Wednesday, 17 April 2013

What is a "Contemplarium"?

The Latin word contemplatio (from which we derive English words like contemplation and contemplative) has an interesting background. It's an expansion of the word templum which originally meant "to stretch out"; when people wanted to mark the boundaries of a sacred enclosure they would "stretch out" boundaries around it, perhaps ropes, fencing, or animal hides. The Old Testament tabernacle, for example, was surrounded by an encosure of fine linens and leathers (see Exodus 25). Over time, the word became attached to the structure itself: a temple.

Contemplatio, therefore, implied an act of coming within the sacred enclosure - entering the holy courts. Within the Christian tradition it was picked up to translate the Greek word theoria, which had become a technical term in Platonic philosophy for attentiveness to an object in itself, a "gazing upon" something, which was intended to complement the process of reasoning and analysis about an object. Analysis was the function of human reason, while contemplation was the function of the intellect - yes, we tend to overlap those two terms now, which is one of the reasons we find the concept of contemplatio difficult to understand.

I love all the undertones that contemplatio draws together. Coming within the sacred courts, setting oneself aside for a time, to gaze attentively upon God and (perhaps) to stretch oneself into God. Sounds like a great description of contemplation to me.

But we contemplatives need places. Physical places of beauty, silence, spaciousness, stillness, and holiness within which contemplation can be more readily practiced and learned (so we can better contemplate God in the harder places - the wastelands, the city, the hearts of others). But also social spaces, communities of the lovers of God. We need a Contemplarium - a "contemplative place" - the way a fish needs an aquarium - a "water-place"; we need a space where we can breathe the fresh contemplative air together. We need chapels and churches and prayer corners. We need hermitages in the woods and sacred places in the hills. We need monasteries and religious societies and gatherings. We need soul friends and spiritual directors. Contemplaria.

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