Liturgy and Contemplation (Part I)

August 05, 2007


Read Part II of this 2-part article

Photo credit: Mike Jenssen
Stained glassWhen you think of the word, contemplation, what comes to mind? Whenever I have engaged a group of people in this exercise, I get a listing of words that includes: meditation, reflection, silence, encounter, transformation, a sense of presence, union with Christ, listening, gazing, routine experience, and timelessness, to name a few.

When you think of the word, liturgy, what comes to mind?  Whenever I have engaged a group of people in this exercise, I get a listing of words that includes: communal prayer, dialogue, union with Christ and Christ’s people, conversion, call to action, communion, ritual, music, words, silence, and connection with all times and places, to name a few.

What has struck me most often is the convergence that I find between the words or phrases that people connect to their concept of contemplation and their concept of liturgy.  What do I mean?  On both lists I find some form of: encounter, silence, ritual, union or communion, conversion or transformation, listening and responding, and timelessness.  This article will try to cull the connection between liturgical prayer and contemplative prayer in hopes of discovering how they converge and feed one another in the spiritual development of a person or a community.

Walter McNamara defines contemplation as “taking a long, loving, look at the real” (referenced in a workshop on Contemplative Dialogue, given by Steven Wirth, at the Dominican Study Day preceding the Catholic Coalition on Preaching meeting, September 16, 2006).  Let’s look at the various elements of this definition. “Taking a long, loving, look,” implies the element of choice.  One must choose to look at someone or something.  Is this not true of liturgical prayer, as well?  One must choose to attend Mass or to participate fully, consciously, and actively, as the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, paragraph 14, directs.  Even if someone attends Mass with a minimum of response, one is choosing to be present, one is opening oneself up to take “a long, loving, look at the real.”

Notice that one of the adjectives McNamara uses is “long.”  This is no mere glimpse or peripheral visionary experience.  The word, long, implies that one is going to take time, make time, to be aware, to be present, and to enter into the contemplative experience.  The longer I look, the more I see, and sometimes the more the object viewed and the viewer become one. 

The liturgy also requires a willingness to dwell in the experience, to take time, to take the long look.  Liturgy is “an exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ. It involves the presentation of human sanctification under the guise of signs perceptible by the senses and its accomplishment in ways appropriate to each of these signs” (SC 7).  Talk about the long look – getting underneath the perceptible to the One perceived, Jesus Christ; sharing in Christ’s ministry and mission; sharing in Christ’s vision that involves glorifying the God who sent Him and sanctifying the humanity with whom He became one in the incarnation.  Glorification and sanctification, the goals of liturgical prayer, require the “long” look.

But the next adjective is just as important, “loving.”  A loving look is very different from a hateful one or an indifferent one for that matter.  Loving implies relationship.  Loving implies feeling.  Loving implies an openness to the object or person viewed.  Liturgy is the place where Christ, the love of God made visible, to use a Johanine principle, is made present: in the assembly of the baptized, in the one ordained to lead the baptized, in the word proclaimed, and, substantially and permanently, in the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ.  All of these are forms of the real presence of Christ.  As both John Paul II and Paul VI remind us, while the theological term, “Real Presence,” is reserved to the Eucharistic species, the other three forms of presence are no less real.

The Eucharist adored, celebrated, and lived, is the Sacramentum Caritatis, the sacrament of charity, the sacrament of love, Benedict XVI proclaims in his recent apostolic letter.  The liturgy not only calls us to see Christ, it also calls us to become Christ present for our world as a sacrament of love.  In the liturgy we take a long, loving look at the real, and become the real presence of God’s love made flesh in our world today.  Talk about the conversion that is part and parcel of personal prayer and communal prayer. Liturgy and contemplation call us to conversion to the real.

McNamara’s definition of contemplation has one look at the real.  So often the real is what we miss because we only see the appearance.  When we focus on appearances, we tend to miss what is really there, because our look is too short, or too shallow, or not loving, or because we don’t look at all.  Liturgy is a celebration of real presence, as I’ve just noted.  Liturgy, like contemplation, is a long, loving look at the real to become what we see, and eat, and drink, and hear, and are by virtue of Baptism, Jesus Christ, the love of God-made-visible.

In the liturgy, just as in contemplative prayer, we take a long, loving look at God through the eyes of sign, symbol and ritual, and we take a long, loving look at ourselves through the eyes of God. This is how we come to true knowledge of both the self and of God, St. Catherine of Siena, OP, tells us in her Dialogues. Catherine was a contemplative rooted in the liturgy of the Church as celebrated by the Dominican community in Siena, in whose shadow she lived, and with whom she gathered to pray the liturgy of the Church.

Read Part II of this 2-part article.

Paul H. Colloton, OP, D.Min. is the Director of Continuing Education at the National Association of Pastoral Musicians (NPM), Washington, D.C.


Liturgy and Contemplation (Part II)

[Return to top]