November 26, 2020

Mary and the Contemplative Life

The Virgin Reading, Carpaccio

By Chaplain Mike

“But Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).

The American evangelical church is renowned for its activism. We are a “can do” people, and in the Christian context that often means we see ourselves as “saved to serve.” We commend “being about the Lord’s business,” and value that which works and produces results.

On the other hand, we don’t always appreciate the value of practices like contemplation. For some, the idea seems too mystical. For others, such disciplines seem too “Catholic” or associated with movements that come dangerously close to “new age” thinking or a lack of doctrinal stability.

It is unfortunate that we divide action and contemplation. It is unfortunate that we sometimes suspect those who pursue a robust inner life.

For example, let’s take a passage like Ephesians 2:10—“For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.”

This text teaches plainly that Christians are to live out their faith actively. In Christ, we have been made new to walk in the good works that God planned that we would do. On the other hand, the context is instructive. Eph. 2:10 comes in the midst of one of the longest, richest, most prayerful meditations in the New Testament, a breathtaking panoramic examination of the blessings with which God has favored his people in Christ (Eph 1:3-3:21). The section ends with Paul praying that the Ephesians “may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God” (3:18-19).

Apparently for Paul, holy contemplation and action go hand in hand.

Madonna Adoring the Child with Musical Angels, Zenale

In the Christmas story, Mary exemplifies the contemplative side of the coin. Whereas Luke highlights the actions of the shepherds by using six vibrant verbs of motion, he describes the Virgin Mother in quite different terms: “But Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).

To “keep” or “treasure” the things of God in my heart is to put them in a place where they are hidden from the world, yet accessible to me so that I may take them out to consider their value and significance. That place is my private world of heart, mind, and spirit. To live a contemplative life is to walk on the surface of a semi-arid world while drawing from a hidden aquifer far below. To live a contemplative life is to resemble an iceberg in the ocean—what you see is only a small percentage of who I am. To live a contemplative life is to follow the path of the artist, the musician, the craftsman, the athlete—the end-product you see coming from my life is the result of an extensive hidden life of practice and preparation.

Contemplation means to “ponder” as Mary did. It means to thoughtfully and prayerfully meditate on Scripture, on my life, on what’s happening in the world and especially in the part of it that I inhabit. It means to ruminate—to chew things over. Luther said meditation is like shaking a tree until you get the fruit to fall. Some have said it’s like preaching to oneself—taking a thought and drawing out its implications and applications for life. To be a contemplative means to be attentive, a good listener, an observer of details, a believer in the unseen and mostly unappreciated presence and activity of God in every circumstance.

I have a wonderful opportunity in my current job (of which I don’t always take advantage). Between visits, which are often intense, I get in my car and drive. Sometimes I just need a break, so I turn on some music or listen to sports talk radio to clear my mind. But often it’s meditation time. Time to contemplate. Time to think about the people I’ve met. Time to ask what God might be doing in this home, in that family, in this situation, in our team, in me. Time to draw connections between the Bible and life, between what I think is happening and what might really be happening. Time to ponder people’s words and consider what they might really have been saying. Time to review what I said, to reconsider, to repent, to rejoice.

Even time to think about what I might write next on Internet Monk.

Madonna and Child in a Window, Schongauer

I know this is a luxury not afforded to everyone on the job. People in different situations or at different seasons of life have more or less space in their daily routines for quiet, solitude, prayer, and formal practices of devotion. But being a contemplative is more about what we are than what we do. It’s refusing to skim along the surface of life. It’s renouncing the way of busyness and frantic activity. It’s embracing intentionality. It’s developing powers of observation, analysis, and imagination. It’s cultivating focus. It’s maintaining an active inner life before God no matter what is happening in one’s outer circumstances.

Think of all that Mary must have been thinking and feeling during the events described in Luke’s Christmas story. Imagine the difficulties of a journey to Bethlehem in her condition, the disappointment and discomfort of finding no lodging, the anxiety of realizing her time to give birth had arrived, the process of labor and delivery, the postpartum emotions, the startling interruption of the shepherds, the realization that people all around town were hearing and wondering and gossiping about her and her baby. This does not sound like a situation conducive to contemplation. “But Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).

