03 January 2015
Christian Contemplation and Pagan Contemplation
Chapter 5 from this book:
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Contemplation in the Bible and in Paganism
The word contemplatio (θεωρία) is derived from the word templum – a place with a wide view, from where augurs made their observations. Contemplari means an attentive observation by one's eyes or mind. Θεωρώ means to look, to examine, then to reflect, ponder, philosophize. Human nature is endowed with the ability to contemplate and communicate with God. The history of mankind as recorded in the most ancient book, the Bible, actually begins with the story of this ability, of man's communication with God. "The story from the Book of Genesis gives us an idea about the intimate relationship between Adam, Eve and God, which was interrupted by the Fall. When passing through Paradise God calls Adam, and Adam hides himself (Gen. 3:8). From that moment on, man can no longer bear the sight of God. However, man is drawn to the vision of which he has now become unworthy. From that time on, in the entire course of Bible history, this tormenting conflict between man's most profound aspirations and his awareness of his own unworthiness is evident, even in the greatest friends of God. God both attracts and frightens them."
Neither were the best people of the pagan world deprived of feeling for God, although there it manifested itself differently than among the Jews, who received their religion through divine revelation. This resulted also in the fact that "the Greeks, and Plato's disciples in particular, conceived God's transcendence in a metaphysical sense: as long as man is not free of matter, he cannot have any contact with the spiritual world; he differs too greatly from it to reach it. The Bible, however, confesses man's moral iniquity: God is holy, man is sinful. To see God is not physically impossible for him, but it is forbidden: one cannot see God and remain alive."
Both Jews and pagans aspired to know God, as we are told by the Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato and others. Their mystical experience may be called natural, as distinct from the supernatural Christian experience. The difference between them is as follows. In Christian contemplation, God Himself acts and unites with a purified soul. This is a supernatural act, an act of mutual love between between the Creator and His creation. No notion of divine love is given in natural contemplation. A non-Christian soul may have only a very vague idea about God; it is as if one were to touch an object in the dark without a chance of determining it. This kind of mysticism, in comparison with Christian mysticism, is like a shadow.
Mystical perception of the supernatural world contains also the possibility of contact with the powers of evil. A man who is not purified by repentance, and whose spiritual vision is not illumined by passionlessness, cannot have the "gift of discerning spirits"; and if, moreover, he has mediumistic inclinations, he can easily arrive at the state of self-deception or prelest (spiritual delusion). The only true path to contemplation is the path of Christian asceticism.
quotes taken from Dictionnaire de la Spiritualite, Fasc. XIII (Paris, 1950), pp. 1717, 1654, 1717, 1762