Contemplation | From "Reflection and Contemplation," chapter 6 of Transformation in Christ | Dietrich von Hildebrand | Ignatius Insight
We contemplate ends, not means
In order to describe the characteristics of contemplation, we may start from its contrast with the position we take towards the means when engaged in a purposive activity. In all such activities our inward appreciation of the end is strictly differentiated from our relation to the means. Suppose we wish to meet someone, and for that Purpose betake ourselves to a certain place. Meeting that person, or the performance of a definite task in this connection, constitutes our end. Walking to the place in question—or taking a train for that destination, buying tickets, etc.—are means pure and simple. it is the end that directs our steps, governs our activity, coordinates our thoughts and movements; it represents the telos and the thematic meaning of our enterprise. The means are mere points of passage as it were; they are merely used; none of them becomes thematic except in the context of its usefulness for the end. We are not intent on them as such, nor do we take any one of them seriously as a whole, in its essence; we are only interested in them according to their serviceableness for our purpose.
The structural difference between our attitude towards the end and towards the means is obvious. The strict attitude of uti, of using something, as applied to the means within a system of action, is the exact opposite of the contemplative attitude. It embodies the specifically pragmatic way of treating an object, characterized by the fact that our proper attention belongs to something other than the object with which we are now dealing, namely, to our object in the sense of our end or purpose. The immediate objects of our activity, with which we deal in terms of uti, play a merely instrumental (and transitory) role. On the other hand, full attention to an object as such, or an interest taken in its essential character as a whole, constitutes a first mark of contemplation.
Certainly, as a formal principle of our attitude, the difference between our relation to the end and to the means is always present. Yet, when the end itself is subordinated to a greater whole, which in its turn is governed by another supreme end, that difference becomes a merely relative one. Such is the case, for instance, when our meeting a certain person or our execution of a certain task for which purpose we are to betake ourselves to a specified place—is again meant to subserve some other purpose.
But even if there is no such successive subordination of aims if, that is to say, our given purpose is not incorporated into a superior teleology but represents a relatively final end, the conclusion of a chain of meaning—even then, with the formal difference between end and means being clearly present, the material difference between our attitude towards the end and towards the means may not necessarily be great. Thus, for example, when we wash or eat, the momentary aim we are pursuing is not, strictly speaking, experienced as a means towards some other superior aim, but rather as a conclusive end in itself; but neither is—it a substantial or important purpose, whose attainment could possess anything like the dignity of a self-contained theme. Most activities in our life are of this kind; they subserve some purpose which is not a sovereign theme by itself and which cannot, on the strength of its own substance, become the object of a frui proper—of contemplative or self-immersing enjoyment.
The object of contemplation must be seen as having great value
In all these ordinary cases, not only our attitude towards means but also our attitude towards ends (though, in a formal sense, the latter implies an essentially higher appreciation) are characteristically non-contemplative. For a second mark of contemplation consists precisely in this: that the object faces us as a thing of great dignity and importance in itself, which by virtue of its own substance may appreciably enrich our souls. Whenever we approach an object in the mode of contemplation, it is not only that we esteem it as such in a formal sense; materially, too—that is, on the ground of its specific content and quality—it must belong to the class of such entities as are able to affect our heart and mind by virtue of their own intrinsic significance. That it may be desirable, necessary, or indispensable, is insufficient; it must be important in itself.
An active attitude is future-oriented; a contemplative attitude dwells in the present
An active attitude, even though it be directed to the attainment of a purpose important in itself, is always typically distinct from a contemplative one. Thus, if we undertake a journey in order to see a beloved person again, or if we perform a lofty moral action, our intent is not contemplative. For first, it is filled by a tension towards the future: the thought of something which does not yet exist and which is to be brought about. And, secondly, in contemplating an aim we do not accord to the good we intend to realize that broad, undivided attention which is implicit in contemplation proper.
Our attention to the object conceived as an end for action, express and emphatic as it may be, always retains a certain narrow and functional quality (akin, in some measure, to a technical attitude of abstraction and formalization), which also manifests itself in the fact of our advancing towards our end through a succession of means.