In Mary, the seed found good soil. When the Word came to her, she held it fast “in an honest and good heart” (Luke 8:15), exemplifying for all believers the blessings of the contemplative way.


  1. Excellent, CM. Thanks.

  2. Have been doing a lot of pondering and occasionally feeling guilty that I’m no longer that active in doing. This is a very encouraging post for me! Thanks!

  3. David Cornwell says

    Our culture honors “doing.” We, at least in America, are in many ways what we do. When we meet someone else before long the question comes up “what do you do?” And so it is even in our Christian living. We sometimes literally wear ours selves out with activity. Pastors burn out and sometimes quit, maybe develop a drinking problem, or something worse.

    When I retired I made a vow to slow down. I wanted to remain active and do things, but I decided never to hurry again. I have to make exceptions at times, but as a rule I’ve stuck to it.

    I’ll confess, however, that’s its been more difficult to enter into the contemplative life that Chaplain Mike is discussing. But I’m “working” on it.

  4. There’s a wonderful poem by St. Aidan, who founded a monastery at Lindisfarne (also called ‘Holy Island)

    To preface, ‘Holy Island’ is really a ‘tidal’ island, with a land-bridge connecting it to the main-land twice a day. Over this land-bridge, pilgrims would come to pray and seek guidance from the monks and then, the pilgrims would leave and go back over the land-bridge, before the Island was closed off by the tide.
    Lindisfarne is also famous for being the site of a Viking raid centuries later.
    Is found in a margin of a script, this note from one of the monks:
    ‘from the fury of the north men, oh Lord deliver us’

    This is the poem of St. Aidan of Lindisfarne:

    “Leave me alone with God as much as may be.
    As the tide draws the waters close in upon the shore,
    Make me an island, set apart,
    alone with You, God, holy to You.

    Then with the turning of the tide
    prepare me to carry Your Presence to the busy world beyond,
    the world that rushes in on me
    till the waters come again and fold me back to You.”

    • The tradition of contemplative prayer may be ‘uncomfortable’ for some, until they realize that they, also, seek healing solitude away from the busy world,
      maybe on a camping trip by a lake, or a day at sea in a sailboat.

    • What a lovely reminder! The land bridge today is there for cars, and also gets shut off by the tides! Pilgrims walk to Lindisfarne across the muddy sands, guided by poles. I walked barefoot across those sands this year, following the pilgrim’s poles after a journey of 60 miles on foot (in 5 days) along St Cuthbert’s way. It was an interesting pilgrimage – as all pilgrimages are: too much talking, friendly strangers with a common purpose, a mixture of raw earthy details (sore feet, creaky knees, loo stops,) and breathtaking scenery. The walk across to Lindisfarne itself was deeply spiritual, silent, physical and purposeful. As the tide closed in, we were left to explore alone and I sat on the beach in the cold wind for a while, gazing at the tiny island where Cuthbert built a shelter of high walls with a roof gap so that he could gaze upwards and contemplate and be with God.
      It was an experience for me which confirmed the validity of a contemplative life after a lifetime of guilt that I may not be “doing” enough. I am so grateful for that time to re-evaluate and for the riches I have discovered in some of the Celtic spirituality – your poem/prayer being such a beautiful example. Thank you.

  5. Thank you. Wow. Thank you.

  6. “Mary the Contemplative” by Rev. Joseph Chalmers is a good book on the subject, from a Carmelite perspective. It is available in print form from the Carmelite website and as a pdf from the link below.

  7. Contemplation? Crazy New Age mumbo-jumbo. 😉

  8. Hi Chaplain Mike,

    Thanks for you wonderful post. Some Conservative Evangelicals are so scared of contemplation because they imagine it means emptying your mind or climbing some kind of spiritual ladder. They are scared that Satan will get them. I heard a sermon recently where this was stated. The preacher assumed that contemplation was pagan and in some cases it is. But he did not consider contemplation the way you are considering it.

