Christian contemplation

Christian contemplation, from contemplatio (Latin; Greek θεωρία, Theoria[1]), refers to several Christian practices which aim at "looking at", "gazing at", "being aware of" God or the Divine.[2][3][4] It includes several practices and theological concepts, and until the sixth century the practice of what is now called mysticism was referred to by the term contemplatio, c.q. theoria.

Christianity took up the use of both the Greek (theoria) and Latin (contemplatio, contemplation) terminology to describe various forms of prayer and the process of coming to know God. Eastern and Western traditions of Christianity grew apart as they incorporated the general notion of theoria into their respective teachings.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that, "the Christian tradition comprises three major expressions of the life of prayer: vocal prayer, meditation, and contemplative prayer. They have in common the recollection of the heart."[5] Three stages are discerned in contemplative practice, namely purgative contemplation,[6][7] contemplation proper, and the vision of God.


The Greek theoria (θεωρία), from which the English word "theory" (and "theatre") is derived, meant "contemplation, speculation, a looking at, things looked at", from theorein (θεωρεῖν) "to consider, speculate, look at", from theoros (θεωρός) "spectator", from thea (θέα) "a view" + horan (ὁρᾶν) "to see".[8] It expressed the state of being a spectator. Both Greek θεωρία and Latin contemplatio primarily meant looking at things, whether with the eyes or with the mind.[9]

Commenting on Aristotle's view of the lack of practical usefulness of the contemplation of theoria, Orthodox theologian Fr. Andrew Louth said:

The word theoria is derived from a verb meaning to look, or to see: for the Greeks, knowing was a kind of seeing, a sort of intellectual seeing. Contemplation is, then, knowledge, knowledge of reality itself, as opposed to knowing how: the kind of know-how involved in getting things done. To this contrast between the active life and contemplation there corresponds a distinction in our understanding of what it is to be human between reason conceived as puzzling things out, solving problems, calculating and making decisions - referred to by the Greek words phronesis and dianoia, or in Latin by ratio - and reason conceived as receptive of truth, beholding, looking - referred to by the Greek words theoria or sophia (wisdom) or nous (intellect), or in Latin intellectus. Augustine expressed this distinction by using scientia for the kind of knowledge attained by ratio, and sapientia, wisdom, for the kind of knowledge received by intellectus. Human intelligence operates at two levels: a basic level concerned with doing things, and another level concerned with simply beholding, contemplating, knowing reality.[10]

According to William Johnston, until the sixth century the practice of what is now called mysticism was referred to by the term contemplatio, c.q. theoria.[2] According to Johnston, "[b]oth contemplation and mysticism speak of the eye of love which is looking at, gazing at, aware of divine realities."[2]

Several scholars have demonstrated similarities between the Greek idea of theoria and the Indian idea of darśana (darshan), including Ian Rutherford[11] and Gregory Grieve.[12]

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