‘Contemplation’ is a classic term in Christian vocabulary. It is also a word that has been abused – we often find it used to indicate a particularly elevated and ‘spiritualized’ aspect of Christian experience, which is then contrasted with ‘active’ life according to a schema that destroys the fundamental unity and simplicity of Christian experience. In the New Testament the word ‘contemplation’, theoria in Greek, appears only once, in Luke 23.48, with reference to Christ on the cross. ‘When all the people who had gathered for this spectacle (theoria, i.e., the Crucifixion) saw what had happened, they returned home, beating their breasts.’ The term designates here the ‘concrete spectacle … of Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified “King of the Jews”’ (Guiseppe Dossetti 1986, p.223), and it is in relation to this permanent and irreducible focal centre, Christ crucified, that the authenticity of Christian contemplation should be measured. We find a synonym for theoria in the New Testament, gnosis, ‘knowledge’, or epignosis, (literally, above-knowledge, i.e., spiritual knowledge): both of these terms appear more frequently than theoria. They also refer us to the centrality of the cross of Christ, true wellspring of Christian knowledge (cf. 1 Corinthians 2.2), and therefore of Christian proclamation (1 Corinthians 1.23) and praxis (Mark 8.34). The cross, then, is at the heart of Christian contemplation. It inspires and regulates the content of faith (‘not what I want, but what you want,’ Matthew 26.39).

Contemplation is by no means for mystics or monastics – it is a reality to which all the baptized are called, because every baptized person has been immersed in life in Christ (Romans 6.1-6) and clothed with Christ (Galatians 3.37), and Christian contemplative-knowledge has no other goal than that of making a Christian’s personal and ecclesial life resemble the life of Christ. In contemplation, the crucified Christ makes his presence visible on the face of the one who prays and perceptible in the testimony of the individual and the entire ecclesial community. A contemplative is not someone who separates him- or herself from others or tries to escape society, but a person who tries to discern in history, in people, in events and in his or her own person the presence of Christ. A contemplative’s gaze searches deeply enough to recognise that the temple of God (the verb ‘to contemplate’ refers us to templum and to the art of ‘looking at the contours of the temple’), the dwelling of the Holy Spirit, and the place where Christ lives is within the human being. The contemplative is an expert in the art of discerning God’s presence, a presence not relegated to sacred places and not limited to the religious, but diffused everywhere.

Enzo Bianchi, Words of Spirituality. (SPCK, 2002) 48-49.