    Both our mind and our will as well as our our hearts are involved as we meditate and reflect on God’s revelation of himself in Jesus Christ and how such contemplation might impact on our actions in human community. This kind of active contemplation and reflection is liberating and God honouring when it makes us to be more compassionate, generous and caring persons.

    Thaks so much.

    John Arthur

    • Wow! Contemplation is pagan! Amazing what people will say out of pure ignorance.

      We as Christians stress the importance of using prayer as a way of communicating with God, but don’t feel as though we’re praying unless we’re actually talking. We forget that communication is a two way street, and that sometimes, we just need to be still and listen.

      Listening prayer is a difficult and rare discipline, frankly, because we’re in love with the sound of our own voices, and because we don’t perceive the tangible results…God doesn’t speak to us in that deep, Charlton Heston voice, with lots of “thee’s” and “thou’s”, so we assume He’s got nothing to say.

      Some of the most intimate moments I’ve ever shared with my wife were silent moments. The same is true of my prayer life. The prayer moments I really remember are not the ones where I was treating God like an cosmic, heavenly vending machine. The ones that really stick out in my mind are the times I contemplated the colors and the open space at the table in Rublev’s “Trinity”; when I was led by the hand by a little old lady named Lena, a caretaker in an Orthodox church in Macedonia, who spoke no English, but just pointed and nodded as she showed me the frescoes she adored and cared for; and the simple, quiet times on my front porch, with a Psalm and my dog.

      Thanks, CM. Great post, as usual.

      • “We as Christians stress the importance of using prayer as a way of communicating with God, but don’t feel as though we’re praying unless we’re actually talking. We forget that communication is a two way street, and that sometimes, we just need to be still and listen.”

        Lee, I would only add the stat that over 50% of communication is non-verbal. What this means to me is that in talking with God, or anyone else for that matter, the “posture” that I adopt toward them is an active form of communication. I don’t have to be running at the mouth in order to relate to, convey and have a shared experience. What did Jesus say: “‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.'” I think this is what He was getting at.

        • Agreed…

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          What this means to me is that in talking with God, or anyone else for that matter, the “posture” that I adopt toward them is an active form of communication.

          Which is the reason behind kneeling, genuflecting, and other prayer and meditation postures and positions.

  9. It is from that contemplation and restful time in the presence of the Lord that direction, inspiration and courage come to pursue those works of service which God planned for us before time began.

    Personally, I would not want to engage in any works for the Lord which were not born out of my time with Him. So many invest their whole ministry in things which amount to little in the kingdom, but for them it is easier to be doing something and convince themselves that it is meaningful rather than actually be still for long enough to hear what it is that they have actually been called to do.

    God bless you this Christmas and in the New Year


  10. “The only way to get rid of misconceptions about contemplation is to experience it. One who does not actually know, in his own life, the nature of this breakthrough and this awakening to a new level of reality cannot help being misled by most of the things that are said about it. For contemplation cannot be taught. It cannot even be clearly explained. It can only be hinted at, suggested, pointed to, symbolized. The more objectively and scientifically one tries to analyze it, the more he empties it of its real content, for this experience is beyond the reach of verbalization and of rationalization.“ – Thomas Merton from New Seeds of Contemplation

  11. From the recent Barna study (Six Megathemes about the church):

    “Growing numbers of people are less interested in spiritual principles and more desirous of learning pragmatic solutions for life…. Among adults the areas of growing importance are lifestyle comfort, success, and personal achievements… The turbo-charged pace of society leaves people with little time for reflection. The deeper thinking that occurs typically relates to economic concerns or relational pressures. Spiritual practices like contemplation, solitude, silence, and simplicity are rare. (It is ironic that more than four out of five adults claim to live a simple life.) Practical to a fault, Americans consider survival in the present to be much more significant than eternal security and spiritual possibilities.”

  12. I’ve made a lot of people nervous these last two months because I quit my job in order to take a sabbatical. I wanted to take it right after I graduated college, but I got to feeling guilty about not “doing” anything so I found a job instead. Two days of that and I quickly learned that I was striving after the wrong thing. I still honored my five-month contract, but through that I learned how precious and necessary time away with God is, so this time I made sure nothing, no one–not even me–was going to keep me away this time. I can’t quantify the experience and say that I got “more” out of it than other times in my life, but I can say that I don’t know what I would have done without it. I hope that never again will I allow the world to get between me and God.

