responses, that the reality of union can be seen. How can we love the God we cannot see if we don’t love the person we can see? Or, putting it another way, by coming to union with those we can see we realise our union with God.
Stage Six of the Contemplative Journey
The last sculpture shows the meditator sharing the gifts of contemplation with others. It is, not exclusively, but an essentially Christian understanding of the meaning and nature of the whole journey. It is the test of authentic sanctity. For the Buddhist it would describe the bodhisattva ideal and, for the contemporary Christian, it also shows the relationship between contemplation and evangelisation.
The book is closed nearby, and she is looking outwards, energized and engaged. But she still appears centred and is not distracted in her activity. Mary and Martha have merged. The ideal of sharing the fruits of contemplation is embedded in Christian understanding.et contemplata aliis tradere is an old phrase that means to contemplate and transmit to others the fruits of the contemplation. Yes, contemplation is an end in itself, the goal of life. But the end is endless and so there is always more detachment to fall creatively into, always more to share with others as a part of our own journey.
More than any other teacher Jesus has empowered his disciples and given them his own Spirit, to continue his mission in the world. This is so overwhelming a concept that we need the dimension of contemplation even to begin to grasp it. Otherwise we will reduce it to a merely activist dimension and see it as primarily concerned with expanding numerical membership of the church. It is more than that because Jesus is more than a founder of another religion. The mystery of Christianity, and the paradox of Jesus himself opens to us fully, only through this dimension.
Why do we even need to think about the stages of the journey? Not in order to assess our own progress in a self-fixated way, but rather to come to a more selfless clarity and sense of order in what we are doing. The journey is spiritual, and therefore not measurable or mappable. And yet it is a human spiritual process and we benefit from a sense of the inner logic and purpose of what we are being led through. The real reason for understanding it is not to control it, but to be able to communicate and share it better.
Our culture, our institutions are descending in to ever-deeper disorder. The culture of our financial institutions seems severely corrupted. Even the churches seem unable to distinguish between things temporal and things spiritual. Education, medicine, government, law and science also show the same symptoms of the loss of the spiritual dimension of reality – and even a loss of memory of what has been lost. To teach meditation as a spiritual practice today means to be aware of its physical and psychological benefits, but even more of its spiritual fruits. Perhaps this is a contribution that every meditator can make, in his or her own way, to turn the crisis breaking over us into a breakthrough for all humanity.