Contemplation: The heart of Catholic education

The 21st century, often characterized by excessive noise and distractions, can benefit from a renewal of contemplation. One might encounter terms such as reflection, meditation, or deliberation in contemporary education, but these terms are the “poor cousins” when compared to contemplation.

St. Thomas Aquinas succinctly defines contemplation as “the simple act of gazing on the truth,” and contemplation surpasses considering or ruminating upon a topic, because one is drawn to know and accept the truth of the matter.

“The simple act of gazing” is a conundrum for the contemporary secular world that struggles to understand or accept contemplation, because it cannot be achieved in the same manner that other knowledge is gained. Contemplation is neither earned by hard work, nor by an accumulation of hours, nor is it ranked on a numerical scale. Gazing requires a sustained period of time with a reduced number of visual and auditory distractions; nevertheless, reducing distractions, a simple and obvious solution, may prove difficult to enact in an age of pop-up advertisements and background music in stores and restaurants.

Fickle contemporary society bombards us with a sense of busyness, noise, and immediacy, yet many of us admit to experiencing an increase of stress, anxiety, or technological overload. Even in the midst of the din of the secular world, there springs forth a desire for a type of quiet reflection, as indicated by the popular interest in Zen or mindfulness.

Another “distraction” from gazing is not the direct incursion of technology or commerce, but may be manifested in the subtle and gradual awareness of our withdrawal from the natural world and landscape. The deprivation of sensory experiences in nature, especially in children and young adults, has been explored by Richard Louv in The Last Child in the Woods and Stephen Moss in Natural Childhood, a report commissioned by the National Trust (UK), as well as anecdotal observations by educators, whether in elementary school or in higher education.

Primary nature experiences are paramount to our spiritual flourishing, especially as The Catechism of the Catholic Church expresses that a person learns to “read,” to gaze upon “the material cosmos” for “traces of its Creator” (#1147). A person who lacks the ability to contemplate upon the “light and darkness, wind and fire, water and earth, the tree and its fruit” may grapple with identifying and interpreting symbolic words and images of the sacramental and liturgical life which are based on the natural world. The loss of natural experiences affects the depths of man’s spirit by disrupting the contemplative gaze, that is, man’s ability to search for the truth.

In the secular world, this deprivation has spurred a desire for a spiritual or transcendent relation with nature and has initiated a renewal of nature writing, notably by English authors Robert Macfarlane, Alexandra Harris, and the launch of Little Toller Press, which seeks “inventive ways to reconnect us with the natural world.” The new nature writers beckon for a strong relationship to the natural world, and many passages evoke the comparison of the exterior natural landscapes with the interior landscape and articulate a desire to venture into the wild places, the hinterlands, to gaze, to listen, to contemplate.

Contemplation requires an interior decision to search for the truth that precipitates the reduction of noise and activity. In fostering contemplation in the digital age, one approach could consist in neither retreating from the world, nor cutting off the electricity, but by articulating the challenges and offering an alternative mode of life and creativity.

Reverend Conrad Pepler, OP, an English friar, offered an analysis of the complex struggle with modernity in the mid-20th century in Riches Despised: A Study of the Roots of Religion. In a frank tone that is slightly tempered with a vague sense of hope, Pepler asserts that we “argue here… that the Christian religion cannot exist normally and as an integral part of society in the artificiality of modern civilization…. But we can see that every Christian must strain his eyes through the fog of the modern imagination to see ‘the holy city, new Jerusalem.’” The contemplative gaze is precisely that which can help us see through the fog of modernity to the divine truths.

Contemplation can assist by prioritizing and determining the object of the focus by enlarging the soul with a wider and deeper vision, and so is integral to Catholic education since it primes the interior senses and intellect to be receptive to the glimmers of truths which light the path to the Truth.

Sister Thomas More Stepnowski is vice president of academics at Aquinas College in Nashville, Tenn. She has earned degrees from University of Dallas, Belmont University, Providence College, and Maryvale Institute.