  13. New Age thing? The whole contemplative thing has been around since at least the days of Gregory of Nyssa and Pseudo-Dionysius and was probably more of an Eastern Church thing until the West caught up in the late middle ages- early renaissance. Extremes in this area led to Quietism so actions need to balance it out. But for me my closest time with God and when I am at my best is when I incorporate components of this in my daily life.

    The best experience is when I am on silent retreat, but daily experiences of sitting in a church, sometimes sitting under a tree on a mountain overlooking a valley really help me to slow down from my hectic life, reprioritize what and who is most important in my life, and what, in action, is most important as well. Kind of a purging of the negative garbage that at times my mind likes to toy with out of self pity or selfishness. Sometimes it is an emptying of the mind to listen to God, which for me is helped in a Church setting, sometimes its a soaking of the senses when out in nature away from technology (yes I leave the cell phone/Blackberry at home). Incorporating this into a routine is more beneficial for me (and everyone around me) than just a once in a while thing.

  14. trying to repost , this wouldn’t go thru about an hr ago….let’s see

    Excellent post, Chap Mike, and worthy of several re-reads. Ironically, many that need a push in this direction will fight it the most. In no particular order , here are some of the ‘usual suspects’ I’ve seen that shoot down our bird in early flight.
    1. Mr/Miss Expert says it’s bad….so….duh….it MUST be bad. Not a very thought out argument , here, but for multitudes, this will (sadly) be reason enough. I guess we all put our faith and confidence in someone’s take on what we study and read, but what a shame that one dimwitted ‘discernmetn blogger’ with the discernment of a rhino in heat can shut down the whole thing.
    2. Too Catholic, and a similar theme is ‘guilt by association’. We play that game this way: Michael Spencer MIGHT be OK, but he likes Thomas Merton, who likes these Buddhists…… and the story ends abruptly here. I’ve read some very long posts against Dan Kimball for this reason, not for what he believes but for having the wrong friends, or friends of friends.
    3. Personal testimony and anecdotal evidence. Back to #1: if MY experience with contemplative prayer, or repetitive prayer, or candles , or……. has been NEW Agey……well, that about wraps it up. I know what these things are all about, because I’ve lived thru x, y, and z. There is no reasoning with a person who is convinced that their particular live story explains every last nuance of any given topic. Use the multiplier efffect if that experience has wounded them deeply.
    4. For some, ANY mention of doing just about ANYTHING in a private, self-monitered kind of way is just ‘works righteousness’, and a flat refusal to live by faith and accept the righteousness of Christ. I know this makes no sense whatsoever (to me, at least), but this swarm of flies is spoiling many a jar of ointment.
    There are more , but this is becoming more article than response. Again, THANKS for the excellent post, Chap Mike, and GOD help all of us live these Kingdom practices out with insight and charity, that we might know the blessed Savior as HIS mother surely did.

  15. “Be still and know that I am God” “Silence is golden, are you always broke?” Having led an active life of service and now retired I love solitude and contemplation.

  16. Again, thank you for this post. RIght now you are my “church”. Having damaged my health with over zealous service I appreciate this post so much. I was taught that it is “better to burn out than to rust out.” It is funny how we evangelicals frown on folks who smoke, drink, dance etc but we don’t think anything of pushing ourselves beyond our physical, emotional, mental limits in service to the Lord!! I am slowly learning this contemplative way and loving it. My joy is overflowing and this was the best Christmas in a long, long time. I regret much of what I was taught although I know it was with all good intentions. In the long run I think we want to be seen and admired for our service. You don’t get any attention in the contemplative life and our old ego doesn’t do well with that. But, how freeing and wonderful it is. Thanks again for this post.

    • Adrienne I hope I’m not being too intrusive by asking what spiritual practice damaged your health, the only thing I can think of is fasting, fasting is impossible for me I get hypoglycemic fits when I don’t eat on a regular basis.