The contemplative attitude, on the other hand—such as the contemplation of an object of great beauty and the pure, restful joy it yields—is free from that dynamic tension towards the future; it implies, not a hastening forward but a dwelling in the present. Further, the attention we accord to the object is direct, unqualified, broad (as it were); it is undivided, instead of being limited by attention given to other objects as well, as is necessarily the case when we intend an object purposely in action, which we cannot do without also devoting ourselves to the means.
Accomplished ends are not true objects of contemplation
In order to grasp this difference in its whole extent, we must even go a third step further. Let us visualize the moment when an aim of great value and importance is actually reached—when, say, a moral action like the saving of a human life or the frustration of an injustice is on the point of being accomplished. The stages destined to lead up to the realization of the good are now behind us; the distance that separated us from our goal appears covered; our action now bears directly upon the final good, and the concluding fiat is at last being pronounced.
Even this phase of our active contact with a good reveals a characteristic difference from the contemplative attitude. For the good is still embedded there, in the thematic context of realization through my action; whereas, in contemplation, the thematic quality of the object's inner goodness unfolds in unalloyed purity. So long as the realization of a good through my action is still part of my theme, the prevalence of the good as such cannot fully express itself in all dimensions attached to that good. Nor do I, in that case, experience the good by my striving. In contemplation, I abandon myself to an object as a majestic entity which reposes in itself and does not require me in order to exist.
Contemplation is unconcerned with means or agents
Fourthly, our attention to the object—unlike the linear direction towards a purpose—can unfold in its full breadth without being altered by our concern with means; it is undivided attention.
In the fifth place, the contemplative attitude—as contrasted to action in all its stages, including that which precedes the final fulfillment of the end—is ruled entirely by the thematicity of the object as such. The aspect of a realization through my action is absent; the object acquires full thematic value.
Contemplation is reposeful attention to an object
Further, contemplation implies an inward penetration of the object, a communing therewith in awareness of everything it means, as though the object turned its full face to us. Whereas, in action, including even its final phase, we only touch the object from the outside intent on accomplishing it rather than facing it in all its plenitude.
Again, contemplation represents a specifically restful attitude, in which we, free from the circumscribing function of acting as agent, actualize our entire being. Finally, contemplation contrasts with action owing to its basic trait of receptivity.
Contemplation differs radically from relaxation
We have just described contemplation as a reposeful attention to an object fully present; this must not be construed in the sense of crediting every reposeful or relaxed state of mind with a contemplative character. Relaxation as such need not have anything to do with contemplation. I may dream, muse, or take a walk free from all particular purpose, without the slightest trace of contemplation proper. Nor is the relaxed state which denotes recreation—a state of mere rest, without any actual direction towards an aim—in any sense in the nature of contemplation. For all these forms of relaxation involve a temporary extinction of wakeful, alert spiritual life; they entirely lack intensity and are not far distant from a cessation of all intellectual activity. Nor are they consonant with the express attitude of intentional reference to an object. In these forms of relaxation, the dialogic situation between subject and object which is constitutive for all higher mental life cannot possibly thrive.
Contemplation, on the other hand—as has been explained by Jacques Maritain in his study on "Action and Contemplation" (Revue Thomiste)—represents spiritual activity in the most eminent sense of the word; only it is an immanent (in contraposition to a transitive) activity. All activity which in some way intervenes in the events happening outside its subject, all work in the broadest sense of the term, we call transitive. In contrast, an act of loving adoration, for example, is a purely immanent form of spiritual activity. Here, the actualization of the mind and the intense realization of a mental attitude take place within the person himself, devoid of any operation beyond the range of his own being—be it a fact brought about by action, an object produced, or a change effected in some object already existing. Yet, for being thus limited in range, immanent activity is by no means a less noble or intense form of activity.
Contemplation involves intense spiritual activity
It would be a gross error indeed to confuse contemplation with trivial or recreative relaxation as described above. On the contrary, it embodies activity of the highest degree, the fullest actualization of the person, and the most wakeful, genuine, and intense form of spiritual life. True, it is distinguished from action not only by the fact of its being immanent instead of transitive, but (as we have seen) apart from other aspects by the fact of its being unrelated to any purposeful, teleological coordination of behavior. Yet, contrary to the dull forms of relaxation, it reveals an eminently intentional structure; it implies attention to an object in the strictest sense of the term; and once more in contrast to ordinary relaxation, it manifests a quality of specific depth and significance.
