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b : a state of mystical awareness of God's being
For lessons on the related topic of Stillness, follow this link.


The word contemplation comes from the Latin root templum (from Greek temnein: to cut or divide). It means separating something from its environment and enclosing it in a sector. Contemplation is the Latin translation of Greek 'theory' (theoria). In a religious sense it is usually a type of prayer or meditation.

Greek philosophy

Contemplation was an important part of the philosophy of Plato; Plato thought that through contemplation the soul may ascend to knowledge of the Form of the Good or other divine Forms.[1] Plotinus as a Neolatonic philosopher also expressed contemplation as the most critical of components for one to reach henosis. To Plotinus the highest contemplation was to experience the vision of God, the Monad or the One. Plotinus describes this experience in his works the Enneads. According to his student Porphyry, Plotinus stated that he had this experience of God four times.[2] Plotinus wrote about his experience in Enneads 6.9.xx....

Eastern Orthodox Christianity

In Eastern Christianity contemplation or theoria literally means to see God or to have the Vision of God.[3] As a technique, theoria is expressed by the ascetic tradition of Hesychasm. Hesychasm is continuous prayer that is to focus with absolute sincerity, and to repeat in prayer, as a means to focus exclusively on the Triune God. It is to reconcile the heart and the mind into one thing (see nous).[4] Contemplation in Eastern Orthodoxy is expressed in degrees as those covered in St John Climacus' Ladder of Divine Ascent. The process of changing from the old man of sin into the new born child of God and into our true nature as good and divine is called theosis. Each of these components are critical to the cultivation of theoria. One derives Spiritual Knowledge from theoria. One however can not derive theoria from spiritual knowledge. This is to say that once someone is in the presence of God then they can begin to properly understand and there "contemplate" God. This form of contemplation is to have and pass through an actual experience rather than a scientific understanding of theory. Whereas in science one uses theory to understand the natural world and its operations, one does the reverse with God. In science contemplation means one derives a explanation and then tests the "theory" (see gnosiology). Within the realm of Eastern Christianity theory is faith and one at first cultivates the virtues as an expression of faith. Once the virtues are cultivated the highest virtue is humility. Through humility one becomes Holy. God is humility and one becomes like God. This is the contemplation (living) of God. The Holy Wisdom of God is not knowledge but humility.

Western Christianity

Within Western Christianity contemplation is often related to mysticism as expressed in the works of mystical theologians such as Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross as well as the writings of Margery Kempe, Augustine Baker and Thomas Merton.

Contemplation and meditation

In Christianity, contemplation refers to a content-free mind directed towards the awareness of God as a living reality. This corresponds to what in Eastern religion is called meditation. In Christianity, however, meditation refers to a specific, directed mental exercise, such as visualization of a religious scene or consideration of a scriptural passage.

Contemplation as a practice is finding greater resonance in the West both in business - for example in Peter Senge's book The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization[6] - and in universities in fields as diverse as architecture, physics, and the liberal arts.

In Catholic Christianity, contemplation is given importance. The Catholic Church's "model theologian," St. Thomas Aquinas wrote: "It is requisite for the good of the human community that there should be persons who devote themselves to the life of contemplation." One of his disciples, Josef Pieper commented: "For it is contemplation which preserves in the midst of human society the truth which is at one and the same time useless and the yardstick of every possible use; so it is also contemplation which keeps the true end in sight, gives meaning to every practical act of life."[7]

See also


  1. Plato: Critical Assessments, Nicholas D. Smith, Routledge, 1998. ISBN 0415126053
  2. See the Life of Plotinus
  3. The vision of the uncreated light, which offers knowledge of God to man, is sensory and supra-sensory. The bodily eyes are reshaped, so they see the uncreated light, "this mysterious light, inaccessible, immaterial, uncreated, deifying, eternal", this "radiance of the Divine Nature, this glory of the divinity, this beauty of the heavenly kingdom" (3,1,22;CWS p.80). Palamas asks: "Do you see that light is inaccessible to senses which are not transformed by the Spirit?" (2,3,22). St. Maximus, whose teaching is cited by St. Gregory, says that the Apostles saw the uncreated Light "by a transformation of the activity of their senses, produced in them by the Spirit" (2.3.22). Orthodox Psychotherapy Section The Knowledge of God according to St. Gregory Palamas by Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos published by Birth of Theotokos Monastery,Greece (January 1, 2005) ISBN 978-9607070272
  4. Stillness of the body is a limiting of the body. "The beginning of hesychia is godly rest" (3). The intermediate stage is that of "illuminating power and vision; and the end is ecstasy or rapture of the nous towards God" (4). St. John of the Ladder, referring to outward, bodily stillness, writes: "The lover of stillness keeps his mouth shut" (5). But it is not only those called neptic Fathers who mention and describe the holy atmosphere of hesychia, it is also those known as "social". Actually in the Orthodox tradition there is no direct opposition between theoria and praxis, nor between the neptic and social Fathers. The neptics are eminently social and those in community are unimaginably neptic. Orthodox Psychotherapy Section on Stillness and Prayer
  5. "Contemplation", Catholic Encyclopedia, New Advent. Retrieved March 19, 2008.
  6. The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, Peter Senge, Currency, 2006. ISBN 0385517254
  7. "Says Pope a Universal Voice for the World", Carrie Gross, February 1, 2008,

Further reading

  • The Vision of God by Vladimir Lossky, SVS Press, 1997. (ISBN 0-913836-19-2)
  • The Spirituality of the Christian East: A systematic handbook by Tomas Spidlik, Cistercian Publications Inc Kalamazoo Michigan 1986 (ISBN 0-87907-879-0)
  • The Macarian Legacy: The Place of Macarius-Symeon in the Eastern Christian Tradition (Oxford Theological Monographs 2004) by Marcus Plested (ISBN 0199267790)
  • Being With God by Aristotle Papanikolaou University of Notre Dame Press February 24, 2006 ISBN 0268038309
  • The Experience of God : Revelation and Knowledge of the Triune God (Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, Volume 1 : Revelation and Knowledge of the Triune God) by Dumitru Staniloae Holy Cross Orthodox Press May 17, 2005 ISBN 0917651707
  • The Experience of God : Orthodox Dogmatic Theology Volume 2: (The World, Creation and Deification) by Dumitru Staniloae Holy Cross Orthodox Press June 16, 2005 ISBN 1885652410