The word ‘contemplative’ has acquired a great measure of trust in our culture. It sounds ‘not-religious’ and yet refers to deep inner experience free from the clinging associations of concepts and imagination. Aquinas said contemplation is the simple enjoyment of the truth.
The word, however, contains a very specific, grounded sense. Contemplation is both immaterial and totally physical. ‘Templum’ refers to the space on the earth under the sky where the priest or augur looked and watched carefully for meaningful signs of change in the environment or in the animals of sacrifice. From these signs he would be able to see the ways things are moving and to predict or be prepared for whatever came. Temple originally meant not a building, a solid embodiment of the spiritual, but the open space where something immeasurable and intangible is taking shape.
For the meditator however, with our daily contemplative training, this open space merging earth and sky is within, in the temple of the heart. The changes from which we learn may be subtle, imperceptible there; but in the external realm they become present and observable.
‘Con’ (-templation) suggests that this work is the fruit of a joint effort. However empty the space may seem, however solitary it feels, we are in fact not alone. The empty space, the poverty of spirit, of meditation is bursting with potential and shimmering with intimacy. The spirit of contemplation is lost when we build too many things in the open space. Intimacy requires a spaciousness where union can take place.
Lent is a season for clearing out the unnecessary constructions in the templum of the heart. It is hard at first to lose, to let go, to deconstruct and become interiorly spacious again. But once we have got a taste for it, we don’t want it to stop.