  17. Let’s include Zechariah in this contemplation since he is also a critical part of this Christmas time story.

    Looking back at the angelic visitation in the Temple, didn’t his impulsive answer to Gabriel’s announcement reveal his heart? Speaking without thinking we call it. So what better way to remedy the situation by restricting him to think without speaking for a period of time?

    And for 9 months Zechariah contemplated the impact of John’s miraculous conception. He meditated on that amazing event & the angel’s message over, and over, and over again. Meditation upon meditation, gestating slowly without the disruption of vocalizing those thoughts. His understanding of the Lord, the God of Israel, growing in proportion to the baby developing in Elizabeth’s womb…

    And as Zechariah reflected on the years of infertility, the aching in his heart that would never go away, and the challenge it presented to his faith in God, it finally was released once he regained his voice at John’s circumcision as he too magnified the Lord…

  18. Hi Mike,

    It is in the silence that we can “hear” God speaking to our hearts. It is in the stillness that we can experience the wonderful and compassionate presence of God. It is in the silence that we can reflect on God’s fair beauty revealed to us in the life, lifestyle, deeds and words of jesus.It is in the silence that we can find the peace within to become God’s compassionate peacemakers in a broken and divided world that so sorely needs to experience the compassionate heart of God in Jesus.

    Many blessings to you,

    John Arhtur

  19. Musings of an agnostic here buyt contemplation among many evangelicals runs the risk of being New Age. Meditation also does that as well.

    In so much as related to the idea of “doing” it depends upon what is going to be done. Evangelicals have there few choice issues of which to be activist about and ignore a handful of others. And much like the Pharises they want to be acknowledged publically for what they have done. It cant be done in private or in a quiet nature.

  20. I did an exercise teaching contemplative prayer on You Tube taught by Catholic Priest Thomas Keating,
    I found it to be relaxing in the extreme, a strong antidote to the go-go do-do busy-ness that can trap many of us into a pattern of ineffectiveness and burnout in our culture. I just did one exercise, and got some spiritual benefit the first time I tried it. Actually I’m an avid practitioner of the Jesus Prayer as it is practiced in Orthodox Christianity, this too can be of a contemplative nature, depending on how you practice it. I recommend trying Keating’s contemplative methodology, just its results with respect to a sense of peace and silence make it worthwhile, check out YouTube and give it a try, I promise it is not a path of the Devil, at least it wasn’t for me. Approach it with an open mind. It would be interesting to hear some of you’alls commentary about your experiences.

    In Jesus’ Name

    • Josef, I have practiced Centering Prayer as taught by Father Thomas Keating for years. I go through periods when I am not doing it regularly and my life suffers because of that. Then I return and I am so happy to do so. People may find Keating’s book, Open Mind, Open Heart: The Contemplative Dimension of the Gospel which also explains Centering Prayer. I see there are some used copies through Amazon available for $ .01 and there are also some new copies there.

      I know that some of my non-Catholic friends believe that Centering Prayer is some new-age thing, but it’s based on a prayer practice from the middle ages as taught in a book called The Cloud of the Unknowing so it is not a new practice. It is a prayer form that is now being rediscovered, though it was never really lost. You can read that book online at I see one of the things said about the book there is: “Scholars date the anonymous authorship of Cloud of Unknowing to 1375, during the height of European monasticism. Written as a primer for the young monastic, the work is instructional, but does not have an austere didactic tone. Rather, the work embraces the reader with a maternal call to grow closer to God through meditation and prayer.” I like that part about it being a “maternal call.”

      I am happy that you found the YouTube exercise helpful. I like the Jesus Prayer as well and have adapted a phrase in a similar way. I say, “Jesus, help me to love.”

      People have to know not to get all caught up in doing one prayer practice or another in an exact way. My prayer time includes centering prayer, prayers of petition, prayers of thanksgiving, formal prayers and more. And sometimes I fall asleep. I used to get worried that I wasn’t doing things right. Now, I am more relaxed about it. I just need to be more disciplined in doing this more regularly. I let other parts of my life take up time that could and should be used in prayer. It’s odd how something that is good for me and for the world and is something that I love is also something that I tend to have to “squeeze into” the rest of my life. Why is that?