But we cannot properly understand the nature of contemplation without putting the question as to its possible objects.
Nothing considered as purely instrumental can be an object of contemplation
To begin with, nothing purely instrumental in character is eligible for becoming an object of contemplation. One cannot, properly speaking, contemplate what is par excellence an article of use—a bicycle, for instance. To be sure, objects of this kind also can be envisaged in themselves, in their essence, instead of being merely utilized regardless of any aspect of them besides the abstract, functional one which is their availableness for a definite purpose. In the face of such objects, too, one element of contemplation that of a purely cognitive, non-purposeful attitude—can be actualized. But their metaphysical content is too poor and insignificant to qualify them as possible objects for contemplation proper. They cannot deeply affect us, nor elicit the attitude of frui; attention based on a response to value in which our total personality is present would clearly be out of proportion here. We cannot immerse ourselves in the essence of such objects, nor can our soul rest in their embrace. The same is true of all other entities which do not possess a deep and noble content or a high value of their own.
Contemplation demands an object of value and depth
Contemplation proper demands, as its object, either a deep general truth or an entity of high rank and value. We may visualize, in contemplation, the contingency of all created beings or the essence of the spiritual person; we may be absorbed in the contemplation of the virtue of purity or of charity. The beauty of a work of art, too, may become an object for contemplation whenever we drink in that beauty, free from all preoccupations, and let our souls be elevated by its magic. Again, we may penetrate contemplatively the soul of a beloved person, becoming aware of its full splendor and, remote from all pragmatic concerns, in the devotion of love surrendering ourselves to its presence.
The object of contemplation determines the character of contemplation
But the quality of our attitude of contemplation is itself essentially determined, in part, by the nature of the object. Above all, an important difference must be noted according to whether the object of our contemplation is of a personal or a non-personal nature. In relation to a person, a form of contemplation is possible in which the fact that the contemplated object is also endowed with subjectivity is itself experienced in a certain definite manner.
We might describe this, if such a technical term be allowed, as I-thou contemplation. It is sharply distinct from all contemplation directed to a non-personal object which, correspondingly, might be termed it-contemplation.
The fact, however, that what we are contemplating is a personal being, does not of necessity qualify our contemplation as I-thou contemplation. (This requires the further condition that a mutual relationship of loving awareness should underlie our contemplation of the beloved person.) The thou-contemplation which may be present in such a case will, in a certain sense, be less perfect than our solitary contemplation, uncomplicated by the element of mutuality, of a person to whom we are devoted; the latter type of contemplation is likely to be of a more restful, a more static character, more timeless and more purely contemplative in quality.
The perfections in I-thou contemplation
But on the other hand, in the type we call I-thou contemplation the dialogic character of the relationship and the enrichment we receive from the contemplated person (who, in this case, actively reciprocates our love) acquire a new and higher degree of reality. The fact that the person we are contemplating by virtue of his love for us actually enters our own personality and pervades our own soul, confers a new dimension on the aspect of communing inherent in contemplation.
Most important of all, our loving approach is caught up, as it were; our response is directed to an object which is—itself responsive to our love, our awareness of this aspect, again, coloring our very experience of the object in question. Thus, the object not merely happens to be a person but formally confronts us qua person, which renders possible a far greater intensity of contact. In this case alone will the fact that our object is of a personal nature manifest itself fully in our mode of approaching it. Thus, in I-thou contemplation the contemplative attitude acquires new, specific features of metaphysical perfection; a greater actualization of the receptive aspect of contemplation and—something entirely new—the counter-response of the object, with the enhanced personalization of the contemplative relationship which results therefrom.
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Dietrich von Hildebrand (Oct. 12, 1889 - Jan. 26, 1977) was a German Catholic philosopher and theologian who wrote several important and influential works on philosophy, ethics, marriage, sexuality, liturgy, and spirituality. He was called (informally) by Pope Pius XII "the 20th-century Doctor of the Church," and Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger described him as "A man whose life and work have left an indelible mark on the history of the Church in the 20th century."
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